The prominent historian C. Vann Woodward saw The Strange Career of Jim Crow through three editions. Originally published in 1955, the book was last updated in a third revised edition published in 1974. I believe it remains a useful book for anyone seeking to understand the phenomenon and its legacy. Indeed, as Woodward sought to keep the book current, I think that each of the three editions of the book is useful for this purpose (and that all of his books are worth reading).
In the preface to the first edition Woodward explained that the lectures were delivered at the University of Virginia in 1954. “They were given before unsegregated audiences,” he added, “and they were received in that spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness that one has a right to expect at a university with such a tradition and such a founder.” That was then.
Woodward retired from Yale in 1977 and died in 1999 at the age of 91. Woodward’s obituary in the Times recalled that Martin Luther King called Woodward’s account the “historical bible of the civil rights movement.”
By the time of his preface to the third edition, Woodward was noting “a certain ambivalence that black people have felt all along toward integration in white America[.]” He called it “an old ambivalence that had been buried and put aside during the long struggle against segregation and discrimination.”
I wish Woodward were around to comment on the resurrection of Jim Crow — of the charge of “Jim Crow” — for such dishonest uses as those to which Joe Biden put it in his July 13 remarks on “Protecting the Sacred, Constitutional Right to Vote” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (The link is to the White House transcript.)
The regime of legal segregation in the South was of course a mainstay and preserve of the Democratic Party. Although he may have forgotten them by now, Joe Biden himself had warm friendships with several of his Senate colleagues who signed off on the 1956 Southern Manifesto (all Democrats, opposing Brown v. Board of Education).
The Democrats’ imputation of r-a-a-a-cism to Republicans is historically illiterate and otherwise in bad faith. It has its political uses, however, and has therefore become a staple of Democratic rhetoric — a tired, stale, and and self-discrediting, if not discredited, cliché.
Although Biden has manifested his own racist attitudes over the years, Biden has made his own contributions to this staple of Democratic discourse. In August 2012, to take just one memorable example, Biden spoke before a racially mixed audience in Danville, Virginia. Referring to then Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — Mitt Romney! — and Republicans in general, Biden warned: “They’re going to put y’all back in chains!” And this was at a time when he was in possession of his faculties.
Biden’s use of the “Jim Crow” charge in his Philadelphia speech represents a variation of this theme, but here it was also turned to the promotion of H.R. 1 to work a federal takeover of election law. One party today, one party tomorrow, one party forever!
This is demoralizing but we can take heart from Biden’s assignment of the leadership role to Kamala Harris:
Vice President Harris and I have spent our careers doing this work. And I’ve asked her to lead, to bring people together to protect the right to vote and our democracy. And it starts with continuing the fight to pass H.R.1, the For the People Act. (Applause.)
If the audience were sapient, the parenthetical would read: “(Laughter).”
Biden should have been staring vacantly into the mirror when he said this: “[M]ake no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.”
Biden invoked the Civil War. The January 6 riot was worse:
The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I’ve said it before: We’re are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War. The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th.
I love “that’s not hyperbole.” It’s a dead giveaway, like the politician’s standard preface to a lie: “To be perfectly frank.” He should have added “that’s not hyperbole” to his riff the 2012 Danville speech.
And then we come to Jim Crow:
This year alone, 17 states have enacted — not just proposed, but enacted — 28 new laws to make it harder for Americans to vote, not to mention — and catch this — nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of the state legislatures are trying to pass.
The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting, and we’re going to challenge it vigorously.
Biden then widens the racial component:
And they’re trying — not only targeting people of color, they’re targeting voters of all races and backgrounds. It’s with a simple target: who did not vote for them. That’s the target.
It’s unconscionable. I mean, really, I — it’s hard to — it’s hard to declare just how critical this is. It’s simply unconscionable.
Michael Barone calls this line of attack “unhinged nonsense.” It has become a hustle.
Biden seems to have fallen in love with the “Jim Crow” charge. Putting an evaluation of its truthfulness — i.e., its falsity — to one side, I wonder how effective it is beyond Biden’s core audience. I would love to see one of those Jesse Watters or Ami Horowitz interview segments asking passersby on the street if they know Jim Crow. If they know who Jim Crow is. If they know what Jim Crow was. I think the results would be illuminating.
In the original introduction to his book on the subject, by the way, Woodward noted: “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity.”