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.

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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.”

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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.

McMillen cites an instance of one hapless peon “sold not once but at least four times.” During the great flood disaster of 1927 blacks were conscripted at gunpoint to strengthen levees before they gave way, and afterward 70,000 black refugees were herded into pens under troops of the National Guard who, according to the Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy, “were guilty of acts which profoundly and justly made the negroes fear them.” When the crisis abated, each planter involved, according to the National Guard officer in command, was allowed to claim only “his own niggers.”

Mob violence was common enough in the state before the Civil War, but the victims were then “far more likely to be white than black.” By the end of Reconstruction, Negro lynchings were the rule. Mississippi was eventually able to establish its preeminence among all states in total lynchings, lynchings per capita, and lynchings without arrest of mob leaders. The numbers are little more than estimates, for no official records were kept, newspapers often suppressed news of such “incidents,” and when courts investigated, the usual report was “death at the hands of unknown persons.”

More surprising than concealment was that lynchers felt free to brutalize and kill people openly, in the assurance that community support placed them beyond the reach of law or public censure. “Rednecks” are commonly assigned the leading role in lynch mobs, but when they played that role they often did so with the consent or approval and at times the active participation of their social betters. It is no surprise to find US Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, “Prince of the Peckerwoods,” saying in 1938 that lynching was often the only “immediate and proper and suitable punishment.” But it was John Sharp Williams, paragon of southern gentlemen, who said in that same year that “race is greater than law now and then, and protection of women transcends all law, human and divine.”

Refined discriminations existed among the varieties of lynchings, from “good lynchings” to those deemed “unduly brutal.” The latter usually meant burning alive and random violence and arson inflicted on black homes and churches. “Good” and “bad” may be illustrated by two lynchings, both occurring in 1919. The victim of the bad one was a laborer from a respected family, aged twenty-two, who pleaded innocent to raping a white woman who denied he was her attacker. Whites who took their victim from the jail accidentally shot two of their own race. They then burned the man alive with “needless suffering” in the center of Vicksburg before more than a thousand spectators. One local paper declared the victim probably innocent, and another called the lynchers a “green mob,” an “amateur organization,” and that they “had no experience in such affairs and showed lack of skill in carrying out their purposes.”

The “good” lynching, near Ellisville, was declared by experienced observers to be one of the state’s “most orderly.” Although five bystanders were accidentally wounded, local authorities declared the mob’s work unmarred by “unscheduled turmoil, or accidental deaths.” It was carefully planned days in advance by a “citizens committee.” Badly wounded when captured by a posse, the accused rapist was treated by a physician, who said he would live long enough to be hanged.8 Newspapers of New Orleans and Jackson announced the lynching “AT 5 O’CLOCK THIS AFTERNOON.” At that hour thousands watched the man kicked unconscious first, then hanged and riddled with bullets before his body was burned.

An earlier example of vigilante decorum and patience praised in the press occurred at Corinth in 1902 when at the victim’s request leaders postponed burning him alive for twenty-four hours so that his next of kin could witness the event. In 1935 the state’s leading newspaper found it “to the credit of Lowndes Country citizens forming the mob, that they did not indulge in the barbarism of torture but inflicted the death penalty with as much mercy as the state itself allows.” Of course “the state itself” and its officials kept quiet, even when “the barbarism of torture” occurred, as it did with appalling frequency, and with instances of sadistically prolonging death throes and tortures (once for seven hours), and the dismemberment and distribution of bodily parts as favors and mementos to participants.

For Professor McMillen “the most important single fact” was how little articulate opposition lynchers had in Mississippi during most of this period. Mobs moved with confidence and impunity from censure or any accountability for their conduct. Foremost in expressing the prolynching consensus was the white press. No journalist of prominence in the state during the years of lynchings took a public part in an antilynching movement. When a lynching received any attention in the press it was usually reported that the victim deserved his fate and the mob carried out the will of the people. The churches did little better than the newspapers. When the state leaders of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching sought support from Methodists and Baptists in the early 1930s they were attacked in the press and were met by evasion and silence from the Protestant denominations. State and local officials, from governors and US senators on down, were even less help. Sheriffs often connived, sometimes collaborated in the lynchings, and a few willingly posed for photographs with the mob leaders.

Blacks feared the white man’s courts almost as much as his mobs, and indeed the courts’ decisions were often little more than the formalized will of the mob. Blacks appeared on jury panels in most counties until near the end of the century, but by 1900 Mississippi juries were virtually lily-white. The United States Supreme Court upheld, in a series of rulings in the 1890s, that all-white juries did not deny blacks equal protection of the law. Judicial procedure accepted evidence and confessions extorted by force, torture, and brutal floggings that left obvious marks on a defendant’s face and body. It was not until 1936 that the Supreme Court overturned state convictions based on such testimony.

Justice was too often rendered farcical by courts under threats of mobs inside and outside the courtroom. In 1931 a court in Jackson country that was threatened by white violence convicted a black youth charged with rape and sentenced him to hang on testimony “known to both prosecutor and judge to be false.” During a trial in 1934 of three black defendants in DaSoto county the court-house was ringed by barbed wire, machine guns, and more than three hundred National Guardsmen with gas masks and fixed bayonets. That did not stop a mob of several thousand whites from attempting unsuccessfully to storm the defenses. With this going on outside, the jury deliberated all of six minutes and the judge sentenced the prisoners to be hanged. In doing so he begged jurors and others present to help disperse the mob outside because a lynching would insure passage of a federal antilynching bill then before Congress, and thus “destroy one of the South’s cherished possessions—the supremacy of the white race.” In another case the judge forestalled a lynching by virtually promising conviction before the trial was held.

Old-fashioned mob lynching began fading out by the end of the 1930s, and in the next decade it had few public defenders left. When a lynching did take place news of it was likely to be suppressed. At the same time more rumors of “covert” or “underground” lynchings and more reports of blacks being “killed while resisting arrest” came to public notice. Black life was still cheap, and white aggression was still rife, even if it assumed new forms. The self-confessed killers of Emmett Till in 1955 were tried and acquitted. In 1967, after state and federal officials agreed that Klansmen could not be convicted of murder by a Mississippi jury, the lynchers of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were successfully tried in a federal court for depriving the victims of their civil rights. The assassin of Medgar Evers escaped punishment entirely.

The price of resistance was death in self-defense, but some blacks paid it. There were also instances of organized resistance, as in 1906 when blacks of the town of Wiggins exchanged more than five hundred shots with a white mob and both sides suffered casualties. In Kemper county in 1934 two mob assaults were made on black communities, both of which met with armed and organized resistance. Such resistance was rarely possible, however. In the first place the whites clearly had a preponderance of firepower, and they could nearly always count on the police and the state militia for support. Then too, black Mississippians never developed a tradition of sustained, organized challenge to white dominance in the Jim Crow era. Apart from some streetcar boycotts in 1904, no direct action campaigns took place between 1890 and 1945 and no mass street demonstrations for jobs, schools, voting rights, and full citizenship. It was a half century lacking in the high drama, militant spirit, and heroic purpose that blacks mustered so effectively during the civil rights revolution.

The Jim Crow years were the “nadir” of black history, the years of the “Dark Journey.” Most black people agreed with Booker T. Washington that there was no alternative to the acceptance of subordination except unrestrained racial conflict, which they were bound to lose. They framed their reluctant compromise in the language of self-help, group identity, labor, and the need to wait. That did not mean wait forever, nor did it preclude such gestures and measures of resistance as were feasible. In World War I, blacks made up 56 percent of those inducted for military service in Mississippi. The military experience plus the wartime migration of 100,000 blacks from the state in search of jobs in Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago presaged migrations and changes of greater import in a war to come. Exodus proved in the end to be the most effective resistance. The relative magnitude of the exodus in the half century between 1910 and 1960, which stripped Mississippi of 938,000 blacks, is suggested by the state’s total black population of 908,000 in 1900.

Reception of the eager migrants in the urban lands of promise was another matter. Racial animus and hatred and violence are not regional monopolies in the land of the free. The years of the First World War witnessed extremely savage racial violence by northern whites, including the bloody explosions of St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919. The much greater black exodus from the South since then, stranding millions in metropolitan central cities, must have seemed to many a step from the frying pan into the fire.

But that is a different story entirely, one of little relevance, it may be charged, to the Mississippi horrors. And did I not begin this essay by stressing the extent of drastic change in the South? The alleviation of injustice, the relaxation of tensions, and the improvement in race relations? Why then, at this time revive memories of old horrors and demand attention for them? Had they not better be laid to rest or forgotten? What good can it do the South to play up its period of shame and disgrace in a time when it has some cause for pride? And what good can it do the North, especially in a time of mounting racial tensions, outbursts of racial conflict in the universities, hideous incidents of mass rape in the cities, and enraged calls for revenge?

The fact is that such events are the best justification for the appearance now of Professor McMillen’s book. Acknowledging the distortions inherent in comparing racial injustices in America with the worst atrocities among European nations, I nevertheless find reason to recall in this connection the admonition that President Richard von Weizsäcker of West Germany addressed to his fellow citizens when they raised the demand to bury the shame of the past in forgetfulness. Weizsäcker said: “Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.”

This Issue

June 29, 1989

  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). 

  8. 8

    The most commonly named offense of lynch victims was rape, but according to McMillen, of the 476 recorded lynchings in Mississippi in this era, fewer than one in eight victims were even accused of rape. More frequent was the charge of murder, but the offense could be as slight as an alleged smirk or a prolonged silence.