Black History Month

Domestic servants: They are the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Posted Feb 12, 2013

In this blog that concerns crimes and the law, I usually write about psychologically complex situations concerning criminality and victimization. In such cases the law is seen as existing for our protection and to preserve our rights. When I grew up in the Deep South, in New Orleans, however, it was the law itself that was victimizing people, and it was doing this based on the color of their skin. One day, I thought, I will be strong enough to speak out against segregation. But at the time, riding a bus in St. Bernard Parish, when the bus driver stopped the bus and made us rearrange out seating so no black person sat in front of any white person, I was too shocked to open my mouth. The guilt weighed upon me though and, only later could I partially redeem myself in college in North Carolina during the final year of the Civil Rights Movement. Protest was easy—I didn’t have to speak out, just hold a sign and picket, or join the march, singing, and sit-ins.

 Black History Month brings back these memories, but others too, memories of uniformed maids who cooked, ironed, and served dinner in white people’s homes. Everyone knew the rules, and life was easy on the surface. Looking back, I see that the psychological challenges were many. Black women working for white families psychologically were in a classic double bind situation. Often cherished as lovable members of the family, they were generally treated as underlings and talked down to in a manner reserved for children. The mistress/maid relationship was therefore fraught with difficulty and contradictions. The black woman typically always spoke to members of the white family with great deference and in a tone of voice that was different from the one she used with her peers.

Working as cooks, maids, and housekeepers in white homes in the Jim Crow South, they were forced to endure the indignities of segregation in the roles to which they were consigned. Still, they did what they had to do to support their families; in so doing they saw that their children received the education they themselves lacked.

 Psychologically, whites were in a compromised situation as well. The challenge for them was to reconcile their beliefs in justice and equality with a social system that deprived one race of their equal rights. This was a classic example of cognitive dissonance because the whites either had to reject their community as bad or justify the racial oppression. They had a lot of explaining to do, both to themselves and others, as to why they did not speak out against the unjust laws. Generally, they said that the “colored” people were happy but sometimes stirred up by outsiders who did not understand the southern way of life.

We’ve written about all this in a new book, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (LSU Press) in honor of these women. And now I want to focus on the debt we owe to these domestic servants, not just for all the warm caregiving they provided to their own and others’ families, but for the roles that so many of them played in shaping history.

 The time was 1955, and the place was Montgomery, Alabama. The bus segregation as dictated by law was of an especially nefarious and impractical form: blacks had to pay and then depart the bus and enter again by the back door. There was a movement underway to defy this policy and Rosa Parks volunteered to take her stand. It was what came next that so surprising. The whole city of maids and other black workers rallied in support, and at great personal sacrifice they refused to board the bus until segregation had come to an end. Domestic servants walked miles and miles to work. Their protest was galvanized by a young minister new to town named Martin Luther King. The practice of mass civil disobedience to unjust laws in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi was developed through the black churches in Montgomery, Alabama. The PBS film, Eyes on the Prize, shows actual news reels of domestic servants walking back and forth to work in unity against the segregated buses. The Hollywood movie, The Long Walk Home realistically captures this historic event and the ultimate victory that was won.

 It was thanks to these domestic servants, in short, that the first victory of civil rights was won, and a national movement built on concepts of passive resistance (really pacifist resistance) and civil disobedience was born. And it was not just in Montgomery, Alabama, but in other parts of the South as well that servants and former servants took a stand. If they couldn't march themselves, out of fear for losing their jobs, they sent their children. Their older, retired relatives were there also. See The Maid Narratives Facebook for photos of such women, yesterday and today.