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From Swastika to Jim Crow

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Racism in Europe and the U.S. Pages: 1 | 2

photo of nazi rally next to photo of kkk rally
The significance of this historical episode lies in the encounter between two diverse groups of people, both victims of extreme manifestations of racist oppression and persecution, albeit under vastly different historical conditions. The Europeans came out of a middle class intellectual environment...African Americans at the time were two and three generations removed from slavery, under which even learning to read had been generally forbidden.
- From Swastika to Jim Crow, by Gabrielle Edgcomb
Discrimination against both Blacks and Jews has the unfortunate distinction of a history that dates back centuries.

Long before the Nazis existed, anti-Semitism manifested itself most commonly in the form of pogroms - riots launched against Jews by local residents, often supported by authorities. In the 1800s, xenophobic German scholars formed the "Voelkisch movement" to cultivate their conviction that Jews were not "truly German." German Nationalists feared political movements such as Marxism, Communism, Pacifism, and Internationalism, which they associated with Jewish intellectuals. Now they produced pseudoscientific theories of racial anthropology which found political expression in the formation of the Nazi party in 1919. Leaders in literature, music, medicine, science, finance and academia, German Jews were at the forefront of their country's culture - they'd fought in World War I and were proud to be thought of as Germans, despite their awareness of growing anti-Semitism.

German sign - warning jews
Warning! Jews!

Hitler's Germany
In 1931, the SS (named for Schutzstaffel, the elite military unit of the Nazi party) formed the Race and Settlement Office to "investigate" the suitability of potential spouses for SS members. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they passed the Civil Service Law, calling for the purging of Jews from all government agencies, cultural organizations and state positions. Jews were segregated to the back of public buses and restricted entrance to restaurants. The works of leading German writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger and Alfred Kerr were ceremoniously burned in Berlin. Economic sanctions limited the rights of Jews to practice their trades. The Law for Preventing Overcrowding in German Schools and Schools of Higher Education took effect in April, 1933. Initially restricting the enrollment of Jews, this law soon resulted in the dismissal of Jewish professors.

While few, if any, could imagine that by 1941 the Germans would begin the systematic slaughter of Jews - a slaughter that over the next four years would take the lives of close to six million souls - many of these scholars realized in the early 1930s that Jews had no future in Germany and fled to the United States. Most of the 1,200 refugee scholars who arrived in the U.S. could not find work in their fields. A small number, however, would end up in the historically Black colleges of the American South. In many ways, these scholars discovered that the American South was not unlike Germany had been in the mid-1930s before mass murder became the policy of the German state.

U.S. sign - for colored only
Jim Crow's America
In 1933, America had its own share of troubles. World War I had left its mark in the form of a profound isolationist sentiment. The Depression paralyzed the economy, leaving 25 percent of the workforce unemployed. The Jim Crow Laws, strictly segregating Blacks from Whites, were still in effect in the South and racial tension was high.

Like anti-Semitism abroad, discrimination against Blacks in the U.S. had a long and complex history. After the Southern states were defeated in the Civil War and slavery was abolished, Black codes were enacted in 1865 and 1866. Though the codes granted Blacks certain basic civil rights (to marry, to own personal property and to sue in court), they also called for the segregation of public facilities and restricted the freedman's rights as a free laborer, to own real estate, and to testify in court. These were soon repealed as the radical Republican governments, led by so-called carpetbaggers (Northerners who settled in the South) and scalawags (Southern Whites in the Republican Party), began to rebuild the Southern economy and society. The civil and political rights of Blacks were guaranteed (on paper), and Blacks were - for a brief time - "free" to participate in the political and economic life of the South.

Most Southern Whites were very uncomfortable with the former slaves' new role in society. Social custom persisted, legal obstacles (such as the poll tax and unfair literacy tests) were established, and terrorism was used to keep African Americans and White Republicans from voting. Informal vigilante groups or armed patrols were formed in almost all communities. In Louisiana in 1896 there were 130,334 Blacks registered to vote; by 1905 there were only 1,342. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan arose, the radical Republican governments were overthrown, and Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 as all federal troops were withdrawn from the South.

Between 1889 and 1918, a total of 2,522 Black Americans were lynched, including 50 women. Often the excuse was used that the accused Black man had supposedly raped a White woman, a popular myth at that time, yet in 80 percent of the cases there were no sexual charges alleged, let alone proved. Hanged, burned alive, or hacked to death, people were lynched for petty offenses such as stealing a cow, arguing with a White, or trying to register to vote. Social critic H.L. Mencken explained, "In sheer high spirits, some convenient African is taken at random and lynched, as the newspapers say, 'on general principles.'" This practice went unpunished until 1918.

segregation on a bus
In the late 1800's segregation laws - the Jim Crow laws - were enacted to codify White dominance. In the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of so-called "separate but equal" accommodations in railway cars. The period from 1900 to 1920 brought full extension of segregation to all public transportation and educational facilities, even churches and jails. Public restrooms, restaurants, hotels and water fountains were labeled "White only" or "Colored." In hospitals, Blacks could not nurse Whites, nor could Whites nurse Blacks. Blacks were forbidden to sit with Whites in most places of public amusement.

In 1908, in the aftermath of an especially violent race riot in Springfield, Illinois, a group of Black intellectuals joined forces with a coalition of humanitarian Whites to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the same time there was an increasing migration of Blacks out of the South and into the North, where they could register, vote and have an impact on state and national politics. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and offered the economic benefits of his New Deal more-or-less equally to Blacks and Whites, employing one-fifth of the Black labor force on relief projects instituted by the United States Government.

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