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The long war for freedom after the Civil War ended

By Jonathan Rosenberg / February 7, 2002



Jerrold Packard's sweeping history of how white Southerners systematically oppressed black Americans after the Civil War inspires shame and admiration: shame for a country that has always proclaimed its adherence to democratic principles, even as it failed spectacularly to live up to them; and admiration for black Americans who wrenched justice from the heart of a nation.

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While the war saw blacks liberated from centuries of bondage, slavery was replaced by novel forms of subjugation called "Jim Crow," a system of "legal, quasi-legal, and customary" practices that saw whites disfranchise, physically segregate, bar, and discriminate against blacks. The term originated in 19th-century minstrel shows, Jim Crow serving as the name of a character whose style of dance suggested a prancing crow. How it became associated with Southern racial oppression remains a mystery.

This system was pervasive, extending beyond the establishment of "colored" schools, railway carriages, drinking fountains, bathrooms, hotels - and even "colored" Bibles in Southern courtrooms. Jim Crow meant a black person could not enter a white person's house by the front door, could not address white persons by their first names, or, if driving an automobile, could not pass a white driver on a Southern road. Blacks did not sit on juries and were rarely permitted to vote. Cemeteries were segregated, as were bordellos in New Orleans.

Southern race relations left nothing to chance, and a breach of the rules (whether written or unwritten) could have fatal consequences. A black man's glance at a white woman might unleash a lynch mob, which conducted its gruesome business without interference from local officials - and often with their energetic support. And what is one to make of a culture that not only engaged in such behavior, but sometimes did so in public spaces as small children looked on?

Allowing for no exceptions, Jim Crow was based on the fundamental principle that "any white person was superior to every black person." Moreover, whites justified the separation of the races by claiming that blacks, if permitted to do so, would interbreed with whites, polluting white racial purity. Indeed, the fear of race mixing, which was related to the belief that it was essential to protect white women from the predatory behavior of black men, seems to have driven much of the mania to achieve racial separation.

This was suggested on the floor of the United States Senate in 1929 by Alabama's J. Thomas Heflin, a powerful Southern legislator. Heflin claimed that whenever a black man crosses the "line between the white and the Negro races and lays his black hand on a white woman, he deserves to die." There was nothing remarkable in Heflin's words at the time.

But Packard's account is not all bleak, for the heroic struggles blacks waged to achieve justice are also part of the story. His account focuses on the black freedom campaign during and after World War II, a global conflagration that lent the domestic crusade increased momentum and greater legitimacy than it had ever had. The war against Hitler's Germany helped delegitimize racists thought in the United States. As civil rights leaders argued repeatedly during the war, if the United States had decided to sweep Nazism from the international scene, it was crucial to end Jim Crow at home.

Packard also considers the movement's grand events of the 1950s and 60s, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court case that declared separate educational facilities to be inherently unequal, thus overturning an earlier decision that had given constitutional legitimacy to the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Soon, the freedom campaign would move from the courtroom to the street, a process famously begun in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger - as Jim Crow required - on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

The bus boycott followed, and after 381 days, the South would never be the same. Beyond ending discriminatory seating on city buses, the boycott catapulted Martin Luther King Jr. into a leadership position in the civil rights movement, and helped black Southerners realize they possessed the power to effect change throughout the region.

Less than 10 years later - after sit-ins, freedom rides, snarling dogs, church bombings, and unforgettable speeches - the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act would mark the realization of the movement's most important legal aims. Black heroism and determination had never been in short supply, but both were especially abundant in these years.

In discussing a century of institutionalized racial oppression and its eventual demise, Packard compels us to remember that one cannot effectively confront the challenges posed by contemporary race relations without recognizing the agonies of the American past.

• Jonathan Rosenberg teaches US history at Hunter College of the City U. of New York.

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