She Failed to Act Like a Negro Should Act

“We venture to say that fully ninety per cent of all the race troubles in the South are the result of the Negro forgetting his place. If the black man will stay where he belongs, act like a Negro should act, work like a Negro should work, talk like a Negro should talk, and study like a Negro should study, there will be very few riots, fights or clashes.” (Leon Litwack, Trouble In Mind, 1999, First Vintage Books Edition, New York, p.179).

The article in Litwack’s book appeared in the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times in 1919 as justification for the white race resorting to violence against the black population, in Shreveport, Louisiana. But it was also applicable throughout the South. It was part of the white man’s rules of racial etiquette. Blacks were expected to follow the rules as defined by white society. When white folks approached, you got off the sidewalk, even if it meant walking in mud. You always bowed your head and never dared to look white folks in the eye, is only one example of the many rules that Blacks were expected to follow out of deference to the “superior race.”

Professor Leon F. Litwack writes, in his historical account of the Jim Crow years, Trouble In Mind, about what happened when a Black man failed to follow the rules of racial etiquette in the South: “Rufus Moncrief made one mistake, when on his way home from work he encountered a group of white men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other whites joined in the attack, some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body.” (Litwack, p. 308) According to the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, Rufus failed to act like a Negro should act, and had to pay the ultimate penalty.

In 1913, in Valdosta Georgia, Mary Turner failed to act like a Negro should act when she set out to seek justice for her husband, who had recently been lynched. For her actions, the eight month pregnant Mary was the victim of a white mob, “determined to teach her a lesson.” After tying her ankles together they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman’s abdomen. The infant fell prematurely from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member in the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot. (Litwack, p. 288)
One hundred years later, on a road in Texas a young, educated and confident Black woman, Sandra Bland, was pulled over by a Texas Highway Patrolman on what can be considered a very weak offense. When Trooper Brian T. Encina asked Sandra to put out her cigarette while he appeared to be writing her a ticket, she told him no. It is at this point that southern history raised its ugly, racist head and smacked Sandra right in the face. Southern history tells us that Sandra failed “to act like a Negro should act.” She had the audacity to tell a white man wearing a uniform, that no law prohibited her from smoking a cigarette in her car. But she broke the hundred-year rule of white racial etiquette, when she failed to adhere to the trooper’s demand. But maybe she didn’t know those rules were still in effect, in the minds of many southern whites.

Over the years since the Shreveport article, many Blacks have failed to adhere to the white man’s rule of racial etiquette. Emmit Till defied that rule and paid the ultimate price with his life. Medgar Evers defied that rule and was shot in the back. Thousands of Blacks defied that rule during the Civil Rights Movement and were beaten by southern police. Trayvon Martin defied that rule; Michael Brown defied that rule; and dozens of other young Blacks have defied that rule and all are dead. Despite the constant exposure of violent police tactics against Blacks, they continue to happen because some of these white police officers still feel a sense of superiority over all Blacks, and when the white rule of racial etiquette is broken they are compelled to punish the violator.
Ms. Bland evidently believed in the Constitution, and she thought all others shared her confidence that the document could protect her from being harmed when exercising her rights. What she didn’t realize is that the rules of racial etiquette will trump that Constitution every time. Whenever in direct conflict with the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, it is easily dismissed. The one constant throughout this country’s history has been that rule, and white policemen are demonstrating to us, as Blacks, their loyalty to it over loyalty to the Constitution.