I've Kept My Name

A forthright rebuttal to “I Changed My Name,” an anonymous article published in the February 1948 Atlantic

There are, happily other worlds in this kindliest of countries. I was born and raised in a good world. It was far more Gentile than Jewish, but I never felt alien there, nor was any attempt made to make me feel alien. I have found that being a Jew has been no deterrent either to my happiness or to my career whether, as formerly, in business or, as latterly, in writing. My rewards, or lack of them, have been, I feel, in proportion to my merits except, embarrassingly, that I have been dowered with kindness quite beyond my deserts.

Shortly after the Civil War my relatives, European immigrants, became cotton planters in the Mississippi Delta, and my parents soon followed them to the then tiny pioneer town of Greenville. There they met with unaffected kindness in an atmosphere hostile to bigotry. There I was born and raised. For as long as I can remember, the Roman Catholic Church, the First Baptist Church, and the Synagogue have stood within a stone's throw of one another. Over them all was the benison of God and the grateful shade, in summer, of leafy oaks and magnolias. Living, their communicants got on well together. Dead, they were buried in adjoining grounds where weeping willows flow and mockingbirds make mimic song.

In that town there walked saints. Whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, quail-hunting, pleasure-loving saints. Sinners hate. Saints hate, too. But they hate injustice. Greenville has always had men who were saints in this respect. Let me tell you about one of them.

In the early 1920's, the Ku Klux Klan came to the town as it came to so many communities of the South and the Middle West. But it did not go far. There were two reasons, among others, for this. First, Leroy Percy, a virile aristocrat and the county's most eminent citizen, together with his son Will, called upon the district attorney, who was a lifelong friend and an eminent Klansman. The Percys quietly told him that if the Klan touched the hair of a single person in the community whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Negro they would kill him since the burden of responsibility rested with the district attorney. He knew they were as good as their word, and under the circumstances it may be believed that his influence was not incendiary.

Second, Leroy Percy singlehandedly chased an imported Klan organizer out of town. A "Colonel" Camp was speaking in the Washington County courthouse for the purpose of forming a local branch of the Klan. At this meeting, writes William Alexander Percy in Lanterns on the Levee, "the Klan organizer made an artful speech to a tense crowd that packed every cranny of the room; and every man was armed . . . . Who had recently bought a huge tract of land opposite West Point and another overlooking Washington? The Pope. Convents were brothels, the confessional a place of seduction, the basement of every Catholic church an arsenal. The Pope was about to seize the government. To the rescue, Klansmen! . . . It was an example of Nazi propaganda before the Nazis. The very enormity and insolence of the lie carried conviction to the simple and the credulous .

(Similar ties about Jews have been told, and believed, for centuries. They range from the canard that Jews drink the blood of Christian children in religious rituals to stories now current here that Jews – and this is a most extraordinary feet "own" the country and are also communist.)

When the speaker sat down, Leroy Percy, hated, uninvited, and hating, arose. Shaking his finger at Camp, his first words were: "Who is this itinerant scoundrel that comes here to set brother against brother?" He told how Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Negro had struggled together against floods of the great river; against yellow fever, malaria, and all the ills of a struggling pioneer area. He said that together they had conquered wilderness and swamps; had built homes, schools, roads, railroads, levees, courthouses, and cotton gins. They had helped one another in hard times and had managed to live on amicable terms. And now this "itinerant scoundrel" had come to set them apart. He asked upon what field of honor "Colonel" Camp had won his spurs. Whence did he come? Who had besought his presence?

As his anger mounted, ridicule and invective poured from his mouth searing and burning all that they touched. He spoke to a hostile, sullen crowd, but when Leroy Percy sat down, a wildly cheering throng passed a resolution condemning the Klan, while a badly frightened "Colonel" Camp scuttled out of a side door.

In Greenville neither I nor any of my coreligionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish. Gentiles and Jews rejoiced together in happiness and mourned together in sorrow. There were bigots in the town, it is true – Jews as well as Gentiles – but they were a tiny minority looked upon commiseratingly by the majority as unhappy aberrants.

There were affectionate relations between many Gentile and Jewish families in Greenville. I shall content myself with one example. My brother Joel, never wealthy, was in the latter part of his life poor. He and his wife lived in a little house in a street of little houses. Once they went out of town, and upon their return were amazed to find that the frayed curtains of their living room had been replaced by new ones. It was not until much later, and then by chance, that they learned how this had happened. Their next-door Gentile neighbors, themselves of small means, had taken down their own curtains and hung them in my brother's house.

The good-neighbor tradition of the town lives on. In 1940 Hodding Carter, publisher and editor of the Greenville Democrat-Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorials on racial and religious tolerance.

Last year he published an editorial saying that he had had five crises in his life, and on each occasion he had been rescued by a Jew. A few days later, Gentile leaders of the community quietly collected a considerable sum of money for the relief of distressed Jews overseas.

There are many American Jews who could bear testimony to Gentile kindness, as Carter has borne it with respect to Jewish kindness. My own gratitude to the Gentile friends, neighbors, and teacher, of the formative years of my youth is immense. I am deeply and especially indebted to William Alexander Percy, cultivated and compassionate; a cosmopolitan and an enlightened provincial; writer, soldier, lawyer, and planter, this fallow townsman, older than I, befriended me in my youth. It was a relationship, richly fruitful for me, that endured until his death.

I remember with photographic vividness a present he made me when I was about fourteen years old; a raw country youth filled with furious, inchoate longings. The gift was a number of volumes of translations by Gilbert Murray of Greek plays. They made a profound and lasting impression upon me, for from them I got my first glimpses of truth and beauty; so profound an impression indeed that, years later, I found myself making a sudden decision to retire from business as I stood one day upon the hill of the Parthenon looking down upon the golden structure of the Temple of Theseus.

Long afterward when I returned to Greenville to write my first book, my parents were dead and my brother had no room for me in his house. William Alexander Percy took me into his own home, where I remained for over two years, as much at ease in his hospitable house teeming with friends and relatives as I could ever have been underneath my own roof, while he gave me, a frightened beginner at writing, his counsel and encouragement. Nor was this the end of my good fortune. For when Percy, shortly before his death, sat down to write his superb autobiographical Lanterns on the Levee, he who had hitherto written only verse had small faith in his ability to write prose. Then it was my privilege to do a little for him in the field where he had done so much for me.

I have, for all these reasons, kept my name. The United States is, I repeat, the kindliest of countries; how kindly only those can know whose history is nearly all somber tragedy. But if, unhappily, the United States should ever change, my course would remain unchanged. It is not only that I can do no other. It is also that the, upright posture of man, though it is a biological disadvantage, is a great psychological triumph. Speaking for myself alone, it would be too high a price for survival to abdicate that posture which raises man toward the rising sun.

Read “I Changed My Name” in the February 1948 Atlantic.

Presented by

David L. Cohn

David I. Cohn was a regular Atlantic contributor during the mid-1900s. A Mississippi native who studied at the University of Virginia and Yale, he authored books as diverse as African American history (God Shakes Creation), American industry (The Good Old Days), and and matrimony (Love in America).

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