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The Mississippi Horrors

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.1

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.2 Or they were by a very few southerners in exile, or blacks, such as Charles S. Johnson,3 or foreigners, as witness Gunnar Myrdal.4 Between the world wars, with rare exceptions,5 white southerners maintained silence or ambivalence on the subject. That silence was very rarely broken until the relatively recent explosion of scholarly and literary revelations, which suggests a southern variation of glasnost.

Neil R. McMillen, author of Dark Journey, is white, and though he was born in Michigan has spent most of his life in Mississippi: he married there, was educated there, and is teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of a revealing study of the Citizens’ Council in the 1950s and 1960s.6 The book under review on the Jim Crow era in Mississippi from 1890 to the Second World War is remarkable for its relentless truth-telling, and the depth and thoroughness of its investigation, for the freshness of its sources, and for the shock power of its findings. Even a reader who is not unfamiliar with the sources and literature of the subject can be jolted by its impact. McMillen achieves this without sensationalism, exaggeration, or sentimentality, and without withholding from Mississippi whites all due understanding or credit, when and if credit is to be found.

McMillen goes back to the period preceding the age of Jim Crow for background, but his larger contribution is to the period immediately following, the period during the 1890s when the last constitutional barriers were broken down and the Supreme Court opened the legal road to racial proscription, segregation, and disfranchisement. The North lost interest in the rights of blacks or fell into step, and extreme white racial aggression was given free rein in Mississippi. Quickly following came black disfranchisement by state constitutional amendments and racial segregation expressed by statutes limited largely to public transportation, health care facilities, and state institutions, since, as the author puts it, “there was no need legally to enjoin the unthinkable.” The sovereignty of white sensibilities, normally known as “custom,” placed interracial contact in any public accommodation—at funerals, weddings, theaters, and courtrooms, for example—firmly in the “unthinkable” category. The same kind of “custom” required not merely separation but often exclusion, as for example from libraries and all recreational facilities, public or private, open only to whites. Some cities restricted parking and even driving in certain streets to whites and a few excluded black motor traffic entirely. In the Delta a black driver dared not overtake and pass a white one, “because the black man might stir up dust that would get on the white folks,” according to one black in 1940.

Whites did not speak as one on all such matters, and some of the upper class professed disdain for the extremes to which the redneck element carried things. Even so, as McMillen says, “the pale flame of noblesse oblige that once presumably distinguished ‘white quality’ from ‘white trash’ flickered even lower in the post-bellum period.” Whites generally had little trouble agreeing not only that the racial discipline and restrictions were necessary if not inevitable, but also that blacks complied with the rules willingly, cheerfully, and “naturally.” Ample evidence is now at hand that while they did comply, blacks were neither happy nor voluntary in their acquiescence and that they resisted where it was possible. But the limits of resistance were extremely narrow, and they knew very well, as McMillen puts it, that “any deviation from the Sambo style could result in trouble” and that outright show of resentment could be suicidal. It was not enough “merely to observe the letter of the social ritual,” for to avoid the appearance of being uppity, “blacks had to show ready acquiescence by inflection and gesture, to appear by every outward sign to be ‘willingly and cheerfully’ humble.”

Life under such constraints required constant thought by blacks on how to avoid seeming too smart or too prosperous or too ambitious. Such questions included whether one dared to paint one’s house, how to dress one’s children or oneself, how to avoid at all costs topics forbidden to interracial discourse and to remember at one’s peril what they were. As a young Mississippi black boy, the novelist Richard Wright found it impossible “to calculate, to scheme, to act, to plot all the time” and for all his efforts to dissemble, he “would forget and act straight and human again.” That was dangerous and he knew it.

More rural and agricultural than those of any other state, Mississippi blacks, with few exceptions, were farmers without land. Economic conditions—the prohibitive cost of credit, the competition of larger units, and “the world’s largest consumer of raw cotton,” the boll weevil, helped to keep them landless. But the greatest obstacles to black landownership were racial—the almost universal white determination to keep them landless, dependent sharecroppers or day laborers. Before World War I that determination was often backed by night riders who destroyed crops, livestock, barns, churches, and schools of blacks who dared get out of line. While he is at pains to admit that sharecroppers’ experiences varied widely and that many planters were regarded as fair and “fundamentally humane,” McMillen goes on to say that,

…in Mississippi, as in much of the lower-South black belt, violence or the threat of violence was the most durable legacy of slavery and nearly as central to large-scale cotton production as the mule and the lister plow. In freedom, scarcely less than in slavery, landlords thought of the people who worked their fields as “their niggers,” subject to their authority and the ancient work rhythms of the Cotton Kingdom. Confident in the support of the sheriff, the courts, and white public opinion, all too many still believed that economic incentive alone would not drive free blacks to diligent labor.

Between 1865 and 1940 cotton culture, compared with wheat farming in the West and Midwest, seemed frozen in time, virtually untouched by the machine age. This was explained in part by a shortage of capital and an abundance of cheap and dependent labor, but also by a certain imperviousness of cotton to machines. During the 1930s a British-owned company cultivated 38,000 acres of Delta land with 1,200 black families and 1,000 mules. Even by 1940 only 2.7 percent of the state’s farm operators owned tractors, as compared with 55.3 in Iowa, and in 1953 some 75 percent of Delta cotton was picked by hand. At peak seasons the industry was dependent on abundant supplies of hand labor. To keep this supply abundant and available, producers appeared prepared to use any means necessary.

For one thing, all efforts of tenants and croppers to improve their lot by organizing were ruthlessly suppressed, their leaders flogged, beaten, or lynched. Agents recruiting blacks for work elsewhere were similarly disposed of. Vagrancy laws and contract labor laws assisted in “negro round-ups” at harvest time. Southern states had contract enforcement statutes making it unlawful for tenants to leave landlords during the crop year, thus helping to immobilize restive workers. Other laws restrained tenant mobility by imposing criminal penalties for civil violations and indirectly sanctioning imprisonment for debt. Taken together, the state’s restrictive labor statutes “served as a legal framework for involuntary servitude.”

With acknowledged help from the earlier research of Pete Daniel,7 McMillen explores instances of peonage—involuntary servitude based on indebtedness—and de facto slavery in the railroad, lumber, and cotton industries of Mississippi. Violations of the laws against peonage were common, but were never tried before a Mississippi court, and federal proceedings usually failed because of “the prejudice of [white] juries,” the futility of setting a black man’s word against a white man’s, or the fear of blacks to testify against their oppressors. The usual reason given by employers for forced labor under peonage was that the laborers were working off legally accumulated debt and could be prevented from leaving the farm until it was paid. But often “the distinction between peonage and de facto slavery lost all meaning, as in the plantation custom of buying and selling tenant debts.” By taking over the debt, another employer had the right to the debtor’s labor.

  1. 1

    John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (Yale University Press, 1937; new edition by University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

  2. 2

    Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (Viking, 1939).

  3. 3

    Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (University of Chicago Press, 1934).

  4. 4

    Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper and Brothers, 1944).

  5. 5

    One of them was Arthur F. Raper, The Tragedy of Lynching (University of North Carolina Press, 1933).

  6. 6

    Neil R. McMillen, Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction, 1954–1964 (University of Illinois Press, 1971).

  7. 7

    Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969 (University of Illinois Press, 1972).

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