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The Strange Career of Jim Crow ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (70)

In C. Vann Woodward's enormously influential examination of Jim Crow segregation laws in the post-Civil War South he makes two fundamental points: first, that the imposition of strict segregation
did not immediately follow the War; second, that the eventual adoption of Jim Crow laws was not simply a function of racism--there were myriad political factors involved.

Woodward first provides a detailed analysis of the state of the races following the War.  He demonstrates: that Slavery had required the proximity and interaction of Blacks and Whites, which could not be reversed overnight; that Northern Republicans, Southern Conservatives and Southern Radicals all had reasons to court black citizens; and reminds us that with the North virtually running the South for a period of years, segregation would not have been allowed immediately after the war.

He then makes a compelling case that the true rise of Jim Crow came about, in the 1890's, due to a confluence of factors: 1) Northern withdrawal from Southern affairs; 2) the changes in Northern attitudes towards colored peoples as America became an Imperialist power; 3) the crushing depression of the 80's, which added fuel to racial animus; 4) the concurrent rise of the Populists who were more than willing to play the race card; and 5) the series of Supreme Court rulings which sanctioned separation.

Finally, he turns to the demise of segregation, which was going on even as he wrote the several editions of his book.  Here again, he identifies a number of factors, besides the Civil Rights movement, which contributed to Jim Crow's fall: Northern migration; changing, but this time improving, attitudes towards colored peoples, as exemplified at the UN; the reversal of course by the Supreme Court; and the improved economic condition of the Nation generally.

In chronicling this rise and fall of Jim Crow, demonstrating that segregation was a gradual rather than an immediate & natural response to the end of slavery and showing that many factors besides race lead to the adoption of segregation policies, Woodward makes an inestimable contribution to our understanding of the horrific legal repression of Southern Blacks.


Grade: (B)