Jim Crow Reform and the Rebirth
of Black Political Citizenship
The Negro’s status in Southern politics is dark as hell and smells like cheese.
Ralph Bunche, The Political Status of the Negro
Through a process of bargaining and other forms of indirect politics, Jim Crow reformers attempted to perfect the Jim Crow order. The path toward stabilizing and then modernizing the Jim Crow order had led white reformers toward redemocratization of the white South. With aid from the white havenots, they and their New Deal reform allies hoped to create a more equal but still segregated South. For African Americans the path to democratization and political citizenship was more circuitous. The reformers’ struggles to expand the boundaries of African American social citizenship intersected with, and ultimately became intertwined with, the rise of political citizenship among southern blacks. For southern African Americans Jim Crow reform politics was the connective tissue that would eventually link ideas, interests, and institutions surrounding social and political citizenship into a transformative racial order that would reshape the South and American politics. The successes and failures that African Americans experienced in the political arena during the 1940s changed their relationship to the Jim Crow order that they were trying to reform. Jim Crow reform politics created the strategic and institutional bases for the modern civil rights movement.