VIII. Diminishing History: The Old Jim Crow
Having analyzed the Jim Crow analogy's impact on discussions of modern crime and penal policy, I will now evaluate how the analogy influences our understanding of the past. Specifically, I will argue that by invoking the Jim Crow era in an effort to highlight the injustice of mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow writers end up diminishing our collective memory of the Old Jim Crow. My fear is that writers seeking to establish parallels between the Old Jim Crow and mass incarceration overlook (or underemphasize) important aspects of what made the Old Jim Crow so horrible.
The New Jim Crow writers devote little attention to the Old Jim Crow. The choice to say so little is understandable. After all, most people know what Jim Crow was, and the point of these contributions is to tell people a story they do not know--the one about mass incarceration. But I suspect something else is at work as well. In the interest of drawing the parallels between Jim Crow and mass incarceration as tightly as possible, the New Jim Crow writers typically avoid dwelling on the aspects of the Old Jim Crow that have fewer modern parallels. As a result, much that matters is lost.
For now, let me focus on one area in particular: the brutal, unremitting violence upon which Jim Crow depended. My generation of African Americans, fortunately, has no personal experience with this regime. But many of us have experienced its legacy. I confronted this history personally, and unexpectedly, through my father.
It was 1984, the summer before I entered Brown University. My parents had divorced when I was young, and my dad's idea of a good father-son bonding experience was to attend the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco and then drive together to Atlanta, where I lived with my mom. From California to Texas, we mostly rehashed our ongoing political argument: he supported Walter Mondale and thought it was nuts that I was drawn to Jesse Jackson. As we approached Louisiana on I-20, his mood began to change. He grew tense and withdrawn. After looking at the speedometer--I was driving 65 MPH in a 55 MPH-zone, as I had done the whole trip--he told me to slow down because we don't want to get stopped around here.I knew of course that he had grown up in Mississippi and Chicago and had been part of the southern civil rights movement. I was raised with the stories--Emmett Till, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner--and always the reminder that those are just the ones people remember. But the good guys had won in the end, right?
I wanted to stop and call my mom to let her know how long it would be until we reached Atlanta. My dad told me we could only stop at a Howard Johnson's, a Motel 6, or an Amoco. Moreover, we could only stop once we were in a city. It can wait until we get to Jackson, he said. That's stupid, I replied. It will be late then. Why wake her?Seventeen years old and headstrong, I turned off at an exit in Mississippi and pulled over at a rundown gas station. A man was behind the counter and another was filling his tank near us. I went to the phone booth while my dad kept watch, peering out into the Mississippi night. I was placing the collect call with the operator when every light in the gas station went out. It was pitch black. My dad hit the headlights and turned the ignition. He screamed, Get in the car! Now! I dropped the phone and ran to the car while he leaned on the horn.
We never discussed what happened that day. In my mind, though, I was sure I was right--sure that, in 1984, black people did not get attacked for no reason at a gas station just off the interstate. Not even in Mississippi. But I was equally sure that this wasn't really the point, or at least not the main point. After more than twenty-five years (plus a substantial motive to repress memories of the incident), the details are a little blurry, but I still remember clearly the look on my dad's face when I returned to the car and got on the highway. He was terrified in a way that I had never seen. I cried myself to sleep that night, in a Howard Johnson's near downtown Jackson. I was overwhelmed with a boy's shame at watching his father laid low, and the double burden of knowing that I had helped bring it about.
What could do this to my father? The Old Jim Crow. The Jim Crow of public torture lynchings, in which a white man could, while on his lunch break, see a black man lynched, buy a postcard with a photo of the dangling body, and send it via regular U.S. mail to a friend with this note:
Well John--This is a token of a great day we had in Dallas, March 3rd , a negro was hung for an assault on a three year old girl. I saw this on my noon hour. I was very much in the bunch. You can see the Negro hanging on a telephone pole.
The Old Jim Crow was the one that gave the U.S. Supreme Court cause to review convictions like those in Brown v. Mississippi. In that case, the Mississippi Supreme Court had affirmed convictions despite the fact that the black suspects were
made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made . . . to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner the defendants confessed the crime, and as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers.
That was Jim Crow--the memories of which so utterly traumatized so many of our parents' and grandparents' generations. This does not mean analogies may never be drawn, but it does require that they be drawn with care. Otherwise, they threaten to further erase our dimming collective memory of the Old Jim Crow.