Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow

by Leon F. Litwack
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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

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Leon F. Litwack's book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998) focuses on a "bottom-down" analysis of African Americans in the Jim Crow South following the ending of Reconstruction. Litwack explores the daily lives of the African American community as they encountered and combatted the racial hierarchy of the white South. He focuses on the development of the African American community in the South and their eventual decision to move North during the Great Migration (beginning roughly in 1916).

One of the ideas central to Litwack's exploration of the South during Jim Crow is paternalism. Merriam-Webster describes paternalism as "a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as their relations to authority and to each other." Paternalism was a central aspect of slavery in the United States. Masters were expected to treat their slaves like children, and in return the slaves were supposed to show deference to their masters and follow their every command. In many ways, paternalism drove slavery. But, it was often heavily exploited. Masters would beat their slaves, and slaves oftentimes subtly resisted their masters' influence.

This is an important concept in Litwack's book because he suggests that the new racially codified laws created in the wake of the so-called "Redemption of the South" (when white Southerners took back control of the South following the conclusion of Reconstruction) existed to continue paternalism in another name. African Americans were still expected to show deference to white Southerners, even though they were no longer in bondage. If African Americans did not show the proper level of respect to whites, they suffered consequences as dire as brutal beatings or even lynchings.

Litwack provides details for several lynchings in his book, and they are graphic enough to turn the stomach. Lynching provided two primary functions in the Jim Crow South. It was used to remove an African American who failed to meet the proper standards of their hierarchy. It also served as a warning to the African American community in an attempt to scare them into deference to whites.

Segregation was a major aspect of Jim Crow, and as such, African Americans were not allowed to have access to the same institutions that white Southerners had access to. African Americans, instead, created their own institutions. These African American institutions allowed some African Americans to develop skills and become members of the middle class, which threatened the delicate racial hierarchy. Litwack argues that the most important institution for the African American community was the church. The church served not only as a spiritual resource but also as a meeting place for organizing the community.

While Litwack notes that some African Americans resisted Jim Crow through boycotts of segregated spaces or violent confrontations, these actions did not have an impact on the overall structure of racial hierarchy. Ultimately, he concludes, many African Americans chose to migrate to the North in hopes of better treatment and the ability to make more money to provide for themselves and their families. They still had to confront racism, but they managed to avoid the extremities of the Jim Crow South.

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