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TV Preview: Documentary relives brutality of Jim Crow

Monday, September 30, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Barbara Johns grew up in Farmville, a quiet tobacco town in Virginia that toed the line on racial segregation in the 1950s.

While being known for its cordial, polite race relations, the area was still two different worlds.

 
 
"The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow"

When: 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Oct. 22 on WQED.

Narrator: Richard Roundtree.

   
 

In one world, Johns, and 450 other black students, went to a cramped eight-room schoolhouse. The school was built to hold half that number, and the students were forced to have classes in the auditorium, on school buses and in shacks pasted together out of tar paper.

Johns saw the other world every day as she walked past the modern facility that her white counterparts attended.

In April 1951, she grew sick and tired of it.

So the 16-year-old walked out of class, went to the principal's office and rang the school bell -- summoning her classmates. The students went on strike, asking not for integrated accommodations, only better ones.

John's suit became a part of the groundbreaking 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education legislation. In that hallmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and unconstitutional.

It was a move that would help change a nation and strike one of the loudest blows against Jim Crow.

A hateful beast, Jim Crow, named for a minstrel character from the 1830s, came about a couple of decades after the Civil War when white supremacist laws were passed to limit newly emancipated blacks from achieving equality.

Jim Crow mandated that the races be kept separate.

It was a socially demeaning structure that meant it was illegal for blacks to marry whites. Restrictive codes kept the races segregated in public transportation, education and bath facilities. It was OK for black people to live with or near whites -- but only as long as they worked for them. Voting rights for blacks were outlawed.

A new documentary goes inside the brutal era, which lasted from the 1880s through 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools. "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," a four-part PBS series, lets viewers in through the recollections of many who lived it.

The series begins tomorrow and runs for four consecutive Tuesdays through Oct. 22. It airs 10 p.m. locally on WQED.

There were plenty of national heroes: men and women such as anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter White, a blue-eyed black attorney who passed for white in the South to collect evidence to legally challenge segregation.

But there were thousands of ordinary folk like Barbara Johns, who put their lives on the line to fight Jim Crow.

They were hidden heroes, but each act of public defiance brought the risk of humiliation -- and death. In 1919, 90 black people were lynched -- one every four days.

It was a system predicated on violence, said Pat Sullivan, a lecturer in African-American studies at Harvard University who is interviewed in the series.

Sullivan hopes the documentary will "enlarge the usually flat version of hell that most black Americans suffered daily" and will resonate with ordinary people feeling vulnerable to terror after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

On the contemporary political scene, she said, people are thinking of terrorism.

"Well, Jim Crow was homegrown terrorism. It was experienced by individuals, by families, by communities and was enacted through lynching, riots and massacres," she said.

Jim Crow laws were grounded in a complicated stew of developments.

In the late 1800s, three major reasons spawned these laws -- the prevailing thought that blacks were "scientifically" inferior to whites, the myth that slavery was a noble institution worthy of being sustained, and the desire to ease the social and economic threats that many Southerners felt from the "uppity" free blacks.

But, according to Sullivan, there were an equal number of circumstances emerging to dismantle it.

The separate black communities created by Jim Crow were fertile grounds for nationalistic and labor politics. When the Communist Party went South, some blacks saw its proponents as heirs to the abolitionists. These movements created energy for resistance.

Some of which shows up in rural Alabama in 1930s.

That's when Ned Cobb, a Tallapoosa County sharecropper, bought his own farm and then organized 6,000 Alabama farmers into a tenants union sponsored by the Communist Party. Together they fought to grow crops to feed their families and battle against repossession of their property.

Cobb's descendants tell his story in the documentary, including one incident in the 1930s, when Cobb confronted a sheriff by using gunfire and was jailed for 13 years.

One of the most significant blows to Jim Crow came right after World War II when 200,000 black soldiers returned from battle.

"Seeing themselves used as beacons to establish democracy in other parts of the world," said Sullivan, "they returned from war with the view that segregation is wrong." They organized and agitated for change. Fueled by the growth of the black middle class as a political and economic force, they were instrumental in getting the Armed Forces desegregated under President Truman.

Over four consecutive Tuesdays in October, the series charts these changes. But not all of the voices belong to those who railed against Jim Crow.

One of the series' most chilling details comes from a Ku Klux Klan member named Gordon Parks as he recounts his first lynching. He was 9 years old. The victim was a 17-year-old black man accused of rape.

Parks' father was a Wizard in the Klan, and his granddaddy was the Grand Dragon. Together they rallied about 200 people to the lynching.

Here's what Parks had to say:

"We took him down to this thick, old oak tree ... they took him and set him down and had his hands tied behind him ... and they cut him from ear to ear and then they put the rope around his neck, and pulled him up in the tree. We stayed there about an hour ... to make sure he died before we left."

The retelling is one of the grimmest moments in the series.

Generations of African Americans endured this system of segregation, said Sullivan.

"It had to be told because race relations today in the United States continue to be affected by this history."


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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