This week marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC. To commemorate this historic occasion, I’m focusing on a couple of films and a classic book.
In my last post(click here) I talked about our family’s recent viewing of two films that addressed the issue of Civil Rights: The Butler and 42. In this post, I’ll discuss The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
The book, written by C. Vann Woodward (professor at Yale), was called by MLK, “The historical Bible of the Civil Rights movement.” If you’re interested in Civil Rights, you need to read this book. Woodward’s work (sold almost a million copies) tells the tragic story of oppression and injustice within a country that claimed to value the truth that “all men are created equal.” Whoops!
In the thirty years immediately after the Civil War, the political situation for blacks in the South was much better than it would be once the “Jim Crow” laws started to kick in, about 1900. (According to Woodward, the derivation of the term Jim Crow is unclear.) Most blacks were able to vote, they could sit or dine wherever they wanted and were well-represented in politics (at least compared to 30-40 years later).
An English member of Parliament, Sir George Campbell, who traveled the South in 1879 with an interest in race relations was shocked, “the humblest black rides with the proudest white on terms of perfect equality…I was, I confess, surprised” (p. 37). The situation during this period was arguably better for blacks in the South than in the North. In 1885, a newspaper in Charleston said, “We need, as everyone knows, separate cars or apartments for rowdy or drunken white passengers far more than Jim Crow cars for colored passengers” (p. 50).
But then the economic crisis of the 1890’s came along, and people needed someone to blame, so many whites blamed the blacks. The so-called Jim Crow laws multiplied depriving blacks of rights, and segregating schools and businesses. To succeed in this endeavor, blacks need to be disenfranchised, or deprived of the right to vote. So, restrictions ensued, limiting blacks with literacy tests, polls taxes and property tests. In Louisiana, the number of registered black voters was 130,334 in 1896, but 8 years later in 1904, that number had plummeted to 1342–99% of the black voters were excluded (of course, all women were still excluded from voting until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed).
All this leads up to the so-called Voter ID laws, popular in some states, including my own PA. Just to be clear, the rationales given for Jim Crow laws in the South were about as convincing that the ones given for Voter ID laws in our country today. Realistically, voter fraud is not a problem in our country. The US isn’t Zimbabwe. The big problem is that people don’t want to bother to vote, in most elections, turnout is less than 50%. No one wants to vote twice. Voter ID laws are just a way to restrict certain people, usually minorities, the elderly or the economically disadvantages from voting. (For those of you who want smaller government, enforcing ID laws will cost money. How many of you find drivers license centers too efficient?)
Jesus began his ministry speaking of how the Spirit came upon him (quoting Isaiah 61) to help many of the people that Voter ID laws are attempting to disenfranchise: “to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus’ mission was a precursor MLK’s dream.