- The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi by Stephen A. Berrey
Seen from a distance, Jim Crow seems systematic and static. Seen locally, it seems to shift in ways that are difficult to comprehend both for those who lived it and for the historians who describe it. In his new study, The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi, Stephen A. Berrey lays out a promising framework for considering these problems regionally and nationally. Inspired by Erving Goffman’s understanding of “performance,” Berrey conceives of the daily experience of Jim Crow as a public performance with an expected script of words, gestures, and actions that was played out in close, intimate interactions before audiences large and small. Ostensibly, the scripts dictated both white and black behavior, while the white narrative justified the southern way for the nation. But Berrey argues that “this racial system continually had to be remade, with seemingly infinite possibilities for mishaps and manipulation” that did not follow the expected routine (p. 9).
Berrey tracks the transformation of the Jim Crow performance between 1930 and 1960. For decades, white Mississippians enforced inequality with distinctively southern strategies: rituals of submission and explosions of violence within an intimate hierarchy, defended by a rhetoric of nostalgic, harmonious paternalism. After World War II, African American Mississippians directly confronted Jim Crow rules with nonviolent protest. Their performance—in contrast to vicious white assaults—won traction with a national audience, including the federal government. In response, white supremacist leaders altered their own narrative by hiding their racist intent under new legal codes draped in neutral language about preserving the peace. They expanded state power, systematized state surveillance, and sought to replace private white violence with veiled state violence. And they supported this new regime with a carefully professionalized rhetoric of black criminality. Berrey lays out these overarching arguments convincingly and lucidly, with strong original research on the key points.
Perhaps inevitably, as such an ambitious interpretive project, The Jim Crow Routine has some gaps and unresolved tensions. The performance of the rural Jim Crow routine was even more complex, fluid, and ambiguous than Berrey depicts. In general, white southerners allowed much greater license for breaking from “the script” to select individuals than they did for any mass action that might pose a broad challenge to white supremacy, a [End Page 700] policy that dovetailed with their rhetoric of paternalism. At the same time, as whites claimed the prerogative to personally define and enforce the rules of the routine, interracial exchanges could be fraught with uncertainty and danger. Had Berrey moved farther into the countryside, beyond more conventionally segregated public spaces like stores, train stations, and movie theaters, he would have found a wealth of additional stories to enrich and confirm his thesis. Additionally, although Berrey recognizes meaningful sectional variations within Mississippi, he does not follow through with this insight. Finally, although his thesis revolves around the flexibility of the Jim Crow routine, he draws heavily from Leon F. Litwack’s interpretation of Jim Crow, which tugs Berrey toward a more systematic and inflexible emphasis. More scholarship is needed to sort out these difficulties.
In summary, Berrey has made an important contribution in tracking the seismic shift from the discourse of accommodation to that of confrontation. His careful attention to the multiple meanings of performance and audience provides scholars with a wide and valuable frame with which to rethink the many twists and turns of strategy, action, and narrative that marked the long civil rights movement.