State and local laws throughout the South and in some other parts of the United States denied basic civil rights to many African Americans in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition on states' denying people the equal protection of the laws and due process of law. In the face of continued discrimination, many black citizens began contacting politicians like Governor Thomas B. Stanley to discuss their plight or file protests against discrimination. Letters like Robert Leon Bacon's described everyday conditions of life in a racially segregated society. Bacon outlined the places in his community, including restaurants, hotels, and public transportation vehicles, that he was not allowed to frequent because of Jim Crow laws. Bacon specifically mentioned his fear of being lynched if he did anything that whites deemed inappropriate, which was a fear that many other African Americans shared. Lynchings were the execution of an individual without the due process of the law for real or perceived crimes against the community-at-large. By late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth century, lynching and other forms of racial violence were used by whites, especially in the South, to intimidate and control African Americans. Bacon also expressed his frustration toward not being allowed to go to certain parts of the city and his inability to join the Virginia National Guard because of his race.
Letters like Bacon's were an outlet for African Americans to discuss their dissatisfaction and to argue for better or even equal treatment with whites. Bacon even stated that he was prepared to leave the state and move to the North if things did not change. Many African Americans did leave the South in an effort to improve their situations. Despite the efforts of regular citizens to reach out to their elected officials, most white politicians did not try to provide more legal protection for their African American constituents.
1. Why did Robert Leon Bacon write this letter?
2. Why is his letter significant?
3. What specific examples of discrimination does Robert Bacon describe?
4. What was Massive Resistance?
1. What was daily life for African Americans like under Jim Crow? Conduct oral history interviews with people in your community to experienced segregation first hand, or research published oral histories about the Jim Crow era. How do they compare with Robert Bacon's story?
2. For much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the threat of lynching and racial violence intimidated African Americans to accept racial segregation and other racist laws. Research the history of lynching in the United States. When did it start? Why was is tolerated? What impact did it have on black life in America, and particularly in the South? What ultimately brought the practice to an end?
Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Lee, Lauranett L. Making the American Dream Work: A Cultural History of African Americans in Hopewell, Virginia. Hampton, Va.: Morgan James Publishing, 2008.