African-American Resistance to Jim Crow in the South

— Paul Ortiz

IN THE SUMMER of 1964 student activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) went to Gadsden County, Florida in an effort to convert the old plantation county in the heart of the Florida panhandle into a bastion of CORE's Southern civil rights crusade.(1) Before the summer ended, the students would be bombed, beaten, and arrested by white authorities and vigilantes. Despite these obstacles, CORE activists helped over 3,500 local residents register to vote and take part in the 1964 presidential campaign.(2)

Linda and Jewell Dixie, two young African Americans from the county seat of Quincy, quickly assumed leadership roles in the struggle. Linda Dixie went from competing for high-school homecoming queen to leading lunch-counter sit-ins in Quincy. In September, Jewell Dixie became the first African American to run for the post of Gadsden County sheriff in the twentieth century.

The arrival of CORE in Quincy, the elan of the students, and the activism of Linda and Jewell Dixie seem to fit neatly into standard notions regarding the "origins" of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Historians often refer to a "Black awakening in the 1960s" that spurred a younger generation of student activists to engage in political projects their parents could not have imagined.

In Simple Justice, Richard Kluger writes that in the era before Brown v. Board of Education, "The black masses were still ignorant of their rights, for the most part." Worse, "Those who were not were also the ones most likely to be better off economically and educationally--and therefore the ones least inclined to rock the boat, to risk financial reprisals and perhaps violence by the white community."(3)

Things were different in Gadsden County. Linda and Jewell Dixie's father, A.I. Dixie, is a case in point. A.I. Dixie, a day laborer on a Gadsden County tobacco plantation in the 1930s, tried to organize fellow workers in a struggle against brutal working conditions. When this effort collapsed in 1936, he engaged in armed self-defense to prevent white overseers from flogging him.(4)

During the summer of 1964, the elder Dixie, age 51, and employed as a packinghouse worker, hosted two of the white CORE student activists at his residence. He provided transportation for the voter registration campaign and shadowed his daughter Linda the day she led the first lunch counter sit-in in Gadsden to ensure that no physical harm would befall the young activists.(5)

It is difficult to separate the youthful activism of Linda and Jewell Dixie from their father's lifelong fight for social justice--or, indeed, even from the generation that preceded A.I. Dixie. For example, Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, witnessed a case of Quincy's Black political activism in 1920.(6) A.I. Dixie recalled that African Americans in Quincy repeatedly, from at least World War I, tried to vote and form political organizations. Waged outside of the purview of sympathetic media, these campaigns were ultimately crushed by white violence.

Black resistance to racism flourished in the Jim Crow South between the 1890s and the 1930s. Here, I will discuss three types of resistance: rural struggles over land and resources, labor insurgencies, and battles against segregated transportation.

Rural Rebels

White landowners in the "New South" sought to portray Black sharecroppers and tenants as contented workers willing to let white elites decide how land and profits would be distributed. The reality was quite different. For example, James Monroe Smith, a Georgia plantation owner and self-styled paternalist, refused to allow Black tenant farmers on his land to market their own crops. Smith's biographer asserted that "Knowing when to sell cotton was not for everybody, and certainly not for Negro tenants."(7)

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, we find "Colonel Jim" deploring the fact that his tenants have organized their own underground cotton market! What's more, angry tenants were burning down barns, liberating convict laborers, and accusing Smith of being a "peon master" in court. When Smith offered a $500 dollar reward to "bring the culprits to justice" he received no assistance from local Black residents.

What happened on James Monroe Smith's plantation was not an isolated event. A Black newspaper in 1905 reported that Black agricultural workers in one rural Kentucky county had formed "A Colored Labor Trust," and "are reported to have entered into a combination and agreed not to work in harvest fields for $1.50 a day, the price offered by farmers."(8)

In addition, hints of Black efforts to sustain underground markets in cotton emerge in reports of armed clashes between landlords and tenants such as the gun battle between Arthur Blow and his plantation bosses near Helena, Arkansas in 1924. "The trouble occurred," according to newspaper accounts, "when Dr. Cox and [O.T.] Cunningham went to the negro's [sic] house to ask him about some alleged cotton thefts."(9)

Whether Cox and Cunningham's side of the story was true or not, it is no accident that many rural Southern counties passed ordinances in the late 1890s forbidding African-American tenants to sell cotton after dark. These reactionary laws signalled that Black sharecroppers were trying to wring living wages out of a political and economic system designed to keep them working at near-starvation levels.(10)

While they were legally disenfranchised during the Jim Crow era, African Americans in rural areas aspired, among other things, to control their labor, to create safe social spaces in order to organize collectively, as well as achieve a more just distribution of economic resources (i.e., wages and land) in the South.

White landowners and overseers often answered these aspirations with floggings, evictions, and lynchings. In response, Black armed resistance flourished in the southern countryside during the 1910s. A "racial clash seems imminent late tonight" reported one newspaper in February, 1911 "as a result of a shotgun and pistol battel [sic] earlier in the evening between a posse of white men and a crowd of negroes. The shooting was an attempt on the part of the posse to disperse a gathering of negroes in a house on the outskirts of Gunniston [Mississippi].'(11)

Fighting The Vestiges of Slavery

White authorities constantly sought new ways to force working-class African Americans to work for low wages--or no wages at all. In 1912, the city of Tuskegee, Alabama passed an ordinance "forbidding trespass on lands for the purpose of gathering berries . . ." The rationale for this law, according to the Montgomery Advertiser was to "Keep Darkies Out of [the] Berry Patch [so] They'll Have to Chop Cotton."(12) During World War I, municipal authorities and employers used patriotic rhetoric and physical force to employ "work or fight" ordinances designed to drive African-American workers to accept pre-war wages.

Black people saw their resistance to forced labor in terms of a wider civil rights struggle against the vestiges of slavery. For instance, J.H. Ross, writing from Wetumpka, Alabama to Walter White, observed that "As to the condition of the Labor Card [used to register and restrict the mobility of black labor] [I] Will say they seem to use them to carry us [to] the plan of Slavery and oppress the poor, unfortunate Colored an."(13)

Black workers fought back. From Arkansas, NAACP officer John Shillady wrote that in the Pine Bluff region, "Many [Black female agricultural workers] have refused to pick Cotton for 75 [cents] and $1.00 per hundred pounds as they received that price when Cotton Sold for 10 [cents] per pound--the prevailing price is now 35 [cents] per pound."(14)

In July, 1918, Black citizens in Bainbridge, Georgia organized a protest meeting at the local courthouse when the Bainbridge city council implemented a work or fight ordinance. "We gave them [white authorities] to understand that we would not submit to such a law, and any attempt upon the part of the City officers to force our wives . . . [to work] would bring about a race riot and that we as Colored men would fight them as long as we could get hold of a piece of them."(15)

Black women fiercely contested forced labor ordinances. "Work or fight" laws were, in part, aimed at forcing African-American women to continue working as low-wage domestics for white mistresses. The rage Black women felt over race and gender exploitation was expressed by Nellie Atkins and Ruth Warf, who were arraigned in an Atlanta courtroom for violating the local work or fight ordinance. During their hearing, Ms. Atkins and Ms. Warf screamed at the presiding judge and "punctuated their remarks by breaking out window panes" thus moving Judge Johnson to extend their sentences thirty days.(16)

In Miami in 1926, Black women battled U.S. Marines who were trying to haul them into trucks in order to clean Miami's streets--for no wages--in the wake of a hurricane. After a number of small-scale physical skirmishes, approximately 2,000 Black Miamians clashed in the streets with the marines. The ensuing gunfire claimed casualties on both sides.(17)

Black workers also led strikes in the Jim Crow South. The type of strike or job action depended on the industry or sector of economy involved. Two quick examples: African-American women domestics in areas as diverse as New Hope, Alabama and Edisto, South Carolina demanded renegotiations of wages in light of the new National Recovery Administration (NRA) wage codes implemented in 1933. At the same time, Charleston witnessed a major upheaval when over 200 African-American women led an occupation strike of the Charleston Bagging and Manufacturing Company in August, 1933. This strike is pivotal because the workers demanded uniform NRA wage levels--$12.00 a week--without regard to skill level. In essence, they were calling for a minimum wage. These various demands for access to "New Deal" federal guidelines places African-American women workers in the South as pioneers of the national resurgence of labor activism during the "turbulent thirties."

Struggles Against Segregated Transportation

When Rosa Parks, a seamstress and NAACP activist, refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she was acting in a tradition of struggle. African-American resistance to segregated transit began in the wake of Reconstruction and escalated in response to the brutal treatment Black people faced on southern street cars in the late 19th century. Meier and Rudwick note that Black communities waged over twenty-five boycotts against segregated transit in the South between 1900 and 1906.(18)

The demise of the first transit boycott movement did not signal the end of African-American resistance to segregated travel. Black passengers in cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Knoxville, Memphis, New Orleans, Norfolk, Richmond, Galveston and Houston repeatedly fought segregated ransport.(19) Black passengers shifted or threw out the hated Jim Crow signs, refused to move to the rear of motor cars, and fought physical battles with white passengers and drivers over seating arrangements.(20) On the trolleys and street cars, resistance, seemingly personal, was in fact, part of the ceaseless, day-to-day political conflict over Jim Crow. Black and white newspapers covered cases and editorialized on Black resistance and white reaction. District courts and transit companies were forced to frame and reframe Jim Crow laws to contain Black resistance and assuage white passengers.(21)

Black defiance of segregated transit was fraught with dangers. In 1917, when Carrie Hill refused to give up her seat to a white woman, a white passenger "jerked her from her seat and threw her to the floor, severely injuring her."(22) Sometimes, when drivers or passengers "Jim Crowed" a Black person, resistance blossomed into collective action. After Austin, Texas motorman A.B. Law ordered two African-American women to the rear of his street car, Black passengers engaged in a "rock throwing attack on him when he reached the end of the car line on Twelfth street. The women were sitting in the white section when he told them to move back."(23)

Birmingham, Atlanta and New Orleans saw similar clashes over segregated transit during this period. In 1924, "rumors of battle wildly circulated through the business district" in Birmingham when "a negro sat between two white passengers" on a street car. Two years later, an Atlanta street car conductor, helped incite a similar "race riot" when he struck an African-American woman who insisted on exiting the street car through the front entrance. The Independent noted that "It was a one-man car in strictly a Negro settlement." Not surprisingly, the conductor fled the street car with infuriated Black passengers in pursuit.

In 1912, a Black passenger on a New Orleans and Northeastern Road car refused to pay his fare because the conductor forced him to stand amidst comfortably seated white passengers. The dispute escalated into an exchange of gunfire. Subsequently, a number of "white citizens" filed a petition with the New Orleans railroad commission. "The plea," reported the Montgomery Advertiser "was that the railroad be made to equip its trains with more seats for negroes [sic]."(24)

Rethinking the Civil Rights Movement

African Americans in the South were striking at the core of white supremacy during the most dismal days of the Jim Crow era. Everyday experiences at work and in public spaces led numerous Black people to resist racist regimes. It is also important to note that the majority of these cases involve working-class African Americans; sharecroppers, factory workers, and laborers played important roles in challenging racial oppression.

What is the historical significance of this resistance? James Scott notes that "The refusal to accept the definition of the situation as seen from above and the refusal to condone their own social and ritual marginalization, while not sufficient, are surely necessary for any further esistance."25 When Black workers refused to acknowledge states' rights to enforce "work or fight" ordinances they were, in essence, carving out a larger civil society for African Americans in the South--a precious gain that made later political organizing efforts possible.

Black workers' resistance to Jim Crow forces us to rethink the "origins" of the civil rights movement . When we pay close attention to the historical record we find not one, but two Montgomery transit boycotts! We find that "the Black masses" were cognizant of their rights to such an extent that Southern states and municipalities were forced to constantly rework segregation laws. Finally, African American activism against racial oppression in the 1930s and earlier teaches us the value and importance of struggle during times of crisis and political defeat. A.I. Dixie refused to let disenfranchisement mean docility; nor should today's bleak political landscape breed submission on our part.

Notes

  1. I wish to dedicate this article to the memory of Beryl Crowe, (1927-1995) a great mentor, friend, and a founding faculty member of The Evergreen State College. CORE Papers, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For a brief discussion of CORE's Gadsden campaign see August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 354-355, 391. The term "Jim Crow" originated with the 19th century blackfaced minstrel-show character. Its racist portrayal of African Americans made it a suitable metaphor for the institution of white supremacy after the collapse of Congressional Reconstruction. See David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991).
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  2. "Record Number Vote In Election!," Florida Free Press, November 6, 1964.
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  3. Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 136.
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  4. A.I. Dixie interview with author, August 10, 1994, tape 1. Behind The Veil Collection, Duke University. For cases of employer violence against black workers in Florida see Jerrell H. Shofner, "The Legacy of Racial Slavery: Free Enterprise and Forced Labor in Florida in the 1940s," The Journal of Southern History, XLVII, (August 1981), 411-426.
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  5. "Group Charged $7.11 For Ham Sandwiches," in the Florida Free Press, December 11, 1964. Even one of CORE's "outside agitators," Patricia Stephens Due, was born and raised in Gadsden County.
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  6. Walter F. White, "Election Day In Florida," The Crisis, XXI, (January 1920), 106-109.
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  7. E. Merton Coulter, James Monroe Smith: Before Death and After (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1961), 40.
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  8. "A Colored Labor Trust," Wide Awake, July 27, 1905. Strikes waged by Black agricultural workers occurred during the Civil War and were waged both against Confederate planters and Northern managers who took over plantations in union-occupied territory. For one example, see Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, et. al., Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, And The Civil War (New York: The New Press, 1992), 243-250.
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  9. For this account see "Negro Turns on Plantation Owner," Montgomery Advertiser, November 21, 1924.
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  10. For earlier examples see Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 367-368. In several of my interviews, former Black sharecroppers have told me about networks of Black-controlled underground markets in cotton existing well into the 20th century.
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  11. "Race Riot in Mississippi," Montgomery Advertiser, February 1911.
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  12. "New Method Adopted For Securing Labor," Montgomery Advertiser, April 6, 1912.
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  13. Ross to White, October 27, 1918, NAACP papers, DU.
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  14. Shillady to Walter White, October 9, 1918. NAACP Papers, DU.
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  15. Grand Chancellor, Knights of Pythias Lodge, Bainbridge, GA. letter to Walter White, October 21, 1918. NAACP Papers, DU.
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  16. "Long Sentences For Two Idle Girls Get Results," Baltimore Daily Herald, September 10, 1918.
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  17. "Force Race Citizens To Work," Pittsburgh Courier, October 10, 1926. The Nation wrote "What business we should like to ask, had "two marines" [shot during the riot] to be assisting in an illegal attempt at municipal peonage?" Ibid., October 6, 1926.
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  18. Meier and Rudwick, "The Boycott Movement Against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900-1906," Journal of American History, LV, (March 1969), 756-775. Appropriately enough, Montgomery witnessed one of these early transit boycotts.
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  19. "Violation of Jim Crow Law in Cars Charged," Texas News, October, 1920; "Negro Women Held For Violating Jim Crow Law on Car," Virginian Pilot (Norfolk), April, 1920; "St. Car Riot, One Hurt," Memphis Appeal, July, 1919; and "Forced to Give Up Seat To White Woman," Atlanta Constitution, July 1917.
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  20. Robin D.G. Kelley offers a brilliant analysis of African-American resistance to segregated transportation in Birmingham, Alabama during the World War II era. See Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 55-75.
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  21. For some examples of white reaction to Black resistance to Jim Crow seating arrangements see: "White Patrons May Enter Front of Closed Cars," Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1921; "Conductors In Ga. [Georgia] Made Policeman," Chicago Defender, September 3, 1921; "Our Jim Crow Institutions," Journal and Guide [Norfolk], February 1, 1919.
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  22. Atlanta Constitution, Ibid.
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  23. "Negroes Stone Motorman Who Enforces 'Jim Crow' LAW On East End Car," Statesman (Austin), March, 1920.
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  24. Accounts taken from the Montgomery Advertiser, September 12, 1912; March 23, 1924; September 25, 1926; Atlanta Independent, September 30, 1926.
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  25. James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms Of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press), 240.
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ATC 60, January-February 1996

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