American History as It Happened

MODULE FOUR: 1919-1929


Read the two excerpts under the heading of Document Five and answer these questions.

1. What is the relationship between the two excerpts? The second excerpt is a letter to the editor written in response to the first excerpt.

2. What does William Pickens mean in this passage: “The cruder genius broke the bodies of individuals occasionally, but Jim Crow tortures the bodies and souls of tens of thousands hourly”? In speaking about “the cruder genius,” Pickens refers to the ancient cruelty he cites in the first sentence (“The classics tell about the tortures invented by the Sicilian tyrants”). He goes on to say that the South’s Jim Crow practice is far crueler than that occasional torture because it is an everyday occurrence, codified into law and accepted as normal. Ancient tyrants may have broken bodies, he says, but for African Americans, Jim Crow is a constant torture that never ends. (It may interest students to know that William Pickens was an African-American orator, educator, journalist, and essayist.)

3. C. L. Stone says, “The segregation of races has been built upon a traditionally peculiar racial situation [that] naturally exists in many of the Southern States.” What does he mean by “peculiar”? What does he mean by “naturally”? C. L. Stone’s use of the word peculiar is telling. Peculiar means strange, odd, or abnormal. However, in the 19th century, the term “peculiar institution” came into use as a euphemism for slavery, and was used to mean “distinctly southern” or “special.” White southerners used the term affectionately. With slavery no longer in existence in 1923, Stone ascribes the term to segregation. By using the word naturally, he assumes that segregation was ordained by God or Nature as the correct order of things, which was, in fact, the way white supremacists viewed the practice.

4. Compare the emotional tones of the two texts. Why might they exhibit such a contrast? Pickens’s tone is passionate, filled with outrage and frustration. He is writing from personal experience of an event as it is happening, and his tone reflects the immediacy of his experience and his emotional reaction to it.

Stone, on the other hand, writes in a cool, businesslike tone, one of distance and disavowal—“Don’t blame the railroad. It’s not our fault,” he says, writing in his professional capacity as a representative of that business. But then he reveals his personal view, demonstrating his sense of superiority as he patronizingly describes Pickens’s sentiments as “exaggeration.” The contrasting tones of the letters reflect the very different perspectives and positions of the writers.