By Kim Nayyer
The conference theme, Civil Rights, Humans Rights, and Other Critical Issues in U.S. Law, was delivered with insight in this first academic session. The speaker, Joseph Crespino, PhD, Jimmy Carter Professor of 20th Century American Political History and Southern History Since Reconstruction, Department of History, Emory University, brought retrospective and historical context to our understanding of present and historical race relations in the United States.
For those of us from outside the U.S., Professor Crespino helpfully contextualized his talk with a specific and clear explanation of the Jim Crow era, presenting dates, events, and visual illustrations. Whereas I’d read and seen reference to the terms “Jim Crow” and “Reconstruction,” I, as a non-American, didn’t fully understand the details and historical context. Briefly, Reconstruction is the era that began just post-US Civil War. The Civil War itself was a rebellion by southern states (the Confederacy) against the Union and centered on the issue of slavery. Stated simply, the victory of the Union resulted in the emancipation of slaves and the period known as the Reconstruction Era.
Professor Crespino based his session on a course he teaches at Emory University, and he did an admirable job condensing “some of the highlights, some of the low lights” of his course into less than an hour. The session presented a substantial amount of content, and most of his time was dedicated to explaining the rise of the Jim Crow era despite Reconstruction. Professor Crespino concluded with discussion of markers of the fall of the Jim Crow regime. From my perspective, the session successfully elucidated this history and its present impact for international attendees while—based on my discussions with American colleagues—remaining stimulating and thought-provoking to American law librarians.
Professor Crespino outlined the history and meaning of Jim Crow, explaining that the term refers to legalized system of subjugation and disfranchisement, which followed by several decades the emancipation of freed people after the Civil War. Emancipation began with the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. The Reconstruction Era continued with the 14th Amendment of 1868, which granted civil rights and some broad citizenship rights to former slaves, and the 15th Amendment of 1870, which gave black men the right to vote.
We learned that the term “Jim Crow” came from a recurring character in racially degrading minstrel shows, in which white actors wore blackface in mocking and dehumanizing portrayals of comical slave characters. Those minstrel shows began in the years before the Civil War, the 1820s and 1830s, in the north as well as in the south. Professor Crespino noted that historians are unclear on why or how this Jim Crow character name came to refer to the segregationist system of laws, in the late nineteenth century.
Professor Crespino devoted much time to sharing his thinking on a question that had puzzled historians even into the 20th century: why it was that Jim Crow system of laws didn’t appear on the books until around the 1890s—after the end of Reconstruction in 1876. He offered several hypotheses rooted in historical context. First, the Jim Crow laws may have reflected folk practices that existed but were not codified during the period between Reconstruction and the beginning of the regime, wherein blacks and whites self-segregated. Some specific laws of the Jim Crow regime in the south created segregated public spaces and disfranchised black Americans and some poorer whites. This is even though in the 1870s and into the 1880s, blacks were in fact participating in public life in states of the former Confederacy.
Another theory about why the Jim Crow laws began to be enacted well after Emancipation and Reconstruction reflected the reality of post-slavery era blacks. Around the 1890s to the turn of the 20th century, there was a discourse of concern among white southerners about what Professor Crespino said was described as the “new Negro,” African Americans who were not born into or socialized within slavery or white supremacy. He described how the myth of the “loyal slave” worked hand in hand with the rise of Jim Crow, and he noted this trope was depicted in 20th century films such as Gone With the Wind.
Another factor that may have contributed to the rise of Jim Crow laws was a growing racist and pseudo-scientific narrative of characterizations of black people. He quoted from a newspaper of the era which demonstrated the racist discourse used to justify subjugation of blacks despite Emancipation. He observed this was reflected in another film heavily criticized for its false and racist depictions of black men, Birth of a Nation.
By the 1890s, those false and racist characterizations of black men had fed the crime of lynching, then perpetrated by mobs of whites attacking black men. Lynching refers to extralegal or mob violence. Professor Crespino explained that, until the1880s, lynching was a frontier America phenomenon whose victims were mostly white, and where law enforcement was insufficiently developed.
A final theory historians offer to explain the rise of Jim Crow laws is the serious economic unrest of the time, which gave rise to a third party movement called the Populist party. Destabilizing southern politics for a time, the Populist movement rose mostly among rural farmers who felt disempowered by the economic forces that were the reality of their daily lives. Thomas Watson, a leader of this movement, talked about the common economic interests of blacks and whites, but did not propose or advocate integration.
To Professor Crespino, the most convincing reason Jim Crow laws appeared so long after Reconstruction is the view that segregation laws were a product of modernity or the growing urbanization of the south in the twentieth century. New public spaces were arising—for example, railroad cars— which didn’t have a history of “racial etiquette” or regulation. This opened the door to the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v Ferguson, in which the majority denied the right of Mr. Plessy to sit in a railroad car of his choosing. Professor Crespino reminded us that, at the time, this separate but equal outlook was actually considered to be a necessary tool of regulation or government reform, but in retrospect clearly made subordinate and inferior allocations for black people. When we look at the words of the majority’s reasoning now, their arrogance is blatant. The dissent, by Justice John Marshall Harlan, was consistent with his approach to those segregation decisions, which earned him the nickname “The Great Dissenter.”
Professor Crespino explained three kinds of consolidation in the Jim Crow regime. In addition to legal consolidation, seen in cases like Plessy, a political consolidation was seen in the shifts in the Republican party. Until then, the Republican party had been framed as the party of Lincoln, of emancipation, of equality. The Lodge Bill of 1890 was a last Republican effort to empower the federal government to enforce the voting rights of blacks to vote. It failed in Congress because southern Democrats allied with some Republicans to prevent its passage.
Finally, a cultural consolidation, in movies and books for example, took hold by the turn of the 20th century. Professor Crespino referred again to the heavily criticized film, Birth of a Nation and the book it was based on, which actually celebrated the Ku Klux Klan. He described the rise of a new interpretation of Reconstruction. Instead of seeing the movement toward civil rights of former slaves, some people justified their later aims by retrospectively re-characterizing Reconstruction as a tragic era (which Professor Crespino notes was the title of a book popular at the time).
Professor Crespino concluded his talk by pointing to three markers of the fall of Jim Crow. He referred to the nineteen-teens as being the period of the seeds of the dismantling, though it coincided with some of the cultural retrenchment he just described. Even as The Birth of a Nation was screening, political developments began to undermine the Jim Crow era.
The first marker was the beginning of the migration of African Americans out of the south. At 1910, 90% of African Americans lived in the southern states. Only 50 years later, half as many African Americans lived outside the south as in those states, with a population shift from the rural south to the urban north. Because blacks could vote in those northern districts, the US began to see African American members of Congress in the late 1920s and1930s, which led to a big change in the political and government discourse from that of the 1890s. In 1928, Oscar De Priest, the first African-American Congressman, was elected, representing a Chicago district.
The second marker was the New Deal, the programs of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, carried out through initiatives pursued by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She engaged in social efforts and symbolic actions to advance the civil rights and societal participation of African Americans.
The third marker toward dismantling of the Jim Crow era noted was World War II. African Americans served and became empowered by their service to advance deserved civil rights. These were accompanied with new Supreme Court decisions, such as Smith v Allwright (1944), which disallowed discriminatory voting practices, and Brown v Board of Education (1954), which declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional.
I found this talk remarkably timely and illuminating. One of the most profound impacts of Professor Crespino’s presentation is the sense that much of this history also rings sadly and even frighteningly familiar; it echoes in some of the uglier rhetoric of recent months. We see arguments about the present plight of relatively poor and economically dispossessed Americans giving rise to nationalist or racist populism, for example. To me, though, Professor Crespino’s presentation recalled quite precisely the arguments of Ta-Nenisi Coates in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. Mr. Coates likens the years of the Obama administration, in a way, to the period of Reconstruction. In fact, though President Obama was in office for eight years, his title refers to the 1875 words of South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller, in reference to Reconstruction and its civil and social equality measures (Coates at xiii).
Coates even, I think, alludes to the later tragic reinterpretations of that era by those who would not want to see a black person as president. These writings echo Professor Crespino’s description of the “threat” of the “New Negro” that gave rise to the Jim Crow regime, likening this to racial tensions and perhaps overt anti-black discourse in the years since the first Obama administration. “Friends began to darkly recall the ghosts of post-Reconstruction. The election of Donald Trump confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept. The idea that America would follow its first black president with Donald Trump accorded with its history” (Coates at 336).
 I understand from a conversation with Professor Crespino that his session was recorded. It a recording was made and will be publicly available, I’ll update this post with a link.