(The UNITED STATES to 1914 – continued)

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Race Relations

At the turn of the century most people in the United States of African descent still lived in the South, and the South was changing. The South had been sending its cotton to factories in the north and to England, but now fabric manufacturing in the US South was rising. Atlanta was already a factory town. With its skyscrapers it looked like a northern city.

The turn of the century came thirty-five years after the Civil War had ended. Some blacks were living well despite the failure of reconstruction, but most former slaves were without property. Many were still working on plantations, and many were working as sharecroppers.

Many Southern whites still believed that the Bible proclaimed blacks inferior and a damned people. At this point in history many Southern whites still saw blacks in general or uniformly as culturally primitive and ineducable. Some believed that blacks were lower in evolutionary development than whites.

Many whites believed in the divine right of whites to rule, which fit with the extension of European rule over non-whites that had been taking place. There was fear that white power would melt away if equal rights were granted to blacks. Fear remained from the days of Reconstruction that people of African heritage or mixed heritage would overwhelm people of European heritage.

To preserve their culture and maintain the status it was common among whites to favor a public separation of the races. In 1896 the Supreme Court in a case called Plessy versus Ferguson sided with Southern states that wanted "separate but equal" facilities for blacks. And by the turn of the century, "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs had been put up. There were laws describing where blacks could and could not reside, attend church, eat, use public toilets or drink water. Laws appeared against intermarriage. And outside the South most whites cared little about segregation in the South or welcomed it.

Southern Democrats dominated the South, and to protect their dominance and white power they created literacy tests, poll taxes and long residency requirements for voting. Except in Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky, nearly all those in the South identified as Negroes became disenfranchised. Fifty percent of the whites were caught by the same requirements and also disenfranchised. But the South had its city administrators who made in possible for blacks to vote: in Memphis, Houston and San Antonio.

Meanwhile, vigilantism still existed, and lynching was its common method. In the West were lynchings of whites by whites. According to the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, during the year 1901 in the US lynched whites numbered 25 and lynched blacks numbered 125. In 1910 those numbers were 9 and 67.

In Mississippi, racism and fear were expressed by "night riding" whites attempting to force black farmers to abandon the land they owned or rented.

There and elsewhere in the Deep South many blacks remained at the mercy of whims of whites. Some whites saw no connection between the oppression put upon these men and these men defending themselves by shuffling and cringing, and these whites took the shuffling and cringing as another sign of black inferiority. The Deep South had brighter citizens and highly educated citizens, but it also had men of low status among their fellow whites who found pleasure in considering themselves better or in lording if over blacks.

And into the century the enslavement of black men still existed. Blacks were arrested through questionable legal means in several southern states. These were trumped up charges with extended jail or prison terms. The victims were leased to mine owners, farms, logging companies and other industries. The victims existed without amenities, with excruciating chain-gang drudgery and beatings for discipline. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) the US Justice Department moved to end this slavery. Slavery was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court held to a strict interpretation of slavery. This meant that Congressional action was needed to end the manner in which black men were being entrapped, but Congressional action would not be forthcoming.

Some blacks sought a better life for themselves through migration. In the North and West were few jobs for blacks, but many blacks, filled with hope for a better life, left anyway, and some southern landowners were distressed at losing black workers. In the North, blacks found employers hiring immigrant white workers, and they found urban slums, prejudice, resentment and fear. In the North, blacks were being ridiculed in vaudeville shows and in some popular songs. And the jobs that blacks acquired paid only about half what whites were paid for the same or comparable work.

Although the turn of the century was only 35 years after the Civil War, there were those who believed these attitudes regarding race were part of the natural order of things. They were common in their pessimism, and they were comfortable with this order. But there were also white who were optimistic and wanted reforms. The new president, President Theodore Roosevelt, was one of them. Upper-class whites like Roosevelt, secure in their status and educated, tended to be more progressive regarding race. Roosevelt spoke out publicly against racism and discrimination. He appointed many blacks to lower-level Federal offices. He invited Booker T Washington to dine at the White House, but being a politician he had public opinion to consider, and the outcry following the event was so great that Roosevelt never did anything like it again. Roosevelt remained reluctant to use federal authority to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing voting rights to African Americans.

Mark Twain was another white opposed to the common attitude by his fellow whites toward blacks. He was opposed to their mistreatment and the mistreatment of Asians.

The labor leader and Socialist Party candidate for US President, Eugene Debs, was another. In a 1903 article titled "Danger Ahead" he would write:

The class struggle is colorless... Socialists should with pride proclaim their sympathy with and fealty to the black race, and if any there be who hesitate to avow themselves in the face of ignorant and unreasoning prejudice, they lack the true spirit of the slavery-destroying revolutionary movement... When I see the poor, brutalized, outraged black victim, I feel a burning sense of guilt for his intellectual poverty and moral debasement that makes me blush for the unspeakable crimes committed by my own race.


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