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The long war for freedom after the Civil War ended

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Jerrold Packard's sweeping history of how white Southerners systematically oppressed black Americans after the Civil War inspires shame and admiration: shame for a country that has always proclaimed its adherence to democratic principles, even as it failed spectacularly to live up to them; and admiration for black Americans who wrenched justice from the heart of a nation.

While the war saw blacks liberated from centuries of bondage, slavery was replaced by novel forms of subjugation called "Jim Crow," a system of "legal, quasi-legal, and customary" practices that saw whites disfranchise, physically segregate, bar, and discriminate against blacks. The term originated in 19th-century minstrel shows, Jim Crow serving as the name of a character whose style of dance suggested a prancing crow. How it became associated with Southern racial oppression remains a mystery.

This system was pervasive, extending beyond the establishment of "colored" schools, railway carriages, drinking fountains, bathrooms, hotels - and even "colored" Bibles in Southern courtrooms. Jim Crow meant a black person could not enter a white person's house by the front door, could not address white persons by their first names, or, if driving an automobile, could not pass a white driver on a Southern road. Blacks did not sit on juries and were rarely permitted to vote. Cemeteries were segregated, as were bordellos in New Orleans.

Southern race relations left nothing to chance, and a breach of the rules (whether written or unwritten) could have fatal consequences. A black man's glance at a white woman might unleash a lynch mob, which conducted its gruesome business without interference from local officials - and often with their energetic support. And what is one to make of a culture that not only engaged in such behavior, but sometimes did so in public spaces as small children looked on?

Allowing for no exceptions, Jim Crow was based on the fundamental principle that "any white person was superior to every black person." Moreover, whites justified the separation of the races by claiming that blacks, if permitted to do so, would interbreed with whites, polluting white racial purity. Indeed, the fear of race mixing, which was related to the belief that it was essential to protect white women from the predatory behavior of black men, seems to have driven much of the mania to achieve racial separation.


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