The importance of language in the system of segregation is also
addressed in Part II of the
documentary. Language (or the selective use of language) was very much a component of racist
thought. It was a means of enforcing, however subtle, the caste system. One word ("Mr.")
confered dignity and respect; one word ("boy") denied both.
During the Jim Crow era of segregation, white people did not address black people with the
customary titles of respect, the so-called courtesy titles. The "Mr." or "Mrs." did not appear
before the name of a black person referred to in a newspaper article. White children called elderly
blacks by their first names or as "uncle" and "aunt." Language helped define and reenforced the
inferior status of black people and the nature of the relationship between white and black. In many
black communities (Natchez, Mississippi, being one example), early Civil Rights activists
demanded the use of "courtesy titles" for black people. It was a minor demand that signified a
The use of language in racist thought can be very
subtle. In the documentary,
Avery Alexander recalls the story of his elderly grandfather and the younger Mr. Ginrich, a white
man. The way each man addressed the other left the child Avery Alexander perplexed. It was his
introduction to the question of race. Use this quote to explain to the students the ways in which
language served as a pillar of the segregated society.
This white man was about thirty or forty years old, and my grandfather was about seventy-five
years old. The young white man used to call my grandfather 'Arthur,' and my grandfather used to
call him 'Mr. Ginrich'. I said, 'Why do you call him Mr. Ginrich and he calls you Arthur?' He said,
'Oh boy, go ahead in and shut up.' I then realized the difference between
white and black.
3. A WAY OF LIFE
Segregation was deeply rooted in the Southern history, as slavery had
been before it. Relatively
few people knew a life different from the life of Jim Crow. Emphasize to the students how
difficult it is to confront ideas and practices that generations have grown accustomed to and have
taken for granted.
Here are some quotes from both whites and blacks taken
from Part II of the documentary. Use these quotes with your students to
promote discussion about how people
viewed segregation and how difficult it was to overcome the acceptance of segregation as a way
"I was never conscious of that (segregation) being a problem as far as I was concerned."
-- Vic Schiro, New Orleans mayor in early 1960's
"It was a way of life, right? It was something we were taught and were brought up with and we
accepted it...Since you were not on the losing end, you pretty much took it for granted."
-- Joe Giarusso, New Orleans police superintendent
"We thought that being separated in that fashion was the way it should have been then."
-- Llewelyn Soniat, director of the NAACP in New Orleans
"It was degrading to blacks and it gave a false sense of security to whites."
-- Dr. Daniel Thompsen
Emphasize to the students that the
acceptance of segregation by
many people puts into perspective the actions of those who challenged segregation. Where did
these people find the strength to take on a system that appeared omnipotent? Explain to the
students that some people within the black community itself looked with fear upon those who
demanded change. Change is impossible, many argued. The system is too powerful. Don't risk it.
You'll get killed.
If the selective use of language was a subtle manner in which
segregation was enforced, violence
(and the implicit threat of violence) was the ultimate guarantor of the unequal system. Just as the
bull whip had been used on plantations to instill fear and obedience, violence was employed to
reverse the political gains blacks had momentarily enjoyed during the period of Radical
Reconstruction (1867-'77). White militia organizations (the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the
White Camellia, the White League, the Regulators, local militia groups, even the less than
ominous sounding "rifle clubs") inflicted violence on blacks who asserted their rights both in New
Orleans and in the rural regions of the state. The bloodshed was substantial, particularly at the
time of elections. The memory of violence was passed from one generation of blacks to another,
cultivating fear and resignation.
Explain to the students that the police were the ultimate enforcers of segregation. In this respect,
Joe Giarusso, the New Orleans police superintendent during the desegregation crisis, is an
individual whose comments in A House Divided should be studied
How does Giarusso justify the actions of the police
department during the desegregation crisis?
His basic argument is that events were forced upon
him and that he was simply following orders.
The system of segregation rested fundamentally on the willingness of at least some whites to use
violence to subjugate the black populace and the willingness of the rest of the whites to do
nothing about this violence.Violence was very much a part of the political landscape. It was given
publicity. The body of a black man lynched on the edge of town was left to hang as a warning to
others. Black people lived in a veritable police-state. As a result, any black person who confronted
the inequities of the system did so with the full understanding that he or she might pay for these
actions with their lives. In addition, the violence meted out to blacks was sometimes random and
served no purpose other than to vent the pathological frustrations of a person who was in control
simply because of the color of his skin.
In Part II, Avery Alexander recalls one particularly
brutal police officer:
There was a wake. Now, the wake as we knew it at
that time, there were no facilities for a wake,
blacks didn't have adequate funeral homes. We set up the coffin in the front room. Friends come
around and we stand around, and while we were standing there a white policeman came by. I need
not say white policeman' because there were no black policemen. They got out of their vehicles
and said, Run you niggers, run.' They did that all the time. One fellow couldn't hear. He stood
there looking around. Didn't I tell you to run?' And he shot and killed him, and of course his
people grieved, How terrible it was.' But we couldn't even petition. If you said anything, you in
turn would be arrested.
Emphasize to the students that under Jim Crow segregation a black person had no legal recourse.
Avery Alexander says, "...we couldn't even petition. If you said anything, you in turn would be
arrested." The judges were representatives of Jim Crow. They enforced the law, and the law
Revius Ortique, a leader of the desegregation efforts in New Orleans, remembers that his father
believed that white people would not be inclined to give up the privileges Jim Crow had bestowed
upon them: "My father always said there would be bloodshed. He felt strongly that white people
would not yield peacefully, that you would have had to fight for it."
PART II: TERMS -- TEACHER'S COPY
(to teachers): before viewing Part II, review
the names and terms listed
below with your students. Give the students the blank "Part II: Terms" and have them fill it in
during or after the viewing, which ever way you feel is best.
1. Lolis Elie
- Lolis Elie is a black lawyer who during the
Civil Rights period served
(with Robert Collins and Nils Douglas) as counsel for many activists including those of CORE
(Congress of Racial Equality).
2. Joe Giarusso
- Joe Giarusso was superintendent of New
Orleans police during the desegregation of the city. He later served as a
3. Oretha Castle-Haley
- Oretha Castle (she later married
fellow activist Richard Haley
who became a CORE director) was a student at Southern University in New Orleans when she
became a participant of the Dryades Street Boycott in 1960. At odds with the step by step legal
approach of the NAACP, Rudy Lombard, Jerome Smith, and Oretha Castle formed a New
Orleans chapter of CORE in 1960. She helped organize the Canal Street boycotts that began in
September 1960. Her sister, Doris Jean Castle, was also an activist. Their parents were very
supportive of their efforts, and the family home served as a headquarters for CORE activists in
4. Vic Schiro
- Vic Schiro was mayor of New Orleans in the
early 1960's during much
of the desegre gation crisis. He replaced Chep Morrison. In his approach to desegregation, Schiro
was largely instructed on what to do by the white business leaders of the
5. Jerome Smith
- Jerome Smith was one of the leading
members of the New Orleans
chapter of CORE. His father, a merchant seaman, had taught him to defend and demand courtesy
for his mother. His mother read poetry to the children each night. Jerome Smith joined the
Dryades Street Boycott in 1960 and helped picket the shopping district. He joined the
demonstrations at Southern University in 1960. As a CORE activist, he
participated in the sit-ins on Canal Street in the early 1960's and
also in the Freedom Rides in 1961.
6. Llewellyn Soniat- Llewellyn Soniat was director of the New
Orleans branch of the
NAACP. He helped organize many of the protests in New Orleans, a task from which he did not
shy despite the fact that as a family man he risked a great deal.
7. Race screen
- The race-screen was an implement of
segregation used on street cars
and buses to divide seating between white (in the front) and black (in the back). It was positioned
on the back of a seat and could be moved at the convenience of any white person and to the
inconvenience of any black person.
8. "Star" street cars
- During ante-bellum times, the "star"
street cars were reserved for
black patrons; White patrons rode in a separate street car. This arrangement lasted until 1867
when at the start of Radical Reconstruction a law was passed that permitted both races be able to
ride in the same street car. In 1902, the "star" street car was reintroduced and lasted until the
segregated street car was established.
9. Plessy v. Ferguson
- The landmark Supreme Court case in
1896 established the
constitutionality of "separate but equal" in public facilities. The case was the result of a law suit
filed by Homer Plessy in New Orleans. Plessy, a light-skinned black person, was denied the right
to sit in a "white only" coach of a train between New Orleans and
10. Rosa Parks
- Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a
white person in
Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955. Her arrest for having violated segregation laws was
one of the sparks which led to the modern day Civil Rights movement.
PART II: TERMS STUDENT COPY
Identify the following individuals and terms in
1. Lolis Elie -
2. Joe Giarusso -
3. Oretha Castle-Haley -
4. Vic Schiro -
5. Jerome Smith -
6. Llewellyn Soniat -
7. Race screen -
8. "Star" street cars -
9. Plessy v. Ferguson -
10. Rosa Parks -
Return to Index