Jim Crow just the way it was

The Baltimore Sun

While researching my civil rights book, I gave a brief work-in-progress talk at a woman's club in Baltimore. A member of the audience came up to me afterward to make this observation about the task I was beginning to confront: "You'll never get the ambience of those days."

I thought I knew what she meant. Jim Crow discrimination was sustained by a level of passion that might be difficult to convey. And there was the fact that while I had grown up at the end of the Jim Crow era in North Carolina, I had not grown up black.

Would I be able to portray the Jim Crow experience with fidelity?

In the beginning, I occasionally asked people how they lived through those days of second-class citizenship. How did you feel about your life then? I asked, somewhat naively. Didn't you hate what was happening to you?

Yes, people would often say - but that's just the way it was.

"The way it was." "Nothing you could do." "Get over it."

The way it was amounted to ambient humiliation - not always in your face but always present, like background noise. You tried to ignore it. Sometimes you playfully defied it. You learned where the real trouble spots were, and you avoided them. It wasn't easy.

Discrimination was imbedded in the language: Final sale. Whites only. Separate but equal. All deliberate speed. Law and order. Jim Crow.

If you were a black mother, you tried to shield your children from the humiliation that seemed to lurk around every corner.

If you were a black family making a road trip, you had to "to drive straight through." Or you needed a special book that circulated around that time, kind of a black people's Frommer's or Michelin Guide - a Jim Crow guide to the world for travelers.

There were Jim Crow Bibles in some courts so whites wouldn't have to touch a book held by black hands. Lord Nickens, a Frederick NAACP leader, remembered being kicked by a train station attendant because he had wandered into a whites-only restroom at age 6. He told the story at 95 - as if had happened the day before.

Patients were segregated in hospitals. A genius lab technician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital - the man who perfected the "blue baby" operation - couldn't attend his physician partner's birthday party at a local hotel.

Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, ironically, was all white on its "All Nations Day" every July 4. It had to be, its owner insisted, or whites wouldn't come there.

A dynamic of resistance to changing any of this developed even before the civil rights movement: Absorb the blow, but don't change until you must. The University of Maryland School of Law was nominally re-integrated in 1935, but there was no black undergraduate, and no blacks in the nursing school, until the 1950s.

A black student was barred from a law review course in 1954 lest white students decline to enroll. The same argument had been used in the 1890s when two blacks, already matriculated, were dismissed from the UM Law School. The University of Baltimore was opening a law school that Maryland officials thought would not admit blacks so they felt they had to level the playing field.

Separate but equal was patently illusory, of course: There was no black law school. Black students from Maryland went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thurgood Marshall among them.

Just the way it was.

The riots of 1968 were a reaction to the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But they were also a reaction to the way life was in Baltimore then and for so many years before.

The riots apparently were not planned. There was no list of riot priorities. And there was little in the way of a post-riot response. The nation was moving into a law-and-order period, and in the wake of the riots, what support there had been for alleviating the black community's misery waned. Even the death of a charismatic leader was thought to be no justification for the destruction of private property.

The burning and looting created a powerful anti-civil rights backlash. The outside world reacted to the carnage, not to the history. Few were sympathetic to the argument that lawless behavior was justified, even after the murder of a leader who brought hope to the hopeless.

Just the way it was.

C. Fraser Smith's book "Here Lies Jim Crow" will be published in June. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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