The plight of southern black people in the age of Jim Crow has of late had little attention from historians and the changes since then have often been minimized. At least three reasons come to mind that help explain why this is so. One is the urgent need for changes of a new type—particularly economic change—demanded by the situation of a black metropolitan underclass. A second reason is the heritage of frustration left by black nationalists, whose aspirations for separate black institutions were not addressed by the civil rights movement. And a third is the twilight zone that always exists between living memory and written history, a shadowy world in which, for most people, the history of black repression under Jim Crow laws and practices still lies. The light cast by living memory dims as the numbers possessing it decline, while full illumination by history has been slow in coming and even slower in being comprehended.
Since the battles against Jim Crow from the beginning of World War II, southern blacks have departed for northern cities by the millions, and the scene they left behind has been altered beyond recognition. To grasp the extent of alteration it helps to have grown up in that now vanished planter-sharecropper culture of the lower Mississippi valley when the old order was still in full flower. A drive by the present writer not long ago along the Arkansas side of the river, through his native village and countryside, turned up no recognizable landmarks whatever. Big house, cropper cabins, cotton gins, cotton compresses and all that went with them were all gone with a second wind of history. But the memory is still alive and helps make credible what must otherwise seem almost incredible in accounts now brought to light of what people then endured and suffered and the horrors other people inflicted, solemnly justified, and believed to be absolutely necessary.
Another curtain that obscures the past is the screen of present events on which are daily projected images of black mayors of the larger and many of the smaller southern cities, or a Virginia (only yesterday the seat of “massive resistance”) said to be on the point of electing the first black governor in American history. In a foreword to a welcome new edition of John Dollard’s 1937 work, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, Daniel Patrick Moynihan points out that the Mississippi town Dollard studied in the mid-Thirties as prototype of the Jim Crow culture is located in a district now represented by the first black congressman since Reconstruction. The school superintendent of the town is also black—and so is Miss Mississippi.
The mention of John Dollard prompts long-due acknowledgment of his pioneering contribution as an analyst of the Jim Crow era. But Dollard was a northerner from Yale. And in fact early pronouncements on this forbidden subject were mainly by northerners such as Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker. Or they were by a very few southerners …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.