Historians sometimes forget that history is continually being made and experienced before it is studied, interpreted, and read. These latter activities have their own history, of course, which may impinge in unexpected ways on public events. It is difficult to predict when “new pasts” will overturn established historical interpretations and change the course of history.
In the fall of 1954, for example, C. Vann Woodward delivered a lecture series at the University of Virginia which challenged the prevailing dogma concerning the history, continuity, and uniformity of racial segregation in the South. He argued that the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only codified traditional practice but also were a determined effort to erase the considerable progress made by Black people during and after Reconstruction in the 1870’s.
This revisionist view of Jim Crow legislation grew in Part from the research that Woodward had done for the NAACP legal campaign during its preparation for Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court had issued its ruling in this epochal desegregation case a few months before Woodward’s lectures.
The lectures were soon published as a book. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Ten years later, in a preface to the second revised edition. Woodward confessed with ironic modesty that the first edition “had begun to suffer under some of the handicaps that might be expected in a history of the American Revolution published in 1776.” That was a bit like hearing Thomas Paine apologize for the timing of his pamphlet Common Sense, which had a comparable impact.
Although Common Sense also had a mass readership， Paine had intended to reach and inspire: he was not a historian, and thus not concerned with accuracy or the dangers of historical anachronism. Yet, like Paine, Woodward had an unerring sense of the revolutionary moment, and of how historical evidence could undermine the mythological tradition that was crushing the dreams of new social possibilities. Martin Luther King, Jr. testified to the profound effect of The Strange Career of Jim Crow on the civil rights movement by praising the book and quoting it frequently.