THE PROGRESSIVES AND JIM CROW
Ronald Gordon Ziegler
The Twentieth Century was many things. Among the labels which might be appropriately applied to that millenium is the apparation The Progressive Century.
From it inception, the progressive impulse was part and parcel of its essence.
Just what that means for the United States is subsumed in the recognition of the
expansion of government during the century. When the period began, government
spending accounted for something on the order of 5% of the GDP. At its conclusion,
that had surpassed the neighborhood of 40% and climbing.
Such expansion has been heralded on many rationale, but even in the most generous interpretation, that rationale cannot mistake the clear distinction between
what classically has been known as liberalism, and what has come to be called
liberalism through the recently concluded century. Such obfuscation as has been
engaged in with the intermingled usages of this term has its champions, but that makes it no less inaccurate. Liberalism/progressivism promotes its agenda on the
basis of protecting and promoting the rights of the ordinary citizen. In that quest,
however, those rights are sacrificed at the temple of governance. It is dogmatic that
the people need that protection, helpless as they are to champion their own cause.
Somehow, it does not occur to these progressives that the citizenry might require
protection from this government, although in the founding of this republic that was
of course an essential understanding.
The point is that the progressive view of the citizen is one of condescension and derision toward them; that paternalistic government must cast its shadow over the
people for their own good, given their inability to function adequately on their own.
Liberals may turn such reasoning in a different direction, but the bottom line is the
same -- government's role in everyone's life is greatly increased and magnified.
What Progressive policy entails is far reaching. It is almost all encompassing in its
reach. But, as they do with much of their agenda, the progressive interpretation of the
actual impact of that agenda is often confused. So it is in regard to race policies along with all the rest. In recent years, progressives offer themselves as the champion of equal rights, as the sole guardians and inheritors of the mantle of what
is called the movement, which helped bring down Jim Crow in America. Of course,
corollary to that is the understanding that it was government that brought that ugly
chapter in American history to its conclusion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, it is as if the liberals have a monopoly not only on self-righteousness, but on
the 'civil rights' movement itself, so much so that to be conservative or not a liberal is
to be considered a cracker or bigot. Progressives are adamant about this -- not merely so commited to equality that they cannot see it any other way. Conservative
is in many circles a catch word for prejudice, at least rhetorically. After all, any one
who might question government's role in protecting the rights of citizens cannot be
in favor of those rights. Indeed, they obviously oppose them. But there's the rub.
It is the progressives that structured Jim Crow; it is progressives who championed it.
It is progressivism which has ushered in the new more subtle version of Jim Crow
we have seen being established in the US in recent decades. Moreover, it is the paternalistic mind set of the progressives which lies as common basis for both the
entire set of liberal agenda and jim crow -- on the basis that people need government to do for themselves and society what they cannot and will not do for themselves.
It is not surprising that it was in the formative years of progressivism that jim crow was also established in the United States. The purpose of this examination is to
consider the parallel construction of the progressive state and jim crow, and the
common theoretical foundations of both in the progressive mind. To start, we need to
consider when it was that segregation was established, and in the process dispell
what are popular misconceptions of just when and how that was done. A well
recognized hallmark in that entire consideration was, of course, the Plessy case of
1896, but as C. Vann Woodward has suggested in his Strange Career of Jim Crow,
while that did provide legal sanction for segregation and its terrible inequities, it had
been taking root in the decades prior to that decision. It also effectively marks the
actual beginning of what can be termed the Jim Crow era of American history.
The period after the Civil War in our history is generally refered to as Reconstruction,
lasting from 1865 until the Compromise of 1877 'officially' ended it that year, but that
also marks the beginning of the next historical period, as least in terms of many aspects of life in especially the South in this country. The years 1877 until 1896 have
been referenced as Redemption, as increasingly from 1877, the old Southern aristocracy, or a latter day version of it, began to assert its 'rightful' place at the top
of Southern society and government. And it was they who began to set up the culture
of segregation and all that involved. What they set up was a multifaceted variation of
slavery, and while that process may have grown out of the civil war, and even have begun to be instituted in the 1860's, it was not until after 1877 that it truly began to
begin to obtain to hegemony in the South. And it was only on Plessy that it, with
the sanction of law, began to become firmly ensconced throughout the country, so
that if the period after 1896 can be said to be the Progressive era, it is also the Era
of Jim Crow.
This was true from the Congress to the baseball field, as well as in the South, for
the last black members of Congress fell by the wayside about this time, and the last
professional black baseball players until Jackie Robinson were 'weeded out' of the
Toledo Mudhen organization of the old American Association at this time. Redeemer
Democrats reached beyond Dixie.
Maybe one of the most pertinent mechanisms for understanding some of the connection between the institutionalization of segregation and the progressive movement is the spread of the primary election. Ostensibly a way to curtail or limit
the power of party machines and thereby enhance democracy, it actually helped pave the way toward more expensive campaigns and less 'responsible' government
because it began to weaken the party organization across the country. In the South,
however, the primary took on a different variation. It joined the growing list of measures of disenfranchisement. To literacy tests, the grandfather clause, and the
poll tax, the southern progressives added the white primary, a trick to get around
the 14th and 15th amendments and federal regulation of the elective process in the
South by prohibiting black voting in the nomination process, leaving them virtually
without a voice in the general election because it constrained vote choice.
It was more than a Southern phenomenon, however. Tenant farming and sharecropping may have marked the South more than any other section of the country, and been a bridle on more than former slaves, but together with everything
else, it virtually reinstituted slavery under other terms. The practices of segregation
and the laws to reinforce them, primarily in the South, but also in other parts of the
nation, created the wall of separation and badge of inferiority which the segregationists needed to shore up their system. Black codes were harsher in the South, but were not limited to it.
It must not be overlooked that as social as much of this separation was, it had the
sanction of government to solidify its foundations. Nor was such government sanction
limited to states or to the south. Woodrow Wilson was from Virginia, but when he
ordered the post office segregated as President, he was helping to segregate the country. Government created Jim Crow -- or rather, Progressive policy institutionalized it. And given the paternalistic rudiments of the progressive mind, it
should not be a surprise that their vision extended to notions of supremacy and inferiority among people. The Solid South was both Democrat and Progressive.
It may have been Populist before that, but that movement was coopted into the
Progressive campaign, and shared with it the biases which marked it.
Over time, Progressives have changed their tune on race relations, at least
rhetorically. What they have not changed is the paternalistic character of their ideology or policy agenda. The New Jim Crow that is being created in this country
at the end of the Twentieth Century is liberal and progressive, but it is still very much
Jim Crow. This journal has offered commentary on this in an earlier edition (See
The New Jim Crow in ejps, volume x number x, fallxxxx).
Jim Crow was well rooted by the time the Supreme Court officially sanctioned it in
the 1896 Plessy case, and that expression was just one brick of a wall of separation
that Cleveland and his pre-progressive pubescents were constructing -- it also included the crushing of native American culture, anti-foreign and immigration hysteria, chinese exclusion, and a 'gentlemanly' agreement to stop Japanese immigration. Nor did they overlook the Irish, nor lack condescension toward our
hispanic hemispheric neighbors. There is also a striking contrast between the policy agenda put forward on these (and many other) issues between Cleveland, Theodore
Roosevelt, and Wilson as opposed to Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and
to some extent William Howard Taft, as well as that of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Furthermore, when Jim Crow finally begun to be crushed in America, it was
market forces which did it in. Government could not maintain the separation it had
Cleveland may have been a pre-progressive, but the progressives in his wake picked up the ball and ran with it, and it was these leaders who constructed the wall of
segregation that the nation was saddled with during the early years of the 20th century. In fact, the two most important names in that project may well have been
Cleveland and Wilson. Neither wore a hood, but they did more to entrench racism
and put the government behind it than any Klansman ever did. And by the time
the Klan could celebrate Red Summer with a giant march down Pennsylvania Avenue
in full regalia, the Progressives had set in place our version of apartheid, just about
at the same time South Africa was setting up its barriers.