The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

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The President

By Tsahai Tafari

"Jim Crow," a minstrel character popular during the early 1820s, is the namesake of an American system of discrimination and segregation. The Black Codes of the Reconstruction era and railroad segregation laws foreshadowed the birth of the system of Jim Crow, but the Compromise of 1877 can be considered the political event that allowed Jim Crow to come into full power.

By the election of 1876, the federal government had withdrawn from all but three Southern states, leaving blacks at the mercy of state and local governments. The Compromise of 1877, in which election-winning electoral votes were exchanged for the end of federal intervention in the Southern states of Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida, marked an era of complicity between Northern and Southern politicians in the abandonment of the issue of civil rights for blacks. Southern Democrats accepted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes' election in exchange for the promise of more federal aid for rebuilding the Southern infrastructure and less federal intervention in Southern politics. As a result, many of the civil rights blacks enjoyed during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) were revoked.

Jim Crow effectively began after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes. There was a great deal of political confusion as the country continued to recover from the war, and at first, many white Republicans and Democrats were split over the issue of black suffrage. Blacks had begun to participate in politics, holding positions in local government and voting, but during the 1880s, civil rights and political access for blacks were rapidly rescinded, as Northern and Southern politicians agreed that white solidarity on the issue of race was more important than civil rights for blacks.

The executive administrations of 1876-1900 did not address legislation designed to disfranchise blacks, such as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, intimidation, and lynching. The election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 heralded one of the first Presidential administrations openly opposed to civil rights and suffrage for blacks. Roosevelt is remembered for inviting the black leader and entrepreneur, Booker T. Washington, to the White House for dinner, the first instance of such an invitation for a black person. Southern Democrats were offended, and were vocal in their disapproval. Though Washington's visit was distinctive in its novelty, Roosevelt invited Washington not to improve the situation of blacks, but because they agreed that blacks should not strive for political and social equality. Washington privately used his wealth and influence to challenge Jim Crow, despite his public declarations of the opposite, while Roosevelt's administration was not supportive of civil rights for blacks. The popularity of eugenics and the philosophy of social Darwinism reached a zenith during the early part of century, and racism was integrated into presidential party platforms as late as the early 1930s. President Roosevelt believed blacks were intellectually inferior, and began to decrease the number of federal appointments to blacks and promised Southerners that he would appoint local federal officials that would not disrupt the accord between north and south. President Taft, a Republican elected in 1908, publicly endorsed the idea that blacks should not participate in politics, and perpetuated the racist party line of his predecessor.

Virginia Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won both the 1912 and 1916 presidential elections. He encouraged the introduction and passage of discriminatory legislation, such as a bill passed by the House that made interracial marriage in the District of Columbia a felony. President Wilson made it a requirement to include a photograph with any application for a federal position, to facilitate the exclusion of blacks from government jobs. Wilson pushed for segregation of federal workers, systematically demoted black civil servants, and claimed nothing could be done to improve the situation of blacks in the country. He refused to meet with black leaders, to appear at black conferences on race issues, or to publicly denounce lynching. President Wilson's wartime administration relegated black Army soldiers to non-combat labor billets, claiming that blacks were unable to fight courageously. Under Wilson, the Navy only allowed blacks to serve as messboys, and the Marines did not accept blacks at all.

The Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations (1921-1932) further alienated blacks from American politics, refusing to endorse anything related to civil rights. President Harding continued Wilson's policies of federal segregation, and his Justice department did nothing to investigate lynchings or the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. President Coolidge condoned the Republican ideal of a "lily white" party, further alienating black Americans, and declared that the federal government should not interfere with local race issues. The complicity of Republicans and Democrats on race was complete. President Hoover excluded blacks from federal offices and executive departments, and his administration would not allow blacks to work on federal construction jobs.

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and a headline from a black daily heralding President Truman's order to desegregate the U.S. armed forces. The administration of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) was initially a continuation of the "gentleman's agreement" within the Democratic party that Northern Democrats would not interfere in race issues on the behalf of black Americans. To ensure the passage of New Deal legislation, Roosevelt could not afford to offend Southern Democrats by challenging the white supremacist system of Jim Crow. Roosevelt did not publicly support civil rights for blacks, and his administration was silent on the issue until the late 1930s, when the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, began to speak up on behalf of black Americans. Without her persistent influence, the goals of civil rights and New Deal legislation would never have converged.

The attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) had a unifying effect on the United States, creating a national attitude in favor of ensuring freedom for people all over the world, including at home. A. Philip Randolph, a black leader and coordinator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened to organize a March on Washington, D.C. if Roosevelt did not do something to curb the discriminatory hiring practices of the National Defense Program. To avoid the embarrassment of a racial protest in the nation's capital, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee and mandated race-blind hiring by defense organizations. This change in attitude, influenced by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Pearl Harbor attack, and America's economic recovery during the War, allowed Roosevelt to implement more civil rights assistance for blacks.

President Harry Truman (1945-1953), though largely uninterested in an interracial society, issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, which ensured equal treatment for blacks in federal jobs and integrated the military forces, respectively. Truman was horrified to learn of brutal lynchings that were continuing in the South, and this influenced him to become the first U.S. President to address the NAACP and to make strong public statements on behalf of civil rights for black Americans. At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman endorsed a strong civil rights platform, confirming the shift of the Democratic party from a Southern, white supremacist organization to a predominantly Northern, liberal party. Southern Democrats (self-termed as Dixiecrats) were so offended by the integration of the party that some walked out of the convention, led by Strom Thurmond. Though Truman was limited in his actual support of blacks, he strongly believed that the role of the federal government was to protect its citizens, of all races.

Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly believed that race relations would only be improved when whites wanted to accept blacks. He did not condone forcing whites to treat blacks differently, and was reluctant to take any specific action in support of black Americans. Eisenhower, however, made a pivotal decision in appointing Earl Warren to the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1953. He unwittingly strengthened the Supreme Court in a way that made subsequent victories for civil rights possible. The Court's ruling on Brown v. Board (1954) made discrimination and segregation in education on the basis of race illegal, rendering Jim Crow schools unconstitutional. The resistance and outrage of Southern whites to the Court's decision forced Eisenhower to use federal military power to ensure the safety of black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School. Eisenhower was surprised by the reaction to desegregation attempts, and called for passage of a Civil Rights Bill of 1957, which though watered down by the Senate, was a major step in pursuit of federal legislation that would end Jim Crow intimidation and segregation that persisted in the South.

President John F. Kennedy (1961-63) was more openly supportive of black civil rights leaders than his predecessors, and appointed several blacks to government posts. He created a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, chaired by then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to monitor government agencies' efforts to hire and promote blacks. President Kennedy's appointment of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as U.S. Attorney General facilitated action by the Justice Department in prosecuting those that attempted to deprive blacks of their voting rights. President Kennedy addressed the nation on television in 1963 to confront the issue of racial discrimination and emphasized the commitment of all three branches of the federal government in supporting civil rights, the strongest statement made by a President in several administrations.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was the most effective in the fight to end Jim Crow. President Johnson had a long history of working towards civil rights for blacks, having also worked towards the passage of the less effective Civil Rights Act of 1957. Johnson had become more personally committed to the cause of civil rights, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 strengthened his resolve to realize the ideals set forth by the administration. He worked tirelessly to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, rendering all Jim Crow statutes illegal. Nearly a hundred years after 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, all citizens, regardless of race, could reap the benefits.


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