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Conservatives have expressed some odd thoughts on Jim Crow of late. Sen. Rand Paul recently told The New York Times that “The Jim Crow laws came out of democracy. That’s what you get when a majority ignores the rights of others.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently said that the idea of a coronvirus vaccine requirement was akin to “Medical Jim Crow … If we still had water fountains, the unvaccinated would have separate ones.”
This is a hideous butchery of history — but also a good opportunity to clear up some common misunderstandings. In the first instance, Jim Crow was not a meaningful expression of majority preference. As historian Eric Foner writes in his book Reconstruction, after the Civil War, Congress set up multiracial democratic systems in the defeated southern states. These generally elected Republican governments based on the votes of freed slaves (a majority of the population in South Carolina and Mississippi) and moderate whites.
But as historian Richard White shows in his book The Republic for Which It Stands, democratic, majoritarian governments were eventually overthrown by minority terrorist violence. After Republicans abandoned their Black voters in the corrupt bargain of 1876, removing federal troops from the South in exchange for making Rutherford B. Hayes president, so-called “Redeemers” used threats, beatings, arson, kidnapping, and murder to prevent the Black population from voting. Then once the racists had seized control, they cemented their power by rigging the electoral rules such that it was near-impossible for Blacks to vote — and in the process disenfranchised a good proportion of the working-class white population as well.
Carlson’s whining over the idea of being required to not spread a deadly virus is of course offensive, but also reflects a common misunderstanding of how the resulting Jim Crow system worked. As Hamden Rice, a Black man who grew up under the system, explains at Daily Kos, the primary problem “wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus … It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.”
Despite the veneer of elections and legality in the Jim Crow South from the 1890s to 1965, it was the “constant low level dread of atavistic violence [that] kept the system running,” he writes. It was a nakedly racist tyranny whose political foundation was a general terror of lawless torture and murder. It turns out a wealthy, celebrity scion of a frozen food empire has no idea what real oppression is like.