The Angry South
A square-cut, powerful Georgian, RALPH MCGILLhas for years been respected as one of the bravest and most balanced liberal editors in the deep South. His editorials in the Atlanta Constitution, his undeviating commitment to the betterment of race relations, have made him many friends — and enemies. The Atlantic is proud to publish this fair and accurate diagnosis of the slow, steady changes which have been taking place in the South.
by RALPH MCGILL
SOUTHERNERS trying to be fair are confronted daily with the many and frustrating complexities of the racial problem in its most aggressive form. The newspaper man or woman in the deep South who, as carefully and as objectively as his or her talents permit, produces critical opinion experiences an immediacy of thermal reaction. To some he has fouled his own nest, sold out to Yankee dollars, betrayed his people, and so on. A cross may be burned in his yard, or his windows broken by stones thrown in the night. He personally is pilloried, vigorously and libelously, by political demagogues. He encounters some support, and there is perhaps one constant satisfaction: he knows he is being read.
Now and then, he indulges in a Walter Mitty nostalgia for the old days as pictured in the literature of once-upon-a-time. There was a time when being a Southerner could be made into a pleasant, semi-official profession if one rehearsed it a bit.
But not now. In May, 1954, the trumpets of the nine black-robed justices in the Greek temple on the Potomac blew down the already weakened walls of political feudalism in the South. There long will be fighting in the ruins, but it will be guerrilla stuff and its denouement is sure. When the walls crumbled, the Humpty Dumpty of a convenient, oftinvoked regional concept of states’ rights fell, too. Even if apostles of this doctrine, which was as malleable as sculptor’s clay in the hands of its many interpreters, were to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, there is no wall on which to set him. He fell with the walls, not from them.
The South of myth, reality, and paradox was beginning noticeably to change its internal structure in the mid-thirties. The region had not at all recovered from the boll weevil plague when the world depression came. The disaster of the weevil had been even worse. It was not so recognized nationally save by insurance companies which ended up holding mortgages on as much as three fourths of the property in some of the major cotton counties. In these counties some 200 bales of cotton were produced in 1920 on plantations which a year or so before had produced 2000 bales. Banks failed, and there was no government policy to reopen them. Manor houses emptied. The ruins of many still stand, never again occupied. The tenant and sharecropper cabins began to be deserted. Their doors sagged with the passing years, and the winds blew a requiem through them for the lost dreams of men and their families, white and colored, who were gone to “Dee-troit” to the already burgeoning automobile plants, and to steel plants in “She-cargo” and Pittsburgh. On top of all this came the great depression.
Even the more insensitive should have known that something was amiss in the depression years. The cotton economy was wrecked and would never return. Ahead was the need for new crops. Machines were to replace the many hands and the slow-plodding mules. That would be change enough. But there came, too, the many government agencies for relief, for rehabilitation of soil, and for the construction of roads, schools, bridges, and public buildings. In the rush for aid and the almost greedy acceptance of it by a region long short of capital, the strength of states’-rights politics was dissipated. In a sense it was bartered away. In this period, too, the South abandoned the two-thirds rule which had given it a veto on the doings of the national Democratic convention. This was given away — a fact which later caused great regret in the smoke-filled rooms.
Copyright 1956, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
But the walls of states’-rights regionalism were undermined most energetically by those who now protest the most — the deep-South politicians at the state and local level who head up or support the Citizens’ and States’ Rights Councils, and other variations on the theme. It was they who most encouraged and accompanied the entrepreneurs who went north by plane and train in search of new industry. Some tempted this new industry with low taxes or no taxes, with free land or cheap land. Others offered intelligently prepared blueprints of the water supply, skilled labor, transportation, and pointed with pride to the stability of their local governments.
So it was that change came slowly, yet steadily, as did the new industry. It was accelerated by a desire to decentralize; it was quickened by war and by the further urge to disperse industrial concentrations once the Aand H-bombs came into being; most of all, it was hastened by the job hunger of a region long short of employment.
It was, and still is, a puzzling fact that most of those who headed, or were members of, delegations seeking new enterprises never saw themselves as carriers of the virus which was to destroy the status quo in their towns and communities — and also, therefore, the old “way of life in the South.” They brought new payrolls to their towns. Businesses boomed and new ones came. The delegations basked in the sun of progress. But still they fretted. “Things are not the same,” they said, shaking their puzzled heads. The organizers and unions came. The Negroes were encouraged to register and vote. The PTA and the community meetings began to hear new and protesting voices about the crowded schools, the town’s municipal services. The political contests began to be less and less “sure” of result. All the while, though deploring the change and declaring to visitors that things were not as they had been, the delegations never saw themselves as makers of the revolution. They sought with a kind of desperation to maintain the status quo — all the while laboring to bring new industries and payrolls which could only accelerate the changes.
BECAUSE much of the South is still rural, and legislators from agricultural communities still dominate most legislatures, the effect of urbanization has come much more slowly to Southern politics than to politics in the industrial East. But its influences may be seen and felt.
Southern politics perhaps has been more consistently lacking in idealistic or progressive imagination, and therefore has been more pragmatic, than politics elsewhere. Its leaders have more often said no than yes. The South joined the Populist movement, but did not originate it. Woodrow Wilson, who was Southern-born, aroused some of Thomas Jefferson’s liberalism and idealism. His own stern Calvinism matched the religious climate of most of the South, and his political morality became, in a sense, also religious morality. But it did not originate in the South. Southern politics chose to follow Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It rejected, or was indifferent to, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and Adlai Stevenson’s candidacy. Despite the competence, even brilliance, of some of its senators and congressmen, the South, since the days of the Virginia Dynasty and of Andrew Jackson, has not offered leadership which the nation has followed. It could not because it was committed to a hard-forged regionalism.
It was in the last of the Roosevelt years that regionalist politicians began to see that they would never be able to win national acceptance of their social and political theories. Some of what they believed was good and just. But they stubbornly and uncompromisingly offered a package. The nation would not buy it, either in the markets of the national conventions held by the two parties or in the Congress.
Out of this refusal came the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948 in which Strom Thurmond, now U.S. Senator from South Carolina, carried four states. Some commentators compared it to Herbert Hoover’s cracking of the so-called Solid South in 1928. It was not at all related. Dwight D. Eisenhower carried five traditionally Democratic states. In part, he was able to do so because of a belief that he was, in considerable degree, a “states’-rights man” in the Southern meaning of that oft-employed phrase. Many Southerners believed he would, in particular, leave the issue of segregation in education to the states. When, through the office of the Attorney General of the United States, the Administration filed a brief before the Supreme Court asking an end to segregation, the disenchantment among the unyielding Southern political leaders was complete.
But even before the Court’s decision in May, 1954, the diagnosticians of Southern political distemper could, with confidence, make one entry on their charts. It was that, for a long time to come, a very considerable portion of the South would be an “agin-the-White-House” political force. Since neither national party was willing, or indeed able, to give this Southern leadership what it wanted, it would not greatly matter which party was in the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. The deep South would, for the most part, be against the occupant.
The strength of these states will be used to bargain collectively at the national conventions with the threat of “an independent party” as alternative to rejection of their demands.
The Court’s decision, which for the first time split the traditional solidarity of the South on the racial issue, assured this future aspect of deep-South politics. The anti-segregation issue was not, paradoxically enough, so much of a shock. In their secret hearts the most ardent advocates of the Status quo knew that the Constitution of the United States could no longer be interpreted to mean one thing for one citizen and an opposite thing for another. Many had come to see, though they would admit it only privately, that if the Southern interpretation of states’ rights meant such an inequality in citizenship, then that doctrine had no slight chance of winning national support. In 1954 any political device which could make one man less a citizen than another, or give one American child less opportunity than another, was not merely impotent, but was regarded by most Americans as politically immoral. States’ rights remained firmly imbedded in the Constitution, but they no longer meant what some political leaders said they did — any more than they meant, in 1861, that there was a states’ right of secession. All this would be granted in private by men who declared they would fight it to the death in public.
THE more angry and defiant among deep-South politicians, being obsessed with politics of the past, had ignored what had been occurring in the South with the slow, steady change to an urbanized society. They also had missed the meaning of the fact that for years substantial numbers of Negroes had been attending the professional schools in Texas and Arkansas, and that in Tennessee and North Carolina there had been admission of one or two such students. They could not understand it when there was no immediate fusion of all the Southern states and a hedgehog regional opposition to the Court’s edict. Tennessee’s four-year plan for integration was denounced by the more angry as the sinister influence of politicians seeking the labor and Negro vote. And the more rabid elements from the town, not from the campus, have had their way at the University of Alabama.
But many school districts in Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Virginia moved to desegregate, as did isolated communities in Arkansas. The University of North Carolina became the first Southern state university to admit Negroes to the undergraduate school, although a similar decision by the University of Louisville had preceded it. And when great Texas herself announced a plan for gradual compliance with the Court’s decree, the reaction was one of furious incredulity. Immediately there was a quick hardening of opposition in the deep South and in Virginia. Some of these states legislatively and emotionally are prepared to abolish their public school systems. They can count on support from a majority of unhappy but agreeable people.
Nor was this unexpected. Back of the cotton states in the deep South is a history of generations of political exploitation of the racial issues and the closely associated fact of larger percentages of Negro population. Inflammatory and violent agitation of racial politics in the cotton South dates back to Pitchfork Ben Tillman of South Carolina and Tom Watson of Georgia, both of whom had really profound regional influence down to our present day. They have never lacked heirs and imitators. They and the cumulative effect of their successors are factors in the quick hardening of deep-South opposition. A region, like a nation or a man, is a product of its history and traditional environment. Deep in the instincts of many Southerners is a fear of what might happen “when the children all drink out of the same bucket.” Many of these people are entirely sincere when they say that nonsegregation means a “mongrelized” race. They will die before they will agree, they say. And they mean it.
It must not be assumed that this position is an evasive device. It is honestly held. It does no good for a minister, a newsman, or an editor, seeking to discuss the problem objectively, to suggest that the North has had no segregation, save the considerable degree obtained by the geographic facts of residence and by some judicious gerrymandering of school districts, and that there has been no mongrelization. If it further be suggested that this is, in a sense, an affront to the Southern people in that it suggests that only separation maintains their racial integrity, the result is unreasoning anger. The sociologists say that while the number of interracial marriages is up because the population is, percentagewise the number is down. That there is much less miscegenation than there was twenty or thirty years ago is not denied. With increased education and opportunity the Negro has, like anyone else, developed more and more racial pride. But it is this one issue of the possibility of intermarriage which most concerns the deep South. That the reasoning is not always sound does not at all detract from the strength of its belief or fear. When emotions dominate, reason plays little part. He who dismisses this attitude as a mere prejudice does neither himself nor the great American problem any good.
Northern editorialists may thunder at it and reason it away. But the Southern newspaper editor or writer of any sensitivity, who knows his people, will not, though he disagree with them, mock or denounce them. It is a part of his duty personally and professionally, since he knows the path his region has taken, to seek in every way to ameliorate the problem, knowing it cannot be “solved.” Few great problems are solved. Persons of good will keep on ameliorating them until finally they cease to be major problems.
Yet another force in the present situation is that of religion. The South, long ago labeled the Bible Belt, has always been a strongly churchgoing region, with heavy Calvinist overtones. It has prided itself on being Christian. To some that Christianity, like states’ rights, occasionally took on strange interpretations. “Before the war,”for example, many honestly persuaded themselves that Christianity endorsed and made slavery obligatory. Their spiritual descendants today declare that segregation is justified by Christian principles. The religious attitude of the average Citizens’ Council member is perhaps well expressed by an apocryphal story. At a meeting of one of the newly formed Citizens’ Council groups, to discuss the school segregation issue, a member proposed asking a wellknown minister to advise them. “ There ain’t a bit of use sending for him,”said the chairman. “All he will do is give you the Christian solution.”
Nonetheless, the Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches have proclaimed a Christian policy in support of desegregation. So have many Baptist congregations and ministers (this church has no central authority).
The Southerner, looking objectively at his region, would be happy if he knew how many persons there are who are willing to give the Supreme Court’s decision an honest try. He suspects, on the basis of his knowledge of his people and their Christian faith, that the number is considerable. He knows also that many of these would not willingly undergo a public display and testing of their feelings.
Another development which the Southern newspaper writer honestly seeking to portray his region must face is the demand that “our side” be vigorously presented. Many people insist that it is not. Some argue that the fact of determined and unmoved deep-South opposition is not known to the nation. “Tell them we will die rather than yield ” is a somewhat common statement. “Don’t they know there will be violence?" is another question which must be dealt with and not considered as the cry of a crackpot. There may be some violence, but there are no signs it will be as bad as the more fearful or angry declare.
It is often asserted today that the former “excellent relations” between the races have deteriorated and will worsen. This is, in a general sense, true, but it is more applicable to the smaller cities and towns and the rural areas. And what the average Southerner honestly does not know is that even the average Negro thought there was much lacking and much that was unfair in the excellent relationships that did, and do, exist. Many a sincere, average deep-South Southerner does not know, or refuses to admit, that world forces are at work in the American race problem as they are in Asia and Africa. Somehow, to him, his present harassments are all a sinister business brought on by an organization called the NAACP. He feels that a proper government would put it in jail or order it to go away, and then everything would again be as it was. One of the more unrewarding tasks of a responsible Southern journalist is to interpret local events, when he can, in terms of the world picture.
The plain and really sad truth is that it is difficult to put together “our side” as the more disturbed and angry Southerner means the phrase. The various forms of Citizens’ Councils, which are largely secret, are at present committed to “every legal method” of blocking desegregation. This is the most concrete form of opposition. But as a matter of fact these deeply disturbed persons represent a great accumulation of resentments, of seeming injustices. They want an interpretation of the constitutional phrase about reserving to the states those rights not reserved to the federal government. They have a passionate conviction that Southern traditions are sound and right, and that the North is wrong. The average Southerner really believes that everyone at least privately thinks that separation of the races by law is best for both. His political leaders so often have assured him they would prevent all this from happening. Worse, they were positive it would never happen. Now that it has, they Can do nothing to justify their failure except denounce the White House, the Court, and the “radicals.” The Southerner wishes someone would put all this into compelling form as “our side.” This average Southerner with a deep sense of injustice is not a “bad” man. He wants to be liked. He wants it understood he loves his country — and he does, as he has proved in war and peace. But at present he feels that his country does not love him. And he is sad, angry, resentful, and defiant.
Much of the reporting on the segregation issue and the variety of reaction in the South has contained elements of joylessness and the sense of guilt which occupies so many pages of Southern novelists. It is difficult to see the gleam of the other side of the metal, but it is there. Despite the deep anger, the ranting, the violence, and the pious circumvention, the Southerner who looks in love and hope at his region senses somehow that the great loyalties and deep friendships which the two races have known, will bring his region through. There is evil, but there also is much good. And he does not feel Pollyannish in believing that there is more good than evil in the people of the South, colored and white, just as there is more good than evil in all peoples everywhere.
He will continue in this hope, even though the sound of guerrilla fighting in the tumbled-down walls of the way of life and politics that was, all but drowns out his words.