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.