The Strange Career of Jim Crow

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The Strange Career of Jim Crow
When The Strange Career of Jim Crow was first published in 1955, it was immediately recognized to be the definitive study of racial relations in the United States. Professor Woodward discusses the “unanticipated developments and revolutionary changes at the very center of the subject.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to the book as the historical bible of the civil rights movement. The Strange Career of Jim Crow won the Pulitzer for Mary Chestnut’s Civil War and a Bancroft Prize for The Origins of the New South.

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with, starting in 1890, a "separate but equal" status for African Americans. The separation in practice led to conditions for African Americans that tended to be inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages. Segregation mainly applied to the Southern United States. Northern segregation was generally patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending practices, and job discrimination, including discriminatory union practices for decades. Some examples of Jim Crow laws are 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.

Jim Crow laws, Woodward argued, were not part of the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction; they came later and were not inevitable. Following the Compromise of 1877, in the 1870s and 1880s there were localized informal practices of racial separation in some areas of society along with what he termed "forgotten alternatives" in others. Finally the 1890s saw white southerners "capitulate to racism" to create "legally prescribed, rigidly enforced, state-wide Jim Crowism."

The South had been segregated by informal custom early on in some places. There were recognized social rules that didn't need to be spelled out. But there was also a very high degree of integration, in music halls, sporting places, on public transit, and also personally. Black and white people tended to live near each other in the South and see each other daily. The South was in most ways far more integrated than the North. During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, federal law provided civil rights protection in the U.S. South for freedmen – the African Americans who had formerly been slaves. In the 1870s, Democrats gradually regained power in the Southern legislatures, sometimes as a result of elections in which paramilitary groups intimidated opponents, attacking blacks or preventing them from voting. Blacks were still elected to local offices in the 1880s, but the establishment Democrats were passing laws to make voter registration and electoral rules more restrictive, with the result that political participation by most blacks and many poor whites began to decrease. Those who could not vote were not eligible to serve on juries and could not run for local offices. They effectively disappeared from political life, as they could not influence the state legislatures, and their interests were overlooked. One may conclude African Americans' rise to success and the fear on the part of whites that the "American dream" of prosperity might actually be coming true for black Americans heightened racism of the 1890s.

The Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education has been credited with much significance. For some, it signaled the start of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, while for others, it represented the fall of segregation. The Brown decision was a landmark because it overturned the legal policies established by the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that legalized the practices of separate but equal. In the Plessy...
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