This slim volume, referred to by Martin Luther King as "the historical bible of the Civil Rights movement," makes a compelling case that the Jim Crow system of racial legislation that dominated the South was not a natural outgrowth of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, or even Redemption, but rather a haphazard creation of Southern whites in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Woodward begin his series of lectures by nothing that, although an early form of Jim Crow-type legislation could be found in the cities of the antebellum North ("One of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force"), race relations in the nineteenth-century South were more often than not characterized by intermingling and close contact. (17) "In most aspects of slavery as practiced in the ante-bellum South," he notes, "segregation would have been an inconvenience and an obstruction to the functioning of the system. The very nature of the institution made separation of the races for the most part impracticable." (12) Similarly, while some elements of Jim Crow showed up during Reconstruction (such as the separation of churches and segregation of public schools), "race relations during Reconstruction could not be said to have crystallized or stabilized nor to have become what they later became. There were too many cross currents and contradictions, revolutionary innovations and violent reactions...for a time old and new rubbed shoulders -- and so did black and white -- in a manner that differed significantly from Jim Crow of the future or slavery of the past." (25, 26)
C. Van Woodward
In fact, Woodward, argues, even Redemption didn't herald the onset of Jim Crow. While "it would certainly be preposterous to leave the impression that any evidence I have submitted indicates a golden age of race relations in the period between Redemption and complete segregation," Woodward argues, "the era of stiff conformity and fanatical rigidity that was to come had not yet closed in and shut off all contact between the races, driven the Negroes from all public forums, silenced all white dissenters, put a stop to all rational discussion and exchange of views, and precluded all variety and experiment in types of interracial association." (43, 44)
Indeed, Woodward relates three philosophies of race relations competing at the time - conservatism, radicalism, and liberalism. Suggesting that the latter never really "attracted a following in the South," Woodward explains the differences between the prior two. (47) Conservatism, as practiced by politicians such as Wade Hampton, was "an aristocratic philosophy of paternalism and noblesse oblige" that argued that African-Americans should be aided and educated as a bulwark against the lower classes of whites: Conservatives "believed that the Negro was inferior, but denied that it followed that inferiors must be segregated or publicly humiliated" -- Indeed, "an excessive squeamishness or fussiness about contact with Negroes was commonly identified as a lower-class whit attitude, while the opposite attitude was as popularly associated with the 'the quality.'" (48-50) Radicalism, on the other hand, was a product of the Populists that emphasized an "equalitarianism of want and poverty" between whites and blacks, "the kinship of a common grievance and a common oppressor." (61) Despite the racial antipathies of many working-class Southerners, Woodward argues, populists such as Tom Watson tried to forge an interracial alliance in the 1890's that may have "achieved a greater comity of mind and harmony of political purpose than ever before or since in the South." (64)
So, why did Jim Crow come about, then? "The South's adoption of extreme racism was due so much to a conversion as it was to a relaxation of opposition," writes Woodward. "All the elements of fear, jealousy, proscription, hatred, and fanaticism had long been present, as they are present in various degrees of intensity in any society. What enabled them to rise to dominance was not so much cleverness or ingenuity as it was a general weakening and discrediting of the numerous forces that had hitherto kept them in check. The restraining forces included not only Northern liberal opinion in the press, the courts, and the government, but also internal checks imposed by the prestige and influence of the Southern conservatives, as well as by the idealism and zeal of the Southern radicals. What happened toward the end of the century was an almost simultaneous -- and sometimes not unrelated -- decline in the effectiveness of restraint that had been exercised by all three forces: Northern liberalism, Southern conservatism, and Southern radicalism." (69)
To take each very briefly, northern liberalism waned in the wake of Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson and "White Man's Burden" imperialist ventures overseas, southern conservatism returned to its Redemptionist appeal to "negrophobia" to retain its power and to keep the South "in step with the conservative Northeastern wing of the party and with its views on economic policy," and Populists turned on their former African-American allies as scapegoats for the movement's failure. (77)
"Having served as the national scapegoat in the reconciliation and reunion of North and South," writes Woodward, "the Negro was now pressed into service as a sectional scapegoat in the reconciliation of estranged white classes and the reunion of the Solid South. The bitter violence and blood-letting recriminations of the campaigns between white conservatives and white radicals in the 'nineties had opened wounds that could not be healed by ordinary political nostrums and free-silver slogans. The only formula powerful enough to accomplish that was the magical formula of white supremacy, applied without stint and without any of the old conservative reservations of paternalism, without deference to any lingering resistance of Northern liberalism, or any fear of further check from a defunct Southern Populism." (82-83) In effect, African-Americans became a sacrifice to perpetuate the white man's peace.
And so African-Americans were disenfranchised in the name of Progressive reform, a flurry of laws were passed (and cultural conventions created) to separate the races, and former Populists like Tom Watson, who once stood in the path of this type of discrimination, instead became "one of the outstanding exploiters of endemic Negrophobia."(90) Very shortly thereafter, the Jim Crow system was deliberately given a patina of inevitability by many Southern writers, who proclaimed it an outgrowth of the South's natural "folkways." And thus "the Jim Crow laws...gave free rein and the majesty of the law to mass aggressions that might otherwise have been curbed, blunted, or deflected." (108)
The original version of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published in 1955, ended with some glimmers of hope for change on the horizon - Unlike "the man on the cliff" (South Africa), the American South had recently witnessed significant cracks develop in the Jim Crow system. President Truman had desegregated the military, and the Supreme Court was doing the same for public education in Brown v. Board of Education. Later editions of the book cover the profound accomplishments of the civil rights movement and the later rise of black nationalism, which suggests for Woodward that African-Americans themselves must choose the extent and means of integration into white society. For "after the legal end of Jim Crow, the emancipated were expected to shed not only such distinctions as they abhorred but those distinctions they cherished as essential to their identity. They found that they were unable to rid themselves fully of the former and unable wholly to abandon the latter."(220) Thus, amid these competing desires for integration and separation that define modern race relations, argues Woodward in his now-pessimistic close, the strange career of Jim Crow looked to get somewhat stranger before it came to its final retirement.