Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

At the London Pan-African conference in 1900, the African American scholar and political activist W. E. B. Du Bois declared that 'The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.' In his seminal book The Souls of Black Folk, published three years later, Du Bois explained the significance of the colour line. African Americans lived in the United States in their millions but were denied membership of its society. They were accorded second-class status in a system built on the pervasive ideology of innate white superiority and black inferiority that privileged whites above all other groups.

The problem of the colour line was not confined to the southern states, by any means, but it was more systematically enforced there than anywhere else in the United States. Dilemmas of race and racism have afflicted all modern nations, but in the twentieth century only the South African apartheid regime was built on the same fundamental rationale of racial inequality as the American South, arguably constituting 'the highest stage of white supremacy'.1 Jim Crow laws strictly regulated race relations in the southern United States, effectively creating two worlds in which whites and blacks were kept apart from one another as far as possible. Although a northerner by birth, Du Bois was fully aware of the hardships that American apartheid imposed upon all but the most fortunate southern blacks who endured inferior housing, schools and public facilities. However, it was not the outward, physical manifestation of segregation visible in separate parks, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, drinking fountains and even cemeteries that worried him most. Du Bois was more concerned with the inner turmoil caused by notions of racial inferiority. He identified a destructive feeling of 'double-consciousness' sapping the collective spirit of American blacks. African Americans were regarded as, and to an extent considered themselves to be, 'a problem'; they lived in a society that recognised their presence but

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