By the mid-1880s, a new generation of southern blacks—the first to be born after Emancipation—had begun to come of age. Many had vivid memories of Radical Reconstruction, a period of biracial democracy in which blacks seized political, educational, and economic opportunities to transform the society within which they lived. And even as the radical era came to an end, black citizens continued to vie for greater freedom, often boldly challenging centuries of anti-black traditions.
These "new negroes" troubled the white South, which sought to reclaim the power it had lost after the Civil War. White lawmakers, business-owners, employers, landlords, educators, religious leaders, and politicians enforced new, more stringent patterns of racial etiquette to control black citizens who defied southern racial mores. By the end of the nineteenth century, racial subjugation and anti-black violence underpinned every economic, legal, political, and social institution in the American South.
But the story of the "Jim Crow era" is much more than a mere tale of white violence and black subjugation; descriptions of disenfranchisement, anti-black laws and codes, and lynching statistics illuminate only one side of this complex tale. For nearly a century, African-Americans—black leaders as well as average men and women—resisted, rationalized, undermined, accommodated to, migrated from, and tested the limits of a system created to control every aspect of their lives.
Chances are that when you consider the term "Jim Crow," you imagine a sign declaring "Whites Only" hanging in front of a water fountain or posted in the front window of a restaurant or a barbershop. If you've taken any basic American history course, it's also likely that you picture this conspicuous marker of segregation somewhere in the rural South during the first half of the twentieth century, perhaps in a small town tucked inside the Mississippi River Delta or in a county of Alabama, the state officially known as the "Heart of Dixie."
This placard, with its poignant warning to black Americans, has come to represent a troubling era of southern bigotry, one in which skin color defined a person's access to places of business and recreation, restrooms, amusement parks, bowling alleys, swimming pools, beaches, schools, libraries, hospitals, and even cemeteries.
But racial segregation is only part of the story and explains just one aspect of the power whites wielded in order to control the lives of black Americans. That declarative phrase—"Whites Only"—can't adequately communicate the implicit boundaries and unspoken social codes and customs in place during the Jim Crow era, nor can it suggest exactly how treacherous this world was for black southerners. A single gesture, a movement, an expression, or a question could be perceived as a violation of Jim Crow boundaries. Black men and women who demonstrated too much aspiration, confidence, or success became targets of harassment, assault, arson, and murder. And, from the late nineteenth century through the 1950s, most of the nation outside the South ignored or even condoned these crimes.
Perhaps we can look even deeper than this, beyond the evidence of the power wielded by white southerners. What should African-Americans have done in response to the restrictions, injustice, harassment, and violence they faced during the Jim Crow era? What could they have done? What did they do? The obvious answer to each of these questions is "resist."
But resistance means many things and takes various forms. It can be combative or nonviolent. Resistance can be a single heroic action or a mass revolution. It can be a political stance: a vote or a demonstration against the ruling administration. It can be an economic form of insurrection: a refusal to accept poor working conditions or a demand for fair wages. It can be intellectual: a poem, essay, song, lecture, speech, or book. Resistance can be the work of one brave man or woman or it can be organized and conducted by valiant leaders.
It's true that during the Jim Crow era—roughly a century—resistance took each of these forms. However, many (in fact, most) of the ways in which black southerners defied the Jim Crow system looked nothing like the sort of resistance that we are most familiar with today. This sort of rebellion wasn't always explicit or recognizable and was often marked by small, personal, day-to-day choices. At times, it even came in the form of accommodation and deference. And not all acts were deliberately defiant. In fact, many black southerners employed these techniques not to undermine the system, but simply to ensure a future for themselves and their families.
We hope this brief lesson on Jim Crow, and the African-American response to it, will help you contemplate the motives behind the bigoted legislation and anti-black violence; the word "racism" is not enough to explain nearly a century of segregation and terror. In addition, we hope that the stories we offer here will encourage you to consider the effects that this period of segregation, black disenfranchisement, and bloodshed had (and still have) on the nation as a whole.
This is grim history, the kind that is difficult to stomach if not impossible to comprehend. Some of this material, in fact, challenges our very understanding of what it is to be American and requires us to reassess some of the lessons we've learned in school. Tough stuff, yes, but it is essential for us to truly appreciate the tremendous stakes of the Civil Rights Movement and, perhaps more importantly, to help us demystify America's recent past in order to better evaluate how much has changed and whether obstacles to racial equality still remain.