The Promise and Terror of the New South

By Benjamin Schwarz

23 August 1998 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

PICK

Leon Litwack has written a terrifying book. “Trouble in Mind” chronicles the black experience in the American South–the most violent region in the country–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bloodiest and most repressive period in the history of race relations in the United States. In doing so, Litwack has attempted to tackle perhaps the most morally compelling, emotionally charged, complicated and controversial subject that has engaged American historians over the last 45 years.

Few historians are better prepared. Litwack’s first book, “North of Slavery,” an elegant and path-breaking study of race relations in the North before the Civil War, demonstrated that blacks in the free states were segregated in “virtually every phase of existence” and that the Jim Crow system of systematically segregating blacks had been thoroughly established in the North long before it moved south. His monumental 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Been in the Storm So Long” examined in detail and with unusual sensitivity the freedmen’s response to emancipation. With “Trouble in Mind,” Litwack has added a third chapter to his epic of black Americans’ encounter with “freedom.” But while this is in many ways an extraordinary book, it lacks the precision of the first and, more important, the subtlety of the second.

What made “Been in the Storm So Long” such an important work was how Litwack revealed the intricate relationship between Southern blacks and whites, who were compelled after emancipation to respond to each other in new ways. Although his subject was the black experience, Litwack had to examine both races with equal care because although some white and black Southerners might like to deny it, the basic fact of Southern history is thatm-1618 blacks and whites have always been inextricably bound together. As W. J. Cash recognized in his analysis of “The Mind of the South” (1941): “Negro entered white man as profoundly as white man entered Negro–subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude.” Though often vivid, “Trouble in Mind’s” portrayal of the black experience is ultimately incomplete because Litwack too often treats a vital element of his story–white attitudes, motivations and actions–simplistically, as a static and monolithic force.

In fact, the last four decades of scholarship on this period have emphasized the fluidity and mercurial nature of the white racial attitudes and behavior that exercised such an enormous and often horrendous impact on black life. Take, for example, the subject of lynching. Litwack is, of course, appalled by the frequency and brutality of this crime, but his treatment of it essentially amounts to a catalog of grisly incidents, familiar to those acquainted with the historical literature. Missing from his account is an exploration of why the number of lynchings rose so dramatically in the 1890s and why there was such geographical variation in their occurrence–questions that have preoccupied other historians and sociologists for the last 20 years.

This seemingly recondite line of inquiry is central to Litwack’s task, which he describes as an attempt to capture “the experience of being black in the late 19th and early 20th century South.” As Richard Wright, Billie Holiday and countless others have testified, the fear of lynching haunted black Southern life. But the way that fear determined the experience of, say, a black family that had lived for generations in the Georgia low country–which had one of the lowest incidence of lynching of any area in the South–was substantially different from the way it influenced the life of a black farm laborer only four counties away in the Georgia cotton belt–which saw more lynchings than almost any other place in the region. To explain the black Southern experience during this period requires not only describing the enormities committed by many whites toward blacks but also elucidating the complex set of factors ranging from changes in crime rates, to population movements, to attitudes toward sexuality and gender, to the social relations that grew out of different forms of agriculture that helped bring about those enormities and hence shaped black life.

II

“Trouble in Mind” is a simple story: In the face of Southern whites’ consistent and unyielding efforts–in the form of Jim Crow laws, an inequitable labor system, disfranchisement and racist violence–to impose and maintain their supremacy, Southern blacks attempted “to wrest some meaning and value out of their . . . lives.” But the historical debate (as Litwack has detailed in his earlier books) presents a far more complicated picture. Throughout his discussion of segregation and the racial caste system, for instance, Litwak never mentions, and therefore never offers, his own assessment of the controversy surrounding the “Woodward thesis.” In his 1955 book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward demonstrated that until the 1890s, social segregation in the South was partial and tentative and that it became entrenched only in the period from the 1890s to 1910; for two decades after Reconstruction, he argued, alternatives to segregation were seriously debated and relations between blacks and whites enjoyed a flexibility and tolerance unthinkable for later generations.

“The Strange Career of Jim Crow” became a point of departure for three decades of scholarly investigation of Southern race relations, and Woodward’s critics have made the picture even more complicated. Howard Rabinowitz, for example, argued that in terms of some social services, segregation was a distinct advance over total exclusion and in fact had some black support. He also drew attention to the close correlation between the growth of Southern cities and the rise of systematic racial separation. And whereas Woodward saw the political upheaval associated with the Populist challenge to Democratic hegemony as the immediate cause of formal segregation, Rabinowitz looked to white fears that were aroused by a new generation of “aggressive” blacks unconditioned by slavery. For his part, historian Joel Williamson, in the most fully developed alternative interpretation to sharecrWoodward’s, also de-emphasized political conflict and explained the more invidious forms of legalized racial separation (as well as a fundamental transformation in white attitudes toward blacks and a concomitant rise in racial violence) as the byproducts of Southern white males’ repressed sexual envy and fears.

These various interpretations, of course, carry different implications for understanding the lives of Southern blacks. And if either Woodward or Rabinowitz or Williamson is correct, the experiences of a black man in Birmingham, Ala., in 1901, for example, would probably have been quite different from those of a black man in tidewater Virginia in 1880. Adding still further nuance, it’s true that a black lawyer would likely encounter no difficulty practicing in the courtrooms in Vicksburg or Jackson, Miss., but would have probably been barred from the courtrooms in rural northeastern Mississippi. At the same time, however, he would also have found that, whereas the parks, railroad stations, theaters and restaurants of the cities were rigidly segregated, in the rural areas local blacks and whites mingled together at the cotton gin and country store and even shared the same fishing holes and hunting grounds. But that black lawyer would also be a far more likely victim of a lynch mob in the country than in the city. And finally, he would find that practically wherever and whenever he was in the South, the racial barriers would be rigid in those places where men and women came together–streetcars, hotels, the parlor–but quite relaxed in those places where people of only one gender associated with one another–bars, race tracks, boxing rings, kitchens and nurseries. It is just these layers of nuance that Litwack largely neglects.

Though Litwack’s approach at times lacks subtlety, “Trouble in Mind” is nonetheless a valuable and insightful book. But in one lengthy and important chapter, his understandable indignation at the injustices committed against Southern blacks–which sometimes leads him to rather crudely divide his story between white victimizers and black victims–seriously clouds his historical judgment and, again, seems to lead him to disregard the vast historical literature that he doubtless has mastered. Since the publication in 1951 of another of Woodward’s books, his masterpiece, “Origins of the New South,” historians have been divided over whether race or class conflict is the central theme of late-19th and early-20th century Southern history. Both conflicts existed, of course, and they intersected in myriad and unpredictable ways, so that though most historians today would probably stress one element more than the other, few ignore either. Litwack, however, comes close to doing just this in his discussion of the plight of black Southern farmers.

III

The transformation of Southern agriculture in the late 19th century was one of the most wrenching changes in American history. It gave rise to Populism, the largest and most powerful movement attempting the structural reform of the American economic and political system. It culminated in the desperate trek of white and black Americans out of the Southern Cotton Belt, the largest population shift in American history (contrary to the popular image, the majority of participants in the “Great Migration” were in fact rural Southern whites). The political, economic, cultural and demographic consequences of this story of crushed hopes reverberate to this day.

In an oversimplified account of this complicated and controversial story, the South, which in the antebellum years had been arguably a pre-capitalist and certainly an anti-bourgeois society, was caught up in the grip of the market economy after the Civil War. As Woodward argued in “Origins of the New South” and as such historians as Steven Hahn and Lawrence Goodwyn have elaborated, a rising class of capitalist entrepreneurs–bankers, landlords and merchants who shared the outlook and ideology of their backers in the Northern banking and business community–took control of the mind of the South and dominated its economic and political life. The rise of this “New South” profoundly altered the lives of yeoman farmers; the vast majority of white Southerners, who lived outside the commercial cotton-growing areas of the region, generally owned their land and had been producing for their own needs and local trade rather than for distant markets. Soon after the war, large-scale commercial agriculture, under the auspices of the entrepreneurial capitalists of the New South, spread beyond the plantations into the predominantly white small farming regions. Drawn into thefig-152-white-sharecroppers-on-wessyngton-plantation1 web of market relations, the upcountry farmer fell under the sway of merchants and commercial planters who advanced him credit at exorbitant rates of interest, kept him perpetually in debt and used their leverage as creditors to engender a shift from subsistence to cash crops and from small holdings to centralized land ownership.

The “crop lien” was the linchpin of this process. Under this system, a planter or merchant (who were themselves paying 18% interest on credit extended through Northern banks) extended a line of credit to a moneyless farmer (frequently at rates in excess of 100%), taking as collateral the year’s cotton crop. The farmer could then draw food and farm supplies during the growing season from the store of the credit merchant. The high rate of interest on the lien was compounded by the “two-price system”: one price for cash and another price, usually about 30% higher, for credit purchases. Thus it was almost impossible for the farmer ever to get out of debt. If he worked unusually hard and was very lucky, he might hold his indebtedness below the value of his land, although he would remain virtually penniless from year to year. If he was not so lucky and his debt rose to meet the value of his land, he was foreclosed and became a landless tenant or sharecropper. In this way, the credit merchants who came to power in the post-Reconstruction South inexorably acquired title to much of the countryside.

The system worked with extraordinary rapidity: In the 1870s about 20% of Southern farmers were tenants, predominantly newly freed slaves; by the 1910s that figure had more than doubled to about 50%, adding to the ranks the newly landless whites. Of course, most of the remaining “landowners” had by this time long been locked in permanent indebtedness. The many small farmers who lost their land became part of the New South’s labor pool, finding work as sharecroppers or agricultural wage hands or in the South Carolina cotton mills, the Birmingham steel mills or the turpentine camps in the piney woods of Louisiana and East Texas; nearly all farmers lost their economic independence as they were conscripted into the political economy of an emerging capitalism.

Ironically, Southern blacks were striving for the very kind of economic independence that the white yeomanry was losing. Although the freedmen made clear their wish to become self-sufficient farmers, the Northern reformers, New South capitalists and commercial planters pushed the former slaves to become agricultural wage-laborers instead. Powerless before enormous economic and political forces, rural blacks became essentially a captive labor force, joining increasing numbers of rural whites, as both groups found their Jeffersonian dream of small-producer independence thwarted. Hallmarks of the period, then, were the oppression and exploitation of the masses–both black and white–by the New South elite. And indeed, commercial plantersIP-16 used the same contemptuous language when speaking of both “rednecks” and “niggers” who, after all, were paid the same since the effective wage for cropping was set by the world price for cotton, a distinctly color-blind commodity.

Largely ignoring this story, Litwack sees the economic distress and exploitation of rural blacks through a narrow lens that discerns only racial, not class, divisions. To maintain, as he does, that the emergence of an independent black yeomanry was defeated by white racism is to ignore the economic and political forces arrayed against an independent yeomanry of any color. To state that “blacks worked the land, whites owned the land” is true as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that fewer and fewer whites owned land and that increasing numbers of whites found themselves in the same ditch with landless blacks. To assert that the crop lien system was “an ingenious way for whites to assure themselves of a cheap and bound labor force” is to distort the purpose of the crop lien, which was used equally against black and white farmers. To conflate “the landlord and merchant class” with “whites” is to disregard the intense, and often bloody, class conflicts among whites. And to claim that, because of racism, “faithful adherence to the work ethic brought most black people nothing” is to fail to grasp the hopelessness that dispirited nearly all poor rural people in the South, regardless of color.

IV

Litwack could certainly have made a cogent argument for the salience of racial divisions over class divisions in the New South, if only he had acknowledged and assessed the strong arguments that counter or qualify that position. This failing also seriously undermines his account of a related subject, the disfranchisement of black voters. Historians have long been puzzling over the motivations behind the white South’s rather sudden disfranchisement of blacks in the 1890s. If this was simply a matter of asserting “white supremacy,” why did it take 15 to 25 years after the end of Reconstruction for white supremacists to deny populistblacks any political voice? The questions are similar to those surrounding formal segregation, which began at about the same time: What accounts for the timing of disfranchisement? Does it mark a fundamental shift in white Southerners’ attitudes toward blacks?

Joel Williamson has made a strong case that disfranchisement, along with segregation and the sudden surge of racial violence, grew out of the racist hysteria that seemed to grip white Southerners in the 1890s, which he in turn attributes to psychosexual causes. But historians J. Morgan Kousser and Barbara Fields have argued that suffrage restriction was essentially a ruling-class campaign against lower-class voters in general, not just blacks. They see the disfranchisement as a deliberate attempt by the New South’s political and economic elite, threatened by the Populists, to destroy party opposition and widespread political participation. They point out that the vast majority of white members of opposition parties fought against disfranchisement because it would deprive any anti-Democratic group of the hope of attracting the votes of blacks and whites most persecuted by the political and economic status quo. They also reveal that poor whites tended to oppose disfranchisement, despite the trappings of white supremacist ideology with which it was proclaimed, because poor whites understood that they were to be its unstated secondary victims, as they did indeed become.

Clearly, then, the political suppression of blacks is a complicated issue, but no matter where a historian stands, merely invoking “white supremacy” as a motivation is untenable. The strong class-based arguments must be addressed, and the fact that it took decades for disfranchisement and Jim Crowism to emerge must be explained. Litwack, however, claims that “disfranchisement . . . came to the South in the 1890s because the issue of political participation remained linked in the white mind with black assertiveness and social equality” (my emphasis). But was the “white mind” so politically monolithic? Did black political participation mean the same thing to a white Populist as it did to a white banker? And, more important, if the meaning of black political participation to whites remained constant, why were blacks not disfranchised in the 1880s, say, or in the 1920s?

V

The best and most vivid passages in “Trouble in Mind” detail the horrific violence directed against black males by whites. All accounts of Southern race relations during the period Litwack examines agree on one thing: A ferocious racial hatred possessed white Southerners in the 1890s. But Litwack’s lack of attention to chronology causes him to leave unanswered the most obvious question that his often-powerful account will provoke the general reader to ask. Although for 200 years the South had been a racially divided and therefore “racist” society, and for decades since emancipation blacks had been unchecked by the kind of social control imposed by slavery, it was not until this period that quite suddenly many whites seemed to develop a fear and concomitant hatred of blacks that bordered on the genocidal, as about 100 black men were lynched every year during the ’90s. The number of lynchings declined by more than half in the following decade, although the level of racial violence and the intensity of racial hatred remained astonishingly more virulent than in the period before 1889 (the black residents of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 and Atlanta in 1906 endured pogrom-like race riots, and the former governor of Alabama wrote in dismay in 1901 that the mass of whites seemed to want to “kill [the black man] and wipe him from the face of the earth.”)

But around 1915 the ferocious rage against blacks seemed to diminish almost as suddenly as it had arisen, to be replaced in the collective mind of the white South by the old paternalist attitude of white supremacy, which saw the black man not as the “beast rapist” of the 1890s but as a perpetual child Sharecropper and Childrenwho was content to remain in his “place” as a useful menial. This ebb and flow of Southern white racist attitudes–which had a profound effect on the lives of nearly all black Southerners–is largely missing from Litwack’s too-static account. And though he does note that the sadistic white violence of the 1890s was “strikingly new and different,” he offers no explanation for it. This is an especially unfortunate lapse because elements of the most well-known explanations help illuminate significant aspects of and changes in black Southern life in this period.

Williamson, for instance, points out that, while completely distorted by white male psychological tensions about gender and sexuality, the racial ferocity of the ’90s was in fact responding to a real situation: the rise in the number of black male vagrants throughout the South in the late 1880s, when, because of the deepening agricultural depression, the young men in black farm families were forced to leave home in search of work. Economically expendable in the New South, these young black men too often succumbed to what Williamson characterizes as “a churning, nearly formless black rage.” (That many frustrated and dispirited black men were angry and violent is hardly surprising; they were, after all, conforming to prominent features of Southern culture as a whole–the South was a notoriously violent place where murder rates among whites as well as blacks were by far the highest in the country and among the highest in the world. In the South, it was not uncommon to find that every young man at a Presbyterian picnic came armed with a pistol, a jackknife and a pair of brass knuckles.) There was a sudden and unmistakable rise in black criminality and, as Williamson points out, for all the terrible racially motivated murders of black men, “the great truth is that most blacks died by black hands.” Confronted by a rising and dangerous underclass, many whites projected their own forbidden fantasies onto it. These real changes in black life, coupled with whites’ fears largely of their own conjuring, help explain why lynching rates were highest in those areas of the South with large numbers of black newcomers, with high levels of transiency among both races and with a sparsely settled and widely dispersed white population that felt especially insecure.

Because Litwack of necessity records so many instances of Southern whites committing atrocious acts against Southern blacks, it’s understandable that at times his indignation gets the better of him, and he paints white Southerners with too broad a brush. But perhaps he should have noted more pointedly that the only reason he can describe many injustices and atrocities in such detail is because outraged Southern whites recorded and protested them. And it is wrong to suggest, as does Litwack (following the current view of many historians), that there was no meaningful difference between paternalistic racial conservatives and rabid, violent racists; quite simply, such distinctions made a profound difference in the lives of Southern blacks. Because by current standards nearly all white Southerners were racist, it is easy to assume that there is no point in distinguishing among their “racist” attitudes. But it is doubtful whether a black sharecropper visiting a strange town in rural Arkansas, for instance, wouldn’t care whether its sheriff was a segregationist who opposed violence and favored a degree of protection to blacks (however inadequate to modern eyes) or whether he was a virulent racist who would deny blacks the most basic rights and indeed encourage threats to their lives and property. Although perhaps both figures are reprehensible, both sorts of white men lived throughout the South and the difference between them could, for a black man, mean life or death.

VI

The product of diligent archival research, probing what may be the most complex theme in American history, “Trouble in Mind” is in many ways a stunning achievement. Ultimately, however, this is a disappointing book, not so much as a purely historical work but as a literary one. Too often casting his story as a simple one of victims and victimizers, Litwack fails to grasp that the fitting tone for his book is not the polemic but the tragic.

Booker T. Washington claimed that wherever he traveled in the South at the turn of the century he could find “at least one white man who believed implicitly in one Negro, and one Negro who believed implicitly in one white man.” His observation shouldn’t be surprising. Living among each other for centuries, Southern blacks and whites had intimately and indelibly affected each others’ lives. Nearly every distinctive aspect of Southern life–from accent and food to music and the storytelling tradition to the style and spirit of southern Protestantism, to the very word “Dixie”–developed from the interchange of the two races. Even Southerners’ courtesy and manners, qualities of which many are justifiably proud and that, as one scholar writes, are “perhaps the most tangible evidence of a Southern upbringing,” are, experts agree, the product of the fusion of black and white attitudes. And, of course, perceptive students of the region have long noted that if a traditionally intense attachment to the land, a sense of place and family, an insistence on hospitality and manners, a strong folk culture and an adherence to evangelical Christianity characterize the Southerner, then “there is no one more quintessentially Southern,” as Woodward maintained, “than the Southern Negro.”

But, of course, the entire structure of Southern economic and political life–as well as white racism that, though largely engendered by that structure, often took on a life of its own–denied this ongoing and inevitable kinship. Those humane relationships and feelings of affection and sympathy to which Washington referred developed from this kinship but were invariably constrained and distorted and often destroyed. By insisting that the two races divorce themselves from one another, Southern whites ensured that both blacks and whites would lose an integral part of themselves.

Despite the crimes committed against them, the vast majority of black Southerners heroically built their communities and maintained their faith and their families. Their story, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “is more than the sum total of their brutalization. . . . [T]heirs has been one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in modern times.”

But too many white Southerners, possessed by a fear and hatred perhaps better explained by psychologists or theologians than by historians, utterly destroyed the best part of themselves. Their tragedy is the tragedy of Tom Watson of Georgia, the great Populist leader who, by courageously extending political fellowship to Southern blacks in the 1890s, told the two races “you are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings” and 4837609184415663b25772bdfcebed5cdeclared that “the accident of color can make no difference in the interest of farmers, croppers and laborers.” Although he spent the first part of his political life working for a better future for the mass of white and black Southerners and although he was keenly aware of the self-interested forces that worked deliberately to divide the races, he nevertheless eventually succumbed to, and was crippled by, the rabid hatred that permeated his time and place, so that by the end of his life he was known throughout the country as the South’s foremost racist.

Perhaps the anguish in the heart of the white Southerner and the tragedy at the center of Southern life has been best defined by a black man living in the South. From Atlanta in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: “Deeply religious and intensely democratic as are the mass of whites, they feel acutely the false position in which the Negro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generous people cannot cite the caste-leveling precepts of Christianity, or believe in equality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more with each generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flat contradiction to their beliefs and professions.”

The suffering that blacks endured in the American South and that Litwack eloquently describes not only bequeathed to them resilience and the creative power that gave rise to the blues–the crowning cultural achievement of the black experience in this period–but also ironically engendered in them an enormous sympathy and understanding even toward those who would trespass against them.

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