I had a moment of embarrassment earlier this summer. While engrossed in an episode of C-SPAN’s lectures in history, the question was posed: why did Jim Crow happen? As in, why did the legal processes that produced Jim Crow occur when it did? I was floored by the question. I had known about the 1890s and the constitutional conventions that stripped African Americans of the right to vote, but I suddenly found my historical hubris inverted into historical humility. I simply could not answer the question.
Much of my summer reading has been designed to answer this question. C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, what I understand to be the seminal book on the topic,still sits in my Amazon shopping cart. I have,however, approached the issue by reading Woodward’s Origins of the New South, and I currently find myself in the middle of Joel Williamson’s Crucible of Race. Both of these classics have not cleared up the issue entirely, but they have already sparked a number of thoughts that I would like to elucidate here.
To begin, I find Williamson’s book to be full of problems. From reading After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, I knew he would make the argument that African Americans isolated and “disintegrated” themselves from the core of American society. What I did not know, however, was just how confusing and ahistorical his analysis would be. I found it to be based entirely upon conjecture rather than known facts. Perhaps I am being too harsh, but whenever anyone begins to chart a “mentality” as Williamson does, I can’t help but be skeptical.
His central argument–that between Reconstruction and World War One the country underwent a racial realignment whereby Southern Whites went from being dependent on blacks to aligning themselves with the white masses in opposition to black freedom–strikes at the question I want to answer. How he goes about making this argument, however, was not what I expected. In a turn toward intellectual history, he lays out three Southern ideologies that he argues has shaped the country’s race relations. The first is conservatism. According to Williamson, racial conservatism was what characterized Reconstruction. White Southerners and so called “redeemers” entrenched themselves in defiance to the Radical Reconstruction and vowed to preserved the old racial order. African Americans, they maintained, were inferior beings and, therefore, unfit to work, govern,–indeed exist–outside the purview of white control. Conservatism, Williamson argued, pervaded the period, fending off only a slight challenge by racial liberalism in 1880s. Styled by Williamson as a reform minded movement, southern racial liberalism was a rare phenomena. It posited that African Americans had an untapped potential and if tapped properly, they could be transformed into vital components in the remaking of Southern society. Yet to be clear, as progressive as it my have been for its place and its age, it should in no way be conflated with notions of social equality. Even the Southern liberal would not dare to make that argument–at least not publicly.
The third ideology, Radicalism, germinated in the 1890s and was grounded in the belief that African Americans were regressing to the point of total extinction. If not kept completely separate from whites, African Americans would infect the whole of American civilization, causing the country follow along the path to extinction. It should be no surprise, then, that the rise of radicalism mirrored the meteoric rise of Southern lynching. As Williamson notes, lynching was a western phenomena until 1890. Thereafter it became the means by which Southerners policed the most bestial and atavistic characteristic of supposed black regression: black male hyper-sexuality, otherwise manifested in what Williamson calls the cult of the “black beast rapist.” Southern womanhood was under attack. Protection, so the radicals protested, could only be achieved by first subduing African Americans and then excising them from Southern life so as to make their downward spiral into extinction swift, smooth, and, more importantly, entirely singular. Southern culture could withstand war and social revolution, but the cultural consequences of race mixing would be its doom.
The emergence of a radical racial ideology, however, does not fully explain why the onset of Jim Crow occurred when it did. To answer that question more fully, Williamson turned to politics. In 1893, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed equal access to public accommodations, unconstitutional. The door to “separate but equal” had been flung open by an 8-1 ruling whereby the supreme court ruled that the federal government had no power to prohibit discrimination by private individuals or groups. Most alarming, though, was what white radicals called the Force Bill, a measure proffered by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge that would ensure fair elections. If it passed, keeping African Americans away from the ballot box would become much more difficult. Radicals took the Civil Rights ruling in stride but fought the Force Bill tooth and nail. A filibuster eventually defeated the bill, but its success in the house proved to white radicals that a more permanent solution was needed.
Of course, as congress debated the Lodge Bill, the great “Agrarian revolt” swept in from the western plains and pulled the chords of Southern class consciousness. Populist leaders like Tom Watson called for the Southern farmer to revolt against his “Bourbon” betters. All across the South, rank and file democrats committed apostasy and pledged their support to the third party Populist. Even within the democratic party, men like Ben Tillman of South Carolina made war on its ruling elite. The same men who, during Reconstruction, sought to return the South to its pre-war social order were now under attack from a force totally anew. White radicals–men like Tillman and eventually Watson–demanded white solidarity, across classes, in the face of African American advancement. As Williamson shows, Tillman almost single handedly orchestrated the disenfranchisement of African Americans in South Carolina and later became one of the South’s foremost advocates of lynch law. Out of this matrix came the calls for state conventions and new state constitutions. It is perhaps too much to say that Populism caused Jim Crow, but the political culture populism introduced can neither be forgotten nor ignored.
The drastic implication of Williamson’s argument is that Reconstruction and the New South, broadly speaking, are rendered periods of fluidity. As Williamson points out, Slavery bound African Americans to servitude, and Jim Crow, buoyed by cries of “Separate but Equal,” codified racial segregation into Southern state law books. In either case, social equality was off the table. The years between 1865 and the turn of the century, however, mark a period in which American race relations could have charted a drastically different course. Though Reconstruction is often characterized by its intense levels of racial violence, Southern white intransigence, and legal injustice, Williamson shows that American race relations, as it was known in the twentieth century, and Reconstruction are not quite as connected as one may assume. Indeed, it took nothing short of a radical cultural takeover to create what we now know as Jim Crow segregation.