A Southern Point of View
It is common practice among Southern spokesmen to refer to the "Southern point of view." Our capitol in Atlanta resounds with speeches which say that all Georgians agree. And it is always stated or implied that what they all agree on is that our present system of a legally racially segregated society is best.
With the threat of closed public schools, it has now become "realistic" to admit that, though there may still be doubt as to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court over the state of Georgia, ' we should act as though the jurisdiction were legal rather than shut down all our schools. It has become "courageous" to accept token integration rather than have our children denied schools. All this realism and this courage, it is made quite clear, go against the Southern point of view. I am a Southerner. From my point of view, not only does the U.S. Supreme Court have jurisdiction over Georgia, but the school decision was a correct one. Our schools are separate but not equal, and even if they were, legal racial segregation has no place in a democracy. It is a hangover from slavery. Historically it can be explained in the South, but it cannot be justified from my Southern point of view.
I am tired of justification by comparison. "But it is really so much worse in the North. Look at Chicago. And what about South Africa?" I do not set my standards of morality by what others do, in the North or in Chicago or in South Africa. I set them by what I believe in my heart, and I do believe in my heart that segregation is a disease that infects all parts of a being, human or political. It is a germ from which I should like to protect my children as much as possible, regardless of its virulence in other places.
My Southern point of view cannot accept the argument that a school board increases its effectiveness in administering a law by ignoring it until forced to obey by a court order. "They had to wait until court action, and they had to contest the suit," I am told. Why? I do not see that reluctance to enforce the law necessarily increases public support for those who are finally forced to abide by the law, or that it increases respect for other laws among adults or among youths.
I have heard these officials defended by those who "do not believe in segregation either" on the grounds that ignoring the law is a necessary political move, presumably to gain support of those citizens who prefer that the law be disobeyed. The implication is that the majority of citizens fall into this category. But I believe that there are many Southerners who expect their public officials to honor their oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
I do not agree with the "realistic liberals," who daily play the game which has as its primary rule: To he influential you must stay in the group. What influence do we have if we constantly yield to the pressure of "This is not the time. It would cause trouble"? Above all else, the group says, one must not cause trouble. The chorus goes like this: "We would have no objections, but others might. We might lose members. We might lose business. We might lose an organization." They never seem to consider that by positive action we might gain a soul, and there are many lost souls in the South today.
I resent the time and effort this problem which we create for ourselves takes from constructive efforts to solve more demanding problems that are not of our own making. At every point in the life of the community, these questions rise to plague us. Shall we admit Negroes? Where could we meet? Whom would we offend? The easy way out is to say that the Negroes prefer it this way and that they do not want to come to our affairs. I do not presume to know the minds of any group of citizens. No doubt many Negroes would not be interested. But I would let any citizen choose to participate or not according to his interests, not according to law or class.
Let me list from my personal experience a few examples of the dilemma facing liberals.
We have elected a Negro to the board of education, but it is difficult for civic groups to arrange meetings at places to which all members of the board may be admitted. The resources of a state educational institution are at the disposal of citizens in planning community projects if only the white population of the community participates. A United Fund agency has a fine International Club, where foreign students are invited to come and meet American students. Negro students are invited if they are from foreign countries, but not if they are Americans. In this instance, American birth seems to be a liability.
A local civic group interested in international affairs votes to affiliate with a national organization, a member of the national board of which is a local resident. He is also a college president and a Negro. He is expected not to attend local meetings. (He hardly would have time anyway, inasmuch as he travels a great deal representing our country on foreign missions.)
And what about private lives? There is no law that I know of regulating whom I may have in my home, but here in the South one always wonders about what the neighbors will think. "Will they understand?" Understand what? That I like some people and not others, but not on the basis of the color of their hair, or their eyes, or their skin? That I want my children to have an opportunity to know other Americans, as well as visitors from India, Pakistan, Germany, and Australia? At our local, integrated Unitarian-Universalist Church, my child has a Negro classmate with whom she has developed a strong friendship. The friend's father is a university professor, honored in his profession, chosen to assist in the planning of the 1960 White House Conference on Youth. But when his daughter comes to see my daughter, they do not go to the corner drugstore. I am not sure what would happen, and so I keep making excuses when asked point-blank, "May we go?"
"You are too sudden," I am told. "Don't try to change things overnight." Eighteen sixty to nineteen sixty: "sudden"? Nineteen fifty-four to nineteen sixty: "deliberate speed"? Our spokesmen say that others do not understand our problems. What is there to understand in a plan to give up all schools rather than admit one Negro child to one "white" school? Substitute "Hungarian and Russian" for "Negro and white," and would we call it democracy? Substitute "Jew and German" for "Negro and white"; would we call it democracy?
No matter how big our other problems are, we evidently feel that none is as great as accepting the fact of certain children's sitting down together to learn.
In a federal court I listened to the judge announce that, by his order, henceforth there were to be no more white and Negro schools in Atlanta. But the fact remains that all the Negroes are assigned to certain schools and all whites to other schools, and all the teachers end up in the same fashion. Even as we talk of possible desegregation, we speak in terms of a Negro child's asking for a transfer to a "white" school, though the judge has said there are no specifically white schools any more.
Week in and week out, at luncheon meetings, we salute the flag and pledge "liberty and justice for all." We do not have to meet the eyes of the Negro waiters, who are standing in the back, for our eyes are looking forward at the flag.
While we meet and eat, we are likely to endorse crash programs to improve the facilities and the treatment of our mentally ill, who are increasing in numbers each year. Yet how can we avoid split personalities, delusions of grandeur, flights from reality as individuals when we indulge in them as a society?
I have sat in the gallery of the state capitol and listened to the governor (several governors, in fact) and the legislators repeat, like a broken record, "We will never — never — never —" And I have wondered, What are they afraid of? Is it just habit? Do they think this is what is expected of them by the people? And do the people, hearing their officials, think the safe thing to do is to repeat after them, each following the other, round and round like a dog chasing his tail?
I am weary of the chase. I can no longer live with my own silence. I am tired of wondering what the neighbors will think. I would declare to the whole world, including my neighbors, that from my point of view democracy is a serious and wonderful thing, that it must be lived as well as believed in, that the game of "I don't mind, but I thought you did" is a vicious circle that binds and restricts and stunts minds and hearts, that if to thine own self thou art not true, thou canst not then be true to any man.
There is another Southerner whose view I would accept as my own. That Southerner is George Washington. The words are "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair." The standard is the Constitution of the United States.