Social Attitudes and Mores of the South 1900s to 1950s Essay
The Southern way of thinking for many whites remained constant from the 1900s to 1950s. There was racial intolerance and discrimination. Southern tradition was embedded into everyone, black and white. The causes for these prejudiced positions stemmed mainly from fear and many cared over from the time of slavery. The blacks on the other hand, were split. Some agreed with the complacent doctrine of Booker T. Washington, while others pushed for the social and political equality stressed by W.E.B. Du Bois. Whites expressed these attitudes by lynching and insinuating race riots. Blacks countered by, for example, creating their own “country” called Mound Bayou where blacks lived and prospered independently from whites. For many people, Southern tradition was a way of life, and was not to be questioned.
Racial Attitudes and Thinking
Many of the racial attitudes were instilled at a young age into blacks and whites, and for the most part remain unquestioned until the Civil Rights Movement. It was unspoken, yet all knew. These southern traditions were the authority of the South. Thomas Bailey’s racial creed consisted of the main points of southern tradition. The notion that the white race is superior to the black race is the cornerstone of the foundation. Negroes were seen as inferior biologically, psychologically, culturally, and historically. The lowest white man is still higher than the highest black man. There was to be no social or political equality for blacks. There was to be no intermixing of the races for it would contaminate the Teutonic people.
The South was white man’s country and there was no room for blacks. The blacks man shall always serve the white man, as he did in slavery and as he does now in sharecropping. The Negro’s highest accolade is the “status of peasantry”. Southerners did not allow outsiders, specifically the North to interfere with the South’s treatment of blacks. Only Southerners could understand and solve the Negro question. For the most racist whites of the south, a black genocide was called for known as lynching.
Blacks also had their own ideas on race. It was not as uniform as that of whites. Some blacks agreed with W.E.B. Du Bois’ philosophy on the talented 10th and the demand for political equality, while others sided with Booker T. Washington’s ideas on vocational advancements while relinquishing the right to vote. Washington says in his famous Atlanta Compromise, “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of the bottom… It is at the bottom of life we must began, and not at the top.” (133-134) Many Southern whites praised him for his speech, because he advocated the disenfranchisement of blacks and for blacks to stop fighting for social equality.
His purpose was to focus on financial gain and to reduce violence against the Negro. Many blacks, including Du Bois, criticized him for “practically accept(ing) the alleged inferiority of the Negro race”. (52) Du Bois advocated the black right to vote, civic liberty, and education of the top 10% of blacks. Over timeDu Bois support grew, but slowly Washington’s point was discredited. Violence against blacks only escalated and Plessy v. Ferguson, the trial that legalized segregation, was ruled based on Washington’s compromise speech.
The middle class elitists felt the poor blacks were hindering their advancement, and the restrictions placed on all blacks should only apply to them. Alex Manly believed that if blacks assimilated to the white customs and lifestyle, they would be more accepted. The irony was that whites felt threatened by upper and middle class blacks, because they were capable of breaking the floor to ceiling policy. Any other time whites also did not distinguish between classes when looking at the inferior race. For example, the failing of the Populist Party was due to the uncompromising attitude of poor whites to align with blacks because of racial prejudice. After World War II when black soldiers were stationed in Europe, they came back with eyes wide open. They “realized that Jim Crow was not inevitable and the South did not have to be that way.” (Wormser 162) The irony of WWII was that the black soldiers were fighting for democracy, yet were ostracized by their own “democratic” country.
There were stereotypes placed on and myths about blacks. The most frequently given reason of lynchings was the idea that black men are sexual beasts and want to rape white women. For most of the lynchings, rape was the given cause. In general, it was a way of keeping blacks in their place. In advertisings, blacks were depicted as the “happy darky” and “Uncle Toms” such as Aunt Jemima.
Not all Southerners were completely unsympathetic to the black struggle, but many beliefs weren’t much better. Many saw blacks as the “white man’s burden” and treated them with paternalism and noblesse oblige. It was patronizing to blacks and done mainly in politics to gain black voting support. Eleanor Roosevelt, however, was a true supporter in the campaign for equality. She fought for anti-lynching laws and spoke out publicly against racial prejudice. Women’s organizations also banned together to speak out against lynching to defuse the idea that the white female needs protection from black men.
Foundation for Racial Attitudes
There are only a few reasons why these attitudes have developed, but are all very strong. Fear is the broadest reason and is the foundation for most of the southern traditions. The “big brother” complex, that the South has with the North, fueled many fires. And the past relationships have heavily influenced the present relations between blacks and whites. Smith also talks about a cause that is not very apparent, but can be another psychological reason behind white mentality: religious fear.
The religion of whites, during the time of slavery in particular, was mainly of restriction of sex and the punishment of sin. Exploring sex was practically forbidden and children were instilled with a fear of sinning. Blacks on the other hand, did not seem to focus on the filth of sexuality or concern themselves with living life by so many confinements. Compared to the “love of life and play … and psychosexual vigor… made the white race by contrast seem … drained of much of what is good and life-giving. It was natural that the white man was drawn to them (black women).” (Smith 117) This attraction Smith refers to as backyard temptation.
The white slept with black women he was taught to dehumanize. Soon the guilt and shame of his “sinning” drove him to believed that the white woman was partaking of the same pleasure he was. The fear of the tables turning pushed the myth of the raping of “sacred” white woman. This is also the source of the fear of contamination of the pure race by the less than human blacks. He set up laws and customs to keep his children from this “irresistible sin”.
The irony involving religion was that it taught to love everyone, while society was preaching segregation. Religion did nothing to counteract southern tradition. As in the play, which Smith talks of, with the children in which conscience, religion, and science all back down to southern tradition, even though they know it is wrong.
For blacks and whites the fear of the repercussions of breaking racial boundaries sustained Jim Crow for as long as it did. For some, it was embedded so deeply it became subconscious and that much deeper to seek out and remove. Others saw it as too hard, and there was no way of defeating southern tradition. Blacks were afraid of being lynched for stepping out his place, while whites were afraid of being ostracized.
Blacks were denied social, economic, and political advancement, because whites, specifically the lower class, were afraid of competition. They would be crossing the white floor to black ceiling line. The race war in Phillips County, Arkansas is an example of this. A group of black men and women were trying to form a workers union, when white police officers under false pretenses tried to break it up. The real reason was the fear of a conspiracy to raise up and overthrown white planters.
White supremacy was justified through religion. Whiteness was considered a symbol of purity and excellence. “Since this is so your skin color is a Badge of Innocence which you can wear as vaingloriously as you please because God gave it to you and hence it is good and right.” (Smith 89) The tradition of slavery itself also continued the idea of black inferiority and servitude.
Another issue that only helped continue the South’s attitude is the “big brother” relationship with the North. Ever since the time of slavery the North and South have butted heads on different issues. Each time the North intervened the South became more stubborn and spiteful with its ideology. Smith says even though the South knew that slavery, sharecropping and segregation were wrong, the criticism of the North only made them more defensive.
Social Mores and the Response to Racial Attitudes
These attitudes were put into action in various ways. The Ku Klux Klan surfaced. Lynchings were frequent in some states and had become a spectators’ sport. Segregation and Jim Crowism was the law of the land. Race riots initiated by whites occurred. These were the most common behaviors. As a result of black elitism there was a schism between blacks. Isaiah Montgomery created a black man’s country to counter the “white man’s country”. There was a regression towards old slave/master relations through sharecropping. The Southern demagogues and the Communist Party used it for political gain.
Blacks fought back against this thinking by threatening marches and protests, such as the one at Fisk University. Charlotte Hawkins Brown chose to respond to Jim Crow by going around it rather than to face it head on like others. The restrictions Jim Crow placed on blacks limited the cultural development of America up until the Harlem Renaissance. But Jazz was a positive byproduct of the black situation. A good example of how many of these attitudes played out in society is the Scottsboro trial, which was a melting pot of the racial and social prejudices of white Southerners.
The KKK was known as the terrorist group of the South. They frightened and lynched blacks to “keep social order”. Segregation was in place. Up until Charles Hamilton’s court victories, which challenged and defeated “separate but equal”, it was anything but equal. There were riots, such as the one in Wilmington, North Carolina and the attacks on Decatur Street in Atlanta.
Some blacks stood up against their oppressors head on, while others went around. Phillip Randolph threatened President Roosevelt to ban discrimination in industry with a march on Washington. Du Bois attacked Fisk U. president Fayette McKenzie for his tyrannical rule and selling out the integrity of the school for endowments. Charlotte Hawkins Brown spent her life trying to appease the whites that supported her school, while finding ways to undermine Jim Crow.
There was political gain to be made from the racial tensions. The Southern demagogues used the poor whites racism against them. Had the Populist Party poor whites been able to overcome racial differences, it would have been able to challenge the Big Mules control that kept blacks and poor whites down. The Big Mules in the Senate also halted the improvement of blacks by manipulating President Franklin Roosevelt by refusing to pass New Deal laws and programs if he supported blacks. The Communist Party used its support for the Scottsboro Boys as propaganda to gain more black support. They both manipulated the thinking of blacks and whites.
The Scottsboro trial embodied many of the racial and social prejudices many white Southerners held. The boys were charged for raping of two white women, what whites thought all black males wanted to do. Their attorney was a Jewish, Northerners who received the backlash of the South’s despise of North interference. Even though the case held no real or strong evidence to convict the boys, they were sentenced guilty three times. Alabama refused to admit its fault. It held it prejudices until the very end.
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