For a century after the Civil War, white and black Americans worked to sort out the nature of the relationships they would create to govern their interactions. It is overly simplistic to see the creation of de jure segregation that came to rule those relationships in the South as an inevitable by-product of the demise of slavery; instead, both the formal and informal rules of Jim Crow evolved slowly through the remainder of the 19th century. One result was the impoverishment of the region, for both whites and blacks. As blacks fled from the racial violence that became a hallmark of Jim Crow, they found themselves locked in a new pattern of discrimination in the North and Midwest: de facto segregation also limited the options opened to black citizens. The Civil Rights movement challenged both types of segregation, resulting in substantial changes in the social and economic realities for both races, but lingering vestiges of discrimination remain.
Keywords Brown v Board of Education; Civil Rights Act of 1964; De Facto Segregation; De Jure Segregation; Federal Fair Housing Act; Fourteenth Amendment; Jim Crow; Milliken v Bradley; Plessy v Ferguson (1896); Reconstruction; Redlining
The decades before the Civil War found the vast majority of African Americans in a state of slavery in the Southern and mid Atlantic states. An inevitable by-product of slavery was a high degree of physical and social proximity between whites and blacks. Slave owners and slaves lived on the same property, sharing work space; owners had their most intimate needs tended to by their slaves. When the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, a new system of relationships between whites and blacks had to be established. By the beginning of the 20th century, de jure segregation created a protocol, much of it formalized in law, which regulated almost every aspect of those relationships.
When blacks started migrating North, no such formal system was in place. What emerged instead was a system of de facto segregation, one which could be every bit as restricting as the more legally binding system found in the South. The social and economic consequences of both systems of segregation were significant and affected both races. By mid-20th century, the Civil Rights Movement arose to challenge both systems of segregation. While the changes have been immense, vestiges of segregation can still significantly impact the lives of black Americans today.
19th Century America
In his seminal work, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, Edward Ayers argued that race relations after Reconstruction were far more complex and fluid than they appear at first glance. Still, the rituals of race relations colored every aspect of personal interactions. For instance, when a young boy referred to a respected black man as "Mr. Jones," his aunt told him: "No, son, Robert Jones is a nigger. You don't say 'mister' when you speak of a nigger….[You] say 'nigger Jones'" (Ayers, 1992, p. 132). Even certain days of the week were segregated. By custom, blacks were expected to come into town to shop only on Saturday afternoons; white shoppers knew to stay away. Nonetheless, civil relationships were possible, even in the face of general and mutual dislike, and periodic, outright violence. Elderly and "worthy" blacks were treated with kindness; doing so was seen as a sign of good character on the part of whites (Ayer, 1992). The question remains: how did race relations change to such a degree as to give rise to the Civil Rights Movement?
Consider one of the more famous images from the Civil Rights movement: African Americans were peacefully protesting in Birmingham, Alabama, when Bull Connor, the city sheriff who became synonymous with racial antipathy, used dogs and water cannon to break up the demonstration. With that image it is possible, even easy, to see a single straight narrative from slavery to viciously enforced segregation. Jane Dailey (2002), writing of interracialism in 19th century Virginia, disagreed with this view. "It [has become] easy to see white supremacy as irresistible," she wrote, arguing that this view is too limiting (quoted in Kelly, 2004, p. 4). By focusing on the inevitableness of white supremacy, she believed, one misses the moments of possibility, sensed by both races, for greater equality during the decades between emancipation and Jim Crow.
Brian Kelly (2004) suggested that it is ironic that Birmingham has become a symbol of white supremacy; the city was founded after the Civil War as a modern beacon of industrialism. The elite of the city were repeatedly shaken by interracial strikes in which blacks and whites came together against enormous obstacles to challenge the racial and class hierarchies of the city. In 1908 and 1920, the state declared martial law to break up labor protests. Kelly saw the use of troops as a means of legitimizing vigilante justice. Thus, he suggested, the "visceral racism" that was so visible by 1963, was not a "natural, inevitable feature of Southern society," but rather a "historic consequence" of the aftermath of the strikes (Kelly, 2004, p. 5).
Southern industrial elites understood that their ability to compete with the more technologically advanced mills of the North was dependant on a continual exploitation of both white and black labor that maintained a "racial hierarchy." Jacquelyn Hall suggested that Jim Crow should be understood as racial capitalism, "a system that combined de jure segregation with hyper exploitation of black and white labor" (quoted in Kelly, 2004, p. 7).
In the 1870's, vast reserves of coal and iron ore were discovered in Birmingham, making feasible the dream of a Southern city to rival Pittsburgh. To make that dream a reality, though, the new industrialists needed one more factor: an endless supply of cheap labor.
“Nowhere in the world is the industrial situation so favorable to the employer as it is now at the south,” a typical editorial in the Manufacturers' Record boasted. The black worker, in particular, represented to industrial élites the “most important working factor in the great and varied resources of the [region],” whose labour would “yet aid his white friends … to take the lead in the cheapest production on this continent.” (Kelly, 2004, p. 8)
In short, according to industrial historian David W. Lewis (1984), Birmingham became "an iron plantation in an urban setting" (quoted in Kelly, 2004, p. 8).
As the industrial class solidified its political control through the 1880s, it was faced with a new threat: agrarian discontent that drove poor white farmers and sharecroppers from the Democratic Party. As the new Populist Party tried to build a base of support to challenge the Democrats, it also sought votes from African Americans, drawing them away from the Republican Party. In northern Alabama, the Greenback-Labor party, many of whose members were later absorbed into the Populist Party, became "the strongest advocates of the rights of blacks in the Deep South" (Kelly, 2004, p. 9).
Willis Johnson Thomas, a prominent black leader of the Greenback Party, often spoke at interracial meetings. The economic elites who knew that their power was sustained by racial antipathy were horrified. As Kelly (2004) recounted:
“Three years ago,” one dejected Democrat complained after a brush with Thomas in 1878, “if a negro dared to say anything about politics, or public speaking, or sitting on a jury … he would be driven out of the county, or shot, or hung in the woods. … Now white people are backing them in doing such things” (p. 9).
The elite response to this and every subsequent interracial lower class uprising was the same: white Populists were race baited and intimidated with vigilante justice of the sort used by the Ku Klux Klan. Appeals were made to their pride in their Anglo Saxon heritage. Black populists were bribed or physically intimidated into abandoning the struggle (Ayers, 1992).
The defeat of the Populists in 1896 began the period of the worst interracial relations in the new South. As the 1890's began, segregation was still largely a matter of custom. Few laws formally circumscribed relationships. Ayers (1992) suggested that the word "segregation" cannot truly be applied to the South until the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the races lived largely separate lives, few whites saw it as desirable to complicate their lives by enshrining separation into law; they also foresaw that legal separation would antagonize friendly and co-operative blacks. Prior to 1896, only Mississippi formally disenfranchised black voters; after the Populists were defeated all Southern states moved to do so (Ayers, 1992). The de facto segregation in place since Emancipation, only loosely observed, became tightly woven into law.
The new de jure segregation laws separated the races in all public accommodations. For instance, blacks were frequently excluded from white owned hotels. However, blacks could still turn to a black owned hotels, and generally preferred to do so. Where railroads were concerned, though, there were no alternatives. As railroads began spreading rapidly after the Civil War, local customs had to give way to state laws. Between 1887 and 1891, nine states enacted segregation laws that applied to the rails - the first concrete, state-wide efforts to legislate separation. Blacks were confined to third class cars that were filled with tobacco smoke and spit and often filthy with soot from the train's engine. There was no access to drinking water or comfortable seats (Ayers, 1992). Ultimately, train travel lead to the Supreme Court decision, Plessy v Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896), that enshrined the legal doctrine of "separate but equal." In its decision, the Court upheld the legality of an 1890 Louisiana law that required railroads to provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races" (Hall, 2005, p. 739). Justice Brown wrote that laws requiring separation did not imply inferiority, just difference. According to legal historian Kermit Hall (2005), the law upheld "long established customs of society" (p. 739).
Racial violence increased at the turn of the century to levels not seen since the early days after the Civil War. White supremacy continued unchallenged, as well as the economic order which benefited only the most elite (Kelly, 2004). The frameworks created by Jim Crow contributed to a much lower standard of living among Southern industrial workers of both races in comparison to their Northern counterparts:
The South remained the most impoverished region of the United States, with per capita wages for industrial workers at about one third the national average as late as 1935. And, while white workers generally received higher wages than blacks, by any measure (mortality, literacy levels, exposure to disease, access to health care), they endured worse conditions than their counterparts anywhere else in the country. (Kelly, 2004 , p. 11)
Early 20th Century America
Between 1914 and 1918, as the United States geared up to supply armaments to the Allied forces during the First World War, almost a half million blacks moved from the South to the industrial cities of the Midwest and the North. This was the...
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