Monday, October 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow PBS

A new documentary tells what it was like to live during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the 1880s through 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series for PBS from Thirteen/ WNET New York, lets viewers learn about the era through the stories of its victims, perpetrators, and opponents.

The threat of physical pain, public humiliation, and death held Jim Crow laws firmly in place. Blacks and whites who tried to protest Jim Crow laws risked their lives. In 1919, ninety lynchings occurred in a single year--one every four days. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative explains in the film: “You could not keep African Americans in this country in a subordinate status without the threat of violence.” Historian Patricia Sullivan echoes Stevenson: “Relief from physical terrorism was critical to all of the other rights that people would strive for.” (

Yet people did fight against the system. Ned Cobb was a successful black sharecropper in Alabama who bought his own farm and formed a tenant farmers union. In the early twentieth century, a sharecropper’s life was a cycle of misery. Because the banks based their loans on the value of the crops not the land, tenant farmers had to grow cash crops, like cotton instead of food for their families. Banks and merchants took their money straight from the sale of the cotton so that farmers had to go back and borrow more for food. Six thousand of Cobb’s fellow sharecroppers joined him in forming the Alabama Sharecropper’s Union. Cobb’s descendants tell his story in the documentary, including one incident in the 1930s, when Cobb went to prevent his neighbor’s land from being repossessed. During the confrontation, he exchanged gunshots with the sheriff and was sent to prison for thirteen years.

“The horrific you expect--the heroic you don’t,” says Richard Wormser, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. Wormser spent the last seven years collecting the stories. Wormser says he and Bill Jersey, co-writer, producer, and director, “decided to tell stories about the individuals struggling to subvert and overcome Jim Crow.” (

The series also presents the perspective of the enforcers of segregation, the Ku Klux Klan. A long-time Klan member named Gordon Parks recounts attending his first lynching when he was just nine years old. As he tells it, a black man had raped a seventeen-yea-old daughter of a family in the neighborhood. “When her parents come home, she told them, and they called my grandpa. He was the Wizard and my daddy was the Grand Dragon, and they got about a hundred people and we went and got him, and grandpa said I could go with them. . . . We took him down to this thick, old oak tree, and there was about two hundred down there. And they took him and set him down and had his hands tied behind him. And Grandpa asked me--told my daddy to ask me--to ask anybody if they had anything to say before we’d put him up in the tree to hang him. And I asked anybody if they had anything to say and one man said, ‘Yeah, I have something to say. . .’ and he cut him from ear to ear, and then they put the rope around his neck and pulled him up in the tree. We stayed there about a hour … to make sure he died before they left.”

The Klan inspired fear on both sides of the color line. Another eyewitness to a Klan execution describes how as a young white child in the south following World War II, he hid in the grass and saw the killing of his black neighborhood friend--just returned from the war--his friend’s brother and both of their pregnant wives. Later when the sheriff came to his house and asked if anyone knew anything about it, he piped up and said “I know who done it.” The sheriff pulled him aside and told him: “I can put some of these people in jail but I can’t put all of them in. If they found out you know what you know, it would come back on you, your mama, your sister and your brother. The best thing you could ever do is not to mention this again.” He kept the secret for decades, and no one was ever charged with the murders. (

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow Part 1


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