Customer Reviews: The Strange Career of Jim Crow
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on December 19, 2001
C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow is not only a fine introduction to its topic -- the segregationist period in the South -- but one of the most significant and influential books of its time.
Originally published in 1955 (by Oxford University Press), Professor Woodward's tome kicked off the Civil Rights era with a bang, debunking the ludicrous myth (and mantra among segregationists) that separation of the races had always existed in Southern life, and generally dissecting an ugly monstrosity which had come to be accepted simply as "the way things are." Ten years later, in a second revision which came just as the legal battle against segregation was almost won, Woodward added a wealth of information which helped finish the job of winning the people's hearts and minds: in the words of Robert Penn Warren, Woodward's work was "a witty, learned, and unsettling book. The depth of the unsettling becomes more obvious day by day; which is a way of saying that it is a book of permanent significance." And ten years later still, in this -- the third and final revision -- Woodward capped off the era with an examination of the more violent, less integrationist movements which arose after Watts, with leaders like Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale.
Woodward is an equal-opportunity myth-exploder. On the one hand, he demonstrates at great length that segregation was not a mere expression of racism, but in fact a complex and corrupt outworking of many political and economic interests in the impoverished, post-Reconstruction South. On the other hand, he also shows conclusively that segregation took time to develop: it was not, as its supporters claimed, the way things had always been, or even the way things had come to be immediately following the war, but had actually arisen thirty and even forty years later, with the removal of Northern troops, the disintegration of Republican influence, a national "taking up of the white man's burden" with regard to "colored" peoples abroad, and increasing economic distress which allowed successive Populists and Democrats to consolidate power by limiting white exposure to the threat of competing (and competitive) blacks. These things, combined with a series of Supreme Court rulings sanctioning segregation, produced a wicked stew which more modern readers found extremely unpalatable upon Woodward's closer examination.
Beyond these things, Woodward's treatment of the Jim Crow era itself, as well its demise, were and are excellent, and were especially provocative at the time of their writing. Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1954, the book is not annotated, and even in a third edition remains quite brief; yet it is thorough and engaging, and suffers only a bit for these points. In all, it remains not only an excellent history -- produced by one of America's finest scholars -- but also a key source document of its era, and is a very good read as well. It continues to be vital to a proper understanding of the South, as well as the whole misbegotten concept of "separate but equal."
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on February 6, 2002
The most fascinating thing about this book is not just the particular events in history, or the misconceptions and myths that Woodward discusses, but rather how truly complex the issue of race is in America. Since emancipation, there has always been a struggle between and among whites and blacks to figure out how to understand each other and themselves, and how to occupy the same place. This history is indeed strange, and to have an idea of why race is still such an issue today, it helps to know how racism, segregation, and civil rights changed over time.
Woodward's book cautions us against taking simplified views that the South was always racist, and the North was not, and he begins by describing various accounts of life in the South right after the Civil War. According to Woodward, the venomous prejudice that sustained the Jim Crow laws decades later wasn't foreseeable at that time. Much of his explanation of the racist sentiment that so desired segregation is framed in the context of politics, and he tries to analyze many of the events he discusses in terms of political and economic pressures, as well as in terms of reactions to preceding actions.
If the Civil War is to be seen as a war for racial equality (and there are many other ways of seeing it), then it can easily be argued that it continues to this day. It is often most comforting to think of the wiping out of Native Americans, and then the enslavement of Africans as hideous scars that America carries in the past, while believing that America today is a different, tolerant place. But Jim Crow laws were a product of the twentieth century, and the racial tensions still exist in a very real way. Woodward's book, first published in 1955, and last revised in 1974, is still immensely relevant today, and reading it can only enhance your sense of American history.
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VINE VOICEon October 21, 2000
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.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 4, 2003
C. Vann Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" was the first major effort to analyze the segregation system in the American South. Appearing in 1955, the author's treatment of this institution refuted contemporary statements made by several public figures who argued that racial separation was an ancient phenomenon that would last indefinitely. Not so, argued Woodward, as he proceeded to prove that the South experienced a time after the Civil War when the two races often intermingled without widespread hostility on the part of southern whites. Woodward's book expresses the heartfelt belief that since segregation was a recent development, the possibility existed for the South to reject its separatist doctrine and eventually embrace integrationist principles. The first chapters deal with the period during and after Reconstruction, what Woodward refers to as the First Reconstruction, when the South grudgingly accepted conditions forced upon it by the North. The author argues that blacks in southern urban areas often lived side by side with white citizens, as well as rode in the same streetcars and dined in many of the same restaurants. There were exceptions to these incidents, but overall monolithic, legalized segregation measures simply did not exist.
One of the reasons for this lack of overarching segregation policies concerned southern politics in the post-Civil War South. The author outlines three political philosophies during the 1880s and 1890s that worked to capitalize upon black support. Southern liberalism went nowhere with its arguments that all citizens must have equal rights in all social spheres. Conservative southerners took a position between liberals and radical racists, arguing that in every society there existed superior and inferior elements. Obviously, conservatives claimed, blacks occupied an inferior position to whites. This did not mean that blacks should be treated harshly or denied privileges. The conservatives were paternalists and used the goodwill they earned from blacks to capture elective offices from the Redeemers. The conservative political philosophy collapsed when widespread corruption swept its proponents from office. The Populists, the last southern political structure Woodward discusses, also attempted an alliance with blacks. The movement was short lived, and with external pressures of the 1880s and 1890s such as economic depression and northern indifference to blacks, southerners blamed blacks for their social ills. Moreover, southern politicians weary of the years of malicious infighting decided to seek a measure of unification, and they achieved this fusion by blaming black voters for economic and political discord. It is at this time, writes the author, when segregation laws blossomed across the South.
The second section of the book deals with the emergence and consequences of what Woodward calls the Second Reconstruction. Starting during the Second World War and emerging fully during the 1950s and 1960s, this era of race relations saw increasing waves of attacks directed against Jim Crow in the South. The first maneuvers came from the White House, with Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman launching several initiatives aimed at integrating defense jobs and the armed services. The second wave came with a series of Supreme Court actions seeking to integrate the school systems. With action came reaction as the segregationists finally launched an offensive against Brown vs. The Board of Education when lower court judges in the South upheld the higher court's ruling. The resulting attempts to undercut the judgment by southern state governments coupled with periodic outbreaks of violence led to even more civil rights initiatives from the federal government. Kennedy proposed and Johnson pushed through Congress measures aimed at accelerating integration and restoring the black vote in the South. The Second Reconstruction ended after the riots of the 1960s in northern cities caused civil rights organizations to shift from a role of non-violence to militant black nationalism. Woodward's book concludes on a rather pessimistic note when he observes that black-white relations seem to be reverting to a new form of racial separation.
It is difficult to find problems with "The Strange Career of Jim Crow." The book was the first work to sum up the civil rights movement in the United States. Moreover, the author wrote a book broad enough to give historians plenty of material for further research, something scholars always appreciate. Even the form of the book, with its lack of footnotes and energetic style, is more of a plus than a minus. By writing a friendly, accessible treatment of the issue, Woodward managed to reach beyond the walls of academia and find a wide public audience. It is not difficult to imagine that many of the young people registering black voters or going on freedom rides could cite this book as a major influence in their decision to make a stand against segregation. As the afterword shows, even Martin Luther King, Jr read and quoted Woodward on occasion. Finally, the fact that this book has never gone out of print underscores its seminal influence on the country at large.
No book is immune to criticism, however. Woodward often fails to incorporate into his narrative what actions blacks took in response to segregation. This critique is not always valid: the author does cite a black newspaperman who toured the South in the late 1800s, along with several members of the Black Panther Party. But in several places the book needs some description of black agency, especially the chapter concerning southern politics. Woodward presents the black population in the 1880s and 1890s as a passive force palmed off from one white political faction to another. Are we to assume that black voters simply bowed their heads and acted the role of dupes to savvy white politicians? Perhaps many did due to a lack of education and a lingering submissiveness from the days of slavery, but there were people who attempted to participate in the system in order to earn their rights.
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on July 8, 2000
One of the central problems in American history is that of race relations, and one of the central problems of race relations in America has been that of segregation. Woodward intends for this book to be an overview of the rise and fall of de jure segregation in the American South, and, for the most part, he succeeds admirably.
There is much to commend this book and its author for. Woodward debunks the notion, especially popular among the defenders of segregation during the Civil Rights era, that segregation had been part of the Southern way of life for time immemorial; instead, he convincingly argues, a considerable amount of integration existed from before the Civil War up until the turn of the Twentieth Century. He provides a nuanced analysis of the course of white Southern resistance to desegregation decisions by the Supreme Court -- it was not monolithic, nor was it immediately virulent; rather, "massive resistance" developed over the course of several years, not reaching its peak until the early 1960s. Finally, his analysis of the internal tensions in the Civil Rights movement between the integrationists and the nationalists and between the black middle class and the mass of black poor, while frustratingly incomplete, nevertheless rings true.
This is a short book, and the author's literary style makes it seem even shorter. His prose is engaging and precise, and this book is a quick read in spite of the depth and importance of the ideas that it contains.
The only criticisms that I can offer are fairly minor. Foremost is the lack of citations in the book. This is understandable, especially in light of the fact that the book originated as a series of lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1954. Still, Woodward could have included footnotes if he had wanted to when he was assembling the book for publication. Second is the virtual lack of analysis for why the Jim Crow laws seemed attractive to white Southerners in the first place, especially in light of the absence of a segregationist heritage in the South.
Neither of these two comlaints should detract from the book very much. It is a fine introduction to the Jim Crow era, and it ought to be required reading for any serious student of American history.
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on July 13, 2004
C. Vann Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" remains one of the most important books written about post-Reconstruction Southern America. In the space of very few pages, Woodward brings to us the proposal that the assumptions we have all been making about Jim Crow laws and the development of segregation were all wrong from the very beginning. We are taught the lie from grade school forward that "that's just the way it always has been in the South." Not so, according to Woodward.
We learn very quickly when reading this book that not only were there three or four decades following the Civil War wherein there was virtually no major segregation in the South - but the conditions with regards to segregation and equal rights in the South were actually better than in the North for several decades as well.
The lies of a racist South and a desperate North (desperate to make a moral issue of something that they too were guilty of in trying to keep blacks from having equal rights) somehow stuck in the Southern psyche, and all along we've been thinking that people were racist because "that's all they knew." Woodward blows this theory out of the water, and exposes the truth about the post-Reconstruction South.
Not only was segregation not popular in the South in much of the late 19th Century, but blacks voted often. There was very good participation - enough to put a lot of blacks and Republicans in public office in the South - for a time. It was not until the 1870s that a gradual change began in the South. That change brought about the Jim Crow laws - changes that were unwelcome to all of humanity. Booker T. Washington believed that the South could not advance and still leave the blacks behind: Woodward came about a few decades later and showed us all just how right Washington really was.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon January 21, 2011
Comer Vann Woodward (1908-1999) was a preeminent American historian focusing primarily on the American South and race relations. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this 1955 book (revised in 1965) "the historical bible of the civil rights movement."

Woodward wrote in the Preface to the First Edition, "It is my hope in these pages to turn a few beams of light into the twilight zone and if possible to light up a few of its corners... I also make the attempt to relate the origins and development of Jim Crowism to the bewilderingly rapid changes that have occurred in race relations during the past few years." He added in the Preface to the Second Edition, "One purpose of this revised edition is, if possible, to take advantage of the new perspective the additional ten years provide without falling prey to distortions that the deeply aroused emotions of those same years have also contributed."

Here are some quotations from the book:

"In the early years of the twentieth century, it was becoming clear that the Negro would be effectively disfranchised throughout the South, that he would be firmly relegated to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and that neither equality nor aspirations for equality in any department of life were for him." (Pg. 6-7)
"In most aspects of slavery as practice in the ante-bellum South, however, segregation would have been an inconvenience and an obstruction to the functions of the system. The very nature of the institution made separation of the races for the most part impracticable... The system imposed its own type of interracial contact, unwelcome as it might be on both sides." (Pg. 12)
"For all that, the Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority." (Pg. 18)
"It is clear that when its victory was complete and the time came, the North was not in the best possible position to instruct the South, either by precedent and example, or by force of conviction, on the implementation of what eventually became one of the professed war aims of the Union cause---racial equality." (Pg. 21)
"The Negro bred to slavery was typically ignorant and poor... So far as his status was concerned, there was little need for Jim Crow laws to establish what the lingering stigma of slavery---in bearing, speech, and manner---made so apparent." (Pg. 32)
"My only purpose has been to indicate that things have not always been the same in the South... the race policies accepted and pursued in the South were sometimes milder than they became later. The policies of proscription, segregation, and the disenfranchisement that are often described as the immutable 'folksways' of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin." (Pg. 65)
"At the dawn of the new century the wave of Southern racism came in as a swell upon a mounting tide of national sentiment and was very much a part of that sentiment. Had the tide been running the other way, the Southern wave would have broken feebly instead of becoming a wave of the future." (Pg. 74)
"Another effect of the prosperity boom has been that the South has begun to pull out of its seventy-five year stalemate of an underprivileged and colonial economy. In the process the South has begun to find that it is easier to share prosperity than poverty with the minority race." (Pg. 130)
"The establishment of the United Nations and the bringing of the headquarters of the organization to these shores suddenly threw open to the outside world a large window on American race policies... To many of these people the Jim Crow code came as a complete shock." (Pg. 132)
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on September 28, 2003
I have the 1957 edition of the book, and so can't comment on the new chapter.
This is a fascinating book which should be read by anyone interested in racial issues, US history, or US politics.
The major surprise to me is Woodward's description, complete with many contemporary quotes, of a time in the late 1800's post-Reconstruction South where African Americans were treated largely equally with regard to public accomodations and voting. Segregation, then, was considered to be a "lower-class white attitude."
It wasn't until approximately 1900 that a very segregationist attitude came about in the South, largely as the result of the interplay of Republican, Democratic, and Progressive politics.
This is course gives the lie to assertion through much of the 1900's that de jure racial segregation was a time-honored part of Southern life, and there was no possible alternative.
Woodward then goes on to describe the depths to which Jim Crow legislation sank, describing the effect of African American migration within the country, World War II, how our segregationist policies hurt the US image abroad, and on to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, ending shortly after _Brown v. Board of Education_, well before the major civil rights events and legislation.
Fairly quick read, and a great book!
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on September 2, 2015
I've lived in Atlanta all 76 years of my life, saw the Civil Rights movement close up, heard all the hype all sides. And there were more than two sides. This is the most readable book about the history of race relations in the U.S. I've ever seen. Woodward gives a careful, wise account in lay terms. He begins with the pre-Civil War background, the effects of the war on the South, the various attempts to deal with the many jobless ex-slaves, the commerce-focused conservatives, the extremist radicals, and the populists, the roots of prejudices, economical, societal, etc. He shows motives for and reactions to the Jim Crow laws instituted around the turn of the century 1900. Much, much more. It's packed with information, and you can read it in a couple of afternoons.
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on December 18, 2012
This was very interesting book in that it gives a perspective on the Civil Rights struggle as it was taking place. Even as it was going on, many knew they were dealing with an extraordinary period in American History. But what makes it especially interesting is that it was written by an author who does not know how it was going to end. This is especially evident in the later chapters that were added after several years had passed. In these, the author recounts the success and disappointment of the Civil Rights accomplishments and the splits that developed within the movement as younger generations came onto the scene and did not see the benefits of the Civil Rights legislation. In the conclusion on cannot help but feel the disappointment in the authors writing and the sense of uncertainty of where it would all lead.
While the writing is inherently dated, it is still interesting in that it reads a lot like a primary source document as the author writes about events that have recently taken place. This is a very interesting book and would be useful to anyone wanting to learn about the Civil Rights movement and how it was viewed as it happened.
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