Essays Nonfiction

American Segregation: The Mask Unveiled

At the core of American racism during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies lies a putrid heart of darkness—filled with white supremacy, escalating horrific violence, and the continuing mount of cultural and racial segregation in the United States through various means physical and judicial.  The prevalence found in the relationship of this brutality led to race riots and amplified lynching cases that swept the land and predominantly the landscape of the South during this moment in history further entailing a struggle for equal rights that would persist until decades later and on to today.

On October 15, 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was deemed unconstitutional under a United States Supreme Court forbidding states, but not citizens, the right to discriminate.  In this year, fifty-three blacks were lynched, a four person increase from the prior year.  In only two years from this ruling, the rate of lynching’s jumped to seventy-four lost souls to hatred and then ninety-four in the year of 1889.

As a tool used by the Ku Klux Klan, starch opponents against integration, lynching met some of its most violent ends as they terrorized the southern territories of the United States uprooting homes, burning down churches, schools, and community buildings, threatening physically, emotionally, and mentally the death of any that opposed their mundane philosophy of hatred.

Particularly telling in the story of racial violence against blacks during this era is none so more evident than in the actual sadistic nature in which these acts of torture took place.  The brute, vicious demeanor of its enforcers to their victims carries such an undertone that to not say that there was a relationship between violence and the culture of segregation would be intellectually defunct.

In Death in a Promised Land, historian Scott Ellsworth writes of an incident in Moultrie, Georgia:

“Immediately a cracker by the name of Ken Murphy gave the Confederate yell:  Whoo-whoo.  Let’s get the nigger’. . . [Then they grabbed him and] tore the Negro’s clothing off before he was placed in a waiting automobile.  This was done in broad daylight.  The Negro was unsexed and made to eat a portion of his anatomy which had been cut away” (Ellsworth, 18).

Not soon after, the newspaper article describes that the victim was burnt alive while townspeople in the shadows of the Klan stood alongside holding hands and singing in unison watching the event—what to them was a celebration—unfold.  Later that evening after the charred remains of the man smoldered in their Godless hatred, a gala of dance and drink was held in which people from all over came, some hundreds of miles away.

The “unsexing” of the victim was more common than some tend to understand in this era.  Castration before lynching and violence was many times the humiliation of being deemed inferior by white captors.  As author Michael Eric Dyson notes, “Black men were beaten, castrated, hung, and burnt many times from fear of black sexuality by whites.  There was this white fantasy that threatened them” (Dyson, 224).  This act of dehumanization carried a psychological connotation toward the captive to make him feel degradation while peering into their—the perpetrator’s—seemingly hollow eyes as well.  Once castrated, some victims were set free and given their genitals back only to bleed to death while searching for help after being taken to the middle of nowhere blind-folded and having no obvious clue as to their surroundings.

Others were not so lucky, if it can even be called such—as was the case of seventeen-year-old mentally retarded farmhand Jesse Washington in 1916 in the small country town of Robinson, six miles outside of Waco, Texas.  Convicted of raping and killing a white woman, the mentally handicapped Washington’s trial was a nonsensical and bias farce of the justice system and the proceedings afterwards to this day call to mind some of the most gruesome of images captured of what is known as the height of the Lynching Era from Reconstruction to the Great Depression.  His penis was cut off, as were his ears, toes, and fingers—his fingers were originally left on but after he tried to climb the fiery hot iron chain to which he was tied onto to escape the flame about to engulf his life, these were cut off as well.  Afterwards, his now unrecognizable being was taken down, thrown into a bag and dragged behind a car to his home in Robinson, Texas and put on display as a symbol of “what could happen to you if…” before being sent to an undertaker.

In the murder of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, the young man nicknamed “Bobo” from Chicago, Illinois whistled at a white woman inside a local shop in Leflore County.  His last breath would come shortly after as two men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant—the latter the husband of the woman inside the store, would come to Emmett’s Uncle Moses’ home to take his life away.  Young Till was beaten to death, leaving his features unbeknownst to even his relatives upon viewing his body; his ear was cut off, his eye gouged out, and then he was shot with a .45 caliber pistol all for whistling at a white woman.  To sink his lifeless figure to the bottom of the Delta, the two murderous criminals—who were acquitted but would later admit to their crime for payment—tied the Illinois’ natives body to a seventy-five pound cotton gin with barbed wire—possibly symbolic in nature—sinking him in hopes he would never be found.  But he was.

The examples go on and on.  Each story mirrors a lust of hate we hope to never see again.  As Michael J. Klarman, a James Monroe Professor of Law at the University of Virginia wrote in his book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, in 1957 Birmingham, a black man who was thought, just from a simple comment, by area Klansmen to be an activist in the fight for integration of the public school system in Alabama was taken and castrated because as the six men said, “[he] thought nigger kids should go to school with white kids.”   This was their response in believing that because the judicial system had erased the Mason-Dixon line, the Klan, as they said, “would have to establish the Smith and Wesson line” (Klarman, 424).

The violence was definitive.  It lay out examples from Jesse Washington to Emmett Till, to unnamed bodies tortured and hung left to swing from branches of giant oak trees, in pictures and in postcards, to the bombing of occupied churches—it was a lesson the segregationists believed, that if you do such and such and you look like this—the tone of your skin a shade too dark, this will be your outcome; this will be your end, this their means.

There were race riots in New Orleans and New York, twenty-one dead in Atlanta and forty in East St. Louis.  In a four-month span in 1918, twenty-five race riots alone ended in over a hundred dead (Bond), .  Years go by and the rate of lynching’s increase with nearly two-and-a-half men, women, and children, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, mothers and fathers forever lost each because of the color of skin they were born into.  But the tell-tale heart of the matter is that in 1940 when the Senate rejects an anti-lynching bill, the true colors of the segregationist’s nucleus lies not only in the hands of the feeble, violent, uneducated mind of the Southern “redneck” but also in something and in someone else with more to gain in maintaining a cultural divide.

To answer the question fully of whether or not violence—or the threat of violence—lies at the core of white supremacy and the segregationist movement, one would have to ignore the other contributing factors which underline the resistance against equal rights in the United States.  The core of segregation indeed has its foot in the door of white supremacy with aggression and the ongoing threat there of.  However, the centrality of refusal to integrate and to accept the terms of racial equality carry its most potent form of separation from nonviolent procedures such as the judicial system, various legislative measures, and with sometimes subtle groups of influence and power who had ties with members in rooted branches of the government unwilling to evoke substantial and abiding change.

With no real disciplinary action taken against and with open interpretations of the law, the segregation movement and their allied white supremacist organizations were allowed to run rampant.  Take the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) case for example:  The court ruled that the doctrine “separate but equal” was incoherent with fairness in public schools and that this creed could not exist.  Yet Brown II, one year later, marked a return of the distorted philosophy “with all deliberate speed” that had entangled American blacks in the political spider-web of the United States judiciary system from inheriting the same liberties under the constitution as whites for nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, the beginning of the Reconstruction period, and the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau.

These court rulings, dating back to the Dred Scott case—Scott v. Sandford (1856)—underscore the judicial system as a product of its environment.  Sometimes and thankfully so, the court was in the right with decisions such as Brown v. Board but could not enforce on a national scale these rulings without help from the federal government in states that had been imposing Black Codes since the end of the Civil War.  Other times, such is the case with Plessy v. Fergusonde juro segregation was upheld leaving open interpretations to judges that lay in complete contradiction to the XIV Amendment that declared in its passing that no state shall enforce any restriction upon its born or naturalized citizens.

But the government failed continuously in acting on behalf of its “born” citizens by constantly doing nothing in the face of racial hatred that led to many race riots across the country.  The Ku Klux Klan was the face of hell in the eyes of blacks and supporters of integration.  However, the White Citizens Council had a beating heart that spilt the same blood as the previously mentioned but their method involved politics and influence; they were the Klan with a tie hanging from their breast, cigar smoked dancing from their lip, and socio-economical influence in hand.  Local judges, corrupt police—they all added to the array of say nothing, do even less.

Sometimes, however, your weapon of choice backfires and no matter what influence you are deemed to sway or how much you ignore a problem a determined group of individuals must one day rise and set themselves free, no longer under control of a superiority-I vs. inferiority-you complex but of a mindset that shouts, “We.”  The creation of the NAACP came out of this disgust after the 1908 anti-black riots in Springfield, Illinois; the case of Emmett Till catapulted the modern civil rights movement into the national spotlight with the heartache of a mother, who could have been anyone’s mother; Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat but nonetheless her actions that day helped propel the nonviolent movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s onto the steady railways that would erase the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.  The truth is that the core of 18th and 19th century racism and segregation in the United States had no clear face.  It was not just the man in the white mask and dunce cap laying shadow in the backdrop of a burning cross but it was also the man with the starched white collar around his neck, the woman who spat on school children and those that did nothing at all—that was the foundation.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME!
(Hughes, 189)

Works Cited

Bond, Julian.  Lecture.  University of Virginia, Charlottesville.  5 September 2006.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  347 U.S. 483.  Supreme Court of the United States.  17 May 1954.

Ellsworth, Scott.  Death in a Promised Land:  The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Dyson, Michael Eric.  The Michael Eric Dyson Reader.  New York:  Basic Civitas Books, 2004.

Hughes, Langston.  The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.  Ed. Arnold Rampersad.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1994.

Klarman, Michael J.  From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.

Plessy v. Ferguson.  163 U.S. 537.  Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana.  18 May 1896.

Scott v. Sandford.  60 U.S. 393.  Supreme Court of the United States.  6 March 1857.

By Jeffrey Pillow

Jeffrey Pillow is an American short story writer, memoirist, and poet. He is the author of The Lady Next Door. His writing has been published in Urge Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, 16 Blocks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated,, New York Times, Washington Post, and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He grew up in the small town of Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, and now lives in Charlottesville with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Mozzarella Cheese. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he was a Rainey Scholar. This is his blog.

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