The Future of the Past
Historians sometimes forget that history is continually being made and experienced before it is studied, interpreted, and read. The latter activities have their own history, of course, which may impinge in unexpected ways on public events. It is difficult to predict when new pasts will erupt through the surface of established understandings and change the landscape of the future.
In the fall of 1954, for example, C. Vann Woodward delivered a lecture series at the University of Virginia that challenged the prevailing dogma concerning the history, continuity, and uniformity of racial segregation in the South. He argued that the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far from codifying traditional practice, were a determined effort to wipe out the considerable progress made by blacks during and after Reconstruction. This revisionist view of the history of Jim Crow legislation grew in part from the research that Woodward and John Hope Franklin had done for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal campaign during their preparation for Brown v. Board of Education. A few months before Woodward lectured at Charlottesville to a nonsegregated audience the Supreme Court had issued its ruling in this epochal desegregation case.
The lectures were soon published as a book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Ten years later, in a preface to the second revised edition, Woodward confessed with ironic modesty that the first edition “had begun to suffer under some of the handicaps that might be expected in a history of the American Revolution published in 1776.” That was a bit like hearing Thomas Paine apologize for the timing of his pamphlet Common Sense, which had a comparable impact. Although Common Sense also had a mass readership, Paine had intended to reach and inspire: he was not a historian concerned with accuracy, and with the danger of historical anachronism. Yet, like Paine, Woodward had an unerring sense of the revolutionary moment, and of the way historical evidence could undermine a mythological tradition that was crushing the dreams of new social possibilities. It was for this reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., hailed The Strange Career of Jim Crow as “the Bible of the civil rights movement.”
As Woodward conceives the “craft” or “guild” of professional historians, terms that recur throughout his new collection of twenty-two essays and reviews, its apprentices must continually be admonished to address and hold the interest of the laity, to resist the pressures of most academic disciplines in which specialists speak in increasingly esoteric jargon only to other specialists. This public mission, which Woodward sharply distinguishes from popularization or demagoguery, has acquired special urgency from the accelerating pace of change during his own eighty-one years of life, which have witnessed such profound global transformations.
Every generation, as Woodward remarks, “has a unique experience of history.” But for young people in the early 1990s, the pre-atomic, precomputer, pretelevision age is almost inconceivable, whereas for youthful southerners of Woodward’s generation, the Civil War and its consequences were still a …
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Woodward’s Itinerary June 14, 1990