American Democracy and National Amnesia

“From the time it was passed in 1870 until 1965, no president, no Congress, and no Supreme Court did anything serious to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment ...” -- Howard Zinn

“I’m gonna sing this verse, I ain’t gonna sing no more / Please get together, Break-up this old Jim Crow.” -- Lead Belly, “Jim Crow Blues”

Certain myths remain popular in spite of reality. Americans, for example, rely on a few admired figures and television images to help them understand the impetus behind the civil rights movement, even though the bus boycotts, voting drives and the March on Washington were just the final breach following 50 years of institutionalized repression in the South.

Likewise, many still argue that Reconstruction exacerbated Southern resentment toward blacks, leading to repressive Jim Crow laws. But this is also a simplistic, and inaccurate, reading. It’s not surprising, however, that the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction is a poorly understood period in popular consciousness: Books on the Civil War and civil rights fill up public library shelves; the period in between -- how we got from A to B -- remains a national blank.

In Democracy Betrayed (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), historian H. Leon Prather, Sr. noted when describing the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, N.C., “Most Americans remember nothing of these events despite the enormous impact that they continue to have on racial politics in the United States.”

A new PBS series, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, fills this empty space, documenting the period of segregation and the African American experience in the South from Reconstruction to the early 1950s. Co-directors and writers Bill Jersey and Richard Wormser, both veterans of the civil rights movement, clearly believe that the story of Jim Crow is central to understanding our current racial problems. There are portraits of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and examinations of the riots in Atlanta and Tulsa. The roles of everyday men and women -- sharecroppers, factory workers and prison laborers -- are also documented in the four-part series, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 22. These narratives and voices, combined with rare photographs and film, create a living, multi-layered history.

“Jim Crow” originated in the early 19th century as a character in a minstrel song by a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. Rice also helped established Crow, like Jim Dandy and Zip Coon, as a stock character in minstrel shows. At one point, Jim Crow served as a racial epitaph and, at the end of the 19th century, became the common term for a series of repressive Southern laws that singled out African Americans.

A number of tragic and traumatic events are recalled in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, including an in-depth look at the riot that took place in Wilmington, N.C. The segment begins like a black success story in the midst of Southern tyranny. Wilmington was the home of a small, prosperous black middle class made up of businessmen who owned tailor shops, drugstores and restaurants. African Americans also held a number of political offices. Many whites, however, found the combination of black economic and political power threatening. In 1898, North Carolina Democrats began a vicious campaign built on nothing more than malicious speeches and editorials claiming that white women were in danger from black men. Incredibly, women dressed in white would ride on floats in parades carrying signs reading “Protect Us.”

African-American newspaper owner Alex Manly ratcheted up the hostility level several notches when he countered with an editorial suggesting that many of the rapes that resulted in lynching were actually consensual sexual acts between white women and blacks. Although Democrats easily won the election by stuffing ballot boxes, they wanted revenge. They burned Manly’s newspaper office and began to shoot blacks on the street at random. When the violence ended the following day, the dead -- officially 25, though some place the count as high as 300 -- were dumped in the Cape Fear River. Blacks throughout the country wrote the president in protest, but President McKinley and the federal government did absolutely nothing.

There are also stirring stories of courage. Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old girl in Farmville, Va., (near Appomattox, where the Civil War ended), led her fellow students in a school-wide strike in 1951. Disgusted that the 450 black students of Moton High School were crammed into facilities made for 180, she gathered the students in the auditorium where she gave them their marching orders.

“We wanted so much here and had so little,” Johns later recalled. “And we had talents and abilities here that weren’t really being realized. And I thought that was a tragic shame. ... There wasn’t any fear. I just felt, this is your moment. Seize it.”

Together, the students marched off campus to the superintendent’s office where they demanded a modern facility like the one that housed the white students only blocks away. Their demands were met with threats: Their parents would lose their jobs and possibly go to jail. The parents, nonetheless, backed the students, and when the NAACP visited with the striking students, it was decided that separate but equal wasn’t enough: They would demand full integration. The Farmville case would eventually be bundled with four others into Brown vs. Board of Education.

Because The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow relies heavily on oral history, the program occasionally lacks the needed context to understand the events taking place. It is important, for instance, to connect the rise of populism with the acceleration of black disenfranchisement in the 1890s. When the African American vote held the balance of power in Democrat and Populist contests, the black vote was quickly eliminated. This, in fact, was part of the fuel that ignited the Wilmington riot.

By failing to provide context, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow is sometimes reminiscent of Ken Burns’ Civil War. After a general introduction is offered to a particular episode, a number of stories, biographies and events are poured into the loose mold. But without a narrative thread, a riot in Wilmington, W.E.B. Du Bois’ battle with Fisk University, and a renaissance in Harlem fail to provide a coherent history.

The total impact of the program, however, is overwhelming. As a work of oral history, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow allows submerged voices to speak out. Historians, civil rights leaders and sharecroppers talk about their lives as well as their parents and grandparents’ lives under Jim Crow rule. As director Wormser has noted in press materials, he wanted to “let African Americans tell the story of their own struggles themselves.” Letters, journals and newspaper columns are likewise utilized, providing a vivid picture of the struggles that individuals and families faced as they sought an education, steady work, the right to vote and the freedom from fear.

One might argue that Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Jim Crow era issues from a desire to forget an unpleasant historical episode in which the culture at large participated by turning its back on African Americans in the South. It’s easy in retrospect to feel proud of the abolition movement and of the Radical Republicans’ attempt to establish black rights following the Civil War -- just as it’s easy to side with Martin Luther King and condemn the South for attacking children with water hoses. But in between those two historical moments, African Americans in the South were pretty much left without a net.

While The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow will help fill this blank in the national memory, the program will also serve as a reminder of the ongoing racism that we live with everyday. You don’t need to take a class in black studies to notice Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima at the grocery store (Kraft preserves Uncle Ben because he represents quality and because Cream of Wheat lovers are fond of the old fellow. As far as Aunt Jemima goes, a man in black-face, dressed as the pancake matron, won first prize in a Milwaukee Halloween contest in 2001); or drive very far on Virginia or Georgia highways to find people who still believe that a Confederate battle flag on a bumper sticker has something do with heritage.

Spike Lee has made the argument that gangsta rap videos serve as a modern minstrel show, and it wouldn’t take too much imagination to see crumbling inner-city schools as a visage of separate but equal. Jim Crow, born of racial hatred in the South and institutionalized by an America that looked the other way, remains with us.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr. writes about music and nonfiction film for Documentary, Pop, Dirty Linen and Sing Out! He lives with his wife and five cats in Appomattox, Va.


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