What exactly are Jim Crow laws, you might ask, especially if you’re too young to remember an ugly time in our nation’s history that lasted nearly a hundred years, all the way up until the civil rights movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties. Jim Crow laws were put in place by states and localities to enforce racial segregation, impacting public schools, facilities like restaurants, restrooms and drinking fountains, and public transportation such as trains and buses. Everything was separate—one for whites and one for blacks—but most assuredly not equal. Where do you think the phrase, the “back of the bus” comes from?
In case you’re wondering where the term “Jim Crow” came from, it was one more derogatory term for black people. Apparently, back in the early 1800s, even before I was born, there was something called minstrel shows, nasty song-and-dance caricatures of black people that were performed by white actors in blackface. One of the most well known shows was called “Jump Jim Crow,” and somewhere along the line the term stuck.
If you’ll pardon another digression, I never told you what happened to my family and the cotton farm after the war. In fairness to my father, despite being a slaveholder, he had always been a Unionist who never wanted secession and war. But that didn’t stop the war from ruining him. He tried to make a go of it using sharecroppers, but with the price of cotton, land and . . . I almost said slaves . . . vastly depressed, it was impossible to make a profit growing cotton in the upcountry. He went back to being a country doctor, visiting patients for miles around until he died in 1880 at the age of 83 (which in those days was old!). Despite being her senior by over a decade, he outlived my mother, that poor woman who watched all six of her sons go off to fight for the Confederacy, by four years.
Which brings me to my brothers—talk about the good, the bad and the ugly! The “Pelham boys,” as we were known throughout the vicinity, pretty much exemplified what became of the South’s young men after the war. Charles, my eldest brother, joined the Republican Party, which made him a collaborator, a “scalawag,” in the eyes of white Southerners. Despite having his life continuously threatened by the Klan, he went on to be a circuit court judge and a congressman. I’m sorry to say, however, that one of my younger brothers, Peter, was an early supporter of the Klan and more than just an acquaintance of Nathan Bedford Forrest. If there’s anyone I hate, it’s “Devil Forrest.” If you want to know why, just Google him, as I believe you people like to say nowadays. And speaking of people I hate, my brother William, sadistic rapist that he was, failed at farming when he could no longer rely on the Negroes’ labor, and was killed in an altercation with an Anniston policeman in 1889. Good riddance!
Anyway, Jim Crow began in 1877 when the federal government withdrew its last troops from the South. Not only did the state governments begin segregating whites and blacks, but most blacks, along with tens of thousands for poor whites, were disenfranchised through poll taxes, literacy tests and ridiculous record-keeping requirements. In addition to being denied their right to vote, they couldn’t serve on juries or run for political office.
The most important thing to remember about Jim Crow is that it used terror, as employed by the Ku Klux Klan and their collaborators in law enforcement, to impose its many injustices. In particular, just as during slavery, black women were seen as having so little virtue that it was almost impossible to convict a white man of rape. Black men, meanwhile, were made out to be a threat to white women, and often accused of sex crimes. Thousands of black men were lynched during Jim Crow because of white people’s irrational paranoia over their supposedly rampant lust and enormous sex organs. Although some prefer to avoid confronting the reality of what became an almost religious ritual, the fact is, many lynching victims were castrated or had their penis cut off. Personally, as I said before, I came to think that sexual exploitation was at the core of the plantation system, maybe the whole damn “peculiar institution” as well. If you ask me, the slaveholders’ descendants just set about turning the black man into the physical embodiment of their ancestors’ evil ways.