During the year of 1895 when racial tension was high, an African American man delivered a speech to thousands of fellow Americans. His name was Booker T. Washington, a former slave from Virginia, and advocate for African American progress. Although his speech (“The Atlanta Compromise”) was intended to advocate for African American progress, it resonated more with white Americans instead. Washington’s famous line, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress (Locke and Wright, 2019).” The belief that they could be “separate but equal” was especially popular among poor whites who believed that being white automatically made them the superior race. In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson case implemented the “separate but equal” doctrine into law (Walgren, 2019). The Plessy v. Ferguson case reiterated the racial belief by white Americans that they could create laws that allowed their race to prosper while leaving African Americans in the dust. The Jim Crow Laws were developed and institutionalized into America due to the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and cultural forms of racism justifying the heinous actions taken by whites during and after reconstruction.
Following the end of the Civil War, the South experienced Reconstruction vastly different than the North. “Because the South took on a low tax and pro-business environment, many Northern industries saw this as an opportunity and relocated to the South (Walgren, 2019).” By 1900 in spite of minor improvements, the South was still straggling behind the North in terms of their economy, and the majority of Southerners remained in poverty. Sharecropping was popular among southerners at the time, however, along with sharecropping came immense changes in their industry as a whole. Many African Americans also began to make more than poor whites during this time which challenged the traditional belief of white supremacy. This, along with the massive changes the South faced created anxiety in whites who feared being the same as African Americans. The whites became distraught that the old south was dying and began seeking ways to reestablish racial hierarchy as it was in the past. Jim Crow Laws were soon created in the form of segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence.
“After Reconstruction the Supreme Court, Republicans, and Northerners all lost interest in protecting the civil rights of African Americans, however, the task of imposing segregation was not an easy one (Walgren, 2019).” Imposing segregation on a large group of people took an abundance of effort and constant reinforcement by whites. The amount of effort the whites had to put into enforcing segregation is telling of how much they believed in white supremacy and the length at which they would go to instill it. In 1898 during the Williams v. Mississippi case, it was established that states could legally disenfranchise voting as long as it wasn’t specifically based on race. Whites then established the polling tax, literacy test, and grandfather clause which not only created barriers to black voting, but simultaneously allowed poor whites to vote even though they were illiterate. In fact, the grandfather clause was created as a means to allow poor whites to vote. “As a result, black voting dropped by 62% in the South due to these new rules (Walgren, 2019).”
At the same time that southern states withdrew black voting rights, an entire culture was developing around the consumption — both literal and figurative — of black bodies. This commodification of blackness legitimized African-Americans’ relegation to second-class citizens. Cultural forms of segregation developed as a way to enforce the belief of white supremacy. Jim Crow Laws were even named as a means to insult African Americans. Jim Crow Laws originally got its name from a fictional character–Jim Crow–who encompassed a clumsy, ignorant slave. From this play, whites used Jim Crow as a derogatory term when referring to African Americans. Cultural forms of segregation also took place in the form of advertising for consumer products. Two of the most famous examples include the Aunt Jemima ad and “The Gold Dust Twins.” “Aunt Jemima was used on pancake boxes to portray a “mammy”: a female servant who served her master and his family’s needs above her own (Walgren, 2019).” The “Gold Dust Twins” were also used in reference to slavery by displaying two African American boys usually on cleaning products with their master (a white man). African Americans were advertised as helpless, submissive, and grotesque individuals while the whites were advertised as good-looking and strong patriotic citizens.
Although the goal of their advertisements was to solidify white supremacy it backfired and allowed the black middle-class to prosper. Whites began seeking violence as a means to the rising black middle-class. Lynchings occurred by vigilantes with the intent to humiliate and kill African Americans by hanging them. Crowds would gather (even children would be excused from school to come watch) to attend the lynchings because whites took pride in watching and receiving the body parts of the victims. Ida B. Wells spoke out against the lynchings in her speech, “Lynch Law in America.” She described how whites validated their horrendous actions by portraying African Americans (mostly men) as monstrous beasts (Locke and Wright, 2019). Editors and lawyers justified the lynchings by saying that they were protecting women from being raped by black men. The black men were automatically assumed to be guilty and were granted no trial to prove their innocence simply because a white woman accused them of rape. Most of the men accused of rape were proven innocent after they had already been hung. Wells points out, however, that not even ⅓ of the lynching acts were to protect women. More so, most people were okay with lynching when it involved the protection of a white woman but turned their cheek when it involved an African American woman. The whole idea of lynching boils down to the belief that white women were helpless and needed to be protected from African American men who were portrayed as beasts.
Looking back, Booker T. Washington’s speech felt more like a win to the whites and a loss for African American progress. One of his biggest critiques–W. E. B DuBois — addresses Washington’s shortcomings in his own seminal (“The Souls of Black Folk”). DuBois was disappointed in Washington’s remarks that African Americans could only survive in their country through submission to whites by “giving up political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education for negro youth.” He then points out that “the only things to come from their submission was the disenfranchisement of negros, inferiority of the negro civil status, and the removal of aid for higher education systems of the negro (Locke and Wright, 2019).” Washington is not to blame for the Jim Crow Laws and the atrocity that African Americans faced, however, he reaffirmed white supremacy beliefs that African Americans were the inferior race. How were African Americans able to make any progress when their civil rights were taken away and one of their own leaders told them to cast down their buckets? To put it quite simply, they weren’t.