Toward A New Narrative

White Redemption Continues into the 20th Century


Southern chain gang building railroads

With the codification of Jim Crow laws, sharecropping peonage, enslavement in ‘chain gangs’ for ‘vagrancy,’ and the 1898 ‘Plessy vs. Ferguson’ ‘Separate but Equal’ decision, the White Redeemers did away with Black voting and ruled by lynch law from 1877 through the 1940s.

1898 also saw the onset of the Spanish-American War, and the conquests in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The US was now more than an Empire within its continental borders. It now spanned the globe’ with colonies in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific Islands.

Eugenics as reinforcement of white rule

The first decade of the 1900s also saw the government-backed extension of ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Social Darwinism’ by a newly emerging ‘eugenics’ movement. Eugenics, a newly minted term derived from ‘well-born,’ posited hierarchies of intelligence based on race and within races, based on class differentials. Soldiers entering the army for WW1 were subjected to extensive ‘IQ testing,’ designed to sort out, from the bottom up, idiots, imbeciles, morons, and then the rest of the upper working, middle, and ruling classes. 

‘Morons’ was a dubious term newly invented for this testing and was applied to at least half of the working class of any race. But ‘moron’ was applied mainly to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans. Even a majority of Jewish immigrants were dubbed ‘morons.’ Determining ‘intelligence’ by a single number that was hereditary (two falsehoods), with a single stroke, not only held down people of color, but held down most of the ‘white’ workers as well. As social policy, apart from sterilization, eugenics aimed to ‘reform’ education so no money was ‘wasted’ on enabling young people of the laboring classes to rise above the conditions of their parents. Instead, all the subalterns would only get provisions for limited literacy and other menial skills.


Ida B Wells and her anti-lynching campaign

But even when subordinated, at the turn of the century, the popular First Reconstruction forces waged ongoing battles—the founding of the NAACP by DuBois, the Ida B. Wells campaigns against lynching, the interracial worker insurgencies of the IWW into the 1920s, the Black and white sharecropper unions in the 1930s, and many of the labor campaigns of the CIO as well, to name a few. The Freedpeople in the South and the Free Blacks of the North also saw critical economic changes. White Redemptionists cracked the whip and waved the noose to keep Blacks chopping cotton, making railways, digging coal, and producing steel. But capitalism in the North also actively recruited Southern Blacks to draw them into various manufacturing industries.

The Great Migration as resistance

Many Blacks saw the lures to the North as a better offer. At some risk, they began what came to be called ‘the Great Migration,’ with millions of Black families moving to the Northern industrial centers from Boston and New York to Detroit and Chicago. Among other things, this migration changed the Black class structure of Northern cities in a significant way, with the expansion of a Black proletariat, alongside an expansion of urban Black middle classes–small businesses, professionals, and intellectuals. This growing educated elite began to seek its own voice. It was born after slavery and tasted Reconstruction, but Jim Crow still held it down. Next Page