Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Nothing to Jim Crow about

It's Black History Month, so it's time to reflect on America's less than perfect past, to marvel at the accomplishments of people like Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King who succeeded in spite of racism, and to celebrate how far we've come that a man whose dad was born in Africa can become President.

Also it's time to see a few articles that make your eyeballs roll. Here's one:

"President Barack Obama simultaneously fulfills the fondest hopes and worst fears in certain groups of Americans as the first black man to hold the White House. What are keys for Obama to break down racial divisions in the country?

"He has a good start based on the statistics of the campaign. The most prolific fundraiser in political history... Obama raised nearly $640 million in his campaign, and many of those dollars came from first-time donors in small checks. People of every stripe voted with their pocketbook before they ever set foot in a voting booth."

Wait a second. In a discussion of Obama breaking down racial divisions the first thing Woolman points to is that he raised lots of money? Not that he won primaries and caucuses in states where the vast majority of voters were white? Not that he won a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, where a Chicago suburb was dubbed "the Selma of the North" by Dr. King, who preached when Obama was a boy? (See Cahan, A Court That Shaped America, 2002, pp. 127-29). Not even that he was first black president of the Harvard Law Review? His first and foremost claim to ending racial divisions is that he got a lot of folks to reach into their wallets? Obama is a persuasive guy; if he hadn't gone into politics he could probably have gotten multitudes to open their checkbooks by selling time shares; this would scarcely earn him Time magazine's Man of the Year.

The article goes on to refer to the United States as a "country where the Confederate flag still flies and people look back fondly at a Jim Crow past." This is, of course, like saying the U.S. is a country where people are fond of theft. There are thieves, of course, but that scarcely means we are a nation of thieves. And there are a few bigots--a very few--who might fondly remember when Rosa Parks was told where to sit, but these folks are insignificant dolts who live in their own world of hatred. For Woolman to speak of those who fondly remember a Jim Crow past, as though such folks are common is rather unsettling.

Well, enough about trivial articles you can read in a minute and a half. February's designation as Black History Month makes this a great time for me to mention two books on the history of race in America. These are books I wish every American would read. One is C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, first published in 1955. If you ever saw a historical photograph of a water fountain with an adjacent sign declaring it to be for "Whites only" and wondered how in blazes our society managed to descend to such depths, Woodward explains it in about 230 pages.

A much longer book is Richard Kluger's Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, first published in 1975. This is a very scholarly and complete look at the school segregation decisions. Kluger dives into the background on each of the five cases that eventually were lumped together into the Brown decision, so there is lots of information on what happened not only in Kansas, but also in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. Here's one indicator of how thorough Kluger's tome is: there are about thirty pages of biographical information on the nine Justices sitting on the Supreme Court that ruled on Brown. A book that has three pages on Harold Burton and that is almost 800 pages long minus the notes and index could easily be tedious reading, but Kluger grabs your interest through the entire volume.

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