Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 – MURPHY (THT)

MURPHY, Mary-Elizabeth B.. Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 280p. Resenha de: HYATT, Marshall. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.722-723, ago., 2019.

The recent historiography of the Civil Rights Movement has closely examined the extent to which that struggle for equality had its origins in the nineteenth century. Those studies transcended the traditional focus on the active phase years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) by returning to the roots in the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the early 1900s. Jim Crow Capital is a welcome addition to that scholarship, providing an in-depth history of the activities of African American women in the nation’s capital in the formative years of what became the twentieth-century civil rights protests. At the same time, the book places important emphasis on the intersectionality of race and gender, delineating that nexus as articulated by critical race theorists.

In doing so, the author brings to light the contributions of women in combating all forms of discrimination and segregation, thus expanding the contours of that history.

Fittingly, the work centers on the nation’s capital, where segregation and racism were rampant both locally and federally. The title of the book itself is a direct reference to the perceptions of African Americans living in Washington, who argued “that the discrimination in their city resembled the worst practices of the U.S. South” (p. 144). There were many manifestations of abuse that supported their contentions. Murphy begins with organized protests in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which started in the 1920s and culminated during the Depression decade. She underscores the critical importance of the Silent Parade of 1922 and the Rope Protests of 1934, in which “African American women succeeded in generating national attention to the crisis of lynching” (p. 71). Significantly, she argues that women in Washington were ideally suited for these types of protest activities, because “their charged location” allowed them to focus on local and national issues at the same time, and with direct access to the federal government.

Beyond those forays into anti-lynching campaigns, black women also organized protests against police brutality in the city, rioted for economic justice at a time when they were discriminated against in employment, petitioned for voting rights, and engaged in sit-ins and boycotts of department stores that maintained segregationist policies. Surprisingly, in that regard, Murphy only mentions in passing the critical work of women after Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 decision to segregate all offices of government civil service. Early on, she notes that “while activists worked tirelessly with the NAACP to protest segregation, they were unable to integrate the federal government” (p. 6). Yet women, such as Mary Church Terrell, were deeply involved in that effort. Working with Neval H. Thomas, American history teacher at Dunbar High School and NAACP branch president in Washington, D.C., they fought an intensified desegregation campaign in the 1920s and 1930s. The pressure they brought to bear on the federal government achieved some small victories, such as the integration of the Department of the Census and the Bureau of Pensions in the late 1920s. Murphy acknowledges that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes desegregated his bureau in the late 1930s, which created the impetus for the full government civil service desegregation to come, but does not contextualize that achievement within the earlier activism of the Washington branch.

Jim Crow Capital represents an important addition to the “long history of the civil rights movement” revisionism, appropriate for any course on the struggle for black equality. Reaching back into the immediate post-World War I period, when disillusionment among African Americans was fueled by segregation, lynching, and the Red Summer of 1919, it underscores the birth of the “New Negro,” so poignantly described by Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke. The black women in Washington, D.C. epitomized his belief that African Americans adopted a “vibrant new psychology” that made civil rights activism a sacred mission. Accordingly, Murphy’s contribution is critical in teaching that African American women were major actors on the stage of civil rights organizing, protesting, and leadership, well before the active phase. They navigated the boundaries of race and gender in their pursuit of racial justice.

Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary Church Terrell, and countless others in the nation’s capital were significant forerunners in the critical crusade for racial justice. It was their inspiration and commitment that passed the torch to Fannie Lou Hamer, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and others, whose collective activism was a fitting tribute to their legacy.

Jim Crow Capital brings that critical significance to light, while also confirming Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Marschall Hyatt – Geffen Academy at UCLA.

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