The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
4 programs, each 56 minute episodes

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
series caught my attention because of the blog I wrote on May 6 regarding race. The producer, William Jersey, is a Wheaton College graduate and learning this prompted me to familiarize myself with his documentary film work, much of which deals with race issues. This series of four programs is, in some ways, more powerful than Ken Burns’ famous Civil War series and the civil rights series, Eyes on the Prize, both award winning documentary films. In the words of Newsday, "It demonstrates why we can’t hope to understand current issues of race and prejudice without facing up to our own ungodly brutal past." I concur and highly recommend this series. In my quest to understand the issue of race much better this proved to be as moving and gripping a presentation, quite honestly, as anything I have previously seen on screen.

This series also has several valuable Web sites associated with it. There is a Jim Crow history site and information at Public Broadcast System as well.

Emancipation formally ended slavery. The amendment of the Constitution legally ended it. But Supreme Court decisions, especially on a voting rights act in 1875, kept slavery (in a less legal but at times equally brutal and demeaning way) alive until the 1950s and 1960s. What black people fought for, in the Civil War, as well as in World War I and World War II, was not to be their’s until 1954 and then (truly) in 1964. Many of you may feel like you know this history but I majored in American history and there were a number of lessons learned in this series. My regard for W. E. B. DuBois’ understanding of how to change the race issue in America, and his efforts to that end, rose dramatically upon seeing this series. And my understanding of the failures of Booker T. Washington’s approach to race increased just as dramatically.

Segregation was more than a system of whites and coloreds. It was legal apartheid of the worst sort. And it would be a correct use of the term to call the lynching movements in the South as nothing short of sanctioned, or tolerated, terrorism against an entire race of people. But the NAACP and people like Ida B. Wells labored to change the culture with real effect over time. The first Supreme Court decision won was argued by Charles Hamilton Houston, the legal representative of the NAACP, the same position held by Thurgood Marshall before he was placed on the Supreme Court.

The Civil Rights Movement, which most of us living now, at least if we were born before 1960, know something about from experience was really launched because of the successful Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that began to tear down "separate but equal" arguments as both immoral and illegal.

Since race has been pushed forward by recent political developments it is a good time for all of us, especially white Christians, to better understand why the battle before us is so important and why the victory is still only partial, though the gains made are immense compared to the long historical nightmare that America inflicted upon African-American people. Truly "racism is America’s original sin." We still have work to do and the sooner more of us understood this the stronger will be our mission as a Church in America.

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  1. Troy June 12, 2008 at 6:33 am

    I would be interested in your thoughts of Booker T. in comparison to Mr. WEB. I haven’t seen the film, but my impression is that Booker T. functions much more like a prophet where his life and example show forth his humanity to the white race giving them no excuse for their racism. I don’t find that he is encouraging separation, but is concerned about the quality and character of a person that should be rewarded by society and lead to a unified people. He is a prophet declaring what a black man is capable of doing and becoming. He attempts to temper the more radical forces of Dubois and others and encourages cooperation. His prophetic efforts loose out by preaching to deaf ears and that gives way to a legal separation in the courts and a scapegoating of him for the separation.
    WEB Dubois and the NAACP become important to fight in the legal systems, but that is only because the message of Booker T. was ignored (by both races) and give way to more violent approaches to accomplish what Booker T. sought to accomplish within his lifetime. When the prophet dies and goes unheeded, Rome comes marching in and justice is accomplished through more violent means.
    I see them both as very contextually appropriate–one needed when the other is ignored, and only after he is ignored is Dubois’ approach appropriate–yet I realize that they both wouldn’t have considered one another in that manner.

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