Jim Crow had many faces.
One face of Jim Crow was the simple act of many white southerners stepping on a bus. If they didn’t want to sit with people in the front of the bus, they grabbed the colored-only sign and moved it back a row. Blacks in the back would then be forced ever farther to the back, while just one white person sat in the seat for whites only.
Another example of the face of Jim Crow could be when Robert Pershing Foster was walking down the street one night when a white man in a car pulled up and told him he wanted him to go find a clean, black girl for him.
Jim Crow was everywhere in the South before the 1970s. Trains would stop when coming into the North and switch cars, getting rid of the colored only car and integrating the train as soon as it hit Cairo, Il. Heading south, the same train would stop again at Cairo and add the colored-only car. Jim Crow landowners would routinely short-change their sharecroppers of money owed, keeping them forever in debt and tied to the land they worked. Lynchings were allowed, beatings were normal, and blacks had no say or recourse in the Jim Crow south. Jim Crow had all these faces and more.
Perhaps the most chilling face of Jim Crow portrayed in Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” was that of Willis Virgil McCall, the sheriff of Lake County, Fla. McCall, after having a case against two black men overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, shot them in “self defense.” Driving the two prisoners back to Lake County for retrial, McCall shot the two manacled men, claiming they attacked him. The problem was, one of them lived and told a different story.
It didn’t matter. McCall was never brought to trail for his crime and continued to be elected sheriff. Years later, when Jim Crow was finally beaten in the south in the 1970s, McCall kept his “colored only” sign up in his office, until he was forced by the U.S. government to take it down. McCall, who favored 10-gallon hats and boots, embodied the terror of Jim Crow.
Wilkerson didn’t dwell on the Jim Crow laws in her book. Rather, she recounted it in a matter-of-fact manner that carried more weight than did any impassioned speech against the atrocities of Jim Crow.
The daughter of two refugees from the south, Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, answered a question from a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale about how she has handled the problems generated by being a black woman in the world of journalism by responding, “I never really had the option to worry about that.”
Despite that response, Wilkerson approaches a book about the struggle of a race devalued and placed in a caste system that provided no easy means of escape through the eyes of someone who has struggled with the inequities of race in her own life. As a young child, Wilkerson identified with immigrants and counted them as her friends while attending school. This identification may have played a role in how she perceived the story she was writing.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” tells the story of the great migration north with four voices: Ida Mae Gladney, who migrated from the cotton fields of Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, George Starling, who escaped from the Florida citrus orchards to New York City in 1945, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who migrated from Louisiana to California in 1953. The fourth voice was that of Wilkerson, who interspersed the three main principals’ stories with chapters that gave the reader context about what was happening and why.
The book was well written with an elegant style. Wilkerson’s strength as a journalist is her ability to get the most from her sources and she uses that trait well in the book. It’s well researched and the only way she could get these stories from the people is by gaining their trust. Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people for the book.
Wilkerson’s voice in the book is compassionate and empathetic to the people she writes about. Her topic is a brutal and dark period of U.S. history that includes the Jim Crow South, white flight in the North, a job market that forced blacks into the lowest, most menial jobs possible and gave them little room for advancement. She describes the American Dream in its most twisted sense, with migrants moving to a new land hoping for change but running into the same prejudices they faced in the South.
The story has a bright side. The result of the people’s struggles she depicts led to major contributions to American society, from jazz to the civil rights movement, from athletes like Jesse Owens to musicians like John Coltrane. So much came from these people and so little is known about the migration.
It ends with an interesting note. As the South integrates and the North becomes more resistant to change in its urban cities, many of the children and grandchildren of the original migrants are finding their way back south for the same opportunities their parents and grandparents traveled north.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” tells a story we all should know – a book that should be on people’s must- read list.