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The Divided South

2006-02-28 00:00

  In the 1880s, the South pushed hard to attract industry. Large inducements were offered to investors to develop the steel, lumber, tobacco and textile industries. Yet in 1900 the South's percentage of the nation's industrial base remained about the same size as it had been in 1860. Moreover, the price of this drive for industrialization was high: disease and child labor proliferated in Southern mill towns.

  Thirty years after the Civil War, the South remained largely poor, overwhelmingly agrarian and economically dependent. Its society enforced a rigid social segregation of blacks from whites, and tolerated recurrent racial violence.

  Intransigent white Southerners, who resisted Reconstruction through their positions in the national government in Washington, found ways to assert state control to maintain white dominance. Several Supreme Court decisions bolstered the views of these Southerners, beginning in the 1870s, by upholding traditional conservative views of the appropriate balance between national and state power.

  In 1873 the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment (citizenship rights not to be abridged) conferred no new privileges or immunities to protect African Americans from state power. In 1883, furthermore, it ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prevent individuals, as opposed to states, from practicing discrimination. And in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Court found that "separate but equal" public accommodations for African Americans, such as trains and restaurants, did not violate their rights.

  Soon the principle of segregation by race extended into every area of Southern life, from railroads to restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools. Moreover, any area of life that was not segregated by law was segregated by custom and practice. Faced with pervasive discrimination, many African Americans supported the program of Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black leader of the late 19th and early 20th century, who counseled them to focus on modest economic goals and to accept temporary social discrimination. Others, led by the African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, wanted to challenge segregation through political action. But, with the complicity of two major parties, calls for racial justice attracted little support, and segregationist laws remained common in the South well into the second half of the 20th century.

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