The failure of Reconstruction in the South in the late 1800s led to a specific mentality felt throughout society. Black inferiority was not to be questioned or contested. Fear was constantly haunting the minds of African-Americans and all aspects of their lives. Violence was used for power and control both by the blacks and whites and became a dominant aspect of the Southern lifestyle. The relationships between blacks and whites in the post-Reconstruction South were defined by the roles fear and violence came to play in society.
The institution of slavery became an issue of race, whites above blacks, a social role that was not to be violated. While enslaved black men, women, and children endured a lot of violent beatings and sexual abuse, all used by the whites to exert power and control, as well as to impose fear into the lives of black slaves. In 1861 slavery was abolished and many slaves were left with the fear and inferiority that had been strongly embedded into their minds and into social mentality. “Many institutions, public and private, excluded blacks altogether… others offered blacks markedly inferior services” (Foner, 158).
The idea of black inferiority was clearly supported and perpetuated by the segregation in society. Foner, in his work, A Short History of Reconstruction, explains how this separation was apparent in both the public and private realms of society. It was clear to the blacks that anything challenging this social order would be problematic for themselves and their families. Blacks who rebelled were kidnapped, beaten, raped, or brutally murdered. “Blacks who disputed the portion of the crop allotted them…were frequently whipped… Blacks working on a South Carolina railroad construction gang were whipped and told to go ‘back to the farms to labour’” (Foner, 186).
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This brutality was used to remind the blacks of what the whites thought was their role in society, a role the whites fought hard to preserve. The attacks did not need to become a personal experience to have a large effect on the views and behaviour of the blacks.
Richard Wright was, for a long time, among the blacks that did not experience this violence of whites first hand but knew of the roles that blacks and whites played in society. “I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched, it seemed, except in violence” (Wright, 47).
As a boy, his naivety made it difficult for him to see the difference between whites and blacks, however, as he grew older it became a more obvious part of his life. The violent behaviour he had endured in his life thus far had come from his own race. In his home, his parents used fear and the threat of punishment and violence as a means of control over the children. As constant subjects of white violence and hatred, the parents had learned to use these themselves, to force obedience.
Wright came to see something else in him, something past fear and beyond the vicious environment, he did not want to conform to the roles that society had designated for him, a dangerous ambition often shot down and condemned by his peers. “Dread and distrust had already become a daily part of my being and my memory grew sharp, my senses more impressionable; I began to be aware of myself as a distinct personality striving against others” (Wright, 29). He wanted to be something more than the “black man” society depicted for him. Religion was a large piece of the black community that offered peace, salvation, and freedom that society did not.
It was expected that blacks accept religion and feel its importance, not only to offer hope but as a way of conformity, a strength given as blacks bonded together. Wright describes an encounter with religion and his rejection of conformity. “‘Have you really tried to feel God?’ he asked. ‘No. But I know I can’t feel anything like that.’ ‘Don’t mock God,’ he said. ‘I’ll never feel God, I tell you. It’s no use.’…He was shocked. He wiped tears from his eyes” (Wright, 114). This passage expresses the sentiment felt by many blacks when few others wanted to challenge the character already set for them, they felt fear and nervousness, uncertainty for what could happen, what the whites would think or do about it.
To make money for him, to gain confidence and independence, Wright took to selling newspapers. In Black Boy he describes an account with a customer; the paper he is selling that day is headlined with an article about the Klu Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that often kidnapped, lynched, beat, or murdered blacks to ensure their position in society. “He gave me a dime, then looked at me oddly… ‘But tell me, who told you to sell those papers?’ he asked… ‘Did a white man ask you to sell those papers?’” (Wright, 129). The man was worried about Wright’s intentions in selling these papers. Fear played into the customer’s reaction. He worried that maybe the KKK had sent him to promote and sell these newspapers. “‘But I’ve read these papers now for two months and I know what they’re trying to do. If you sell ‘em, you’re just helping white people to kill you’” (Wright, 131). Even in an unsuspecting place in everyday life, such as a newspaper, the emotion of fear was always there.
Wright tells the personal accounts of the segregated South, however, there was much he did not undergo that was a large part of the black experience as a whole in this period of time. “The legacy of whites’ drive for social stability and control includes both the broken bodies of lynching victims and the grim wariness of men and women…” (Chafe, 2). The book Remembering Jim Crow offers many other accounts of the South, many describing the relations between blacks and whites and the fear that spread through society.
“There was another case in which a [black] man was killed because this [white] woman says that he had tried to have sex with her. But later on I learned that she was the aggressor and he wasn’t. Some of the men who had had sex with her said that if you didn’t, she’d have you killed. One man said he did. He was afraid, but he said if he was going to die, he was going to be guilty… eventually, he left town because he got scared. And so it was strange how those people worked, how they lived” (Chafe, 19).
There were many emotions that controlled the South at this time and dominated this world, the hunger for power and control, guilt, distrust, and largely, there was fear.
Through time some things improved, while others stayed the same. Laws were passed, Jim Crow was out, and then segregation was the next to go. The Supreme Court ruled that integration of the public was mandatory; it was no longer legal to discriminate and separate blacks and whites. The legislation may have changed, however, the negative sentiments and hatred from the whites seemed to live on. Their second rise of the KKK no longer promoted black inferiority but white supremacy. Whites gathered to advocate their domination over blacks, other racial minorities, but now also Jews, Catholics, and other religious minorities.
They perpetuated the idea of “nativism” and the ideal American as white Christians and nothing else. The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till was well after the times of Richard Wright; however, the same cruelty had carried over. “In August 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till travelled from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. He was brutally murdered there for purportedly whistling at- or speaking to- a white woman” (Carson, 37). The need to use brutal acts of violence to obtain power and control lived on long after the times of Jim Crow in the South. Emmett Till’s murder exemplifies how the environment had changed but the strong emotions traced back to slavery could perpetuate society for so long.
Interactions between whites and blacks throughout Jim Crow South reflected the attitudes and emotions derived from the roles of each group in times of slavery and reconstruction. Whites fought hard to maintain the Southern lifestyle they had become accustomed to, using violent acts and encompassing fear into society to maintain this role, obtain control and obedience, and hold power over the lives of the blacks while free from slavery. It would be years and years to come before the themes of fear and violence no longer dominated the mentality of blacks and whites in the South.
Carson, Clayborne, et al., ed. The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. New York:
Viking Penguin, 1991.
Chafe, William H., et al., ed. Remembering Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 1990.
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
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Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998.
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