For the one hundred years following the American Civil War, the South was haunted by a shadowy figure named Jim Crow. No one had seen him, but his presence was everywhere; no one had heard his voice, but everyone recognized his dialect; no one knew where he lived, but he was always next door. The funny thing was that most people didn't seem too worried about his presence: they even welcomed him, and though he was physically absent he was always palpably near.
The one group that was afraid of Mr. Crow, and that did mistrust him, was the very group to which he supposedly belonged—the Black community, the African-Americans, the descendants of the former slave population of the southern and border states of the United States of America. And while the white folk may have assumed Jim was one of the people they so comfortably oppressed, the blacks themselves were much more suspicious.
Jim Crow was in fact a white man. His name was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy"Rice (1808-1860), a popular performer of the stand-up comedian variety from Manhattan who entertained audiences between acts of more conventional plays. At some point (possibly after hearing a black stableboy singing a song about Jim Crow), he created a character named Jim Crow. Jim was not a black man: he was the caricature of a black man, designed to get white crowds laughing at the colored community.
What followed was basically the original minstrel show. Rice/Crow would dress in ragged clothing, cover his skin in boot polish and burnt cork ("blackface"), and prance around the stage saying ridiculous things in an exaggerated black accent. The minstrel show, which was later standardized as a two-person act, made white people feel good about themselves by supposedly showing how stupid black people were, and how they didn't deserve higher social standing as a result.
In reality, such clowning and mockery only made the white people doing it look stupid, but no one realized that for a long time, and minstrel shows were wildly popular around the United States till relatively late in the 20th century. Eventually, Jim Crow made his way beyond the confines of Daddy Dartmouth's act, and became an ephemeral yet felt presence throughout the United States, particularly in the South.
The way Jim Crow manifested himself was through a series of laws that officially sanctioned and protected racist segregation and oppression against blacks. But despite popular belief, Jim Crow went beyond mere laws, and embedded his attitudes in the customs and social rituals of the Southern states, so that a black man couldn't offer his hand to a white man (because that would imply equality) or light a white woman's cigarette (because that implied intimacy).
It could be argued without too much difficulty that the presence of Jim Crow made Southern white racism much more tangible in the years following the Civil War than before and during the conflict. Maybe the former C.S.A. was bad at losing; maybe the racist Northern carpetbaggers of the Reconstruction period were responsible. Whatever the case, by the time the 1950s rolled around, the black community was tired of being treated worse than dogs, and began to speak out.
One of the most famous Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history was largely the catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement: on May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas officially outlawed the "separate but equal" doctrine that allowed schools to segregate white and black students. What followed was a flood of activity designed to allow blacks and whites equal rights, equal treatment, and protection from violence.
Like any movement, the Civil Rights Movement had its share of heroes and leaders, many of them mythologized. Also like any movement, the mythologized heroes weren't always the really great ones. Men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X may have done some great things in the name of racial equality, but they also had plenty of problems, and there were others whose contributions, while not as high profile, were just as courageous and important.
Of the well-known events, the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat for a white passenger on December 1, 1955 is probably also the greatest. Others had made similar refusals before Parks, but she was the catalyst for the Montgomery [Alabama] Bus Boycott, and became a major behind-the-scenes leader of the new Movement. What makes her action great is that it wasn't arrogance that motivated her, but a simple desire for justice and equity.
Also like any movement, the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to many excesses. The Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s, for instance, wasn't so much about equality and mutual peace as it was about reverse racism; and the Watts Riots weren't about throwing off oppression, they were about race warfare. Yet the Movement can't be judged solely by its extremist elements, and it was a needed event in United States history to restore justice and to break the status quo.
Unfortunately, the Civil Rights Movement has since been co-opted by a variety of self-perceived minority groups who have no historical relationship to the original Movement or its antecedants. The issue was simply the issue of race: were whites to have impunity to lynch blacks who'd done nothing wrong, to refuse service to blacks and Mexicans, and to oppress a people they'd forcibly brought to these shores in the first place, or were all humans to be treated as equals?
Thankfully, the latter ideology prevailed, and with it the nation made great strides toward racial equality. The United States has always been recognized as a land of opportunity for all people; the Civil Rights Movement ensured that would actually be the case. It's important to resist the temptation to make all black leaders at the time into gods, and all white leaders who opposed them into devils; but it's equally important to celebrate the effects of the Movement, and the peace which followed.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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