The Strange Career of James Crow, Esquire

After the Supreme Court razed the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Jim Crow came skulking back to the South.

A protest for voting rights in North Carolina (Chuck Burton / AP)

One hundred and fifteen years ago, George H. White took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives—to say goodbye. A black Republican elected in 1896 by North Carolina’s Fusion Party, a coalition of black Republicans and mostly white Populists, he was the very last of the Reconstruction-era African Americans to leave Congress. It would be another 72 years before an African American from the South, with help from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, would circumvent Jim Crow and win a seat in Congress.

The “strange career of Jim Crow,” as chronicled by the historian C. Vann Woodward, supplanted White and the coalition he represented. Popular memory likes to imagine that Jim Crow’s career ended in the 1960s as abruptly as White’s had in 1901. But proceedings in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, over the last few weeks make it clear that Jim Crow did not retire: He went to law school and launched a second career. Meet James Crow, Esquire.

It has been widely reported that North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory is just a test case for voter-ID laws in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder—which gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, essentially removing federal oversight of state voting processes. However, the broader context of Mr. Crow’s second career is harder to see. George White’s political future after America’s First Reconstruction is illuminating; it outlines the pattern of a Third Reconstruction seen in the present fight for voting rights.

The Fusion Party that sent White to Washington in 1897 was a hallmark of the “more perfect union” that the United States had struggled toward after the Civil War. In a statewide, grassroots effort, freed slaves recognized common cause with poor and working-class whites in North Carolina and successfully defeated the Southern Democrat power structure of the white elite’s plantation economy. The Fusion Party won every statewide election in 1896. But this multiethnic bloc was attacked by a coordinated white-supremacy campaign determined to regain power.

The so-called “Wilmington race-riot” of 1898—the only successful coup d’état in American history—showed how far Democrats were willing to go to guarantee white power: They established Jim Crow laws. But despite their use of terrorism, George White wasn’t going anywhere. Democrats would not be able to unseat White without disenfranchising black voters in North Carolina first. Then, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court gave them the language of “separate but equal.” But White understood that, in fact, Jim Crow was determined to maintain the power structure of the plantation economy by any means necessary.

America’s Second Reconstruction—what is usually referred to as the “civil-rights movement”—pushed back against Jim Crow half a century later by exposing the moral contradiction of segregation, especially in the context of a global struggle for democracy. After the world witnessed Bull Connor’s dogs and George Wallace’s vitriol, Jim Crow was exposed as a thug and lost his respectability in Washington. Once again, it was a fusion of black and white, Christian and Jew, civil rights and labor coming together that presented the possibility of a new America. But it was also a fear of that possibility that inspired a racist backlash.

This time, Jim Crow got smarter. As in the 1890s, it was essential to exploit racial fear through divide-and-conquer tactics to maintain white supremacy. But the harsh language of states like Alabama didn’t play as well on the nightly news. The Southern strategy, which had given the South to the Republican Party for a generation, depended on a more respectable compromise between the South’s power structure and the rest of the country’s ruling elite. So Jim Crow learned the lexicon of “forced-busing,” “entitlements,” and “law and order.” And all the while, Crow attacked the Voting Rights Act as a violation of “states’ rights.”

George White showed North Carolinians that despite the tactics of white supremacy, a fusion of people joining hands across dividing lines is the South’s true moral majority. More than a century later, the North Carolina NAACP’s Moral Movement decided to follow White’s example. The group began mobilizing a coalition to once again subvert the Southern strategy. By the 2008 presidential election, they’d done it: North Carolina’s 15 Electoral College votes went to Barack Obama, breaking the “solid South” for the first time. The movement had turned a red state blue.

But what came next surprised no one involved: an all-out assault on the movement’s newfound political power. Millions of dollars of mystery money poured into North Carolina’s midterm elections, funding propaganda campaigns to rival those of 1898. A far-right takeover of the state’s General Assembly in 2010 led to gerrymandered voting districts and, in 2012, a conservative win in the governor’s office. The stage was set for a perfect storm in the 2013 legislative session, and with the federal government out of the way, the Shelby decision opened the door for a direct attack on voting rights. North Carolina obliged, with what many consider the worst voter-suppression bill of the 21st century.

Throughout the McCrory trial, NAACP lawyers made a strong case that the voter-ID component of this legislation places an unnecessary and undue burden on voters—especially poor and African American voters. A verdict is expected in a few weeks. But the case is really about much more than defeating voter-ID laws. It is about a central question of 21st-century American politics: Is a multiethnic democracy possible?

As many progressives have noted, the United States is starting to look like a democracy ruled by billionaires. Ironically, many of Donald Trump’s supporters agree. But the broad populist consensus that radical change is needed is not enough. George White was elected by a populist coalition, but he was also driven from office by a racist populism funded by the ruling elite. The second career of James Crow, Esquire, will never end if the nation won’t name it for what it is and resolve to do better by its citizens. Unfettered access to the ballot has always been a fundamental commitment of Reconstruction. And until that commitment is realized, the struggle will no doubt continue—in the courts, at the ballot box, and in the streets.