Dancing With Jim Crow

For many decades, the ideals, promises and opportunities of American society were not available to Black citizens, especially in the Southern states. The lengthy struggle for equal rights and opportunities may be seen to culminate in Black domination of popular music.

For many decades, the ideals, promises and opportunities of American society were not available to Black citizens, especially in the Southern states. The lengthy struggle for equal rights and opportunities may be seen to culminate in Black domination of popular music.


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes, 1951)

In 1857 the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. Scott, an enslaved African-American born in Virginia, had sued for his freedom on the ground that his owner had taken him from a slave-owning state (Missouri) into a “free” state (Illinois), where slavery was illegal, and that he was therefore automatically a free man (“once free always free”). This principle had been argued successfully by a number of former slaves in Missouri before the Scott case. The Supreme Court, however, in a 7 to 2 decision written by chief justice Roger Taney, ruled against Scott:

We think . . . that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [of America’s founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

So much for Dred Scott. But the justices had more on their minds than the fate of one slave, for they added to the above decision another one declaring that the Missouri Compromise, a federal law (adopted in 1820) designed to make slavery illegal in the territories north of 36°N 36′ latitude, was unconstitutional:

. . . the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. . . . Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind . . . is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.

The Dred Scott case has been frequently cited as the worst decision ever rendered by a US Supreme Court. In defence of the assenting justices, one might argue (I suppose) that they were attempting to resolve peacefully once and for all the controversial legal complexities of slavery in a rapidly expanding nation. And the decision, in effect, forced the country to confront the essential question: Was America going to be a nation that recognized its Black people and allowed them free and equal citizenship, or were they to remain nothing more than a servile economic appendage of the White population? Abraham Lincoln, a prominent Republican politician in Illinois at the time, recognized the starkness of the choice, campaigned against the court’s decision, and, when the time came, was prepared to take the nation to war over the issue.

Once the civil war ended (in 1865), Congress passed the thirteenth (1865) and fourteenth (1868) amendments (the former made slavery illegal, and the latter guaranteed equal rights under the law for all citizens). With these two constitutional guarantees firmly in place, how did the country whose leaders like to picture it as “a shining city upon a hill” deal with the question raised in the previous paragraph?

The Black population had no desire to leave. What they wanted was full access to the promise the country offered.

The short answer, of course, is not very well. The best thing one might say about the treatment of the African-American population in the Jim Crow years is that it was better than the genocidal policies directed against the native Indians. States in the South quickly established laws which segregated and disenfranchised Black populations, under the slogan “separate but equal,” a policy endorsed by the Supreme Court, in spite of manifest inequalities in schooling, access to public spaces, and transportation, among other things. Black codes (local and state laws enforced by White police forces) controlled where Blacks could work and how much they were paid. Anti-miscegenation legislation made sexual encounters between Blacks and Whites illegal. Health care resources and prisons were strictly segregated. Federal armed forces remained largely segregated, and the Black regiments were usually assigned non-combatant roles and menial tasks. In 1913 President Wilson introduced segregation into a number of federal departments because, in the words of William McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, it was essential “to remove the causes of complaint and irritation where white women have been forced unnecessarily to sit at desks with colored men.” Important events in Black communities were repeatedly written out of the news and the history books, or given an anti-Black racist interpretation. For example, the disastrous Tulsa race massacre (1921), a two-day riot, destroyed Black homes and businesses (more than 35 square blocks) of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma–one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country (“Black Wall Street”). No one was convicted for participating in the riot (which was apparently ignited by a rumour that a Black man had touched a White woman in an elevator), and reminders of the event were ignored or suppressed. The Wilmington armed insurrection (1898) destroyed the relative harmony between the White and Black citizens in the largest city in North Carolina, killing hundreds of people, and ushered in a much more repressive era for the local Black population. The event, in effect a coup d’état, “the violent overthrow of a duly elected government, by a group of white supremacists, . . . is the only such incident in the history of the United States” (Will Doran, 2018). The insurrection was widely interpreted either as the fault of the Black citizens or as a noble action by heroic White participants affirming the virtues of their Civil War ancestors. Only recently (2019) have the civic authorities installed a curt official memorial on the spot where the riot began:

Armed white mob met at armory here, Nov. 10, 1898. Marched six blocks and burned office of Daily Record, black-owned newspaper. Violence left untold numbers of African Americans dead. Led to overthrow of city government & installation of coup leader as mayor. Was part of a statewide political campaign based on calls for white supremacy and the exploitation of racial prejudice.

Extrajudicial killings in the form of lynchings were a constant threat, often organized by White nationalist groups like the Klu Klux Klan (founded immediately after the end of the Civil War) and directed primarily against politically active or otherwise “uppity” Black people in the South. A pretext for attacking the victim was easy enough: if all else failed a charge of molesting a White woman was always available. Lynching parties used a number of ways to kill their victims (burning, shooting, throwing off bridges, dragging behind an automobile, and so on), but the preferred method was hanging from a tree because that produced the most visually striking photographs (which were often turned into postcards and sold as souvenirs). The Klan was suppressed by the Federal Government in the 1870’s, but has reappeared in different iterations down to the present day. Congress tried a number of times to pass legislation making lynching a federal crime, but could never overcome filibusters in the Senate, a standard tactic used by Southern Democrats to block any bills that threatened their racial interests. Legislation making lynching a federal crime was finally passed with the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act during the Biden administration.

In the Jim Crow era, Black musicians and entertainers, some of whom had international reputations and followings, were routinely harassed and denied access to  places reserved for White musicians. They were banned from White bands in order to avoid problems with booking arrangements and shut out of lucrative locations. The most famous and financially successful “black” American entertainer in the Jim Crow era was a Jewish-Lithuanian-American immigrant, a singer, comedian, vaudevillian, and movie star, who performed in blackface–Asa Joelson (aka Al Jolson.)

Black athletes faced similar harassment and discrimination, even the incomparable Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. At a welcoming dinner in his honour in New York City (after a ticker tape parade), Owens had to enter the Waldorf Astoria by the back door and use the freight elevator. President Roosevelt refused to recognize Owens’ achievement (something Hitler had not failed to do). As the result of a petty quarrel immediately after the games, US athletic officials withdrew Owens’s  amateur status, thus ending his track and field career. The only Black athlete who won and retained wide national admiration for sustained excellence over many years during the Jim Crow era was Joe Louis, heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. Louis’s second fight against the German Max Schmeling in 1938–one of the most famous boxing matches of all time–helped to cement the “Brown Bomber’s” celebrity among millions of whites, marking the first time White people in large numbers had supported a Black man competing against a White man.

Faced by the intransigent attitudes of White society, especially in the South, African-Americans began organizing–founding their own schools, colleges and universities, sports leagues, medical facilities, newspapers, legal resources, businesses, and political groups (notably the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909]); they wrote plays denouncing lynching, published books, launched (sometimes at great physical risk) legal proceedings, and, in short, developed a flourishing middle class (exemplified, most notably by the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1930). If White America had little use for them, they would nonetheless persevere and prosper as best they could in their own communities. White legislators who tried to deal with their racist “problem” by proposing that African-Americans be shipped out of the country were missing the point. The Black population had no desire to leave. What they wanted was full access to the promise the country offered.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

(Langston Hughes, 1936)

In pursuit of that promise, Black citizens began moving out of the South in increasing numbers, settling in northern, mid-western, and western cities. In 1910, about 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South; by 1970, after the migration of about six million from the South, almost half the Black population was living in the north and west, and the vast majority of them nationwide now lived in cities.

Black writers also began exploring the roots of their condition. Why was the racism they encountered so prevalent? W. E. Dubois, the first Black to earn a university doctorate (Harvard), a professor of history and sociology at Atlanta University, and a leading figure in the ongoing fight for civil rights, argued that White workers derived a “public and psychological wage” from racist arrangements:

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers , , , were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized in news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule. (1935)

This explanation sounds reasonable enough in the context of a small rural community in the South, but it founders on the reef that any socialist explanation for racism has trouble navigating past: the awkward fact that racism is every bit as prevalent in socialist-inspired labour movements as it is everywhere else. A more plausible (and more complex) explanation is that members of the White population treated Black citizens the way they did because they were motivated by a long-standing and deeply rooted hatred, which (as James Baldwin observes) they clung to because the cost of giving it up was too high:

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone they will be forced to deal with pain.

Such hatred is acquired from one’s family, one’s education, and one’s experience, often in a culture where such feelings are considered normal. Once the population becomes, in effect, firmly classified as White and Black, a line is drawn between the two, and citizens belong to one group or the other and are taught to act accordingly (especially if the two groups live in different areas of the community, go to segregated schools, worship at different churches, and differ in their jobs and standard of living).  For then, as Stendhal observes, “La différence engendre la haine [Difference engenders hate]. The person who hates like this always has something to talk about with a similarly constituted neighbour. They know who to blame for their troubles and can go to meetings together if they want their feelings of racial superiority confirmed. They can even dress up in strange uniforms, purchase weapons, and set off on maneuvers or raids together. Inevitably, their hatred becomes embedded in the politics of the community, and any candidate for public office must publicly genuflect at the altar of racial prejudice or risk defeat at the polls. In George Wallace’s first bid to become the governor of Alabama (1958), he spoke out against the Klu Klux Klan, had the support of NAACP, and talked about building roads and bridges. When he lost the nomination, Wallace explained to one of his aides, “. . . you know why I lost that governor’s race? . . . I was outniggered by John Patterson [the winner of the nomination]. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” And in a long and successful political career in Alabama as the staunchest advocate for segregation and Jim Crow, he never was.

How does one mitigate such hatred? A difficult question, but the way Jim Crow petered out offers an important clue. When World War II ended, President Truman integrated the armed forces (1948), and succeeding presidents presided over some of the most important anti-racist legislation and Supreme Court rulings in American history: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) required integration in public schools; The Civil Rights Act (1957) made any interference with a citizen’s right to vote a federal crime; The Civil Rights Act (1964)  and Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), prohibited discrimination in hotels, stores, workplaces, and public facilities; The Voting Rights Act (1965) made state barriers to voting in all federal, state, and local elections illegal; Loving v. Virginia (1967), declared that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional; and The Fair Housing Act (1968), the last federal legislation during the civil rights era, made housing discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion illegal. If Southern states objected or refused to comply, federal governments, in no mood to conciliate, played hardball: in response to Governor Orval Faubus’s ordering the Arkansas Army National guard to prevent nine students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957, President Eisenhower took control of the state national guard and sent in the 101st Airborne Division;  in 1963 President Kennedy followed suit when Governor George Wallace personally blocked the door at the University of Alabama to two Black students. In 1965 President Johnson called up 50,000 federal and state troops to protect Blacks marching from Selma to Montgomery. Clearly some decisive change had taken place to persuade successive federal governments to act decisively at last against the overt racism that governed so much of the country. What was it? What, for example, drove President Johnson in 1964 to break the filibuster of southern senators and push the Civil Rights Act through Congress, when he knew that this action would sound the death knell of the Democratic party in the South for generations to come?

The answer is not far to seek: those changes were driven in large part by television. The technology had been around since the 1920’s, and the Federal Communications Commission had authorized commercial broadcasting in 1941. However, few people could afford to purchase a set, and most of those who owned one lived in or near New York City. In the 40’s and 50’s, however, television sets became much more affordable, and sales took off: “While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television in 1946, 55.7% had one in 1954, and 90% by 1962.” Political news rapidly became primarily a visual experience enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home.

The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (initiated by Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, 1955-56) were quick to exploit the new medium, none more so than a Baptist minister from Montgomery, Alabama–Martin Luther King Jr., who recognized that showing the brutal face of racism to millions of viewers in America and abroad was more important than fighting for civil rights in the (frequently stacked) municipal and state courts. King’s genius also understood that, in spite of objections by some Black leaders, in order to win over White audiences, the dramatic protests about to invade their living rooms had to be non-violent.

Early in 1963 King was invited to Birmingham, Alabama, to help organize an economic boycott (led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]) of a city notorious for its racial tensions and especially for its brutal Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who earlier (in 1961) had allowed the Klux Klux Klan and other townsfolk to bomb the buses of the Freedom Riders and to attack them physically, while the police stood by and watched. King’s tactics demanded mass non-violent but confrontational protests in the hope that Bull Connor would over-react and provide fodder for the television cameras. In April a Circuit Judge in Birmingham had issued an injunction prohibiting “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” The Black leaders decided to defy the injunction. As a result, many of the protesters, including King himself, were arrested and locked up in jail, until Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers paid their bail. But the injunction and the arrests helped to stall the protests, especially since any Black adults seen protesting could lose their jobs.

Then James Bevel, a member of SCLC, over the strong objections of King and other leaders, proposed a brilliant but risky plan: he would turn to high school and elementary school students to fill the ranks of the protesters. The children could not be fired from jobs or given the punitive jail sentences handed down to the adults. On May 2, 1963, the “Children’s Crusade” (a phrase coined by Newsweek) marched to downtown Birmingham, singing “We shall overcome” and other protest songs. Bull Connor began by arresting the children in large numbers, but finally, exasperated at the continuing protests, the next day he brought out his heavy artillery against the protesters. But the children kept marching into the hoses, dogs, and billy clubs. More than 3000 protesters were arrested. And through it all, the television camera were recording Jim Crow’s America, Birmingham style.

The response was instantaneous. From all over America and around the world the tide of condemnation rolled in. Whatever one’s politics, the sight of peaceful children being knocked back by hoses at maximum pressure (which, one report observed, could blast bark off trees) or cowering under snarling police dogs or being beaten by clubs or roughly bundled into police vans elicited only one possible response: this is not right. The Soviet press pointedly wondered what kind of country America must be, if it treated its children like this. The effect was all the more electric, because in those early days we were not inured, as we perhaps are today, to television news reports of urban protests and police brutality. Fuel was added to the fire on May 11 by bombings of the motel where the SCLC leadership, including King, had been staying and of the residence of A. D. King (Martin Luther King’s brother). The bombings provoked a violent riot in which policemen were killed.

The political repercussions of the Children’s Crusade and the subsequent bombings and riot were decisive. The leaders of the White community in Birmingham fired Bull Connor, suspended Jim Crow laws, and agreed to integrate many parts of the city. President Kennedy stopped shilly-shallying about civil rights and pledged he would introduce appropriate legislation as soon as possible. He later observed, only half in jest, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor . . . he helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” The protests expanded throughout the south: in the months following the Children’s Crusade, there were 800 demonstrations in 200 southern cities and towns (over 100,000 participated, and 15,000 were arrested). In August 1963 King was one of the leaders of a huge crowd (estimated at 250,000 predominantly Black citizens) in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest political assembly in American history, where, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered his famous “I have a dream speech” (a major television event). The next year he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act (1964).

In the years that followed, protests continued. Some (like the three Montgomery-Selma marches in 1965) followed King’s tradition of non-violence, but most of them turned into full-scale urban riots, as often as not incited by the slow pace of implementing federal civil rights legislation, by police brutality, and by murder (of Malcolm X in 1965 and of Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, among many others).

In our own age, we have become distressingly familiar with news reports of racist incidents ranging from abusive language to beatings and killings. But now, thanks largely to extensive television coverage of such incidents, the perpetrators are increasingly being called to account. Anyone who thinks otherwise should glance at what happened to the defendants in the George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery murders (in both cases recorded video footage on television played a vital role). The latter judgement is particularly telling because the murder took place in the heart of the Old South, in small-town rural Georgia, 

Television also introduced the country to the irrepressible force of Black music. In the late 1940’s, concert halls full of teenage White girls resounded with screams of adulation for Frank Sinatra. Ten years later their successors were doing the same (and for good measure pinning onto their panties nude pictures of themselves with their phone number scrawled on the back and then hurling the undergarments onstage). This time, however. the focus of their adulation was a wildly flamboyant and charismatic Black piano player with a voice like nothing ever heard on television before (or since)–Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard). Once Ed Sullivan had given his pontifical blessing to Elvis Presley (in 1956) the floodgates opened and a generation of young White people were rescued from a steady diet of saccharine pablum by fresh new music and lyrics: Fats Domino, Della Reese, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and a host of others.

One of the most important effects of this adrenalin injection of Black music into the White population was a transformation of dancing. Like many other teenagers in Toronto, I first learned to dance in the 1950’s in Mrs. Van Valkenberg’s Dancing Academy. There we were taught the prevailing terpsichorean style–White dancing. This was a matter of imagining that someone had rammed an iron rod far up your fundament and fused it to your spine, so that you could keep your back rigidly straight and concentrate exclusively on what really mattered, the movement of the feet in the approved patterns: waltz, foxtrot, conga line, and non-frenetic jiving. The result for the most part was dancing couples as uninspired as the music they were listening to, mainly the slow or medium tempo pop songs.

But then in 1960, a musical explosion occurred. A hitherto unknown Black teenager released a song that went on to sell fifteen million copies and become the biggest chart hit of all time, according to Billboard magazine. I refer, of course, to Ernest Evans (aka Chubby Checker) and his mega hit “The Twist,” which changed forever the White person’s sense of what real dancing is supposed to be.

A years or so later (in 1961) I was teaching high school in rural Ontario. As part of my duties I had to supervise a school dance. When I inquired about what was involved in this task, a senior teacher told me to make sure the dancing couples observed the rule about “proper hold.” This phrase evidently meant that there must always be daylight visible  between the two dancers forming a couple. While I was preparing to carry out this duty, a spirit of mischief seized me and I brought along a copy of “The Twist,” which I surreptitiously slipped into the school-approved stack of EP’s waiting to be played. About twenty minutes later, Chubby started to sing, and the gymnasium went wild. My lord, these young Christian Caucasians, sons and daughters of hard-working farmers and small-business owners, had suddenly removed the iron rods from their backsides and were rocking their butts, as if to the manner born — many of them had obviously been practising with Checker himself, as they watched American Bandstand. When the song ended they clamored for more. I remember thinking that school dances would probably be quite different in future. At any rate, I heard no more talk from senior teachers about “proper hold.” Evidently they had more important things to think about.