S. Berrey: The Jim Crow Routine

The Jim Crow Routine. Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi

Berrey, Stephen A.
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331 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Rebecca Brückmann, John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin Email:

Stephen Berrey explores aspects of the cultural history of the Jim Crow system in Mississippi from the 1930s to the early 1960s by examining interactions of Black and White Mississippians as well as public narratives surrounding race. He asks how Black and White people “lived” and performed Jim Crow and how their experiences changed during the national civil rights movement. Focusing “on interracial interactions in the physical spaces of the everyday realm” (p. 3), such as standing in line or waiting for the elevator, as well as racial narratives created by newspapers, laws, and segregationist and integrationist publications, Berrey argues that the demise of state-mandated segregation in the 1960s transitioned racial routines and narratives from intimate, personalized, and local forms of enforcing the color line to state-centered and more formalized ways of racial monitoring and policing. He contends that the simultaneous rise of a coded rhetoric, which circumvented overt racist tones and adhered to a seemingly scientific language, and the increasing prevalence of a discourse on “Black criminality” transcended Southern sectionalism and concealed the racist intent of new laws and police practices from the mid-1950s onwards.

The book locates itself within several ongoing historiographical debates: On the one hand, Berrey aims at creating a more nuanced perception of Southern exceptionalism and Mississippian racial extremism. He argues that an analysis of the more “subtle, dynamic, intimate and volatile” (p. 4) aspects of Jim Crow in the Magnolia State provides the opportunity for comparative and national studies of race relations in the United States, including the urban North and West. On the other hand, he suggests that racial performances and subtle forms of Black resistance against social inequality were part of a “Long Civil Right Movement” (J. D. Hall) and laid “a foundation of militancy and self-definition.” (p. 5) Massive Resistance1, then, was also not confined to the decade following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954/1955), but a racial routine that segregationists strategically fitted to the Southern social order after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned legal segregation. Finally, the book connects the downfall of de jure segregation in Mississippi to the rise of centralized and extended police practices.

Stephen Berrey paints a detailed and vivid picture of Jim Crow performances, which he divides into “physical” and “narrative,” that is, interracial interactions and stories about race. The book’s first part introduces the concept of Jim Crow performances, or routines. Defining racial routines as the performative “set of daily practices that guided the interactions between blacks and whites in Mississippi,” which derived from customs, laws, and experiences, Berrey observes that the meanings of Blackness and Whiteness were never fixed, but always “in the process of being made, unmade, and remade” in interactions (p. 4). Whereas in (white supremacist) theory these encounters mimicked the slavery-bred dynamics of benevolent White masters and Black loyal servants, the book restores agency to Black Mississippians, who were self-conscious actors in daily interactions at the convenience store, the segregated movie theater, or during bus rides.

Stephen Berrey skillfully demonstrates that bodily performances were vital to the system of racial segregation. In addition, he analyzes the narrative performance of Jim Crow in news stories of Black people’s alleged aggression. During the 1940s and 1950s, local newspaper articles described executions as an exercise in White benevolence toward Black convicts as compared to the unorderly and overtly brutal practices of lynch mobs. At the same time, these descriptions provided voyeuristic accounts of bodily mutilations and thus paralleled the then officially denounced social spectacle of lynching. A previous racial routine had thus changed and yet, white supremacy continued in this performative narrative.

It is the book’s first part where the concept of “racial routines” works best for Stephen Berrey’s nuanced and insightful analysis. In the second part, he concentrates on new racial performances by whites in reaction to civil rights protests and the national media coverage of segregationist violence. Here, the concept of “racial routines” seems to be more of an addendum to a discourse analysis that carefully sketches a shifting political landscape.

Taking note of Michel Foucault’s panopticism, the author argues that while white surveillance of racial lines was always part of Black Mississippians’ lives, the watchers were also the sanctioners. At the end of state-mandated legal segregation in 1964, surveillance became more centralized and police power was extended. Watchers were now supposed to act as informants to agencies or groups, such as the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission who took a leaf from FBI tactics and technologies, or White Citizens’ Councils who demonstrated their watchfulness by exposing and threatening Black activists. Berrey argues that the growing reliance on new laws and police arrests during the classical civil rights era should be interpreted as white Mississippians and Southerners’ response to Black activism. He classifies these measures as a new form of color line policing. Furthermore, he demonstrates that newly passed laws concerning morality or public peace were racially neutral in language, yet functioned as a means of upholding white supremacy. Growing police arrests, furthermore, undercut civil rights activism. In concordance with white officials concern for the state’s national reputation, newspapers either abstained or were prevented from critical coverage of police violence against Blacks behind closed (jail) doors.

In what Stephen Berrey aptly calls “organized intimidation” (p. 160), Mississippian segregationists, particularly the State Sovereignty Commission, aligned their attacks on civil rights activists with the measures already employed in the early 1950s against (alleged) communists, denoting them as “fellow travelers” or non-heterosexuals. This well-established anti-communist rhetoric, as well as selective citations of Black crime statistics coated in scientific language, bridged the sectional divide to national discourses on Black criminality and a law-and-order mentality, Berrey argues. Moreover, White Mississippian officials resorted to xenophobia and racism by appealing to white fears of being “invaded” by people of color and by linking whiteness to Americanness. Berrey makes the important observation that this was less a sign for the “Southernization” of American politics than an indication “that the regions had never been far apart in their racial ideologies” (p. 226). His study thus also corrects the notion of racism as a sectional Southern phenomenon. Berrey concludes that the measures described served as strategic adjustments of white supremacy in his period of study that “altered daily racial routines and contributed to a more formal system in which the legal structure and its agents would assume a greater role in the policing of racial lines” (p. 220).

The „Jim Crow Routine“ is a thoroughly researched, eloquently written book that expands our knowledge on the workings of white supremacy in Mississippi, the South, and the United States. The concept of “racial routines” is most insightful when Berrey analyzes the daily interactions of Black and White Mississippians as well as narratives of race related incidents. While Berrey presents an intriguing analysis of the strategic shift of segregationist discourses and as to how this changed “racial routines,” the final two chapters would have benefited from including more Black activist and grassroots segregationist reactions to this development. His book, nonetheless, is significant and of particular interest to students and scholars of the civil rights era, the history of racialized criminality, and of US domestic politics of the post-World-War-II era.

1 Following George Lewis’ definition, Massive Resistance is “the joint and simultaneously heterogeneous defense of a white supremacist social system and de jure segregation by Southern segregationist politicians as well as grassroots activists,” and a “distinct reaction to the Brown verdict and the gains of the Civil Rights Movement” in the 1950s and 1960s. George Lewis, Massive Resistance. The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement. London/New York 2006, p. 4; cf. Numan V. Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950’s, 2nd ed., Baton Rouge 1997.

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