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Jeffrey Rable

HIST 171
Stephen Hahn, Janine Van Vliet
Resistance to Segregation and White Retaliation
Immediately following Reconstruction, with the restoration of Democrat home rule in the
American South, the living conditions of blacks began to deteriorate. With the passage of Jim Crow,
poll taxes, and other laws meant to subvert the 14th and 15th amendments, African Americans were
reduced to the status of second class citizens, with many of the gains made during Reconstruction
stamped out. However, as this widespread repression began to take hold, blacks began to undermine
them immediately, taking small, progressive steps to reclaim their rights and change the system itself.
Through social, economic, cultural, and political means, they earned back the rights lost following
Reconstruction. The differences between these types of resistance, such as how much they challenged
the status quo and whether or not they benefited whites, determined both the degree of white retaliation
and the overall success of the method, with the most inconspicuous methods being the least productive
and the most rebellious yielding the greatest successes.
Social methods of resistance to white rule were the least productive forms in terms of the
regaining of rights and freedoms, but also helped the black community stay safe and enrich itself. For
example, one of the social methods of resistance was the withdrawal of blacks into their own
communities. While this method did little to improve their overall standing in the outside world, it did
limit black contact with whites, and in turn, limit the ability of blacks to be harassed and abused. For
example, Ralph Thomas, a black man growing up in Memphis in the 30's and 40's, said that they [his
parents] tried to shield us from it [segregation] by...taking us in a different direction...they tried to keep
it away from us1. Additionally, because withdrawal limited the ability of blacks to associate with
whites, did little to challenge the status quo, and benefited whites that disliked coming into contact
1 William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, Robert Korstad, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the
Segregated South (New York, London: The New Press, 2001), 6

with blacks, there was little to no white backlash against it.


Emigration acted as another form of social resistance to segregation and Jim Crow in the South.
While African Americans lacked a number of rights, they still had freedom of movement and the ability
to move on to more promising areas. Starting in the 1880's, a number of blacks began to look to places
like Kansas, Liberia, and Indiana; merely the idea that they could go where they can buy land on time
and work it out2 was attractive to them. As time went by, various emigration movements to different
areas, such as the North and the West, came and went, ebbing and flowing with the challenges blacks
faced at various times. For example, in W.E.B Dubois's The Migration of Negroes, one man attributes
the Great Migration to 7 causes: Prejudice, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow cars, lynching, bad
treatment on the farms, the boll weevil, the floods of 1916.3 Additionally, Dubois also quotes a colored
business man, who refers to segregation and other forms of discrimination as insurmountable barriers
of caste4 which promoted emigration.
Emigration, unlike withdrawal, did cause some problems for wealthy whites, as it pulled
African Americans out of the labor markets. For years after the end of the Civil War, African Americans
offered a cheap and relatively sustainable source of labor to the planter class. However, after the tearing
down of the black codes, African Americans were free to move as they pleased, with little being able to
be done to stop them. For example, one of the few early attempts at restricting emigration occurred in
Louisiana in 1879. Democrats called a constitutional convention to attempt to restrict the movements of
blacks, but ultimately failed not only did the legislation fail to pass, but the word of potential
legislation pushed more blacks to emigrate for fear of losing their ability to leave5. However, despite
some scattered attempts to restrict emigration, these movements did little damage to whites and little to
challenge white rule, greatly limiting the amount of retaliation.
2 Stephen Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, (Cambridge, Massachussets and London, England: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2003), 335
3 W.E.B Dubois, The Migration of Negroes, The Crisis, June 1917, 46
4 Ibid.
5 Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, 360

Economic methods of African American resistance often barely affected the white population
and drew little resistance. Additionally, like social resistance, economic resistance did little to directly
regain freedoms and rights, but indirectly enabled blacks to fight for their rights through the enrichment
of the community. The most straightforward economic resistance occurred when blacks worked to enter
the middle class, becoming, as Booker T. Washington once said, productive citizens and property
owners.6 The ideas of Booker T., that one should be fairly successful before becoming involved in
politics, resonated strongly with many whites and Southern leaders, and thus, many black economic
successes drew little ire from whites. Additionally, as blacks entered the middle class, their financial
successes and education allowed them to begin to properly fight for their rights, through joining various
organizations, like the NAACP, which was composed primarily of the educated and more successful
blacks in the community7.
Southern blacks also economically resisted white rule by financing both underfunded public
organizations and by financially supporting one another. For instance, in many cases, schools were
often underfunded by the government, enabling them to only remain open for only a handful of months
every year. However, in many communities, such as in the community of David Matthews, a reverend
living in Mississippi in the 50's and 60's, parents would do whatever they possibly could to pull
together enough money to retain their teachers for an extra month or two. In an additional act of
economic defiance and dedication to the betterment of the community, teachers often accepted meager
wages for that extra month of work8. There also existed a number of fraternities in communities that
provided financial support for their members. For instance, in the Florida community of A. I. Dixie, a
group called the Emancipated Order provided financial support for those who paid relatively low dues.
If a member faced some financial problem, such as the destruction of their house, the death of their
mule, or their own deaths, the other members of the group would help them or their family. Since these
6 Booker T. Washington, Atlanta Compromise, (Speech, Atlanta Exposition, Atlanta, GA, 18 September 1895)
7 Stephen Hahn, History 171: The American South 1861-Present, (Lecture, Philadelphia, PA, 23 March 2015)
8 William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, Robert Korstad, Remembering Jim Crow, 120

forms of financial support for education and the community stayed within the black community, whites
did little to prevent them the most resistance mentioned by Matthews or Dixie is that blacks could not
hold meetings at night9.
However, economic resistance to white rule did occasionally draw out retaliation, typically
when whites believed that they were wronged or that their communities were being corrupted. In the
case of the father of Stine George, a black man who bought a piece of prime real estate with the
assistance of his employer, his employer's offended sons burned his house down while he and his
children slept, killing two of them10. In less violent cases, such as those discussed in Kevin Kruse's
White Flight, whites would attempt to resist black encroachment in their communities for a time before
ultimately moving away, decreasing the overall tax base in the area and leading to urban decay. This
form of retaliation came as a result of challenging the status quo blacks entering white communities
or buying white land prompted retribution.
Cultural resistance to segregation developed with the formation of blues and jazz, which
eventually became popular among both white and black communities. This in turn provided a certain
degree of acceptance of blacks among whites. For instance, Louis Armstrong began his career in the
1920's playing nearly exclusively for blacks, but later in his career played for predominately white
crowds, ultimately stating in 1957 that the white folks did everything decent for me, demonstrating
how many whites valued his cultural contributions over his race11. Despite challenging the foundations
of the basis for segregation, musicians were able to stay relatively unscathed because of their great
works, which many whites enjoyed.
Jazz and blues also provided a soap box from which musicians could spread the struggles of
their communities or criticize certain groups. During the early days of the blues, musicians would often

9 Ibid, 129
10 Ibid, 12
11 Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA, the Year of 1907, March 31, 1969-1970,
4

sing about the hardships and injustices experienced by African Americans in the region.12 Over time,
many blues songs became promotions for the Civil Rights movement, such as the popular spiritual I
Shall Not Be Moved13. Though jazz music lacks lyrics, the popularity of well-respected jazz musicians
offered them a platform to share their views. For example, Louis Armstrong widely criticized both the
government and members of his own race for their shortcomings during integration and other pivotal
moments in the battle for Civil Rights14.
The cultural forms of black resistance to segregation continued to develop into the 50's and 60's
with the spread of Rock n' Roll, as well as through sports. The spread of racial cooperation throughout
new wave music in the 50's came from blending of white and black cultures, with musicians like Elvis
Presley, who wore clothes and mumbled phrases more closely associated with African Americans than
whites15. Similarly, in the early days of stock car racing, a black man named Wendell Scott competed
in the predominately white, Southern sport, and though he failed to gain sponsors, other racers provided
him with parts that allowed him to remain competitive16.
For the most part, white retribution for cultural resistance failed to be overly violent or intense.
Despite promoting integration, many whites enjoyed jazz and other pieces of black culture, minimizing
the amount of backlash compared to the methods of resistance that were viewed as an affront to their
living standards. However, this cultural integration was not without any white retaliation. Throughout
the South, whites would admonish rock n' roll, blues, and jazz as nigger music17, and in various
sports, black athletes were met with discrimination and racism from both crowds and promoters; for
example, some tracks refused to allow black racer Wendell Scott to compete, and it took weeks for
NASCAR to officially declare him the winner of the only major race he won18.

12
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14
15
16
17
18

William Barlow, Everyday Seems Like Murder Here, 29


Hahn, History 171, 2 March 2015
Armstrong, Armstrong and the Jewish Family, the Year 1907, 4
Pete Daniel, A Little of the Rebel, 148
Pete Daniel, Fast and Furious, 106
Pete Daniel, A Little of the Rebel, 148
Pete Daniel, Fast and Furious, 106

Finally, political resistance acted as the most direct and effective method for blacks to reclaim
their rights in a world marred by segregation. However, because of how directly it challenged the
system and how little most whites stood to gain from it, it often drew the most, and worst, retaliation of
all the forms of black resistance. Even before the passage of Jim Crow, attempts to vote by blacks were
met with lynchings and other forms of reprisal, described as Ida B. Wells in A Red Record as a long,
bloody campaign for fears of Negro domination.19 This resulted in limited widespread political
organization among blacks for many years after, until the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.
During the Civil Rights movement, political organization revolved around a combination of
mass movements and smaller scale lawsuits, which enabled groups to attack the system of segregation
both on a large scale and on a more precise scale. For example, in desegregating the Montgomery
public transit system, the NAACP handled the legal aspects of Rosa Parks's case, while Parks and the
black community handled the boycott, which demonstrated how the system could not afford to run
without African American riders. All during the case, however, whites attacked the movement, both
through government repression and vigilantism, demonstrated by both Martin Luther King Jr.'s arrest
and the threats made against him. Additional retribution came in the form of economic attempts to
prevent black alternatives to public transit from running properly by refusing to grant them car
insurance.
Voter's registrations and other forms of political rallying formed another direct form of attack on
the system of segregation. While many voters drives, such as those during Freedom Summer, only
succeeded to a certain extent given the rules against voter registration at the time, they were often met
with extreme resistance from whites, especially in more rural areas. In Jonesboro, a rural town in
Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group dedicated to armed self defense and the
defense of nonviolent civil rights activists, were necessary to stop Klan violence against the black
community even after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Regardless, throughout the South, civil rights
19 Ida B. Wells, A Red Record, (1895), 77

activists faced beatings, harassment, and possibly death, such as the three activists killed in Neshoba
County in 196420.
Ultimately, black resistance came in a number of direct and indirect forms, the former of which
resulted in the most extreme and violent white retaliation. Social, cultural, and some forms of economic
resistance failed to attack the system directly, merely creating an atmosphere in which wider scale
political resistance stood a greater chance of success. Though sometimes these forms of resistance
appeared to threaten the system, such as when black culture became popular in the middle of the
twentieth century, they typically faced little retaliation more than verbal threats or attempted
legislation. However, more direct attacks on the system and the status quo, such as moving into white
communities or directly opposing the system through political methods, drew violent and vicious
reprisal as whites desperately clung to their legal superiority and better opportunities. However,
through all these methods of resistance, African Americans overcame the worst of the system of
segregation and improved their social standing over time.

20 Hahn, Hist 171, 13 April 2015