The rise and fall of Jim Crow

“Wheel about, turn about Do jis so An’ ebery time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow!”

This little ditty was expropriated from a Black performer in the South by Daddy Rice, a white entertainer, in 1828. Performing in blackface and dressed in tattered clothes, Rice took this version of black man imitating the hifalutin ways of white folks, put it in his minstrel act, and made a fortune.

By the next generation or so, Jim Crow had come to symbolize the racist, American apartheid form of segregation that denied Black Americans basic civil and human rights. These draconian laws sparked a civil rights movement that gradually brought about social and political change in America.

The story of these restrictions and the resultant fight to knock down what those laws represented is told impressively and in vivid detail in “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” a four-part series that will run on Tuesday evenings on PBS, beginning in October. Using photos, film footage and testimony from such prominent historians as Leon Litwack, Nell Painter, W.W. Law, along with the memories of eyewitnesses to this period from the 1860s to the 1950s, the series deftly covers the past, while it underscores a number of contemporary issues.

In the first episode, “Promises Betrayed,” some Black New Yorkers will be pleasantly surprised to see Marquetta Goodwine discussing the historical struggle to keep the land in the Sea Islands, where she is among the leading experts on Gullah life in the region. Painter, Law and Moses Jackson, a former sharecropper, assist Goodwine in setting the stage for the subsequent episodes, each of which seems to unfold like illustrated chapters from the research of John Hope Franklin or Lerone Bennett.

On successive Tuesdays will come the other episodes, including “Fighting Back (1896-1917),” “Don’t Shoot Too Soon (1917-1940),” and the final segment, “Terror Triumph (1940-1954).”

The current issue of reparations is evoked in the first episode as the words of the informants supply a narrative to the collage of pictures and footage of Black Americans, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina, struggling often valiantly to hold to the land ceded them at the close of the Civil War.

Viewers are provided another perspective of terrorism American style throughout the series, but none more graphically than the brutal attacks of night riders and the Ku Klux Klan as they wreak havoc, burning homes, and lynching Black men and women.

Brief profiles of Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Charles Hamilton Houston and Frederick Douglass are among the notables who deliver instances of hope and inspiration into this sorrowful phase of American history and the terrible ordeal Black Americans had to endure.

Herb Boyd is national editor of The Black World Today (www.tbwt.net) This article is excerpted with permission.