Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and Today
After a year in Dachau, Clifford Pepperidge, the eponymous narrator in John A. William’s Clifford’s Blues (1999), writes in his diary, “It’s plain and simple: if you ain’t for the Nazis, you’re against them, and you wind up here. The South was like that. That’s why I left.” Clifford, a Black, gay musician from New Orleans, spends twelve years in Dachau, from its opening in March 1933 until his escape a few days before United States forces liberated the concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Williams’ novel explores the intersections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust, claiming, through its construction as a found diary written on scraps of flimsy paper, the history that we overlook when contextualizing and teaching the Holocaust and World War II.
During the war, some in the United States, such as Kelly Miller, W.E.B. DuBois, and Thurgood Marshall, saw the direct correlation between the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany. After the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Morehouse student Henry E. Banks spoke out against Nazi actions and called upon the United States to reflect on its own acts of injustice against African Americans as it called out actions enacted by the Nazis. He wrote in the student newspaper, “We do well, therefore, to condemn the racial policies of Hitler and oppose injustice wherever it is found, but it seems to me it would be far better if we would dedicate ourselves to the serious task of setting our own houses in order first.” The Black press continued to point out the connections between Jim Crow and Nazism. Roy Wilkins wrote in 1938, “The South approaches more nearly than any other section of the United States the Nazi idea of government by a ‘master race’ without the interference from any democratic process.”
Following the war, the United Nations held the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide where they explicitly defined genocide as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Segregationist rejected this convention and the UN as a whole because it challenged white supremacy and Jim Crow. However, groups such as the Civil Rights Congress took the definition and pointed out how the United States actively engaged in the genocide of African Americans based on the UN's definition. In 1951, they presented We Charge Genocide to the UN where they pointed out that the United States took part in the genocide of over 15,000,000 of its citizens.
“Jim Crow, The Holocaust, and Today” arose from a desire to illuminate this history and the impact it continues to have on our current moment. This panel discussion cannot be all encompassing. However, the panel conversation today seeks to provide a foundation for educators highlighting the links between Jim Crow and the Holocaust, examining the ways that we need to think about history and literature not in terms of binaries but rather in terms of multifaceted connections with no clear determination of one side or another.