What Jim Crow Really Means – A Yankee Mom’s Memo From Montgomery

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/05/09/what-jim-crow-really-means-a-yankee-moms-memo-from-montgomery/

There seems to be some confusion about the meaning of the words “Jim Crow” these days. Many of the same people who would reduce our country’s history almost entirely to its racial sins, and particularly its historic mistreatment of blacks, seem not to appreciate what “Jim Crow” was.  As a Massachusetts Yankee who makes her home in the South, I can assure you that the term Jim Crow is inappropriate when applied to contemporary policy disputes.

Although I am a Yankee girl through-and-through who exhibits all the related attributes (fast talking, fast-walking, frank, never using the phrase “bless her heart” …), I have spent the last decade and a half in the genteel heart of the “deep south,” Montgomery, Alabama. These days, Montgomery prides itself on being the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement as the city saw a lot of action in the prolonged fight for equal rights. The city was home to Martin Luther King Jr. and the only church he ever served as head pastor. Unfortunately, it is also where King’s home on Jackson Avenue was bombed while his wife and baby daughter were inside.

Montgomery was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in December 1955, launching the 12-month bus boycott; and it was where King and 89 other civil rights leaders were put on trial for organizing it. In 1961, freedom riders were attacked at the Montgomery bus depot. And in 1965, the state Capitol in Montgomery marked the terminus of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, where King delivered his famous “moral arc of the universe” speech.

Up the road, Birmingham saw the 1961 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. That city was also the site of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign with its attendant dogs and water hoses; it is also where King penned his influential “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Down the road in another direction, Selma saw the infamous Sunday showdown between civil rights marchers and police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965.

Given all this proximate and not-too-recent history, there was a lot for this Yankee girl to try to wrap her head around upon arriving in Alabama. I have done my best to learn.

In recent years, Bryan Stevenson made a mark on Montgomery by locating the Equal Justice Initiative here and subsequently building the Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery.  These powerful additions to Montgomery’s memorials add context to the courageous pursuit for equal rights. While most of us have a basic understanding of the institution of slavery, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement, the Equal Justice Institute has provided detail and context to the roughly 100 years between, paying particular attention to the era of Jim Crow.

The institute’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice is particularly sobering. It consists of vertical, hanging memorials filled with soil from each county across the country where a lynching has been documented. Each hanging memorial is inscribed with one or more names and dates, each entry representing one of 4,400 blacks who were lynched between 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1955.

To experience the Legacy museum and memorial, to see King’s house and church, to go to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Rosa Parks museum … is to begin to scratch the surface of how profoundly evil and unjust Jim Crow was. For those who haven’t had the chance to come to Alabama and see these landmarks for themselves – let me state it simply:  Jim Crow has a long and dark and horrible history that means something. It means:  black codes, forced apprenticeships, convict leasing, anti-miscegenation laws, medical experiments, separate schools, separate accommodations, all-white juries, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynchings, not to mention actual acts of disenfranchisement, such as poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, and vote stealing.

To call a modern-day desire for election integrity, or anything else in the United States today, “Jim Crow” is to make the term, and the English language, meaningless. Further, it is a slap in the face to both the black and white citizens of the South.

Is any voting law or proposal currently being discussed in any state of the Union anything like Jim Crow? What an affront to the southern black citizens who after enduring more than a century of slavery, endured for another century second-class status without the franchise and had to risk life, limb, employment, and their very dignity to pursue equal treatment under the law. The risks those leaders took and the price they paid are incomprehensible to the modern mind. We as a nation owe those who fought for civil rights a debt of gratitude for the sacrifices they made to bring about legal justice. Instead of acknowledging the costs our black elders bore, today we prefer to indulge in virtue-signaling, and cloak ourselves and our preferred policies with their hard-earned mantle, demonstrating our willful ignorance of those 100 years of U.S. history and what they meant to those who lived, and died, during them.

Additionally, to use the term “Jim Crow” is to say that the white citizens of the south are still engaging in evil and unjust practices (behaving like Bull Connor and George Wallace) — when instead much has changed in the way of race relations in the Deep South. This is not to say that things are perfect, but the fact that today Montgomery has a black mayor, a black police chief, and a majority-black school board is an indication that the whites of Montgomery are not interested in enacting segregationist laws or bringing about Jim Crow 2.0. In fact, in several of the recent local elections, leading candidates for mayor and state senator on both sides of the ticket were black, and everyone I know (black and white) enthusiastically voted for their preferred black candidate. Today blacks and whites work together in inner-city ministries and schools across the city to improve the lives of the least well-off. No one here wants to reintroduce the black codes or anti-miscegenation laws, or see poll taxes or tests for voting brought back, and to imply that my white neighbors do want those things is to intentionally mischaracterize them and negate the real strides that have been made since 1965.

Lastly, the fact that the people who so cavalierly throw this term around are members of the same political party which tore down Reconstruction and enacted Jim Crow in the first place is particularly troubling. Perhaps those who employ this term today should start by acknowledging their party’s involvement with the 100 years of Jim Crow this country has already experienced, rather than pretend to see its second coming elsewhere. In light of the costly sacrifices our black elders have made to rid our nation of that evil regime, we, at a minimum, should be able to resist the temptation to hijack the term to disparage policies and politicians with which we disagree.


Katie MacLeod is a fast-talking Yankee carpet-bagger raising 5 Southern belles.  She has a bachelor of arts degree in history and a master’s degree in public police from Harvard’s Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is alarmed at our nation’s collective memory loss and our inability to engage in good-faith policy disputes.