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The Origins of Segregation

Not until after World War II, when the emergence of the civil rights movement forced white Americans to confront the issue of racial segregation, did historians pay much attention to the origins of the institution. Most had assumed that the separation of the races had emerged naturally and even inevitably out of the abolition of slavery. It had been a response to the failure of Reconstruction, the weakness and poverty of the black community, and the pervasiveness of white racism. It was, in effect, the way things had always been.

The first major challenge to these assumptions, indeed the first serious scholarly effort to explain the origins of segregation, was C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published in 1956. It is a book that was not only important in reshaping scholarship, but one that had a significant political impact as well. As a Southern liberal, Woodward was eager to refute assumptions that segregation was part of an unchanging and unchangeable Southern tradition. He wanted to convince scholars that the history of the South had been one of sharp discontinuities; and he wanted to convince a larger public that the racial institutions they considered part of a long, unbroken tradition were in fact the product of a particular set of historical circumstances.

In the aftermath of emancipation, and indeed for two decades after Reconstruction, Woodward argued, race relations in the South had remained relatively fluid. Blacks and whites did not often interact as equals, certainly, but black Southerners enjoyed a degree of latitude in social and even political affairs that they would subsequently lose. Blacks and whites often rode together in the same railway cars, ate in the same restaurants, used the same public facilities. Blacks voted in significant numbers. Blacks and whites considered a number of different visions of how the races should live together, and as late as 1890 it was not at all clear which of those visions would prevail. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a great wave of racist legislation the Jim Crow laws, which established the basis of segregation had hardened race relations and destroyed the gentler alternatives that many whites and blacks had considered viable only a few years before. The principal reason, Woodward argued, was the populist political insurgency of the 1890s, which mobilized blacks and whites alike and which frightened many white Southerners into thinking that blacks might soon be a major political power in the region. Southern conservatives, in particular, used the issue of white supremacy to attack the populists and to prevent blacks from forming an alliance with them. The result was disenfranchisement and segregation.

Woodward's argument suggested that laws were important in shaping social behavior that laws had made segregation and, by implication, other laws could unmake it. Not all historians agree. A more pessimistic picture of segregation emerged in 1965 from Joel Williamson's study of South Carolina, After Slavery. Williamson argued that the laws of the 1890s did not mean very much, that they simply ratified a set of conditions that had been firmly established by the end of Reconstruction. As early as the mid-1870s, Williamson claimed, the races had already begun to live in two separate societies. Blacks had constructed their own churches, schools, businesses, and neighborhoods; whites had begun to exclude blacks from white institutions. The separation was partly a result of pressure and coercion from whites, partly a result of the desire of blacks to develop their own, independent culture. Whatever the reasons, however, segregation was largely in place by the end of the 1870s, continuing in a different form a pattern of racial separation established under slavery. The laws of the 1890s did little more than codify an already established system.

Scholars writing more recently have revised or challenged both these interpretations by attempting to link the rise of legal segregation to changing social and economic circumstances in the South. Howard Rabinowitz's Race Relations in the Urban South (1978) links the rise of segregation to the new challenge of devising a form of race relations suitable to life in the growing Southern cities, into which rural blacks were moving in substantial numbers. The creation of separate public facilities schools, parks, waiting rooms, etc. was not so much an effort to drive blacks out of white facilities; they had never had access to those facilities, and few whites had ever been willing to consider granting them access. It was, rather, an attempt to create for a black community that virtually all whites agreed must remain essentially separate a set of facilities where none had previously existed. Without segregation, in other words, urban blacks would have had no schools or parks at all. The alternative to segregation, Rabinowitz suggests, was not integration, but exclusion.

In the early 1980s, a number of scholars began examining segregation anew in light of the rising American interest in South Africa, whose system of apartheid seemed to some historians similar in many ways to the now largely dismantled Jim Crow system in the South. John Cell's The Highest Stage of White Supremacy (1982) used the comparison to construct a revised explanation of how segregation emerged in the American South. Like Rabinowitz, he considered the increasing urbanization of the region the principal factor. But he ascribed different motives to those whites who promoted the rise of Jim Crow. The segregation laws, Cell argues, were a continuation of an unchanging determination by Southern whites to retain control over the black population. What had shifted was not their commitment to white supremacy but the things necessary to preserve it. The emerge of large black communities in urban areas and of a significant black labor force in factories presented a new challenge to white Southerners. They could not control these new communities in the same informal ways they had been able to control rural blacks, who were more directly dependent on white landowners and merchants than their urban counterparts. In the city, blacks and whites were in more direct competition than they had been in the countryside. There was more danger of social mixing. The city, therefore, required different, and more rigidly institutionalized, systems of control. The Jim Crow laws were a response not just to an enduring commitment to white supremacy, but to a new reality that required white supremacy to move to its "highest stage," where it would have a rigid legal and institutional basis.

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