BY THE beginning of the 20th century the South’s rulers had denied blacks the right to vote and had re-established legal segregation.
This system of apartheid was known as the “Jim Crow” laws.
There were 181,000 blacks in Alabama eligible to vote in 1900. Two years later there were just 3000. All-pervasive racism encouraged poor whites to identify with the system and laws banned them from meeting blacks.
The period in which the US eclipsed Britain as the world’s biggest economic power also saw the imposition of officially sponsored racism across the US.
Two of the most famous films from the period, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, extolled the racism of the South. And where black people refused to accept segregation they faced racist violence.
Some 70 blacks were lynched in the summer of 1919, including ten soldiers who had fought in the First World War against “despotic” Germany.
The whiff of revolution in Europe led to a savage clampdown on organised labour and an intensification of racism and segregation by the US ruling class.
Revolutionaries and socialists had managed to organise some black and white workers and the poor. But the bulk of the small labour movement accommodated to racism to varying degrees.
But US economic growth was having wider effects on society. Between 1900 and 1930 1.3 million black people left the rural South and headed for the cities.The great migration continued even during the depression-hit decade of the 1930s. And in the 1940s 1.6 million black people moved north.
The number of black industrial workers began to outstrip the number who worked as tenant farmers. They were part of a militant strike wave in the mid-1930s.
After the war the southern establishment propped up segregation. The US state unleashed a decade of witch-hunting against the left, which hit even moderate black lobbying organisations.
By the mid-1950s it seemed segregation in the South would last for decades. Then the rising expectations of black people exploded in the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.
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