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From Jacksonville Beach, FL

Monday, August 15, 2011

When "The Help" met Jim Crow

Segregated Coca-Cola Dispensing machine.

  The Help grossed over $26 million its first weekend making it seem that just about every reading-movie-going person in America has read the book by Kathryn Stockett or seen the movie.  Based on the attendance at the theater where I saw the movie, certainly most aware Southerners have seen it. For a person like me who grew up in the South, the story and the characters ring true.  
       I clearly remember "Colored" and "White" signs on bathroom doors, over water fountains, and in train/bus waiting rooms.  In the small Florida town where I lived, the city closed the one public pool rather than allow anyone who was not White to swim there.  Public restaurants were open only to Whites.  The phone book had separate listings for "Colored" and "White" taxis.  We had one movie theater in town.  The balcony was reserved for "Coloreds" and Whites sat downstairs on the main floor.  The only work available for nonwhites was for women to serve as a maid and manual labor for men.  
      The social climate was extremely oppressive if you were not White.  There was no opportunity and little chance to succeed.  In the African-American community, which was on the outskirts of town, a few Blacks had their own businesses, entertainment establishments and bars.  I used to wonder what mothers told their children.  How did they explain to a child that he/she could not go to the bathroom if there was not a door marked "Colored."  
      This was the way of life accepted by most people in my little town and in the South.  There was kindness, of course, and helpfulness, but basically, the African-American was made to feel lowly and inferior.  Why did they tolerate this treatment? One word, FEAR.  Jim Crow and Law enforcement protected Whites and encouraged, even demanded demeaning treatment of the African-American.
      Jim Crow was not an actual person, but a stereotype made popular in songs and black-face musical acts.  In The Help when Skeeter comes across a booklet "Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South" she finally understands the consequences of interviewing the maids and of even being alone in their company.  
      The Jim Crow caste system operated between 1877 and 1960, and it was not exclusively a Southern thing.  The laws justified most any treatment of the African-American.  Christian ministers preached that God supported racial segregation.  Newspapers and magazines used "nigger," "coons," "darkies" without apology. Jim Crow dictated not only law but etiquette norms. For example, a black man could not offer his hand to shake with a white man.  Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together.  Black couples could not show affection to each other in public because it might offend whites if they saw them.  Whites did not use titles such as Mr. or Mrs. when referring to Blacks.  Blacks were called by their first names.  If a Black person rode in a car driven by a White person, he had to sit in the back seat.  White motrorists had the right of way at all intersections.
       A few typical Jim Crow laws compiled by the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive Staff:
*     All passenger stations shall have separate waiting rooms and separate ticket windows.
*     The White and "Colored" militia shall be separately enrolled and shall never be  
        compelled to serve in the same organization.
*     Any Colored person shall not be buried on ground set apart for White persons.
*     White convicts shall have separate apartments for both eating and sleeping from Negro 
       convicts.
*     Any instructor who teaches in any school or college where members of the White and   
      Colored race are enrolled as pupils shall be deemed guilt of a misdemeanor. 
     There are many, many more such laws.  What was the punishment if they were violated?  beatings, burning of property, lynchings, arrest.  This was the reason the women in The Help were so scared of being caught giving information to Skeeter.  Even though she was White, she was in the same danger.  
      Thankfully, through long and painful events, society has changed, but understanding Jim Crow restrictions, gives a more complete view of the book and movie, The Help.


      Information from:   "Who Was Jim Crow?
                                      "What Was Jim Crow?" by Dr. David Pilgrim, Ferris State University


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2 comments:

  1. Born near the end of the time period. Unaware of the segregation until adulthood. The injustice brings me to tears. All this in the "land of the free"?

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  2. aqui no sul da america do sul, fatos semelhantes ocorreram e ainda ocorrem, na cidade de Jaguarão, a pouco um negro foi expulso de uma festa em um clube social, porém como ele é médico não houve como não noticiar o fato.
    Tem mais a nova politica universitária está favorecendo o deslocamento de estudantes de várias partes do país, que frequentemente são esteriotipados por suas diferenças socio-culturaisl

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