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The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) is one of the most influential books written by the Pulitzer (Mary Chestnuts Civil War) & Bancroft (The origins of the New South) prize winning author, C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999). Regarded as the one of the most renowned southern writer in America, his 1955 powerful work tackled the issue of racial disjointing of the southern United States.
Not only did Woodward end up writing an influential piece of historical literature, his work had far reaching consequences on the future as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. himself remarked that the book was “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement” only due to the fact that the book was quoted innumerable times when refuting arguments for racial separation. (Severo,1999) Banking on historical evidence, Woodward argued that it was only from 1890 onwards that segregation actually gained pace as a result of Jim Crow laws.
Prior to that, the social division of whites and blacks was not prevalent, even though black slavery was a rampant phenomenon.
Woodward went further to depict the socialization on all fronts between the whites and blacks during the reconstruction era in US history, thus arguing that racial division was not a vested phenomenon in southern society, but a relatively new concept. Sales of the book have topped the one million mark while scholars pay homage to it as one of the greatest non-fiction works of the past century.
Summary of the book:
The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward is quite rightly the foremost methodical work on the severance of society system implemented in the southern United States. First published in 1955, the writer aimed to prove false the theory forwarded by numerous people from America’s elite, upper class society that racial separation between blacks and whites had continued from time immemorial and thus had no end.
However, Woodward was able to successfully refute this argument by highlighting that following the end of the Civil War, stringent compliance with these draconian laws on racial separation was not made mandatory at once, that is, there was a considerable lapse of time between the end of the War and segregationist laws taking strict effect meaning that following the war, the American South witnessed an era of peace and acceptance as blacks and whites socialized freely.
The second point that Woodward proceeded to make was that implementation of the Jim Crow laws was not merely a racist maneuver. In fact, it was more politically motivated then we might think. Post War Dynamics ensured that due to slavery, interaction between the two races was an eventual outcome. He further argues that all schools of thought, whether republican or conservative, possessed valid reasoning to interact with blacks and with the North United States effectively governing the South after the War, racial separation was not a prevalent social condition.
Synthesizing Woodward’s findings that racial separation was not an ancient phenomenon; the argument goes that remote chances existed for a change of heart in the south. The beginning of the book consists of, in Woodward’s words, the First Reconstruction, a period when urban blacks in the southern United States socialized with whites as neighbors, as fellow passengers on street cars and by gracing the same restaurants, café’s and dining halls. Although this was not blatant and a degree of voluntary racial separation was present, legal imposition did not exist.
The author presents three political schools of thoughts as the answer to this lack of racial separation following the war. Taking twenty years starting from 1880 as the reference period, the author argues how White politics manipulated black support with hopes to capitalize on it. While the liberal school of thought were ineffective with regard to their calls for racial and social equality, the Conservatives took a diplomatic road by calling for good treatment of the black community but also arguing that society was divided into classes and the black community was a second-rate rudiment of this social structure. Using this two-pronged approach, the conservatives gathered the support of the blacks and hence succeeded in holding elective office.
However, following large-scale misuse of resources, conservatives failed to cling to power and conservative thought went into the backdrop. The third school of thought that Woodward mentions is the populists. They too forged a coalition with the black community but the friendship died soon after due to disregard for black communities as a political force by the Northerners and a worsening financial recession in the country.
Soon, the Populists were pointing fingers at their old friends as the root of the social evils plaguing the South. The warring southern political figures saw Blacks as a common ground for agreement and reconciliation between themselves and therefore held Blacks as responsible for political and economic turmoil. It was a period of immense white hostility towards blacks and thus around this time, racial separation began to pick pace in the Southern United States.
Woodward then moves to the Second Reconstruction, an era that commences after 1945 and reaches its peak somewhere 20 – 25 years down the road. It was during this period that the Jim Crow laws faced a barrage of counter actions in the form of integrative policies. The very first attacks came from the Oval office as President Franklin Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman embarked upon a reform in the Military through the repealing of racial separation in this institution.
The U.S. Supreme Court was not far behind and attempts were made to end segregation at the schools. The case, referred to as Brown vs. The board of education, was then taken up at the lower courts in the south where the decision was the same as that of the higher court in Washington. The situation only worsened for the segregationists as sporadic and violent skirmishes on the streets of the Southern United States coupled with the reluctance of the state’s elected representatives to implement the Supreme Court ruling further strengthened the resolve in Washington.
From 1960’s onwards, the Kennedy & Johnson administrations worked to pass legislation that would further reduce the degree of racial separation and also allow the black community to vote. However, following the unrest in Northern Urban centers in the decade of the 60’s, Woodward argues that the Second Reconstruction approached its death as the black civil rights activists moved towards militancy, thus shedding light on Woodward’s conclusion to his work citing a new and ever widening gulf being created between the black and white communities in the United States.
The fact that “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” had no close substitute for an in depth analysis of the civil rights movement at the time it was published; benchmarking it is a problem and hence so is finding fault. The book also serves as a nucleus for further dwelling, as it is broad in scope, incorporating a vast majority of influences and time scales.
A point of view often presented is that the book served more as a means of populist arousal then as a work of academics. The scores of young blacks taking to the streets, demanding an end to racial separation admitted the persuasive effect the book had on them. Martin Luther King Jr. himself quoted vastly from the book. Another important yardstick is the fact that, even to this day, copies of the book are printed to meet ever rising demand. This explains in itself the influence this book has had on American society.
My point of view about the book:
The Strange Career of Jim Crow is terse in length. One of the reasons for it being so can be found in the style of the author, who by cutting out unwanted detail and digressions, manages to write a powerful, to the point and captivating book. Thus, even though a short book, Woodward manages not to compromise quality, analysis and depth for length.
The way the author tackles the rise and fall of the Jim Crow era is another highlight of the book. Woodward’s ideas were powerful yet dangerous and provoked reaction to varying degrees. The book relies heavily on a set of speeches given at the campus of University of Virginia in 1954 as its source document. To this day, the book, already in its third edition, is available in its original form and the author still manages to substitute captivating ideas for length. To conclude, the book is not only a nail in the coffin to the misconceptions forwarded by the Southern elite of the blacks being “separate but equal”, the book also serves as a historical record of the time. Moreover, Woodward’s association with the book lends it greater acceptance and legitimacy.
What I inferred as the greatest quality of the book is that the author managed to be objective in the whole book and presented an unbiased point of view. While at most places, he is discussing the historical background and the fallacies of the Southern population with regard to social separation, he also manages to actually comment on the very paradoxical and often obnoxious nature of racism prevailing in the Unites States as a whole. Since 1783, co existence internally as well as externally was a dilemma faced by both black and white communities. Understanding was lacking between the two races.
Woodward, in his unique style, manages to trace the development of race, social separation and the civil rights movements through history to help us understand the present state and fervor of racism in the United States today. The author warns us not to fall into the fallacy that the South has been traditionally racist and the North anti racist. In fact, he presents a socio economic analysis of how peaceful co existence prevailed between black and white communities in the post civil war era. The author argues that the spite sowed by the draconian Jim Crow laws was not hinted at that time as people acted out of passion without regard to future consequences. The author analyzes social separation as political and economic fallout rather then embedded hate.
However, nothing is perfect and this book too has its faults. Constructively criticizing it, I believe that the lack of referencing in the book is a major shortfall. though some credit needs to be given to Woodward as he relied on a set of 1954 Virginia University speeches as his source, another pitfall is the fact that a bias exists as the author often fails to take into account the social, economic and political responses of the black community. Although Woodward does refer to a black with journalistic associations who traveled through the South under the auspices of the Black Panther Party towards the end of the 19th century, but overall, the political and social reactionary strategy adopted by the black community at that time needs more detail.
To Woodward, the black community was a community that lacked active participation and unity to act as combined force in Southern politics, constantly being played by one white school of thought followed by the other. Whether this implies servility amongst the black vote to the white community is a debatable issue. However, one can argue that it was their educational backwardness and social upbringing as slaves which might have induced them to accept the white’s point of view. However, one can argue without any doubt that the black community did stand up to fight for equal treatment and to finally put an end to racial separation, even though they might have been misled by some white forces.
All said and done, despite the pitfalls of the book that I have mentioned above, this is a must read for any in depth study of southern American political history. The book is a captivating start to the history of racial separation and the Jim Crow laws and induces a spirit to read more on this topic.
While Woodward was able to deliver a fine historical account in the form of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, it was the present events related to the book that shot it to its iconic fame amongst the masses. This is primarily because the author tackled racism not as a state of mind or social upbringing which advocated hate and spite, but as a politic and socio economic pressure that induced the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the American South. The fact that the book is written in a lucid easy to understand style with as minimum digressions as possible, it is a recommended reading as an introduction to race relations in the southern United States. On the other hand, any one who still belongs to the traditional thought process, should read this as it is guaranteed to change his/her mindset.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange career of Jim Crow. Oxford University Press, USA (2001)
Severo, Richards. C. Vann Woodward, Historian Who Wrote Extensively About the South, Dies at 91. The New York Times. (1999) Retrieved from:
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