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Fighting Jim Crow

By Lynn Fabian Lasner | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

“All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited,”--Florida.

“Separate free schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent; and it shall be unlawful for any colored child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a colored school,”--Mississippi.

“Any person . . . who shall rent any part of any such building to a negro person or a negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,”--Louisiana.

As blacks emerged from slavery after the Civil War, Southern states adapted a new strategy to prevent them from improving their status or achieving equality. They passed laws on marriage, schools, housing, and conduct intended to keep the races apart. The laws and customs of segregation that followed the Civil War became known as Jim Crow, named after a minstrel character from the 1830s.

A new documentary tells what it was like to live during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the 1880s through 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series for PBS from Thirteen/ WNET New York, lets viewers learn about the era through the stories of its victims, perpetrators, and opponents.

The threat of physical pain, public humiliation, and death held Jim Crow laws firmly in place. Blacks and whites who tried to protest Jim Crow laws risked their lives. In 1919, ninety lynchings occurred in a single year--one every four days. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative explains in the film: “You could not keep African Americans in this country in a subordinate status without the threat of violence.” Historian Patricia Sullivan echoes Stevenson: “Relief from physical terrorism was critical to all of the other rights that people would strive for.”

Yet people did fight against the system. Ned Cobb was a successful black sharecropper in Alabama who bought his own farm and formed a tenant farmers union. In the early twentieth century, a sharecropper’s life was a cycle of misery. Because the banks based their loans on the value of the crops not the land, tenant farmers had to grow cash crops, like cotton instead of food for their families. Banks and merchants took their money straight from the sale of the cotton so that farmers had to go back and borrow more for food. Six thousand of Cobb’s fellow sharecroppers joined him in forming the Alabama Sharecropper’s Union. Cobb’s descendants tell his story in the documentary, including one incident in the 1930s, when Cobb went to prevent his neighbor’s land from being repossessed. During the confrontation, he exchanged gunshots with the sheriff and was sent to prison for thirteen years.

“The horrific you expect--the heroic you don’t,” says Richard Wormser, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. Wormser spent the last seven years collecting the stories. Wormser says he and Bill Jersey, co-writer, producer, and director, “decided to tell stories about the individuals struggling to subvert and overcome Jim Crow.”

An important moment in the struggle against segregation took place in 1909 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed by W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells- Barnett, Henry Moscowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villiard, and William English Walling. The NAACP broke away from earlier black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who believed in a gradual accumulation of equality through education and moral fortitude. The NAACP wanted more immediate action and fought for equality through the courts and political advocacy. It provided a forum for a growing black intellectual class in its magazine The Crisis, edited by DuBois. The NAACP made the fight against lynching a top priority.

One hero of the struggle was DuBois’s colleague, Walter White, a leader of the NAACP who went south to investigate a rash of lynchings and barely escaped with his own life. White, whose fair complexion and blue eyes belied his African American heritage, was able to move freely through white circles to gather evidence to incriminate those committing violence against blacks. In the time he was there, White investigated forty-one lynchings, eight race riots, and numerous cross-burnings.

When White caught wind that his identity was no longer a secret, he boarded the first train north. The train conductor told him that he was “leaving just before the fun was about to start. . . . There’s a damn yellow nigger down here passing for white, and the boys are going to get him. And when they get through with him, he won’t pass for white no more.” White said later, “No matter what the distance, I shall never take a train ride as long as that one.” Although there was never a federal antilynching law passed, work by the NAACP did change public opinion and when White died in 1955 there were only three lynchings that year.

The series also presents the perspective of the enforcers of segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. A long-time Klan member named Gordon Parks recounts attending his first lynching when he was just nine years old. As he tells it, a black man had raped a seventeen-yea-old daughter of a family in the neighborhood. “When her parents come home, she told them, and they called my grandpa. He was the Wizard and my daddy was the Grand Dragon, and they got about a hundred people and we went and got him, and grandpa said I could go with them. . . . We took him down to this thick, old oak tree, and there was about two hundred down there. And they took him and set him down and had his hands tied behind him. And Grandpa asked me--told my daddy to ask me--to ask anybody if they had anything to say before we’d put him up in the tree to hang him. And I asked anybody if they had anything to say and one man said, ‘Yeah, I have something to say. . .’ and he cut him from ear to ear, and then they put the rope around his neck and pulled him up in the tree. We stayed there about a hour ... to make sure he died before they left.”

The Klan inspired fear on both sides of the color line. Another eyewitness to a Klan execution describes how as a young white child in the south following World War II, he hid in the grass and saw the killing of his black neighborhood friend--just returned from the war--his friend’s brother and both of their pregnant wives. Later when the sheriff came to his house and asked if anyone knew anything about it, he piped up and said “I know who done it.” The sheriff pulled him aside and told him: “I can put some of these people in jail but I can’t put all of them in. If they found out you know what you know, it would come back on you, your mama, your sister and your brother. The best thing you could ever do is not to mention this again.” He kept the secret for decades, and no one was ever charged with the murders.

Wormser describes the documentary as a story with four, distinct chapters. “Promises Betrayed,” part one of the series, covers the period from 1865 to 1896, a time that began with the promise of great freedom yet ended in diminished hope. By the time President Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South in 1877--the official end of Reconstruction--Southern states had already begun to pass laws that segregated and disenfranchised African Americans.

The black middle class emerges as a political and economic force in episode two, “Fighting Back,” a look at the period from 1896 to 1917. Episode three, “Don’t Shout Too Soon,” deals with the violent time between World Wars I and II, from 1918 to 1940. “Terror and Triumph” is the title of the last episode that covers the years from 1940 through 1954, including World War II, which acted as a catalyst for change at home. In World War II, more than two hundred thousand black Americans served their country in the military. And yet, black veterans returning home south of the Mason-Dixon line were spat upon and continually designated to subordinate citizenship. The soldiers returned home ready to demand equal treatment. One of them was Hosea Williams, who became chief lieutenant in Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the film, Williams describes what many of the soldiers thought: “If we’ve got to fight and die for America, why should we be treated like slaves?”

Williams, platoon sergeant of the Third Army, shares the violent homecoming he encountered in Thomasville, Georgia, when he asked a woman behind a snack bar at a bus station for a drink of water. She wouldn’t give him one, so “I tried to lean inside and get me a cup of water,” Williams explains, “and those white people beat me ‘till I was unconscious. I was in the army uniform and had all these medals . . . and they beat me until they thought I was dead.” Someone called a black undertaker who realized Williams was still alive. The undertaker rushed him to a hospital. “And I laid there crying for eight weeks,” Williams continues, “wishing that Adolph Hitler had won the war.”

President Harry S. Truman was instrumental in the dismantling of Jim Crow that followed the war. He signed a presidential order to desegregate the military, although he knew there would be a political cost to him in the 1948 election. Despite this handicap, he triumphed over breakaway Dixiecrats in four Southern states to win. He was the first president ever to address the NAACP. But it would be in the courts that the battle over segregation would be decided.

Charles Hamilton Huston, vice dean of Howard Law School, had a plan. He believed that training black lawyers and sending them south to work was the first step in abolishing segregation. “Experience has proved that the average white lawyer, especially in the South, cannot be relied upon to wage an uncompromising fight for equal rights for negroes,” Huston declared.

As special counsel to NAACP in 1935, Huston began a legal campaign to end segregation in public schools. His strategy included documenting the inequity between educational opportunities for blacks and whites and reinforcing the expensive price tag associated with separate and equal schools. He believed a broken “separate but equal” policy would eventually eliminate discrimination.

The strategy, of course, relied on individuals who had the conviction to stay the course. One of those individuals was high school student Barbara Johns of Farmville, Virginia. Johns organized a student strike against Moton High School in this quiet, Virginia town that prided itself on the cordiality of its race relations, while still adhering to the Jim Crow era’s segregated schools policy. She was outraged that more than 450 black students were crammed into a small, overflowing eight-room schoolhouse made from tar paper covered buildings, while their white counterparts enjoyed a modern facility with room to spare.

“We have a right to have a school as good as the white kids’ school,” Johns affirmed to fellow Moton High classmates. “We have to make a change, and I mean right now!” And so began a yearlong strike that would help change the nation.

Johns’s stance was not without consequences. The parents of many of the students lost their jobs with county departments, and many of the area’s teachers were out of work because of a lack of students. Some parents sent their children away to relatives because they worried for their safety.

Johns’s suit, eventually bundled with four similar cases from elsewhere in the country, became part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. In that case, the Court held that racially segregated public schools are inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren and a unanimous Supreme Court finally declared, “In the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place.” Armed with this ammunition from the national courts, the Civil Rights movement would fight discrimination across all aspects of society for the next several decades.

About the Author

Lynn Fabian Lasner is a writer in Mill Valley, California.

Funding Information

WNET received $1,426,737 from NEH to support The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow and its web companion. The Intergenerational Discussion Guide about the film includes eyewitness accounts, a multimedia history of Jim Crow, biographies, and a downloadable version of personal accounts, essays, profiles, workshop suggestions, and relevant resources. Visit the website wnet/jimcrow for general information and for classroom materials. A companion book, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, is written by Richard Wormser.