top of page

US White Supremacy: A Southern Phenomenon?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


[CW: discussion of racism and racial violence]

Many students who have studied History GCSE or A Level have come across Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights movement. Yet much of the curriculum often focuses on the South, stressing its exceptional history of segregation, voter disenfranchisement, and racially motivated violence. However, a focus on legally enforced segregation in the Jim Crow South has created the impression that race relations in the North were relatively peaceful, characterised by industrial prosperity and equal opportunity in the latter part of the 19th and 20th century. As will be shown, however, Jim Crow was a national phenomenon, both in its de jure (sanctioned by law) and de facto (not officially sanctioned) forms.

Indeed, the implementation of de jure segregation and voting restrictions across the South in the 1890s and into the 20th century, but not in the North, might at first suggest that white supremacy was primarily a Southern phenomenon. Legal barriers such as property or literacy qualifications for voting were set up. Disenfranchisement was accompanied by the adoption of a number of Jim Crow laws and enforced by city ordinances and by local regulations, which saw the increasing profusion of signs which read ‘Whites Only’ or ‘Colored’. A large body of law also grew concerned with the segregation of employees and their working conditions, while residential segregation in cities also developed.

The South also saw a rise in racial violence in the 1880s and 1890s. Lynching also became widespread across the South in the 1880s and the 1890s, particularly in rural areas which had seen a large black population increase. Although white immigrants and poor white southerners were also lynched, lynchings were used primarily as an opportunity to reassert white male power and authority.