The work of mobs was a rabid and violent rendition of prejudices that extended even into the upper reaches of American government
This country was formed for the white, not for the black man, John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans attempted to reconstruct the country upon something resembling universal equality-but they were beaten back by a campaign of Redemption, led by White Liners, Red Shirts, and Klansmen bent on upholding a society formed for the white, not for the black man. A wave of terrorism roiled the South. In his massive history Reconstruction, Eric Foner recounts incidents of black people being attacked for not removing their hats; for refusing to hand over a whiskey flask; for disobeying church procedures; for using insolent language; for disputing labor contracts; for refusing to be tied like a slave. Sometimes the attacks were intended simply to thin out the niggers a little.
Terrorism carried the day. Federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The dream of Reconstruction died. For the next century, political violence was visited upon blacks wantonly, with special treatment meted out toward black people of ambition. Black schools and churches were burned to the ground. At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their homes were assaulted for daring to wear the American uniform. The demobilization of soldiers after the war, which put white and black veterans into competition for scarce jobs, produced the Red Summer of 1919: a succession of racist pogroms against dozens of cities ranging from Longview, Texas, to Chicago to Washington, D.C. Organized white violence against blacks continued into the 1920s-in 1921 a white mob leveled Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, and in 1923 another one razed the black town of Rosewood, Florida-and virtually no one was punished.
A postcard dated August 3, 1920, depicts the aftermath of a lynching in Center, Texas, near the Louisiana border. According to the text on the other side, the victim was a 16-year-old boy.
The New Deal is today remembered as a model for what progressive government should do-cast a broad social safety net that protects the poor and the afflicted while building the middle class. When progressives wish to express their disappointment with Barack Obama, they point to the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt. But these progressives rarely note that Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow.
The Jim Crow South, writes Ira Katznelson, a history and political-science professor at Columbia, was the one collaborator America’s why not find out more democracy could not do without. The marks of that collaboration are all over the New Deal. The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance (Social Security proper) and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics-jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 and 80 percent in the South were ineligible. The NAACP protested, calling the new American safety net a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.
The oft-celebrated G.I. Bill similarly failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks. The historian Kathleen J. Frydl observes in her 2009 book, The GI Bill, that so many blacks were disqualified from receiving Title III benefits that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.