Fighting Jim Crow

Article excerpt

As blacks emerged from slavery after the Civil War, Southern states adapted a new strategy to prevent them from improving their status or achieving equality. They passed laws on marriage, schools, housing, and conduct intended to keep the races apart. The laws and customs of segregation that followed the Civil War became known as Jim Crow, named after a minstrel character from the 1830s.

A new documentary tells what it was like to live during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the 1880s through 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a four-part series for PBS from Thirteen/ WNET New York, lets viewers learn about the era through the stories of its victims, perpetrators, and opponents.

The threat of physical pain, public humiliation, and death held Jim Crow laws firmly in place. Blacks and whites who tried to protest Jim Crow laws risked their lives. In 1919, ninety lynchings occurred in a single year-one every four days. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative explains in the film: "You could not keep African Americans in this country in a subordinate status without the threat of violence." Historian Patricia Sullivan echoes Stevenson: "Relief from physical terrorism was critical to all of the other rights that people would strive for."

Yet people did fight against the system. Ned Cobb was a successful black sharecropper in Alabama who bought his own farm and formed a tenant farmers union. In the early twentieth century, a sharecropper's life was a cycle of misery. Because the banks based their loans on the value of the crops not the land, tenant farmers had to grow cash crops, like cotton instead of food for their families. Banks and merchants took their money straight from the sale of the cotton so that farmers had to go back and borrow more for food. Six thousand of Cobb's fellow sharecroppers joined him in forming the Alabama Sharecropper's Union. Cobb's descendants tell his story in the documentary, including one incident in the 1930s, when Cobb went to prevent his neighbor's land from being repossessed. During the confrontation, he exchanged gunshots with the sheriff and was sent to prison for thirteen years.

"The horrific you expect-- the heroic you don't," says Richard Wormser, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. Wormser spent the last seven years collecting the stories. Wormser says he and Bill Jersey, co-writer, producer, and director, "decided to tell stories about the individuals struggling to subvert and overcome Jim Crow."

An important moment in the struggle against segregation took place in 1909 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed by W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-- Barnett, Henry Moscowitz, Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villiard, and William English Walling. The NAACP broke away from earlier black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who believed in a gradual accumulation of equality through education and moral fortitude. The NAACP wanted more immediate action and fought for equality through the courts and political advocacy. It provided a forum for a growing black intellectual class in its magazine The Crisis, edited by DuBois. The NAACP made the fight against lynching a top priority.

One hero of the struggle was DuBois's colleague, Walter White, a leader of the NAACP who went south to investigate a rash of lynchings and barely escaped with his own life. White, whose fair complexion and blue eyes belied his African American heritage, was able to move freely through white circles to gather evidence to incriminate those committing violence against blacks. In the time he was there, White investigated forty-one lynchings, eight race riots, and numerous cross-burnings.

When White caught wind that his identity was no longer a secret, he boarded the first train north. The train conductor told him that he was "leaving just before the fun was about to start. …