40 pages • 1 hour readC. Vann Woodward
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“The new Southern system was regarded as the ‘final settlement,’ the ‘return to sanity,’ the ‘permanent system.’ Few stopped to reflect that previous systems had also been regarded as final, sane, and permanent by their supporters.”
Woodward argues that while many Southerners thought segregation was the logical outcome of Southern history, the “illusion of permanency” was exactly that, an illusion. Instead, the history of race relations in the South underwent many dramatic transformations. No outcome was inevitable, and no system is permanent.
“Year after year spokesmen of the region assured themselves and the world at large that the South had taken its stand, that its position was immovable, that alteration was unthinkable, come what might.”
The “illusion of permanency” that characterized the Jim Crow period was underlined by an anxiety that society would change. Segregationists in the South sought to preserve the status quo and convinced themselves that segregation was a natural outcome of Southern history and reflected the correct racial hierarchy. Woodward describes many white Southerners’ willful blindness to change in this quote.
“With no more perspective than we have as yet upon this Second Reconstruction it would be rash to attempt any definitive assessment of its effectiveness, of the motives behind it, or of its importance and meaning in Southern history. It may well be that after a few generations the historians will conclude that, compared with the contemporaneous abandonment of the one-crop system and sharecropping, or the rapid pace of urbanization, cropping, or the rapid pace of urbanization, automation, and industrialization, the crumbling of the segregation system was of relatively minor historical significance.”
Woodward draws attention to how much changed in Southern history and politics since he first wrote The Strange Case of Jim Crow. He makes specific reference to the historian’s role in shaping history but notes that with hindsight, this history may be understood quite differently. The impact of biased and subjective interpretations of events on the historical record becomes a key theme in the text.
By C. Vann Woodward