Book Review: The Strange Career of Jim Crow “Historical Bible of the Civil Rights Movement”

The Strange Career of Jim Crow is a work of history that has its own remarkable history. The book not only altered our picture of the past but also changed the history of the times in which it was written. Evenings of lectures by a visiting scholar at a university do not immediately bring revolution to mind, but few such academic exercises have stirred up the pea patch as did those delivered by a historian of the American South that became The Strange Career. The scholarly world, delighted with a new thesis to test, was put to work, but this slim volume’s social consequence far outstripped its importance to academia. The book became part of a revolution as, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, it became “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.”

William S. McFeely, afterward of The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 221.

During the tumultuous times of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s a work emerged that challenged and eventually helped transform the historical narrative on interracial relations in the South. C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow was born of the author’s concern that at the time the current national discussion regarding race relations and segregation laws in the American South was “being conducted against a background of faulty or inadequate historical information.”[1] With that in mind, in 1955 Woodward published what had begun as a series of lectures given as a guest speaker at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1954, only months after the United States Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation in public schools. In his own words this opened a “Pandora’s box of troubles” for those who attempted to defend the status quo of segregation in the South.[2] The result has been a decades long discussion and debate amongst historians about Woodward’s assertions. Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, in its original and revised editions, constitutes one of the most significant and influential works in modern American historiography. It belongs on the shelf of any serious student of the American Civil Rights Movement.

U.S. Historians at Martin Luther King Jr. speech in Selma, 1965. C. Vann Woodward is on right with American flag. Dr. King mentioned Woodward in his speech.

Based on the South’s history of slavery and widespread assumptions of white supremacy and African inferiority, combined with the degree of separation between the races in the urban South during the Reconstruction period, some historians concluded that a full-scale Jim Crow system emerged immediately after the Civil War in place of the South’s “Peculiar Institution.” This led to the emergence of a common belief that race relations had “always been that way” and were thus impervious to change. This, Woodward asserted, became the foundation of the status quo of race relations in the South and by default ensconced in the historiography of the time.[3] Woodward, who was himself a native Arkansan and product of the Jim Crow era South, was inspired in part by the work of African American historian W. E. B. Du Bois whom he met and associated with while attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York. In his work The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois asserted that during the slavery period in the South both races lived in much closer proximity and intimacy one with another.[4] Du Bois pointed out that under slavery both white master and Black slave often lived in the same home, attended the same church, conversed with each other, and sometimes shared a blood relationship. Woodward incorporated these ideas into his thesis for The Strange Career while taking care to add the caveat that they were perhaps embellished, and that there was little evidence to support the idea of total racial harmony but much of contact between the races.

My only 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 the 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 disfranchisement that are often described as the immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a 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.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 65.

Woodward believed that the history of race relations and segregation had not been adequately investigated by historians and that while de facto segregation existed during the reconstruction period, especially in urban areas, the widespread de jure segregation and African American disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow era were newer developments and dated to the beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to their proscription and disenfranchisement, Woodward pointed out that Blacks in the South were catered to, used as political pons, and generally tolerated by both the old conservatives and populists – much like the way northern politicians treated Irish immigrants. However by the end of the 1890s economic, political, and social frustrations had “pyramided to a climax of social tensions” which combined with the erosion of northern liberalism led to Blacks becoming “approved objects of aggression.”[5] Abandoned by the northern reformers in 1877, and then by southern conservatives and populists in the 1890s, the African American minority in the South became scapegoats and compelled to bear whatever injustices the white majority deemed to heap upon them.

The South’s adoption of extreme racism was due not so much to a conversion as it was to a relaxation of the opposition. All the elements of fear, jealousy, proscription, hatred, and fanaticism had long been present, as they are present in various degrees of intensity in any society. What enabled them to rise to dominance was not so much cleverness or ingenuity as it was a general weakening and discrediting of the numerous forces that had hitherto kept them in check. The restraining forces included not only Northern liberal opinion in the press, the courts, and the government, but also internal checks imposed by the prestige and influence of the Southern conservatives, as well as by the idealism and zeal of the Southern radicals. What happened toward the end of the century was an almost simultaneous—and sometimes not unrelated—decline in the effectiveness of restraint that had been exercised by all three forces: Northern liberalism, Southern conservatism, and Southern radicalism.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 69.

Woodward’s 1955 edition was both praised and criticized by academia while leaders of the civil rights movement celebrated it. An April 1956 review in the British journal Royal Institute of International Affairs touted it as a “valuable little book” and highlighted Woodward’s statistical data on the decline of Black suffrage in Louisiana as well as an 1898 editorial from a conservative Southern newspaper that derided proposed segregation of waiting rooms, restaurants, juries, and more as “manifest absurdities,” all of which by 1906 had become “manifest facts.”[6] Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. touted Woodward’s 1955 edition as “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.”[7]

Following its initial 1955 publication Woodward produced three revisions of The Strange Career of Jim Crow in 1957, 1966, and 1974 which were inspired by what he called, “efforts to keep abreast of criticism, ongoing research, and changing events during the turbulent decades following the original edition.”[8] In the 1957 edition Woodward included a fourth chapter titled “‘Deliberate Speed’ vs. ‘Majestic Instancy’” in which he brought events up to date and explained the worsening of race relations in the South while providing cause for optimism by pointing out that the possibility of change was far more likely than during what he called the First Reconstruction (1865-1877).[9] This revision was the shortest lived of the three, with much of its final chapter and modified preface eliminated in subsequent editions. The 1966 revision was more long-lasting and included significant changes; a new first chapter titled “Of Old Regimes and Reconstructions” incorporated some of the 1957 modifications and addressed challenges to Woodward’s view that segregation was largely a product of the early twentieth century South.[10] The final 1974 edition was virtually identical to the 1966 version with a few exceptions and included a sixth chapter titled “The Career Becomes Stranger” that begins with the Watts riots, chronicles the civil rights movement from 1966 to 1974, and ends with an ironic assessment of the Black separatists’ rejection of integration.[11] The final version of the work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition (2002), is virtually identical to the 1974 edition with the exception of an afterward written by historian William S. McFeely that is a history of the book, the author, and their impact on the civil rights movement.

Confronted with rejection by the great mass of Negro people, black separatists and extremists undertook to dramatize their causes and act out their fantasies in some improbable places. One such place was the predominantly white Northern university or college. These institutions had admitted an increasing, but still relatively small, number of black students. The students brought with them perfectly legitimate demands for formal courses in Afro-American history, culture, sociology, and art. In the midst of academic efforts to respond to this acknowledged need, black nationalists sought to seize complete control of the new Afro-American programs and convert Black Studies into Black Nationalist Studies. Their avowed purpose in some instances was to revolutionize the black students and train cadres of revolutionists. They usually demanded autonomous departments with power to hire and fire, dictate curriculum, grant degrees, and exclude white teachers and students. Their purpose was not to integrate but to segregate education in the name of black nationalism. They varied in doctrine and rhetoric, but many shared the conviction of Stokeley Carmichael that it was ‘precisely the job of the black educator to train his people how to dismantle America, how to destroy it.’

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 199-200.

For all its success and popularity, Woodward’s thesis that segregation was mainly a product of the first half of the twentieth century did not lack critics – a fact that he readily recognized and attempted to address in subsequent editions of the book. Woodward’s most notable critics included historians Howard N. Rabinowitz, Richard C. Wade, and Ira Berlin, all of whom wrote about cases of racial segregation prior to the period of time that Woodward emphasized. Professor Rabinowitz, for example, pointed out numerous cases of voluntary and involuntary segregation dating back to before the Reconstruction period in the South. He concluded that “by 1890 segregation had been extended to every major area of southern life” and that it was only doubts about being able to keep Blacks in their place that caused states to legalize Jim Crow.[12]

The wonder is not that the Populists eventually failed but that they made as much headway as they did against the overwhelming odds they faced. The measures they took were sometimes drastic and, for the times, even heroic. At a time when Georgia led all the states in lynchings Watson announced that it was the object of his party to ‘make lynch law odious to the people.’ And in 1896 the Populist platform of Georgia contained a plank denouncing lynch law. In the campaign of 1892 a Negro Populist who had made sixty-three speeches for Watson was threatened with lynching and fled to him for protection. Two thousand armed white farmers, some of whom rode all night, responded to Watson’s call for aid and remained on guard for two nights at his home to avert the threat of violence.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 62-63.

In his work The Future of the Past (1986) Woodward dedicated an entire chapter to addressing criticism of the The Strange Career of Jim Crow in which he admitted that he made the mistake of starting off by addressing the question of when as opposed to where or how, and that it would have been better to have started by explaining that segregation first appeared in cities and towns and was therefore largely an urban phenomenon.[13] Woodward also conceded that he “somewhat overstated the rigidity of segregation in the early twentieth century.”[14] His critics spoke of segregation in street cars, theaters, restaurants, bars, hotels, and numerous other public facilities – most of which are associated with urban life. Woodward pointed out that according to the 1900 census only ten percent of whites and even fewer Blacks were classified as urban.[15] Furthermore, Woodward explained, rural life in the south had few of the usual urban objects of segregation. Rural Black and white people lived and interacted with each other within the caste system inherited from slavery with racial dominance maintained by “direct, personal, or ‘vertical control’ – whether by the ‘boss man’ or any white who chose to keep Blacks in their place” rather than by large scale segregation.[16]

The conservatives compounded their offense and further weakened their moral authority with lower-class white men by using the Negro vote against them. For while they were raising a storm of race feeling against the Populists with the charge that the insurgents were using the Negro against the white man’s party, the conservatives were taking advantage of their dominance in the Black Belt to pile up huge majorities of Negro votes for the cause of white supremacy. Some of these voters were bought and some intimidated, but in the main they were merely counted for the ticket, however they voted or whether they voted or not. Time after time the Populists would discover that after they had carried the white counties, fraudulent returns from the Black Belt counties padded with ballots the Negro did or did not cast were used to overwhelm them. When the conservatives in 1896 proved able to carry only one-fifth of the parishes of Louisiana that had a white majority, the New Orleans Times-Democrat cynically remarked that white supremacy had again been ‘saved by negro votes.’ The tactics by which the conservatives crushed the Populist revolt completely undermined their moral position on race policy, for their methods had made a mockery of the plea for moderation and fair play.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition p. 80.

Whether or not Woodward and critics of his work will ever completely agree with each other, the fact is that The Strange Career of Jim Crow ushered in a new period in American historiography and led to much historical research and debate on a topic that otherwise might not have taken place when it did. Speaking of his work from this period of his life, Woodward declared “I was there. …it was the greatest social movement of our time.”[17] The memoriam article published by the American Historical Association shortly after his death lauded Woodward as the “most influential scholar ever to interpret the history of the American South to the nation and world” – this in large part due to a career that snowballed after the publication of a short but inspiring work that has yet to lose its popular and academic influence.[18]

End Notes

[1] C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: Commemorative Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), xvi-xvii.

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 300.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 12-13.

[5] Ibid. 81.

[6] Philip Mason, “Review: The Strange Career of Jim Crow. by C. Vann Woodward,” Royal Institute of International Affairs 32, no. 2 (April 1956): 267.

[7] Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 221.

[8] Woodward, The Future of the Past, 303.

[9] Howard N. Rabinowitz, “More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing the Strange Career of Jim Crow,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (December 1988): 843.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Howard N. Rabinowitz, “From Exclusion to Segregation: Southern Race Relations, 1865-1890,” The Journal of American History 63, no. 2 (September 1976): 349.

[13] Woodward, The Future of the Past, 297.

[14] Ibid. 302.

[15] Ibid. 297.

[16] Ibid. 297-298.

[17] C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, Third Edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 168.

[18] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “In Memoriam C. Vann Woodward (1908-99),” American Historical Association, March 2000, , accessed March 29, 2018,