The Rise and Fall of Segregation

In the final months of the Democratic primary, presidential candidate Barack Obama faced an unexpected dilemma. His minister at Trinity Church in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, became the subject of intense criticism and attention, so much so that Obama felt compelled to distance himself from his remarks. Wright had preached incendiary sermons, holding America accountable for generations of racial injustice, sermons that condemned, sermons like none that many white churchgoing Americans had heard before. They were downloaded off the Internet, and the most controversial clips were played again and again on television and the radio. Wright’s sermons sparked frenzied commentary, as many Democrats were left flat footed and many Republicans pounced on the Obama candidacy as insufficiently patriotic and deeply out of touch with American values.

Historian and author Garry Wills has likened Obama’s speech in answer to these charges to the one that Abraham Lincoln made as a Republican candidate for president at the Cooper Union in which he distanced himself from John Brown and presented his moderate positions against slavery’s extension clearly, firmly, and forthrightly.  In The New York Review of Books, Wills points out that Obama emphasized both the painful realities of our racial past and the positive progress the nation has made. Obama, more than any other presidential candidate in history, presents the future as open to change, able to be shaped, and this optimism resonates among many younger voters who believe that an era of racial division and discord has passed. 

If slavery dominated the first 250 years of the nation’s racial history, then the rise and fall of segregation certainly characterized the next 150 years.  From about 1880 to 1965 legal segregation in one form or anther prevailed in large parts of the United States, and the legacies of that system continued to have far reaching effects in American society into the 1990s. In the long context of racial division, Rev. Wright’s remarks, however challenging, cannot be surprising. We ought to ask, now more than ever, what sustained racial segregation for so long and what caused it to fall when it did.

C. Vann Woodward, the eminent Southern historian, pointed out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) that segregation emerged in Northern cities before the Civil War and that for a long period after the war in the South formal, legal segregation did not take root. The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and of Harriet Jacobs described their encounters with segregated rail cars in the North. And there is considerable evidence that southern racial boundaries were shifting, unclear, and in flux in the 1870s and 1880s. No one knew then, Woodward indicated in his still landmark analysis, that segregation would become so pervasive and resistant to change. Woodward held out the hope that the South had not always been so racially divided. He provided a history for how we became who we are in a way that allowed Americans, especially Southerners, black and white, to recover an experience of racial integration. 

The rise of segregation in the South came as it did in the North with the development of the most advanced technologies of the day–the railroad. Once segregation began, it was difficult to stop. Segregated cars, then depots, water fountains, bathrooms, beaches, pools, lunch counters, and voting booths. Like a cancer it metastasized, moving silently into unexpected places. By the 1950s segregation had become deeply entrenched in the South, a pattern of thinking and behavior, a wall of racial categories and divisions, a series of daily practices enacted with such consistency that few could comprehend how to challenge them. Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi gives us one of the most moving accounts of how disabling and and pervasive racial separation became in the rural South.

Historians have begun to reconsider the fall of segregation. First, historians have pointed out that resistance to segregation began much earlier than we commonly think, long before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In the thirties, indeed in the teens and twenties, black Americans protested and opposed political disenfranchisement and segregation laws. So, the movement to oppose segregation did not spring out of white Americans’ recognition after World War II of racial injustice, nor did it arrive in 1954 in the form of a Supreme Court decision as if out of the clouds. Black Americans actively and consistently opposed segregation much earlier, and the growing movement in the 1950s and 60s extended from and connected to these earlier efforts.

Second, scholars are beginning to look again at what made the broad social movement to end segregation possible, what made it take off, when so many social reform movements in American history have failed. The pillars holding up segregation were significant, based in political power, legal precedent, and social custom. The Supreme Court in its Brown decision in 1954 and again in 1955 rendered segregation in schools unconstitutional. And states in the South responded with what Virginia’s U.S. Senator Harry F. Bryd called “massive resistance.” Virginia in fact passed a series of “massive resistance laws” in a special legislative session in August 1956 designed to prevent desegregation by closing affected schools if necessary. In 1957 in Virginia J. Lindsay Almond won the governorship in a bitter campaign against Ted Dalton that hinged on the politics of who would defend segregation better. Then in 1958, Virginia plunged into “massive resistance” full force. The state closed schools in four places rather than allow them to integrate under federal court order, and in that same year, in rural Caroline County, sheriffs served a grand jury indictment against Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter for violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.

But often in these years, when whites were asked questions and prompted to defend segregation, they could not precisely say why segregation should prevail. They fell back on tradition, conservative values, and twisted constitutional logic and legalisms. A good example of this befuddlement occurred whenWDBJ intervew with Norview High School Studentsstudents at Norview High School were asked directly about desegregation in February 1959. When asked why he did not want black students at Norview, this student could only say “I don’t know why, I just don’t.” Yet, other students could easily see a time, probably in their lifetime, when interracial marriage would be accepted.

The forces holding up segregation were many and well-defended, and we should not underestimate them. Dozens were killed for challenging segregation and hundreds brutally beaten. Blind allegiance to a past way of doing things was powerful and provided the strongest elements of resistance to change. Despite the bluster of Virginia’s “massive resistance” and the stuffy and esoteric doctrine of “interposition” cobbled together by Richmond News Leader editor, James J. Kilpatrick, many whites, like the young man from Norview High, defended segregation for reasons that they could not fully articulate.

One of the most interesting recent perspectives on the struggle for civil rights in the South is David L. Chappell’s, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) which stresses black prophetic religion as the decisive force in what was, in effect, a cultural battle. He points out that black southern leaders were driven by a deep sense of realism, indeed a form of conservativism. They had little faith that economic progress would bring social justice. After all, segregation spread across the South at the very time of the region’s modern development and it came hand-in-hand with that era’s most modern devices.

There was no reason to believe, in other words, that time would solve the problem of racial injustice. Most of all, Chappell argues, black southerners seemed to have little of what white liberals so valued–optimism. Instead, a profound pessimism rested at the core of black prophetic views. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hope, Chappell explains, was carved from a mountain of despair. The black ministers and leaders were, it turns out, not idealistic at all. They read Neibhur. They drew on a deep reservoir of the Hebrew Prophets–they could not count on the world to improve itself, nor could they simply stand by while injustice persisted.

The white liberals, from Chappell’s viewpoint, were especially ineffective, if sincere and well meaning. Liberals at the moment of their greatest cultural authority, the 1930s, seemed to have failed to achieve anything substantial for black rights. They read Gunnar Myrdal, not the Hebrew Prophets, and believed that reason somehow would eventually wear down prejudice. But it did not and it probably would not.

Black southerners had no such illusions about their odds, nor about what they were up against. And Chappell asks an interesting and surprising question: why were the forces of resistance to change so culturally weak? Neither liberals (think of Kennedy) who wanted to slow down change and contain and control it (let time run its course of progress without intervention), nor segregationists who wanted to resist greater black freedom, were able to use religion to inspire self-dedication and solidarity to their cause. Chappell considers white religion the weak link in the segregationist armor. The failure of segregationists–for all of their political and legalistic authority–to get their churches to give them active support stripped the massive resistance campaign of cultural force, of conviction, of deep social power. Search as they might, white Bible readers could find little of the sanction for segregation that their grandfathers found for slavery.

The rise of segregation was not a by-product or inevitable extension of slavery. C. Vann Woodward told us that. Instead, segregation took shape around the modern spaces and technologies in the 1880s, gained strength from the progressive reform movement as a means to “clean” up politics, and gathered cultural weight with the rise of scientific racism or eugenics. Segregation, more than anything else, became a means of economic control and oppression.

The fall of segregation was equally complex and contingent. The new medium of televised news affected the way Americans saw racial injustice. The federal government’s battle with Cold War adversaries prompted wholesale changes, such as the desegregation of the military. And the black prophetic ministers preached sermons of great power, determination, and conviction.

Black prophetic criticism of American racial segregation sparked intense reaction in the 1950s and 60s. White politicians and government leaders cast suspicion on them as un-American and Communist-influenced. They were criticized for their pessimism, for protesting during the Cold War conflict, for calling attention to America’s blemishes and flaws. The prophetic voice of protest, whether black or white, has often been marginalized in the United States, where progress and optimism have held sway in the public square. Without that voice, however, Americans may never have heard the call, much less maintained the conviction, to end segregation.

The South has changed, and so has the nation. Jim Crow segregation has been brought down, though racism obviously persists. In the March 3, 2007 special issue of The Economist which focused on the American South, there is ample evidence of a progressive South, of a true “new South,” a South to which African Americans are moving at rate that exceeds those leaving, a South where there are more black elected officials than any other region in the nation, a South where polls show widespread acceptance of interracial dating.

Some aspects of the South, however, have not changed. There is still a place for the voices of change. Most significantly from The Economist special report came the disturbing news that the South’s schools still lag far behind the rest of the nation’s in nearly every category of measurement. It is safe to say that the region’s persistent undercapitalization of education over such a long time–one of the deepest legacies of segregation that has extended through the 20th century into the 21st–has crippled the South much more severely than all destruction by Sherman’s army in the Civil War.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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One Response to The Rise and Fall of Segregation

  1. We re feeling the effect of too much spending for years now, thanks to Mr. Reed. One speech doesn’t make things right. Please, PLEASE don’t make things so bad that Sarah Palin begins to look good!

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