40 pages 1 hour read

C. Vann Woodward

The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


The Strange Career of Jim Crow is a nonfiction book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian C. Vann Woodward about the origins and nature of segregation in the Southern United States. Originally published in 1955, the commemorative edition was published in 2002. The Strange Career of Jim Crow argues that racial segregation in the rigid and universal form that existed in 1954 did not appear with the end of slavery. In the time between Reconstruction and segregation, there was a period of experimentation and change in race relations that saw considerable economic and political interaction between the races. Jim Crow laws were not comprehensively implemented until the end of the 19th century.

In 1954 Woodward delivered a series of lectures on the history of segregation at the University of Virginia. On May 17 of the same year, the US Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The landmark ruling determined that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Later that year, Woodward presented three lectures to an integrated audience at the University of Virginia. These lectures became the foundation for The Strange Career of Jim Crow. The 1974 edition added new chapters to account for the rapid changes that occurred between 1955 and 1965, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These legislative changes officially marked the end of Jim Crow in the South. As of 2002, the book has sold over 800,000 copies and has never been out of print.

Through historical analysis, Woodward proves that segregation was not an inevitable outcome of Southern history but rather just one outcome of many possibilities that emerged from a combination of choices and circumstances. The significance of Woodward’s argument lies in his assertion that segregation was not an ancient phenomenon that was inevitable or permanent. Southern history had experienced many radical changes, and in this context the rejection of racist doctrines, the integration of the American South, and the improvement of race relations was possible. Martin Luther King Jr. described the book as the “historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” reflecting its influence (363).

In Chapter 1 Woodward argues that segregation was not an outgrowth of slavery. Slavery made segregation impractical, and there was extensive contact between the races. Because slavery enforced white supremacy, segregation was not necessary to preserve the existing racial hierarchy. Chapter 2 focuses on the fluid race relations in the post-Reconstruction South. Following the establishment of “Home Rule,” there was no immediate shift to expand or universalize segregation. This chapter describes the “forgotten alternatives” to the extreme racism of segregationists that became established with Jim Crow. Chapter 3 describes the rise of racism across the United States in the late 19th century. Woodward highlights a wave of legislation post-1890 that expanded segregation.

Chapter 4 explores the period following the World Wars and the political, economic, and social factors that lead to desegregation. Chapter 5 centers on the implications of the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation in public schools and the backlash to integration in the South. In Chapter 6 Woodward covers the period between 1955 and 1965. In particular, he focuses on the great political and legal strides made in voting rights and segregation. Despite this, there was an explosion of violence in black urban America in this period. Woodward concludes that the emphasis on integration in the Civil Rights movement did not address longstanding economic issues or the rising black nationalism of many African American leaders and organizations. The demands for increased separation in this period often came from African Americans, a new and unexpected chapter in the “strange career of Jim Crow.”