By Romane Savard-Guzman
I have seen a land right with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest. And there in the King’s Highways sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, by which the traveller’s footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries’ thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line
–– W.E.B. Du Bois
After the Civil War (1861-1865) the history of the United States was marked by three important legislations: the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery; the 14th amendment, guaranteeing American citizens equal protection under the law; and the 15th amendment, granting the right to vote for African-American men over the age of 21. For this reason, Reconstruction was a period of great political and social progress for African Americans, who were slowly building their rightful place in society. However, white supremacist sentiments and institutions were still strong in the South, and this resulted in a “massive backlash” against the black communities. Hence, in 1877, the Jim Crow system established a series of white supremacist laws, social apartheid, and disenfranchisement, partnered with violence. This system would infringe on African-American lives until the 1960s.
With this in mind, this article argues that the establishment of the Jim Crow system represented the white supremacists’ response to an evolving American society. It was the instrument used to ensure the continuation of white dominance over African Americans after the abolition of slavery. Since society was evolving “in favour” of the black community, white supremacists used this powerful legal tool because it helped reinforce the idea of white purity, consolidated their power, reaffirmed their superiority, and restored the master/slave image. What is also important to note is that they believed that “slavery was good because it kept blacks under control,” that “civil war was bad because it defended blacks,” and that “reconstruction was worse because it tried to elevate blacks.” Therefore, the status quo had to be reaffirmed. The techniques and ideas that were promoted during slavery continued and evolved to serve in the post-Reconstruction period, which would become known as the Jim Crow era.
Reinforcing white purity: The black threat
The Jim Crow system in the South helped reinforce the idea of white purity and the impression that black men represented a constant threat, particularly to white women. Although these beliefs were already engrained in society, laws against interracial marriage and sex in Southern states such as Mississippi were quite common after Reconstruction. These laws made the idea of white purity and black threat seem legitimate in the eyes of the population, while inducing fear of exclusion (for white women) and punishment (for black men). In fact, “it was the presumption of both white public and white law that intercourse between white women and black men could result only from rape.” However, a white man having sexual relations with a black woman was not treated the same, even in cases where it indeed resulted from rape. It was tolerated, demonstrating the effect of ideas of “white purity” and “black impurity.”
At the same time, media had a lot to do with these popular views, which resulted in legislation. In the 1830s, a character named Jim Crow (ironically), played by black-faced white actor Thomas “Daddy” Rice, was very popular. He marked the mainstream culture with the image of “the black intruder” in his interpretation of an “uncultured, humorously dangerous runaway slave, insistent on barging in on the white world.” The Clansmen (1905), written by Thomas Dixon, and D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) also represent the demonization of black men who raped white women, and the chivalrous white men coming to their rescue. Certainly, Jim Crow laws were partly legitimized by particular individuals, books, plays, or films which influenced popular culture. However, the laws also influenced their creation.
Therefore, it is apparent that there was a continuity of white supremacist attitudes in the prohibition of the “mix of the races.” The depiction of the “black beast” and the “delicate white flower” in entertainment greatly influenced Southern mores. There was so much of a perceived threat to the preservation of the white race that white Southerners decided to codify these beliefs into law.
Consolidating white power: African American disenfranchisement
Disenfranchisement, made possible by Jim Crow laws, was one of the first ways to consolidate white power, and therefore ensure the continuity of white supremacy. Certainly, because “without the ballot, emancipation lost much of its meaning,” white supremacists’ top priority was to take away African-American suffrage rights.
Before the 15th amendment, the Democrats, or “the defenders of white supremacy,” often used bullying and any other tactics necessary to keep black voters away from the polls. White supremacy was already so powerful that nobody dared to or was able to stop them. In Georgia for example, the Ku Klux Klan, which at its beginning served as the “terrorist wing of the Democratic Party,” pointed guns at black people who were trying to vote for the Republican Party.
After the ratification of the 15th amendment, Southern states found new legal ways to keep black people from voting. Indeed, the loopholes that they found in the 15th amendment made it possible to write racist laws, as long as they didn’t explicitly mention race. The Mississippi Plan, for example, established rules for voting, like poll taxes and literacy tests, which allowed the exclusion of a majority of African-American citizens from voting. Furthermore, the introduction of the secret ballot made it much easier to rig elections.
Undoubtedly, the fact that politicians could freely bully eligible voters and that white legislators could strip away the African-American right to vote (even after the 15th amendment) bears witness to the tremendous power of white supremacy and of its further consolidation. “Any law was secondary to the higher law of white supremacy” and therefore white supremacy would continue to thrive, remaining above the rule of law.
Reaffirming white superiority: Racial segregation
African Americans were freed from slavery, but because of the desire and need of white supremacists to reaffirm their superiority, they were still excluded from all spheres of society. Indeed, they were denied access to or segregated in basic public services because the “racial code” prohibited “all forms of interracial activity that might imply equality.” That black people’s sole presence alongside white people represented a threat to the expression of white superiority legitimized the segregationist laws of Jim Crow. In turn, segregation legitimized the feelings of white superiority, because the “truth of the old racial order” dictated that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
The segregation of public transportation in the 1890s is the best illustration of the reassertion of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era. Specifically, because it hindered African American people’s freedom of movement and of labour (being able to go to work and come back from work), but also because segregated streetcars involved daily “public shaming, degrading, and controlling of a rising black middle class”, even though they had paid their ticket like everyone else. Freedom of movement is one of the most important basic rights, and it was no longer guaranteed, or at least not comfortably.
Restoring a slave/master dialectic: Legitimization of violence
The legitimization of violence in the post-Reconstruction era created a kind of “neo-system of slavery” that favoured the white population of the Southern states. Violence (psychological and physical), oppression, and fear were understood to be the best means to bring back and modernize a climate where masters owned slaves. Racism, lynching, mass incarceration, poor life conditions, sharecropper systems, rape, vigilante committees (like the Ku Klux Klan), harassment, and intimidation were all forms of violence exercised against black people. All of these, without exception, became synonymous with the continuation of white supremacy. Violence, either physical or psychological, generated fear among the African American community. This resulted in a paralyzing fear that was instrumentalized to the advantage of the white community. In the Jim Crow years, as in slavery, violence represented “the instrument of white control” because it calmed “white anxieties by reaffirming the color line and striking fear into black hearts.”
Moreover, these acts of violence, especially lynching, were “the ultimate spectacles of racial otherness, made all the more powerful at the turn of the century by disenfranchisement, segregation, the black rapist hysteria, and other machinations geared toward devaluating and excluding African Americans.” Therefore, all these techniques, which were used to maintain a repressive regime targeting black people (as discussed earlier), were reinforced by violence of all kinds. Many would gather to watch these extralegal executions, and they would feel safer thinking that they were fortunate enough to be on the right side of the color line.
In conclusion, Jim Crow laws perpetuated white supremacist attitudes and institutions because they reinforced the idea of white purity with the legal validation of social mores, consolidated white power through disenfranchisement, reaffirmed white superiority with segregation and exclusion, and restored slave/master duality by legitimizing violence.
Although all of this is correct, it is of the utmost importance to understand that the four main points of this article are all interconnected under the larger umbrella of white supremacy and the Jim Crow system. Out of the context of this article, reinforcing the idea of white purity, consolidating white power, reaffirming white superiority, and restoring the slave/master dialectic cannot be separated. Social mores, disenfranchisement, segregation, and the legitimization of violence could be relevant in supporting any of these goals. And that is, in a way, extremely representative of the complexity of the Jim Crow system—everything was intertwined; every social construct and every piece of legislation could reinforce the other. It was “the highest stage of white supremacy.”
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Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969)
Kelley, Blair L.M. Right to ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)
McDonald, Laughlin. A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
McMillen, Neil. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989)
Moore, Leonard. “American legislation during the 1877-1940 period” (Lecture, McGill University, September 4, 2018)
Moore, Leonard. “Creating and resisting Jim Crow” (Lecture, McGill University, September 6, 2018)
Moore, Leonard. “Jim Crow politics” (Lecture, McGill University, September 11, 2018)
Moore, Leonard. “Jim Crow violence” (Lecture, McGill University, September 13, 2018)