Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

A WORLD OF THEIR OWN:
BLACK CULTURE AND RESISTANCE

Confronted day in and day out with the realities of a society that denied them many of the basic rights of citizenship, it would have been no surprise if many southern blacks had succumbed to a fatalistic sense of hopelessness and despair. It is therefore all the more remarkable that during the racial nadir of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the African American community should have attained considerable cohesion and strength. Southern blacks could seldom challenge white supremacy for fear of invoking violent retaliation. As the author Richard Wright observed: 'They were strong and we were weak. Outright black rebellion could never win.'1 Southern blacks nonetheless succeeded in working within the restrictions of a segregated society, constructing institutions that paralleled those of whites and catered to their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural and material needs. The system of social and economic control created by whites hence had the ironic effect of strengthening the vitality of the black community. Within its protective environment, southern blacks found the solace, support and inspiration needed to withstand the otherwise relentless discrimination they endured. In this sense, African Americans attempted to balance a twin existence between an outer world they could not control and an inner world of their own creation. The white Mississippi writer David Cohn attested to the skill with which they maintained this balance when he observed how the southern black moved in a realm 'of his own from which the white is jealously excluded; of which he knows nothing and cannot ever know'.2

Southern blacks created the institutional walls that to some extent shielded them from the external forces of white racism. Yet within those walls ran deep lines of fissure. The 'black community' did not share a consensus as to the best means by which to promote the interests of the race. On the contrary, bitter ideological and tactical disputes created intra-racial tension and conflict. This chapter assesses the numerous strategies of resistance pursued by southern blacks during this era, and in particular the

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