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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: The Story of What America Once Was

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League

Abraham Lincoln famously said that America could not exist half-slave and half-free.
But for nearly a century after his assassination America’s White majority tried mightily and to the smallest degree to prove him wrong.

Supported by the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval, in 1896, of state laws establishing separate and supposedly equal accommodations in interstate travel, and, in 1898, of state laws depriving Blacks of their right to vote, the South’s White majority, began passing voluminous laws trying to shut Blacks up in a small, blood-soaked corner of American life.
The story of this persistent, disgraceful effort, and of African Americans’ reaction to it is told in “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” the new, important four-part series now being shown on PBS, the public broadcasting system.
The episodes are: “Promises Betrayed,” which examines the period from the end of the Civil War to the 1896 court decision in the Plessy case; “Fighting Back,” which explores the period from Plessy to the end of the first World War; “Don’t Shout Too Soon,” about the 1920s and 1930s and, finally, “Terror and Triumph,” which takes the story up to the Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954, in turn, provoked the mass-action phase of the civil rights movement.
The story told in this gripping series is simultaneously appalling, chilling, dispiriting, infuriating – and, ultimately for those who love justice, inspiring, too.
It is the story that belies the glib celebratory prose still found in some American history school texts of an America that was always “committed” to democracy. The story of Jim Crow proves that, most often before the 1960s, the “democracy” America’s White majority was thinking of had a “Whites only” sign on it.
And it also shows in dramatic and poignant detail that the laws of the American version of apartheid were provoked not by Black Americans’ alleged intellectual and moral inferiority, but by the indisputable fact that, once freed from slavery, they showed themselves fully equal to the challenge of becoming American citizens.
The noted historian Leon Litwack puts it this way in the first episode: “What had [angered] the White South during Reconstruction was not evidence of Black failure, but evidence of Black success, evidence of Black assertion, evidence of Black independence, and evidence that Black men were learning the uses of political power.”
Grace Hale, another historian who appears in the episode, remarked that Jim Crow laws were “intended to accomplish what it was clear the [racist customs] were not going to – which was to make African Americans act inferior. …[I]f White people couldn’t make Black people be inferior, then they could make them act inferior.”
The country’s White majority went to work to make Blacks act inferior, enacting thousands of racist laws and launching the horrific Lynching Frenzy that took thousands upon thousands of Black people’s lives.
The great educator Booker T. Washington counseled Blacks to give up pursuing their civil rights and channel their energy into hard work. That quickly proved fruitless, since as Litwack said, it was the success that hard work brought which most upset White segregationists.
Meanwhile, many African Americans fought back – with their words in Black newspapers and books, with their continued pursuit of education for themselves and others, and with “just” the effort to try to hew a place of comfort and opportunity in what Isaiah T. Montgomery, the co-founder of all-Black Mound Bayou, Mississippi, accurately described as “an open, raging, tempestuous sea” of denial, humiliation and violence.
They included such educators as Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Anna Julia Cooper, such propagandists and activists as W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, such courageous Whites as Mary White Ovington, Kivie Kaplan, Ruth Standish Baldwin, and Palmer Weber, and such businessmen and women as Charles C. Spaulding and Madame C.J. Walker.
That African Americans did succeed in finding “islands of hope” even during this awful period remains an enduring testament to their strength of character, and a patriotism and love of the idea of democracy that led them to have far more faith in the American ideal than the nation’s White leadership and majority.
Yes, one can say America has come a long way since Black Americans and their White allies forced the dismantling of the system of Jim Crow in the 1960s. I’ve said so often enough in this column and other forums.
But whenever I say that, I’m also, figuratively speaking, looking over my shoulder – and looking ahead – because so much remains to be done.
So, even as this magnificent series, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” makes the point that racism’s stranglehold on American society was broken, it also reminds us, if only implicitly, we shouldn’t forget that some Americans and some American institutions still pledge their allegiance to the ghost of Jim Crow.

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