- The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi by Stephen A. Berrey
In The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi, historian Stephen Berrey presents a fresh approach to how Mississippians "live[d] Jim Crow" and how that changed [End Page 623] with the civil rights movement (3). Studies of Mississippi traditionally focus on dramatic events of racism and violence, but Berrey emphasizes what he calls "mundane" everyday events, like shopping, eating lunch, or walking down the sidewalk. One could mistake "mundane" for "boring." The Jim Crow Routine, however, is anything but.
Berrey focuses on the 1930s through early 1960s, carefully tracing segregation's shifting context. He reveals segregation's fluid nature, emphasizing that Blacks and whites made and remade Jim Crow daily through a racial performance, complete with script, stage, and actors. Everyone knew their "part," including where to walk, how to talk, and which water fountain to use. Blacks going "off script" could invoke intimidation, violence, or even death, so they memorized their lines.
Chapters one and two deal with everyday racial performances prior to the 1950s. Berrey suggests that segregation was not about separation, but rather "interracial intimacy" and "separated togetherness" (11, 20). The races constantly interacted through partial separation (like riding the same bus with divided racial spaces) or spaces with no barriers (such as stores). This racial geography was also fluid; for example, Blacks moving off sidewalks for whites temporarily changed this integrated space into "whites only." Chapter two analyzes both races' perspectives on the routine. Whites focused on criminality, such as a "crazed Negro" (61) murdering innocent whites, but for Blacks, he defended his family and shot white intruders, making whites the violent aggressors.
From chapter three on, Berrey shows the races rewriting their routines in response to civil rights. Blacks added public protest, while whites changed how they talked about race and enforced segregation. Berrey insists that white Mississippians were more nuanced and flexible than generally recognized and he uses the Emmett Till trial to reflect shifting white responses as outside attention mounted. With the nation watching, Mississippi's performance now had an audience that saw backwardness and violence, so white Mississippi mounted a propaganda campaign depicting harmonious race relations. The Sovereignty Commission watched Mississippians and asked Mississippians to watch each other, transforming whites into "messenger[s]," not "master[s]" (137). Segregationists smeared activists as common criminals, which proved a useful foil when white southern supremacy was on trial.
Other studies depict Mississippi as isolated from the mainstream, but Berrey argues that "Mississippi was part of, not aberrant to, the larger racial transformations of modern America" (7). When segregationists realized that overtly racialized language harmed their image, they changed the script, emphasizing interracial friendship and cooperation. They harped on high rates of Black deviance and criminality, which repositioned whites as victims and invited the need for increased policing. The official Mississippi [End Page 624] script, complete with statistics and science, wove into an existing policing narrative prevalent from New York to Oakland, making Mississippi more like America than many thought.
The Jim Crow Routine is meticulously researched and makes significant contributions to the historiography, but Berrey occasionally lapses into overgeneralities and omissions. Too often, he homogenizes Black and whites without qualifying between hardline segregationists and moderates, elites and poor whites, which contributes to the very stereotypes he seeks to disentangle. Berrey's narrative would benefit from more on moderates and activists. Hazel Brannon Smith appears occasionally, but there is scant mention of Hodding Carter and nothing on Ira Harkey, two Pulitzer-winning editors known for tolerance. Activists are key to rewriting the script, but the major ones are missing. Berrey only has Blacks challenging segregation, missing Ed King and other whites, and then gives Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers only a few nods and James Meredith one passing mention in the epilogue. Telling a relatively unknown story about...