The New Empire in the 'New South': Jim Crow in the Global Frontier of High Imperialism and Decolonization

By Darden, Gary Helm | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The New Empire in the 'New South': Jim Crow in the Global Frontier of High Imperialism and Decolonization


Darden, Gary Helm, Southern Quarterly


The legacy of Jim Crow, that epoch of social order that defined race relations in the American South for two-thirds of the twentieth century, takes on new meaning when you begin to integrate the human-historical events ofthat period in extra-regional terms. Indeed that era of codified racial supremacy in the American South tied the region in many important ways to the theory and global practice of colonial imperialism. By treating the rise of Jim Crow as an integral piece of a global puzzle that made up the Age of High Imperialism, and by association treating the Civil Rights Movement that later secured its demise as an integral piece of the Age of Decolonization, such a move threads the historical experience of the United States more intimately (and more accurately) to that of global history. The traditional reliance within United States historiography on the usage of such rhetorical terms as "Jim Crow" and the "Civil Rights Movement" in isolation has had in effect the euphemistic value of detaching the American experience (and public memory) from global processes that truly enveloped the modern world and transcended national frontiers in the heyday of the European World Order, of which the United States was a most crucial byproduct. At the same time, treating the Era of Reconstruction after the Civil War - having gone much further than simply Emancipation - as an important American counterpoint to the Age of High Imperialism, even as a precursor to the Age of Decolonization, also serves to thread the historical narrative of the United States more fully into Global history. For the Age of High Imperialism and the Age of Decolonization were, in fact, central to the development of the modern world condition, and a nation, no less than the United States, can make conflicting and competing contributions to those two processes.

The detachment of the American public from the South 's Jim Crow past still complicates domestic race relations today, let alone the public's perceptions of the legacy of racism in the developing world. Few events in this decade better illustrated this domestic amnesia than the 100th birthday celebration of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Then approaching the end of his record-length tenure of forty eight years, the wheelchair-bound senator celebrated his centennial before a large crowd in Washington D.C., on December 5, 2002. With all the fanfare of the historical milestone that one could imagine, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who was then the Republican leader in the Senate, toasted the centenarian before a lighthearted crowd of celebrants. "I want to say this about my state," he boasted with grinning pride: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over these years, either."1 Few in the press picked up on the significance of his comments right away, as if hardly anyone could recall the 1948 presidential campaign in which Thurmond ran as a breakaway Dixiecrat, when he was governor of rigidly segregated Jim Crow South Carolina. At the time of Thurmond's unsuccessful presidential bid, and despite mounting challenges by the early postwar years, Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and would consume domestic politics (and undercut United States foreign relations) for the better part of the next two decades.2

Still, in 2002 few seemed to respond with any haste to Lott's callous remarks. But that Sunday, December 8, on NBC's "Meet The Press," host Tim Russert broached the topic before a panel of leading journalists. After reading back Lott's own words (the first time this author heard them), Russert queried the panel: "How big of a problem is this for Trent Lott?" What followed was a remarkable conversation about race and memory, and indeed about the very legacy of segregation and desegregation. While Russert suggested this was a problem for Lott, it was, in fact, a problem that went well beyond the words of the Republican Senate leader. …

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