I first went South with the US Army before heading overseas and each time carried with me a fascinating book "Mind of the South," published in 1941 by Southern-born and bred W.J. Cash.
When I returned as a journalist, and then as a tourist. I developed a love for the rich scent of its warm, wet late winter earth, its unhurried pace, the cadence of Southern speech and many of the men and women who were certainly different.
However, rather than my admittedly simplistic views, Cash had long since written of a more complex and realistic southern society. Some words he wrote still stick with me.
"Proud, brave and honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its action—such was the South at its best. And such as its best remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and too narrow a concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism—these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain characteristic vices today."
The first thing my wife and I realized was that it was hard not knowing how to express our liberal racial views in a Southern community.
The first thing my wife and I realized was that it was hard not knowing how to express our liberal racial views in a Southern community. When my wife applied for her Georgia driver's license, white state troopers moved her to the front of the line, explaining to her, but not to the black people also waiting on long lines, that "a lovely lady like you shouldn't have to wait on so long a line." I listened and I said nothing.
But we became a bit bolder after that, joining the library of the all-black Paine College and sitting in the rear of buses as long as we were permitted. I attended gatherings of several groups, mainly black but with several whites too, fighting for the right to vote. In the early fifties, an Augusta, Georgia, middle school faculty voted overwhelmingly to quit their public school and join a private and racially segregated academy, a move opposed only by my Augusta teacher-wife and one of her northern-born colleagues. Even so, as late as in Mississippi in the seventies, two businessmen who described themselves as moderate, said that Theodore Bilbo, their racist and anti-Semitic senator, wasn't too bad once you got to know him.
Still, what I remember are the few white Southern editors I reached out to. Stanley Dearman, edited and owned the Neshoba Democrat, a Philadelphia, Mississippi, weekly, the same town where the killers lived. When I visited him he only wanted to speak of how much he wanted the murderers of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman caught and prosecuted. He even visited New York City to interview Carolyn Goodman, Andrew's mother. Jerry Mitchell, the best of white southern newspapermen, said Dearman "was blessed with an internal moral compass that drove his courageous work as a journalist."
In Greenville, Hodding Carter's Delta Democrat-Times' advertisers, many of whom were local Jewish merchants, refused to cancel their ads when the paper was condemned by segregationists and KKK-types for its liberal position on race He also called for fair treatment for Nisei veterans, because some readers had disparaged them.
And then there was P.D. East, who ran Petal Paper in Petal, Mississippi, from 1953-1971, a virtual lone wolf who I talked to by phone and who dared to speak out against the state's ruling bigots and death threats . He'd lost his local subscribers though a few remaining ones, like me continued subscribing to the paper.
I'm not sure if the heroic story of a handful of Southern liberal whites who refused to remain silent has ever really been told. Perhaps the closest may be Diane McWhorter's superb "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution?"
Edith Wharton's celebrated lecture "America at War highlighted that America's development was "saturated in the blood of others," including Native Americans and of course African slaves. Yet the curse of slavery's legacy has never really faded, or so it seems to me. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson recently wrote "At the Crossroads of Church and Race, a Reporter Glimpses His Childhood," an article about black congregants quitting white majority churches. Robertson, born and raised a Baptist in small-town Alabama, saw the still-small number of departures as large enough to suggest "the unraveling of decades of efforts at racial reconciliation." African Americans told her that Trayvon Martin's death in 2012 was a sign that not too many whites cared about black kids getting killed.
There were of course, many other exceptional whites, like the white Northern woman and mother Viola Liuzzo, who volunteered as a driver and but for Gary May's perceptive book, "The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo," and a lone memorial erected in her memory near Selma by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and has now been forgotten. Like so many others she was slain while hate-filled media, common people and politicians excoriated her and other victims.
One of the few truthful academics, Ole Miss Historian James Silver, damned the state as a "closed society—totalitarian, monolithic and corrupt" and eventually left to teach at Notre Dame. It's easy to forget that Mississippi was then under the control of the most lawless and racist elements. A police state, one Mississippian told me. Phones were tapped, Mail opened. Faculty fired. Dissenting clergy warned. The last time I toured a southern town in the late eighties Confederate flags could be seen hanging from modest homes Years later, the confederate monuments issue made the racial question, however subtle, come alive and reveal yet again the rage and bitterness that triggered the issue..
"Slavery built the culture that built slavery and defined how people behaved," then and now, explained Mark Smith and historian at the University of South Carolina in "The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War." Cities like Charleston in South Carolina, a city of 70,000 in 1860, on the eve of secession and civil war, had 2,800 whites owning 37,000 slaves, its slave trade by far the largest in the country. When I once asked a tour guide in Charleston in the late nineteen eighties why she had excluded Black Charleston, she apologized, changed gears, and began a factual history of slavery's brutalities while she led us on an exploration of black neighborhoods.
Until the Civil Rights era, the Deep south was rightly associated with Theodore Bilbo, Jesse Helms, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, George Wallace and Lester Maddox, a distant land of Black Codes and where, thousands of African Americans were lynched—"public murders that were tolerated by state and federal officials," and their killers, as Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery, Alabama, lawyer whose group Equal Justice Initiative defends the jailed and condemned poor, has painfully pointed out were never punished.
Antagonism toward African Americans was encouraged by northern politicians and voters.. The once liberal Ed Koch, the popular ex-NYC Mayor, regularly denounced reforms meant to relieve the poor as catering to "welfare queens" and "poverty pimps." Ronald Reagan famously opened his campaign for the presidency at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Barry Goldwater hid behind his States Rights beliefs while voting against civil rights bills.
Northern and Western towns and cities also carried on unremitting resistance against black Americans by permittting residential and school discrimination. "Cycles of Segregation," a new book by Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder, emphasizes that while the Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned residential bias due to race, a half century later nothing much has changed. A cynical southerner told me that as I write my critical account of southern racism to add the story of Boston's bitter protests against integrating their public schools. I know too that Great Neck, my town, once heatedly refused to allow a small number of poor black kindergartners from Jamaica, Queens, to enroll in its affluent schools.
Far too many Americans, in the Deep South but equally in the North too, still treat African American citizens as lesser beings, demanding they live their apart, which amounts to "Separate but Equal."
While much has changed since W.J. Cash's 1941 "Mind of the South," there are many miles to go, North and West as well as South.