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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

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Activities: Context Activities

Separate Is Not Equal: Enforcing the Codes of the Jim Crow South

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The Winter of 1849

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA /OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-MZ].
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Although the Civil War officially settled the status of African Americans as free individuals, many Americans--especially in the South--remained unconvinced even decades later. In the immediate chaos following the war, southern whites gradually assumed the responsibility of governing the former confederate states, taking as their greatest immediate concern the problem of controlling the four million former slaves. To this end, southern states quickly began enacting Black Codes which (like the antebellum Slave Codes that had preceded them) attempted to control the lives of African Americans in virtually every aspect. These repressive laws, as well as the southern states' refusal to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (which provided equal protection to African Americans under the law), helped convince Congress that it needed to intervene in the process of rebuilding the South. However, the short period of Radical Reconstruction that followed (during which federal mandates enabled African Americans to vote and be elected as legislators and governors in the former confederate states) only further infuriated white southerners, making them more determined than ever to reestablish white supremacy in what they saw as their territory. Secret societies, such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, flourished in the decade following the war. For members of these groups, depriving African Americans of political equality was a holy crusade, and they were willing to use any amount of force and intimidation (including whippings, beatings, arson, and murder) to ensure victory for their cause.

By 1876, the experiments of Reconstruction had largely ended and the southern states had returned to white control. Southern leaders moved quickly to establish elaborate election codes--usually involving poll taxes and literacy tests--to disenfranchise African Americans. By removing African Americans from the political sphere, southern whites were free to do as they pleased, and they vowed to keep the races completely separate. To that end, Tennessee passed the first law against intermarriage of the races in 1870, and it adopted the first "Jim Crow" law five years later. The rest of the South quickly followed suit.

Little more than updates to the post-Civil War Black Codes, "Jim Crow" laws got their name from one of the stock characters in the minstrel shows that were a mainstay of popular entertainment throughout the nineteenth century. Such shows popularized and reinforced the pervasive stereotypes of blacks as lazy, stupid, somehow less human, and inferior to whites. Thus, as the name suggests, Jim Crow was much more than a rigorous code of anti-black laws; it was also a way of life designed to reinforce the idea that whites were superior to blacks in all important ways. While the laws segregated schools, transportation, public buildings and almost every conceivable aspect of society, Jim Crow etiquette strictly regulated every possible interaction between blacks and whites, demanding, for example, that white motorists be given the right-of-way at all intersections and that a black man should avoid even looking at a white woman if at all possible. In 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that the "separate but equal" ideology was entirely legal; it would be more than fifty years before that ideology was legally overturned.

African Americans who failed to abide by the rules of Jim Crow were dealt with severely. As Richard Wright recounts in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," when he dared throw rocks at a group of white boys who were taunting him, his mother beat him and "finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn't kill me." Wright's mother had good reason to give her son such a stern warning; if Jim Crow laws or etiquette were threatened or broken, violence was almost sure to follow. Vigilante white supremacist groups like the KKK needed very little encouragement to attack, and outbreaks of mob violence became a regular occurrence throughout the South.

The 3,446 lynchings of black men and women recorded between 1882 and 1969 are a stark measure of the degree to which vigilantism shaped race relations in the decades following Reconstruction. But even when the legal system was able to stop the summary justice of impassioned mobs, white supremacy often made it impossible for African Americans who were accused of crimes to get a fair trial. Such was the case with the so-called "Scottsboro Boys"--nine African American youths accused in 1931 of raping two white women one night after all of them had hopped aboard an Alabama train. Despite the lack of any physical evidence that the women had actually been harmed, eight of the nine defendants received death sentences (a mistrial was declared in the case of twelve-year-old defendant Roy Wright because the jury was split on whether to give him death or life in prison). Although the verdicts were affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court, they were overturned by the United States Supreme Court, which said the defendants had not received competent counsel. In the multiple retrials that followed, Alabama courts continued to find the defendants guilty, despite growing evidence that the crimes had never, in fact, taken place. By 1936, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys had attracted so much attention that to some observers the case had become The White People of Alabama v. The Rest of the World. Although all of the defendants were eventually released, paroled, or had escaped from prison in Alabama, all had spent years in jail for a crime that most likely never happened. For many Americans, the case became a reminder of the deep prejudice that divided the South far into the twentieth century.

Thanks in part to prominent cases like those of the Scottsboro Boys, the ideology of Jim Crow was finally declared illegal by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended segregation in U.S. public schools, beginning a trend toward greater equality in other aspects of race relations as well.

  1. Comprehension: What was the role of the U.S. government in the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War?

  2. Comprehension: What is vigilantism?

  3. Comprehension: How did white southerners justify Jim Crow laws and etiquette? Context: In her groundbreaking article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist theorist Laura Mulvey argues that film often employs a "male gaze": that is, films tend to be characterized by scopophilia--the pleasure involved in looking at other people's bodies as erotic objects. Although Mulvey is primarily concerned with the eroticization of women, people of color are also often objects of fetishization and domination in American literature; for, as the Scottsboro trials revealed, in the South sexual pleasure was always drawn upon racial lines during this era. For Mulvey visual pleasure is dependent upon an objectification of female characters and a narcissistic process of identification with an "ideal ego" seen on the screen. To what extent do the writers of the Southern Renaissance, particularly Faulkner, rely upon an objectification of either women or African Americans? Who is the "ideal ego" of these works? What does this imply about the authority and identity of the ideal reader?

  4. Context: Explain how the Jim Crow laws could be considered legal under the Fourteenth Amendment (which guaranteed African Americans equal protection under the law). What view of segregation does Zora Neale Hurston take in her depiction of Eatonville, Florida? How does this compare to the depiction of southern segregation in photos taken by white photographers from this era?

  5. Context: How does the Jim Crow way of life affect Dave in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"?

  6. Context: How was the Southern Agrarian literary movement related to the Jim Crow way of life?

  7. Exploration: What does Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" say about the white supremacy that was at the heart of the Jim Crow South? How does her vision of black-white relations compare to Harriet Jacobs's over fifty years earlier (Unit 7)?

  8. Exploration: As the case of the Scottsboro Boys illustrates, African Americans in the Jim Crow South could end up in serious trouble just for being in the same place with whites at the wrong time. Do you think this is why Zora Neale Hurston's stories rarely include white characters? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of Hurston's approach to depicting race relations. How does Hurston's treatment of white characters compare to the work of other Harlem Renaissance writers such as Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer?

  9. Exploration: Some of the most influential writing in the decades leading up to the Civil War was published by former slaves and abolitionists. Writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe saw the evils of slavery and worked tirelessly to end it (see Unit 7). However, as the history of Jim Crow laws shows, the work of abolishing slavery was only the beginning of a long process to confront the racism in American culture. That process was continued in the early twentieth century by prominent figures like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (see Unit 9). Consider the context of the Jim Crow laws and the different ways these writers responded to their social conditions: How did racism change in America from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century? How did the literary response to racism change in the same period?

[2256] Russell Lee, Negro Drinking at "Colored" Water Cooler in Streetcar Terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80126].
Jim Crow laws divided public facilities of many kinds throughout the South. Supposedly based on the "separate but equal" Supreme Court ruling, these divisions limited African Americans' access to many resources.

[3035] Anonymous, Newspaper Headline: President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces (1948),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [microfilm 1057].
After Truman's executive order eliminated segregation in the military, many African American veterans of World War II became local leaders in civil rights struggles in the South.

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA /OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].
African American man in a segregated waiting room at bus station. Jim Crow laws severely divided the experiences of whites and African Americans in the South.

[3696] Dorothea Lange, Plantation Overseer. Mississippi Delta, Near Clarksdale, Mississippi (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009596-C DLC].
Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied; however, the vast majority of sharecroppers worked in conditions that weren't much better than slavery.

[3933] Thomas Nast, Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction and How It Works (1866),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4591].
Cartoon depicting Andrew Johnson as Shakespeare's Iago betraying Othello, who represents African American Civil War veterans. Southerner Andrew Johnson, seventeenth President of the United States, took office after Lincoln's assassination. His notoriously racist politics thwarted processes of legal change and compensation to African Americans during Reconstruction.

[4554] Prentiss Taylor, Scottsboro Limited (1931),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4717].
Lithograph from Scottsboro Limited, a collection including four poems and a play by Langston Hughes. The collection protested the incarceration, conviction, and death sentence of the Scottsboro boys, nine African American youths unjustly accused of raping two white women.

[7652] Anonymous, Jim Crow Jubilee (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-37348].
Jim Crow laws took their name from a character in minstrel shows. The shows and the character showcased racist stereotypes about African Americans, depicting them as lazy and less intelligent than whites.

[9071] Anonymous, Ku Klux Klan Parade, Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (1926),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-59666].
This photograph of a huge KKK march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., illustrates the mainstream acceptance of the group in the 1920s and 1930s. The Ku Klux Klan, organized under the guise of a civic organization, enforced Jim Crow laws and white supremacy with intimidation and violence. The group regained popular support after the release of Birth of a Nation.

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