- Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politicsby Jay Winston Driskell Jr.
There was a time when African American political culture in the Jim Crow South could be framed in terms of a polar debate between the accommodationist disciples of Booker T. Washington and the advocates of a more assertive brand of protest politics typified by W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells. From this perspective, the disenfranchisement of African American men at the turn of the twentieth century marked the end of mass black politics in the South and its replacement with two rival forms of elite politics: one that emphasized private deal making with white paternalists and one that called for public protest against the indignities of Jim Crow. Eventually, as this story goes, groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which advocated public resistance to white supremacy, triumphed over the accommodationists, thereby planting the seeds for the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
The time has long since passed when black politics under Jim Crow could be described in this fashion. Influenced by feminist scholarship that broadened our understanding of what constitutes political action, path-breaking works such as Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow(1996) and Tera Hunter’s To ’Joy My Freedom(1997) uncovered a world of black politics in the early twentieth-century South that defied traditional categories of accommodation and resistance. Building on this scholarship, Jay Winston Driskell Jr.’s Schooling Jim Crowprovides a masterful account of the emergence of mass urban black politics in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early twentieth century, a time in which earlier generations of historians assumed that little or no such politics existed.
The subtitle of Driskell’s book ( The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics) understates the author’s accomplishment. Far more than simply a study of the successful campaign to secure funding for Atlanta’s first black public high school, Schooling Jim Crowprovides a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of African American politics in Atlanta between 1900 and 1924. The book’s central focus is the emergence of a mass black protest politics that was based on the principle of racial solidarity and that aimed to gain equitable access to the new public services (such as libraries, parks, and schools) associated with modern urban life. This new politics culminated in a multi-year campaign for a black high school in which the African American community made creative use of the tools at its disposal (most especially the right to vote on municipal bond referenda) to extract school funding from a reluctant white power structure.
In tracing the emergence of autonomous black protest politics in Atlanta, Driskell advances two main arguments. The first is that this new politics was not “created out of whole cloth” (7). On the contrary, the author argues that the new black politics evolved [End Page 102]gradually from an earlier “politics of respectability” (a concept borrowed from Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) in which the black middle class pursued incremental reforms through an alliance with the paternalistic white elite based on a shared agenda of uplifting both the black and white working classes. By 1920 a series of developments had discredited this politics of respectability, even among its practitioners. The 1906 Atlanta race riot, during which the “lawless element” of the African American community defended black neighborhoods from racist mobs while white paternalists stood idly by, raised doubts about the interracial political strategy employed by middle-class leaders. The patriotic fervor of the First World War provided a new civic language that allowed black men of all classes (most especially veterans) to make a case for full citizenship. Underlying these particular developments, however, was a fundamental social and political dynamic: middle-class black leaders increasingly recognized that they simply lacked...