Our local tavern is typical for the rural west coast; too much sports, empty bragging and general foolishness you would find at any-where-pub USA. There are however some pretty smart cookies that roll through. One of my friends famously told me “our little county is full of over-educated drop-outs”. I tend to shut off the noise and try to read, which is my best use of time with a cold beer. Last week I happened to notice that sitting on top of a stack of newspapers was Michelle Alexander’s breakthrough book “The New Jim Crow”. There was a local working couple standing nearby, and I asked the woman if the book was hers, and how she liked it. She picked up the book, looked at it and tossed it back down on the papers, saying “Who’s Jim Crow”?
Needless to say, I was pretty shocked. I mean, I wasn’t talking to a 14 year-old, this was a forty-something plus-sized blonde-Bambi who should have known better. I would have liked to have had a little talk with her but she spun on her heels and went to sit with a friend.
Now here’s the deal; perhaps the term “Jim Crow” is just too far removed from rural white culture, but I certainly knew the term and had listened to several interviews with Michelle Alexander. Surely this woman had heard of segregation, even if she didn’t experience it when and where she grew up. So there seems to be a need for a quick review of “Jim Crow”, and for ease of cut-and-paste I’ll be quoting from Wikipedia:
The Wiki description explains that beginning in post civil war reconstruction, laws mandating separate but equal status for African Americans were mandated. It was definitely separate, but by no means equal. Built-in prejudice clearly held blacks at a disadvantage, and violence was pervasive.
In the North, discrimination was just as prevalent through the job hiring, bank loans, housing and numerous other rotten processes.
“Jim Crow laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated, as were federal workplaces, initiated in 1913 under President Woodrow Wilson. By requiring candidates to submit photos, his administration practiced racial discrimination in hiring.
These Jim Crow laws followed the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. Segregation of public (state-sponsored) schools was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but years of action and court challenges were needed to unravel numerous means of institutional discrimination.”
“The phrase “Jim Crow Law” can be found as early as 1892 in the title of a New York Times article about voting laws in the South. The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson’s populist policies. As a result of Rice’s fame, “Jim Crow” by 1838 had become a pejorative expression meaning “Negro”. When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation directed against blacks at the end of the 19th century, these became known as Jim Crow laws.”
Throughout the country, all public accommodations were segregated between use for whites, and use for blacks. This was an extremely violent era with the Klan and other white supremacists terrorizing the black population. In places like Indiana and elsewhere, there were “sundown towns” where black workers had to be out of town by sundown. There were however, attempts to overturn this system:
“In 1887, Rev. W. H. Heard lodged a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission against the Georgia Railroad company for discrimination, citing its provision of different cars for white and black/colored passengers. The company successfully appealed for relief on the grounds it offered separate but equal accommodation.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations for colored and white passengers on railroads. Louisiana law distinguished between “white”, “black” and “colored” (that is, people of mixed European and African ancestry). The law already specified that blacks could not ride with white people, but colored people could ride with whites before 1890. A group of concerned black, colored and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to rescinding the law. The group persuaded Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth “Negro” and of fair complexion, to test it.
In 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans on the East Louisiana Railway. Once he had boarded the train, he informed the train conductor of his racial lineage and took a seat in the whites-only car. He was directed to leave that car and sit instead in the “coloreds only” car. Plessy refused and was immediately arrested. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. The finding contributed to 58 more years of legalized discrimination against black and colored people in the United States.”
In 1948 President Truman desegregated the military, and in 1954 Plessy was overturned:
“The NAACP Legal Defense Committee (a group that became independent of the NAACP) – and its lawyer, Thurgood Marshall – brought the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) before the Supreme Court. In its pivotal 1954 decision, the Court unanimously overturned the 1896 Plessy decision. The Supreme Court found that legally mandated (de jure) public school segregation was unconstitutional. The decision had far-reaching social ramifications. De jure segregation was not brought to an end until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
And finally, with televised images of firehoses, police dogs and nightclubs being used against peaceful protesters, things slowly began to change:
“In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders. On January 8, during his first State of the Union address, Johnson asked Congress to “let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” On June 21, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where they were volunteering in the registration of African-American voters as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. The disappearance of the three activists captured national attention and the ensuing outrage was used by Johnson and civil rights activists to build a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans and push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. It invoked the commerce clause to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations (privately owned restaurants, hotels, and stores, and in private schools and workplaces).”
But, from what I have heard from Michelle Alexanders interviews, she builds a good case that things haven’t changed, that there is a “New Jim Crow”. The war on drugs, driving while black, and zero-tolerance schools have contributed to a “School to prison pipeline”.
The cumulative effect of these type of societal influences has maintained a form of segregation through enforcement policy and a new form of slavery through prison work programs, overwhelmingly staffed by blacks.
I went back to have a beer and read at our tavern the other day, and Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” was still there, sitting on the shelf where I had left it. I asked the bartender if anyone had claimed it, and she said it had been there for a couple of weeks.
I took it home and added it to my collection. I’ll have a review of it in the near future.