Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.
The Segregated Social Sciences
This chapter uses social science research from the New Deal years to recapture what it meant to be black and live in the United States when it was a legally segregated society. The 1930s, in addition to their significance as the Depression Decade, are also important as the decade in which American social science began a long coming of age about race.
For many years before that time many social scientists, like other white Americans, believed that segregation reflected real differences between racial groups, although they might differ as to whether genetics or environment were the cause of these differences. By the 1930s and 1940s, however, the first doctorate-holding academic generation of any size was graduating and generally entering the social sciences through “Negroes Only” entrance provided by employment at a historically black college or university (As Jonathan Scott Holloway and I note in Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science and American Thought in the Twentieth Century, 316 of the 384 doctorates to African Americans in all of American history up to 1943 were awarded after 1929).
Becoming an African American social scientist in the era of legalized racial segregation was not easy. According to the practice of that time, African Americans, especially if they lived in the South and border South (as most of them did), were locked out of higher education at the historically white institutions of the region. After receiving often excellent training at a far less financially endowed leading black college (such as Fisk, Atlanta University, or Howard), the deserving graduate might be permitted to pursue graduate work at a top-ranked historically white university (such as Harvard or the University of Chicago), only to find themselves ineligible for jobs at white schools.
Historian Lorenzo J. Greene (1899-1988), a professor of history at Lincoln University for almost forty years, is best known for his pains-taking and perceptive study, The Negro in Colonial New England (1942). Of special interest here, however, is the diary Professor Greene wrote at the beginning of his career (1928-1933), as a valued researcher and representative for the Association for the Study of Negro Life in History and its founder, Carter G. Woodson. African American history was not part of the generally and historically white curriculum of this country until the civil rights movement forced a change. Long before that time, Greene went from school to school, primarily in the South and Southwest, selling both Woodson’s textbooks and the idea of “Negro history” itself. Greene’s notes convey the way in which segregation could vary by city and by state. Notes from a visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, suggest that, in the aftermath of the devastating riot there in 1921, African Americans, armed with the ballot, were able to make “separate” a little more “equal.” His treks during the hardest years of the Depression brought Greene face to face not only with how economic trauma turned certain laboring jobs from “Negro” to “white” but how it also provoked fierce competition between black and Mexican laborers. Greene took it all in, gaining the wisdom and compassion that come with age only by choice. Here was the experience of a very talented African American budding scholar.
The books under discussion here were not the first such efforts to study African American life with respect for the requirements of scientific inquiry—that distinction belongs to W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899). The white scholars and black scholars under discussion were taking work he had begun years earlier.
This chapter begins by exploring the material consequences of segregation for African Americans in Chicago and in the South. The balance of the discussion looks at the tense opposition between the rigidly observed script of southern segregation and the intense opposition to it expressed by blacks in their conversations with these researchers. The statements elicited are quite remarkable, especially if one considers the harsh punishments awaiting those believed to have spoken “out of place.”
Dollars and Cents/Brick and Mortar
What did segregation cost those who were its targets in health, safety, and security? Whether one had migrated to Chicago during and after World War I, or chose to stay in the South, one had few dollars and thus could not well afford much brick and mortar. In an effort to translate these economic figures into their current values, I have converted major price and income figures to their 2007 equivalents using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online Inflation Calculator (www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator).
St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton report in the pages of Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City(1945), that “over 65 per cent of the Negro adults earn their bread by manual labor in stockyard and steel mill, in factory and kitchen, where they do the essential digging, sweeping and serving which make metropolitan life tolerable.” When they break down the class structure of Chicago by race, Drake and Cayton finds that 67.9 percent of African Americans adults in Chicago earned annual incomes of under $1,000 (in 1935-1936) at the jobs described above (compared with 26.7 percent of native-born whites and 32.7 percent of foreign-born whites). In other words, almost twice as many African Americans earned below $14,960.36 (in 2007 dollars) as whites.
The African American members of Chicago’s industrial working class formed the middle class of “Bronzeville” (Drake and Cayton’s name for the Chicago Black Belt). According to a survey of 90,484 families, 484 workers in the iron and steel industry in Horace Cayton and George S. Mitchell’s The Black Worker and the New Unions (1939), the national average for black workers was $0.55 an hour (about $8.35 in 2007 dollars) compared with $0.70 for white workers (about $10.55 an hour 2007 dollars). Whether they were white and earned an income of $20,256 (in today’s dollars) or were black and making around $16,032, if they were supporting a family of four on that income alone, they would both fall below the 2007 federal poverty line of $20,650. The white worker would fall $394 below today’s poverty line while the black worker would miss the line by $4,618—more than ten times as far. Being on the wrong side of the color line in this segregated society was expensive.
The wage ceiling under which these black workers were trapped was not only an economic one; they were also trapped in the hottest, most uncomfortable and most dangerous jobs. As one black worker in Clairton, Pennsylvania, reported to Cayton and Mitchell (1939, 32):
The average job for the Negro is in the Coke Works—Battery Department and powdering steel. All are very hard jobs and very hot. The white worker will not work in the Coke Works … or the Battery Department unless he is absolutely forced to hold his job.
The upper class of Bronzeville (5 percent of all African Americans in Chicago) was a small but unusually diverse group of professionals, including business people, lawyers, doctors, school principals, and teachers), none of whom made an annual income above $5,000 (1938 income in 2007 dollars: $73,740.78).
When the workday was done, African American workers returned home to overcrowded residences. “Negroes are not absorbed into the general population,” wrote Drake and Cayton. “Black metropolis remains athwart the least desirable residential zones. Its population grows larger and larger, unable to either expand freely or to scatter” (Drake and Cayton 1945, 576). Symbolic of the Depression-era housing crisis in Bronzeville were the “kitchenettes,” which became common in Bronzeville during the thirties. As houses and apartments in poorer areas of the Black Belt were being torn down between 1930 and 1938, landlords in the “better” sections would reconvert one six-room apartment into six “kitchenettes.” In one case reported by Drake and Cayton, a six-room apartment renting in 1938 for $50 a month (2007 dollars: $737.41) became six kitchenettes, renting for a weekly rate of $8.00 (2007: $117.99) and generating for the landlord $192 a month.($2,831.65). Drake and Cayton describe the grim layout as follows: “For each one-room household [the landlord] provided an ice box, a bed, and a gas hot plate. A bathroom that once served a single family now served six. A building that formerly held sixty families now held three hundred” (Drake and Cayton 1945, 576).
Despite this clear evidence of institutionalized racism, it is also not difficult to understand why Drake and Cayton could conclude that Negroes found Chicago to be a positive change: “It was certainly different from slavery sixty years ago, or from the South today. Negroes liked [Chicago]” (Drake and Cayton 1945, 80).
Things were much worse in the rural South, where many had begun hardscrabble lives. In terms of gross income, life was hard for most small farmers, irrespective of race, but being an African American exacted a high price in terms of the economic bottom line. According to Arthur Raper’s survey of Greene County Georgia in his detailed monograph, Preface to Peasantry (1936), African American annual farm family income (including the cash value of homegrown crops) was three-quarters that of white farm families in 1934. Within this average were African-American “owners” (12.1 percent of black families) who made between a top amount of $501.56 (compared with a top amount of $647.50 for the 40 percent of similarly situated white farmers) and a bottom amount of $111.86 for the 23.2 percent who worked as “wage hands” (white wage hands earned $216.69 and accounted for 12.5 percent of white farm families). Just under two-thirds of African American farm families made between $281.58 and $416.97 (compared with between $384.85 and $550.75 for the slightly less than half of white families who fall in the same laboring categories) (Raper 1936, 21, 33, 34, 35).
Converting these 1934 dollars to 2007 values, we can see why, even in the Great Depression, the South continued to symbolize acute poverty to a nation already on intimate terms with it. African American owners had an annual income of $7,783.50 compared with $10,048.28 for white owners. The vast majority of African American farm families made between $4,369.72 and $6,470.78 (compared with between $5,972.33 and $8,546.86 for white farm families earning a living in the very same wage categories). All of these families would be considered very poor by today’s calculations, no matter what the size of the family.
In view of these figures, it should come as no surprise that, in housing, brick and mortar did not exist for these Americans. Charles S. Johnson, in his survey of 916 families in Growing up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South (1941, 55, 56), found that only sixty-nine of these families “lived in houses without a major physical defect.” Johnson reported, “In over half the houses, the roof leaked; in nearly half the houses there were broken porches or steps and defective floors.” Only 43 of these 916 families had an indoor toilet and only 191 “had a septic tank or sanitary pit outside.”
The economic circumstances faced by Americans in the New Deal years only being to be comprehensible in today’s terms by adjusting for the dramatic changes in the cost of living over the last seventy years, but it does not end there. In fact, standing alone, these numbers impart a false precision to a process of approximation. Before World War II, the United States was a traditional industrial working-class society in which home ownership and the most basic kind of economic security were far less easy to attain than they would become over the next thirty years. That achievement was made possible not only by new and substantial government support for home ownership and a college education (both aimed at returning veterans) but also by the negotiating power of the strong industrial unions that first exerted their strength during the thirties.
The two-income household so indispensable to making ends meet today also existed in these times, but to a far lesser degree. In Chicago, according to Drake and Cayton, almost half of the women who worked as “domestics” in 1940 were African Americans earning $2 for “day’s work” and $20 for “week’s work” (just under $300 a week today) (Drake and Cayton 1945, 242-43).
In addition, the truism that “times were simpler” actually makes sense: The modern consumer culture was in its earliest days—people made less, expected less, and were not disappointed with less. Another crucial separation between today and yesterday is the ubiquity of credit and debt of all kinds: Disparities in income are softened in the short term by too easy credit.
Land and Power/Past and Present
According to the intensive research of Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary P. Gardner contained in Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941), land ownership was rare and usually possible only on a small scale. In 1935, the authors report, just under 20 percent of the 2,000 “farm operators” in “Old County” (Natchez, Mississippi) were also landowners. Most of these fortunate few, whatever their race, owned very small plots. Land ownership was unevenly distributed among 400 families tied together by “extended kinship relations among the old planter families and by frequent intermarriage between collateral lines in the same family” (1941, 276-77). A majority of all land owned by this group was, in fact, held by of thirty-six people, of whom two were African American. Ninety-four percent of the 1,337 tenant farmers working in Old County in 1930 were African American. Among landowners, only 14.8 percent were African American, whereas 59 percent of whites could claim this status.
It is a common theme of the studies examined here that slavery cast a long shadow over the South of the 1930s. Most lasting was the hard mold into which economic and social relations were set for much of next century with the failure of Reconstruction. As Charles S. Johnson writes in Shadow of the Plantation,
Patterns of life, social codes, as well as social attitudes, were set in the economy of slavery. The political and economic revolution through which they have passed has affected only slightly the social relationships or the mores upon which these relations have been based. The strength and apparent permanence of this early cultural set [sic] have made it impossible for newer generations to escape the. Influence of patterns of work and general social behavior transmitted by their elders. (Johnson 1934, 16)
Strong material evidence of this long shadow can be found by examining patterns of African American land acquisition and ownership laid out by Davis, Gardner, and Gardner. Among African American landowners, most of those holding the most valuable plots were either former slaves or the descendants of former slaves who purchased their land in the first few years after the end of legal slavery. Fourteen of the twenty-nine former slaves who purchased land acquired it from their former owners. All of this leads the authors to the conclusion that “there was less opposition to a colored man’s buying land from a white landlord in the period of social and economic disintegration following the Civil War than there has generally been since 1875” (1941, 296).
Davis, Gardner, and Gardner also concluded that since none of the fourteen who purchased land from their master bought their land from the same master, a larger game of social control is being played in which the sale (not the gift) of land to selected former slaves was a way for former slave owners to reward “their ‘favorite Negro’, one … who meticulously observed the caste sanctions and who, therefore, would not seek to make other colored workers on the plantation displeased with their landless condition” (1941, 296). Many of those who remained tenant farmers rented “from the same white family which owned their slave ancestors” (1941). This discussion underscores the idea that the failure to redistribute at least some significant portion of plantation lands to former slaves in compensation for their enslavement was possibly the most historically consequential mistake in all of American history.
The Great Depression did provoke a major federal intervention in agriculture in the form of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. This intervention hurt more than helped small farmers. Arthur F. Raper finds that, whatever the New Deal “Brains Trust” envisioned from Washington, implementation of the New Deal’s agricultural stabilization efforts never had a chance to succeed. The politics of keeping the South a one-party region required that power remain in the hands of those who had always held power—men made powerful by their wealth and their whiteness. Thus, large landowners benefited overwhelmingly in comparison to small landowners, no matter on which side in the color line they lived. In addition, commodity price supports hurt the process of land acquisition by raising prices. Finally, very little federal aid reached African Americans because those who benefited from racial segregation administered the local programs. No less than three research reports commissioned by specialized units of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Black Farmers and Their Farms, Social and Economic Environment of Black Farmers, both published in 1986, and Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000, released in 2002) argued that discrimination against black farmers by its programs remains a significant issue. In addition, as late as 1979, the Delta Crop Region (parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) remained an area in which the incidence of poverty was starkly divided by race: 56.3 percent of blacks lived below the poverty level compared with 15.9 percent of whites (Social and Economic Environment 2002, v).
For all of the hardships of life in the Chicago Black Belt, it is not at all hard to understand what pulled so many millions of African Americans north between the beginning of World War I and the late 1960s. Black teachers working in Chicago public schools made wages equal to those of their white colleagues, whereas in the South, Charles S. Johnson, in The Negro College Graduate (1938), found that African American teachers typically made between 25 percent and 50 percent less than white teachers (a gap that widened during the Depression years). For black Chicagoans, Drake and Cayton confirmed that New Deal assistance was more available, perhaps because African Americans in Chicago could vote and held real political power. The segregation regime in Chicago was rigid in housing and the economy—making the budget and the living conditions generally tight; nonetheless, there was more freedom of movement and a better living to be had (brought about by the nondiscriminatory industrial unions formed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations), all of which brightened the look of the future.
The Southern Script of Segregation
Fifty years ago, in Blackways of Kent, sociologist Hylan Lewis offered the most perceptive description of racial segregation’s cultural dimension—the way in which it subtly regulates the behavior of all who come within its scope: “[T]he Negroes of Kent may be thought of as acting out a life drama in accordance with an imaginary ‘script’ that each person ‘carries in his head’” (1955, 5).
Measuring human experience in dollars and cents provides some important answers about the nature of that experience, but it does not go inside that life to establish, as closely as possible, how one’s circumstances are seen and understood by the people themselves. When we speak of a “script” of proper conduct, we are referring primarily to Southern society. While racial segregation definitely existed in Chicago, it was less scripted because it was less deeply rooted in that city’s social relations. As Drake and Cayton observe:
In the South, Negroes are constantly reminded that they have a “place,” and that they are expected to stay in it. In [Chicago], they have a much wider ‘freedom to come and go’. The city is not plastered with signs pointing COLORED here and WHITE there. On elevated trains and streetcars, Negroes and whites push and shove. with a common disregard for age, sex, or color. At ball parks, wrestling and boxing arenas, race tracks and basketball courts, and other spots where crowds congregate as spectators, Negroes will be found sitting where they please, booing and applauding, cheering and “razzing” with as little restraint as their white fellows in virtually all of the city’s theaters and movie houses…. [B]ut there are public situations where an attempt is sometimes made to draw the color line. For instance, objections are frequently expressed to the presence of Negroes in certain elementary and high schools, and to their use of parks, and swimming pools in various sections of the city. The very presence of a Black Belt leads the public to feel that Negroes should have their own recreational facilities, and should not “invade” those in other sections of the city. (Drake and Cayton 1945, 101-102)
Much has been written about the power of “tradition” in keeping segregation in force. That is acutely true if we are willing to include the threat of violence as a primary tradition. Typical of how enforcement worked is the following account by a white landowner, contained in Deep South:
There was one [colored tenant] out our way not long ago . who was getting smart. I told my boys that if he didn’t behave they ought to take him out for a ride, and tend to him, and tell him that if he didn’t stop talking and acting so big, the next time it would be either a bullet or a rope. That is the way to manage them when they get too big—take them in hand before any trouble starts. (Davis, Gardner, and Gardner 1941, 394)
John Dollard, in Caste and Class in a Southern Town, places the violence within the context of the more generalized exploitation integral to the entire sharecropping system:
Some owners . juggle the accounts to keep the cropper in debt and thus hold him on the land. [An] informant said that [when] the cropper is called to the accounting, the boss man sits at the desk, a forty-five caliber revolver beside him [and] roughly asks what the tenant wants. The tenant says he wants a settlement. “Yes,” says the boss man. “You made fifteen dollars last year.” The tenant cannot argue or dispute or the boss will grasp the gun and ask if he is going to argue. If he does, boom-boom. (1937, 125)
A crucial accomplishment of the civil rights movement thirty years later was the direct and physical confrontation of this terror, a strategy that would cost many lives. In the twenty years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the commencement of Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the great world “out there” entered these isolated communities through the electronic mass media. In Blackways of Kent,Lewis captures the process of change as he observed it under way in a Piedmont community in the late 1940s. First in importance was World War II, which drew three-quarters of black men between the ages of eighteen and forty into the ranks of the armed forces. When these men came home, they were armed for life with “important memories, different conceptions of themselves and their worth as human beings, and a more personal interest in national and world affairs” (1955). In addition to following the crises of the early cold war, Lewis reports, these men followed President Truman’s actions on civil rights with great care (Lewis 1955, 41).
A comparison of two scenes is instructive to show how change came to the Deep South after World War II. The first scene is taken from John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937, 7, 8): One morning in the middle 1930s, John Dollard uneasily and quite publicly found himself merging his “observer” and “participant” roles when a black man came to call on the porch of the rooming house where Dollard was staying:
One morning a Negro friend came to my boarding house and knocked on the front door. It was a crisis for him, for the family, and for me. Perhaps he felt a sense of his own dignity as a middle-class Negro, perhaps he felt that the house had become extra territorial to southern society because I was living there. He was left standing on the porch and the family member who called me seemed unhappy and reproachful. I had unwittingly aided in imposing a humiliation on my hosts. The interview on the porch was constrained on both sides. Small towns have eyes and ears, and Southerntown is strict in its policing of newcomers. My Negro friend brought still another Negro on the porch to meet me. Should we shake hands? Would he be insulted if we did not, or would he accept the situation? I kept hands in pockets and did not do it, a device that was often useful in resolving such a situation. My friend must have noticed this, but with genuine politeness, he gave no sign and even later seemed not to hold it against me. In point of fact, we were fortunate. He might have been sent away rudely, or told to go to the back door, or I might have been severely condemned. Still there was a strain in the social atmosphere of the house thereafter, a strain which informed me that Negroes might not change their behavior toward its occupants because I was a resident there. As a researcher in Southerntown one lives always with a sense of spiritual torsion, willing but unable to conform to the conflicting elements in the social pattern.
Scene two comes from the field research of Hylan Lewis in the late 1940s. Lewis is here recording the words of a “white official” (Lewis 1955, 297):
Some of the niggers are getting mighty uppity, even around here. Every time a colored man has come to the house since I have been in Kent, he has come to the front door. Fortunately, I have never had to ask any of them into the house—I have always been able to finish my business with him on the porch.
World War II might have brought a new attitude to some in the rural South, but the research of E. Franklin Frazier during the 1930s in Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C., finds a spirit of resistance of which the boxer Joe Lewis was the most powerful unifying symbol. As Frazier argued in Negro Youth at the Crossways, “Joe Lewis enables … many Negro youth and adults in all classes . to inflict vicariously the aggressions they would like to carry out against whites for the discrimination and insults which they have suffered” (Frazier 1940, 179).
So, what was it like to be “segregated against”? As they entered black homes and lives, these investigators were acutely sensitive to the fact that they operated within reality deeply layered with fear and suspicion. As Allison Davis and John Dollard made eloquently clear in Children of Bondage, their study of 123 families in Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, the surface acceptance of caste relations by blacks was an illusion:
Negroes in the Deep South are continually expressing to each other the sharpest antagonisms against whites and the deepest sense of frustration of their position in society. They verbalize these tabooed feelings only to their colored friends or to colored interviewers, and to Northern white men, that is, to members of those groups that will not punish them for such expressions. (Davis and Dollard 1941, 238)
In one case, study, Davis and Dollard tell of a young man who wanted blacks to arm themselves and fight back with violence, while admitting the impracticality of his solution. The key point is that the American caste system had little of the mutuality of caste, traditionally defined: Many whites, as Charles Johnson argued, no longer shared in the assumptions that supported the segregation script, and many blacks were “struggling against this [unequal status] rather than accepting it.”
What was it like to be “black”? African Americans possessed deep and highly nuanced understanding of social etiquette: a clear understanding of the rationalizations behind segregation and the benefits that accrue to white people because their color. It is also assumed by some that, in the words of one Chicago businessman interviewed for a study of “Negro personality development” in Chicago headed by W. Lloyd Warner, “The greatest competition we have is the psychology of our [own] people. They have a tendency to believe even yet that what is white is best” (Warner 1941, 176).
It should come as no surprise that African-Americans might speculate and indeed wish for the experience of life on the other side of the color line. The evidence seems overwhelming that these feelings however, coexisted with stronger feelings of pride for how they and their racial group had survived in a society organized against them. There is no evidence that African Americans believed that a social order based on white supremacy was a reflection of the natural organization of humanity. The focus on race can also blind us to the strength of class as a factor. For a sense of how these themes shared psychic space in individual minds, consider the following statement received by Frazier from an “upper class youth of very fair complexion”:
Sometimes I feel all right. At other times, I feel sorry because I am a Negro. There are many classes of us and many in those lower classes do not know how to conduct themselves; and yet white people class us all alike. I can’t understand that, particularly since there are different classes in their group and they don’t fail to make the distinction. I’m proud of the fact that I am a Negro. Proud of the fact that my family represents the upper stratum of the race which I hope to perpetuate. I am proud of those of my group who have made good despite racial odds[sic], and I feel sorry for those stuck in the mite. However, knowing that there are difficulties that confront us all as Negroes, if I could be born again … I’d really want to be a white boy—I mean white or my same color, providing that I could occupy the same racial and economic level I now enjoy . I realize . that there are places where I can’t go despite my family or money just because I happen to be a Negro. With my present education, family background, and so forth, if I was only white I could go places in life. A white face holds supreme over a black one despite its economic and social status. Frankly, it leaves me bewildered. I just don’t understand. (Frazier 1940, 65-66)
A girl of mixed-race background from a lower-middle-class family had a similar reaction, expressed more dramatically. Allison Davis and John Dollard relay the encounter in Children of Bondage:
In her relations with the white world, Julia feels the sting of systematic deprivation. She says that she wishes she were white “because white people got all the money.” . Julia is not a person to be controlled by force, or to accept rejection meekly. She fights back and returns hate for contempt. “I hate white people,” she repeats many times. They don’t like us, so I don’t see why we should like them.” (Davis and Dollard 1941, 42)
For some of their parents, who had seen the course of human events run far longer, the immediate bottom line, since equal treatment was impossible, was to be left unmolested by whites. One man put the matter directly:
White folks are all right as long as a [black] man stays in his place. Down here in the South, a Negro ain’t [sic] much better off than he was in slavery times. We work all the time but don’t get nothing for it cept [sic] a place to live and a plenty to eat. Some can’t get that [sic]. We all equal and ought to have a equal chance but we can’t get it here [sic]. (Johnson 1941, 17)
For this man, and perhaps may others, the interaction with whites was but one part of a larger life:
In this settlement there ain’t [sic] no white folks . so we don’t have no trouble. Folks live peaceably here and tend to their own business so I consider it a good place to be. I don’t know any place else I’d rather be. This suits me fine. (Johnson 1941, 17)
The declaration that This suits me fine” seems a good place at which to end. These words both reveal the strength of the scholarship assembled here, and, at the same time, take us up to the limits of what it can tell us today—we are left wondering what we have been missing in the life lived beyond participant observation.”
The civil rights movement, which was indispensable to enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, won its battle with political terror in the Mississippi Delta, although the battle against widespread poverty remains to be won there.
The startlingly incomplete quality of our reconstruction—and the extent to which slavery continues to leave an enduring social scar on the United States is conveyed by the fact that, according to Charles T. Clotfelter’s careful study of the national experiment with desegregation, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, school segregation remained severe fifty years after the practice was first roundly denounced by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Sunflower County, Mississippi, the community John Dollard studied more than seventy years ago, 73 percent of the white children enrolled for the 1999-2000 school year attended private schools. This statistic, according to Clotfelter, is indicative of a larger continuity with the slavery past: In . Deep South communities with high proportions of blacks, where relations between the races historically were marked by separation and inequality, private schools became—and continue to be—the primary means of maintaining segregation in schools (Clotfelter 2004, 113).”
The success of Barack Obama as a viable presidential candidate is a subtle reminder of the political work and political power that began nearly a century ago in Chicago’s Bronzeville and, later, in all the other cities, North and South, East and West, where African Americans moved to start again. In these same cities today, Americans must address the urgent problems caused when political success cannot stop deindustrialization” in the modern rust belt.” The positive changes of the last fifty years have been advanced within the political framework that, seventy-five years ago, both made possible the New Deal and limited its practical scope. That we continue to live in segregation, in fact if not in law, is, to large degree, because race and class remain only somewhat less thoroughly implicated in one another than they were then.