We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present. - Stacey Abrams response to the State of the Union Address, Feb. 5, 2019
A key premise C. Vann Woodward establishes in The Strange Career of Jim Crow is that the rigid 20th century apartheid/segregation system of the American South was not immediately adopted after the Civil War. In fact, as Woodward notes, it was not implemented in the immediate post-Reconstruction period, even after Federal troops left the South. There was about a 10 to 15 year “gestation” period before white supremacist racism took over the Southern states and, most significantly, it was facilitated by Northern acquiescence. The first chapter of Woodward’s Jim Crow, entitled “Forgotten Alternatives” concludes with the following statement:
My purpose has been to indicate that things have not always been the same
in the South. In a time when the Negroes formed a much larger proportion
of the population than they did later, when slavery was a live memory in the
minds of both races, and when the memory of hardships and bitterness of
Reconstruction was still fresh, the race policies accepted and pursued in the
South were sometimes milder than they became later. The policies of proscription,
segregation, and disenfranchisement that are often described as the immutable
“folkways” of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed
intervention, are of more recent origin. The effort to justify them as a
consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times is embarrassed
by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they
are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history. (p. 47)
So how did Jim Crow actually get started in the South?
In the 1877 to 1890 period three significant political factions emerged in the South. One had a liberal philosophy (Southern Republicans), advocating for full and equal rights --- and acceptance --- of the freed Blacks. Another was a conservative philosophy (Redeemers), advocated by a “better class of whites” (Woodward) who believed if Blacks supported liberals, they might make some gains, but they would also suffer some losses. The Conservatives/Redeemers saw themselves as “custodians” of the "naturally" subordinate Blacks, but they were not extreme white supremacists. As Woodward notes: “It was clearly an aristocratic philosophy of paternalism and noblesse oblige.” The third faction was comprised of “lower class” Whites who were Populists (Radical Democrats) exhibiting (in Woodward’s words) a “cracker fanaticism” against Blacks.
The liberals (Republicans) never gained a foothold, largely because couldn’t overcome the Conservative/Populist coalition which skewed Democratic. As the Federal troops withdrew, White Conservative Democratic "Redeemers" (including former Confederates) regained political power in the South but many, having accepted the rights of freed Blacks --- particularly noting the potential voting power they held --- exercised a paternalistic “hospitality” toward the newly freed citizens and held their more extreme “Negrophobe” (Woodward) white citizens at bay. Over time, however, as the memory of the War faded and, more particularly, as Northern attitudes shifted toward more conservative beliefs, particularly regarding the “natural inferiority” of people of color (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example), Jim Crow got his foot in the door.
Northern liberalism began waning with the Compromise of 1877 and steadily declined over the next decade. As White Northerners more and more desired reconciliation with the (White) South, there was no mobilizing energy (like abolitionism) to protect the newly-free Blacks. In fact, the North came to see the Black as a divisive figure, preventing the nation from smoothly becoming one unified country. It is an insidious turn, if you reflect on it. The North essentially fought and won the war to free the slaves but then, once freed, abandoned them and, worse, succumbed to believing the pervasive (white supremacist) mythology of Black inferiority, laziness, stupidity, etc. This was a political and moral failure that was perpetrated from the highest levels of government down through every layer of American society --- branding Blacks with stereotypes and labels which clearly persist in 2019.
Worse, the United States government became complicit in engineering a two-tiered society which branded one group as inherently inferior.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Meet Jim Crow.