Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights

By Smith, J. Douglas | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights


Smith, J. Douglas, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics From Civil War to Civil Rights. Edited by Jane Elizabeth Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 325; $17.95, paperback).

In a preface penned soon before his death, C. Vann Woodward describes the essays in Jumpin' Jim Crow as "splendid examples of the way history has come to be written at the end of the twentieth century" (p. ix). This approach to history, according to Woodward, raises new questions about traditional subjects of study in southern politics, and, just as important, treats as participants a cast of characters heretofore considered "as helpless spectators or victims" (p. xi).

Woodward's assessment, as usual, is spot-on. Editors Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon have assembled a dozen essays that seek to move black southerners, white dissidents, and women to the center of a political stage long viewed primarily, and often exclusively, through the words and deeds of the white men who so thoroughly controlled the levers of electoral politics. In an introduction that provides a broad framework for the individual essays, the editors argue that "the sheer magnitude and obscenity of the Jim Crow South"-manifested so clearly in lynchings and others acts of racial violence, economic exploitation, electoral chicanery, and segregation statutes-fostered a tendency among earlier generations of southern political historians to assume the inevitability of "white supremacist ideas and regimes." But the Jim Crow South, according to Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon, "was not the logical and inevitable culmination of civil war and emancipation, but rather the result of a calculated campaign by white elites to circumscribe all possibility of African American political, economic, and social power" (p. 4).

In jumpin' Jim Crow, white supremacy remains a central theme of southern history, but it ceases to exist as an immovable, unchanging force. Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon are careful not to minimize the potency of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. But they do insist that white supremacy be understood as contingent upon the actions of individual men and women who acted at particular times and in particular circumstances. From this perspective, white supremacy becomes "a precarious balancing act, pulled in all directions by class, gender, and racial tensions" (p. 4).

Such tensions lie at the heart of the twelve essays in Jumpin' Jim Crow, which, taken together, do a wonderful job of covering the chronological scope of the century following the Civil War. Individually, the essays examine a range of subjects and themes and reflect a variety of methodological approaches to the study of history. Each essay places politics at the center of inquiry and asks important questions that challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes a political act. Some readers will no doubt remain skeptical about the expansive definition of politics that informs this collection. As the editors readily admit, politics as conceived in Jumpin' Jim Crow is not something that happens only in the polling booths on election day or in the legislative halls of southern capitals. …

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