The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
by C. Vann Woodward.
Oxford. 155 pp. $2.50.
In The Strange Career of Jim Crow (consisting of the James W. Richard Lectures in History delivered at the University of Virginia in 1954), C. Vann Woodward comes to grips with both the facts and the fictions of segregation. Woodward destroys the myth that Jim Crow laws and regulations arose with Reconstruction and are, therefore, an inseparable part of the Southerner’s conception of how he must order his affairs so that the races may “live together.” What Woodward presents is a sharp portrait of an institution that actually sprang up in the 1890’s as a response to some of the problems of modern America, only to become itself one of the chief problems of American democracy. Much of what he has to say here he foreshadowed in his brilliant biography of Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel and in his monumental Origins of the New South, which established his reputation as the leading historian of the post-Civil War South.
In this examination of the central and controlling custom of 20th-century Dixie, Woodward is celebrating the passing of an idea. The idea of Jim Crow was born as early as Jackson’s day, but as a way of life it did not make its full appearance until the end of the 19th century, in McKinley’s administration. The racism on which it battened is at least as old as the settlement of America, but achieved its florescence in “Manifest Destiny.” Surely it is not accidental that the institutionalization of segregation in the South should have coincided with our venture into political imperialism at the end of the 19th century.
Curiously, Jim Crow’s appearance was made under the most “decent” auspices. Not least influential were Northern liberals anxious to placate the South, and disillusioned Southern Populists who only recently had been carrying the standard of economic reform. But most important in supplying leadership to the Jim Crow movement were the Southern Progressives. Woodward, in detailing their role, sheds light on the whole Progressive movement. North and South. Everywhere the Progressive’s blind spot, he shows, was the Negro.
The progressive was busy advancing a moralistic, near-Utopian, monolithic society, and he rejected pluralism. Looking backward longingly to the pre-industrial days of an independent yeomanry, he conjured up an uncomplicated, ethical, self-helping, non-union, and non-intellectual society. His hero was Anglo-Saxon, clean-shaven, upstanding, an image projected in the Gibson girl and in the all-American boy. In the world of the Progressive, the foreigner could be accepted only after he had been “Americanized.” The “melting pot” was an ingenious invention to boil off unpleasant national differences. As for the Negro, the Progressive patronized him—the man of color could never conform to the “ideal” American type.
While Woodward demonstrates that “the South’s adoption of extreme racism was due not so much to a conversion as it was to a relaxation of the opposition,” he provides convincing evidence that the enthusiasm for Jim Crow, if not the leadership itself, came from the “best” men—like Hoke Smith of Georgia and Josephus Daniels of North Carolina. They could not accept Progressive economics or politics or morality without going along with the racism. For Southern Progressives, racism was almost the proof of the Progressive ideology, of the “purity” of the ideal. It was the appropriate handmaiden for the Progressive 20th-century American groping toward the “new democracy” and “new nationalism.” As one Southerner wrote: “In fine, disfranchisement of the negroes has been concomitant with the growth of political and social solidarity among the whites. The more white men recognize sharply their kinship with their fellow whites, and the more democracy in every sense of the term spreads among them, the more the negro is compelled to ‘keep his place’.” It was this outlook which entered into Wilsonianism to a degree that has been largely forgotten.
It is clear that immigration restriction in the 1920’s grew out of the same conditions that made Jim Crow a Southern arrangement. The Quota Law of 1924, for example, was an attempt to maintain the population composition of 1890, and for all practical purposes to close the door to those who did not “fit” the Progressive ideal. This was a triumph nationally of the underlying assumption about the nature of the American community that the Progressives were on the verge of establishing when they were rudely interrupted by the war. It is not surprising that throughout the 20’s Northern opposition to the South’s race policy was almost non-existent.
Subsequently, in the course of the deepening economic depression, Jim Crow began to appear even in the North, and a national silence enveloped the entire question of civil rights. The New Deal Democrats, reaching out for political allies, wooed the Negro from the party of emancipation. In return for votes, they offered increased opportunity, but for the most part they left segregation alone. Then, suddenly, and it seemed inexplicably, the dam burst and the flood of opposition to Jim Crow inundated American life. What had happened?
Woodward cites the role the Negro himself played in his own second liberation. He lists, also, the war against Nazi Germany, which was an obvious call to put our own house in order, and the cold war that continues to put the same challenge to America. Prosperity, too, inclines us to act magnanimously. But Woodward indicates that, like other democratic advances—including even the widening of the suffrage—Jim Crow’s demise is a consequence of the changing needs of society, and not necessarily of reform of the spirit. In the middle of the 20th century, our foreign relations and efforts require us to assume, internationally, a consistent liberal posture, including a liberal attitude on the question of race. “. . . the ironic reflection is unavoidable,” writes Woodward, “that desegregation—whether a subject of rejoicing or not—is itself in part a by-product of the very wave of nationalism and conformity that is so justly deplored.”
Woodward raises some fundamental questions about the dynamics of American liberalism. His grim story will not encourage liberals to feel self-congratulatory. Jim Crow came on the scene in the heyday of Progressivism, under whose gaudy banner the main body of American liberals enrolled—for they had no other place to go and failed to make one; it retreats before the advances of Negro self-improvement and the pressure of unpleasant events on the other side of the world. What are we to say, then, for the liberal conscience that accepted the color line a half-century ago, and today blandly takes credit for the end of segregation? One is tempted to answer that if the liberal’s political victories are often illusory, up to now his conquests of the history books has been real. Woodward’s study provides fresh evidence that democratic advances are not so much the result of liberal success as they are of reaction’s failure.