To Live and Die in Dixie
Is the South ready to discard the legal subterfuge by which 30 per cent of its people have been politically, economically, and culturally handicapped? GERALD W. JOHNSON, distinguished journalist and man of letters, a Southerner by birth and residence, believes the region must and will respond in the affirmative.
BY GERALD W. JOHNSON
AS THE twentieth century swung toward its three-quarter post, the American who felt left furthest behind was probably the citizen of the late Confederacy who was unfortunate enough to be able not only to read the newspapers but to understand something of what was in them.
The ability is not universal, not even, as our semanticist would say, “coterminous” with literacy. All America, but the South especially, seems to be afflicted with great numbers ol citizens who apparently do their reading through spectacles equipped with lenses having a special property ol fluorescence that enables the reader to detect infrared and ultraviolet where nothing appears to the naked eye except prosaic black and white.
These persons are happily free of any feeling of retardation. On the contrary, they are convinced that they move in the van of civilization and are irate when their certainty is questioned. To me they appear to be insane, but they are not unhappy, and who knows? they may be the only sane people in a mad world. There is profound philosophical penetration in the sweet singer’s immortal lines:
He doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron —
My God, perhaps I am!
Nevertheless, irrevocably committed to the illusion that I am sane, I see in the antics of the region of my birth in recent years evidence of a cultural lag appreciably greater than that of the rest of the nation, and to say so is to accuse the South of being far behind indeed. When Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to occupy the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, he retreated behind the year 1877, when President Hayes withdrew the last of the army of occupation; but Eisenhower did so because the stale of Arkansas had retreated behind the year 1833, when President Jackson embalmed, cremated, and buried the doctrine of nullification.
The genesis of this lag is easily detected. In 1868, the year of its ratification, the Fourteenth Amendment bore no more relation to the facts of human experience than the axioms of nonEuclidean geometries bear to them. The South, living of necessity in a factual world and under compulsion to adjust to nonfactual law, resorted to subterfuge as the only way out of the impasse, and the rest of the country, unable to devise any workable alternative, tolerated the subterfuge for many years.
But the departure from candor bore the fruit that it always bears. In the course of time, the South came to believe its own bunk. The grandfather clause was written into the constitutions of various Southern states by men who were perfectly aware of its disingenuousness. It provided that the literacy test might be ignored if the applicant for registration as a voter was a descendant of a citizen qualified to vote before 1867, and its purpose was to disqualify illiterate Negroes — at that time, the great bulk of the Negro population—while admitting illiterate whites to the suffrage.
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It was frankly a device for defeating the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment while apparently complying with the letter of the law. In some cases the quality of this device was kept in mind, and when white illiteracy had been sharply reduced, as in North Carolina in 1908, the grandfather clause, having served its purpose, was abrogated. But in other states it remained until it was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States. By that time, its essential fraudulence had been forgotten and it was regarded by many not as a doubtful expedient to gain time until the Negro could be prepared for full citizenship but as the embodiment of a sacred principle; to wit, the principle that the Negro should not ever be admitted to full citizenship.
Acceptance of a fraud inevitably involves some deterioration of character. In that sentence is compressed the political history ol the South since Reconstruction. Its exegesis is the whole corpus of William Faulkner’s work, admittedly the greatest artistic achievement of the South in this century. The talc that Faulkner tells in many volumes is that the very section in which once the concept of honor was so highly esteemed that for even a fantastic idea of honor men did not hesitate to sacrifice life itself has now accepted fraud for three generations and has become, as one critic put it, “tricky and mean.” It is a tragedy worthy of the novelist’s genius, tragedy on a more than epic scale.
Yet I have never encountered a white Southerner without pride in his heritage. Some no doubt exist, but they are invisible, presumably because they conceal their Southern nativity. For the rest, the danger in which they stand is not that of losing their pride of birth but that of permitting it to swell into a foolish and offensive arrogance. Men whom ambition or economic or professional necessity drove out of the South decades ago still tend to proclaim, rather than to conceal, their origin. Even those who Heel from the intellectual sterility of their early environment realize that its emotional wealth is prodigious; they may be able to think better almost anywhere else, but nowhere else can they feel as intensely, so they are aware that their voluntary exile is not all gain.
On the face of it this is a paradox, and to resolve it should be interesting and possibly instructive. That it can be done completely is incredible, but even a partial resolution may contribute somewhat to a clearer understanding of the continental confusion that is the United States of America today.
THE greatest enemy of the late Confederacy was certainly not Ulysses S. Grant, or even William T. Sherman. They were, in fact, its political and economic liberators — a trifle rough in their methods, careless of life in Grant’s case and of fire in Sherman’s, but in the end highly effective. They had a job to do, and they did it; the modern South has no just cause to regard either with anything but a somewhat grim yet very real respect.
Far more lasting damage was done it by men whom the South adores: at the head of the list, Stephen Collins Foster, the Pennsylvania magician who betrayed the South into hugging the delusion that melody is all in all, in complete disregard of the tonic value — nay, the harsh necessity — of counterpoint. Deceivers of the same kind were orators of Henry Grady’s school and a long procession of literary gents, beginning with John Pendleton Kennedy and culminating in Thomas Nelson Page.
They meant no harm, and, to do them justice, they told no lies. But a lie does not have to be told; by what they did not tell, these fletioneers propagated the titanic lie that Keats has preserved in the amber of great poetry:
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The South believed it, and since the South is beautiful, it developed a complacency that has wreaked more permanent devastation upon it than Sherman perpetrated all the way from Atlanta to Savannah and thence up to Durham Station, where Johnston surrendered. Atlanta was soon rebuilt on a greater and finer scale, and before they died, such great ladies as my old friend Mrs, MacMaster, of Columbia, had acquired other spoons. That damage was temporary. But to this day there remain far too many otherwise intelligent Southerners with an implicit faith that the beauty of the South compensates for all else that it lacks.
Precisionists will promptly argue that when these Southerners say “beautiful,” what they mean is “pretty.” There is some force in the objection, but not much. Even the geographical South defeats it; to call pretty the Valley of Virginia, or the view from Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi, or old Charleston, or the enclosed gardens of New Orleans would be to perpetrate a semantic crime. The magnificence of Daytona Beach, the sullen menace of Hatteras, the Potomac before Mount Vernon, and Old Man River himself command reverence, not delight. Even the magnolia, which cynics have made almost a term of disdain, is superb — somewhat spectral, perhaps, but far beyond mere prettiness.
It is beauty of a different type, however, that worked the ensorcelling of the modern South and, like Vivian’s spell upon Merlin, put its strong magic to sleep. It is the beauty of the legend, informing and irradiating the landscape but distorting the vision and paralyzing the will. It is the fashion of the moment to denigrate that beauty, calling it sickly sentimentalism; but beauty it was, and is, and ever will be — Circean, indeed, but real.
From Kennedy’s Swallow Barn to Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, just a hundred years apart, it has enchanted men of every section and undoubtedly will continue to enchant them as long as the telling of tales delights the human heart. It is, in fact, a recrudescence of the Arthurian legend, of loyalty, love, and derring-do all compact — in short, romance. Tara and Red Rock were never built of brick and stone but of the same dream stuff that composed the walls and towers of Camelot; yet when all is said and done, it is the only building material that is utterly indestructible.
A man from Iowa or Maine can read this legendry with no sense of personal involvement, therefore with no more damage than he sustains from reading the exploits of the Round Table. Who in his right mind would seriously claim blood kinship with Gareth or Pelleas? But in the South, all this is told as of grandfather’s day; it is close, it is intimate: hence, the Southerner is moved by a dangerously strong impulse to maintain the legend, and “that way madness lies.”
Nevertheless, the beauty is there, it is real, and it is imbued with potent sorcery. It involves the three great verities, poverty and love and war, whose acquaintance every man must make if he is to be completely educated; and no amount of abuse by the mawkish and the maudlin can destroy it. The calamity of the modern Southerner is that of Don Quixote — his wits were already lost before the curate arrived to sort out the meretricious from the sound.
But the South is in fact beautiful, whether you construe the South as meaning the land or the legend, and the memory of its beauty grips the emotions of its sons, no matter how long they may have been away. The misfortune is that all too many Southerners believe Keats not only when he says truthfully ‘"that is all ye know%” but also when he lies by adding “and all ye need to know.”
However, nothing absolute can be said of forty million people, not even that they all exist; for within the time that it takes to make the statement some will die and others will be born. Not all Southerners have succumbed to Vivian’s spell, and relatively few have succumbed entirely. O. Henry’s former Confederate colonel turned editor of The Rose of Dixie is a recognizable type that survives to this day, but even fifty years ago his obsession with the legendary South was recognized as an oddity which was not to be taken seriously.
As recently as the spring of 1960, the British critic D. W. Brogan considered it worthy of note that, although when he began reading American history as a boy in Scotland he sided wuth the South, after he became a mature man he realized that “the right side won” the Civil War. As I am some years older than Mr. Brogan, it may interest him to learn that, as a boy in North Carolina, I heard and heeded an uncle who had served the Confederacy faithfully and well but who told me, “Yes, they had more men, and more artillery, and more rations, and more everything else, but, boy, don’t you ever believe that that was what whipped us. We lost that war because God Almighty had decreed that slavery had to go.”
Mr. Brogan is quite right in noting that, although the legalists, citing Abraham Lincoln as their chief witness, have proved conclusively that slavery was not the issue, the fact remains that the war was about slavery because the legal issue, secession, arose out of slavery. But Mr. Brogan is quite wrong in assuming that the South had not realized that as early as fifty years ago. It was known in North Carolina that the right side won, even when boys in Scotland were still siding with the South.
THE argument against the South that would be conclusive, if it were sustained by fact, is that having appealed to the arbitrament of the sword, the South refused to abide by the judgment it had invited, and so was forsworn. But the argument is only doubtfully sustained by the fact. The undisputed fact is that the judgment was that slavery had to go, and it went. Even the furiously reviled Black Codes of Mississippi and Louisiana did not attempt to re-establish legal slavery and were less rigorous than the apartheid legislation of South Africa ninety years later. If the North, victorious but stung by grievous wounds, imposed, after hostilities had ceased, new conditions not nominated in the bond, who was then forsworn? It is a pretty question, one that has given Southern casuists their opportunity.
After so many years, however, even to admit the argument to debate is casuistry in the pejorative sense. Attempts at the attribution of blame hinder, do not help, the search for a solution of current problems, most of them arising from the refusal of the South to grant the Negro all the rights and privileges appertaining to the status of first-class citizenship.
Note well the phraseology: “to grant him the rights” — not “to recognize his status”; for the latter is a refusal based on the simple and solid fact that, taken in the mass, the Negro is not a first-class citizen. There is no convincing evidence that he is biologically inferior, but even Gunnar Myrdal admits that there is every evidence that he is culturally inferior. Two hundred and fifty years of bondage have left their mark, which ninety-five years of freedom have not erased.
The casuists of the South contend that this is in itself evidence of the Negro’s irremovable inferiority. Those of the North contend as fiercely that it is evidence only of the irremediable wickedness of the white South. Both contentions are empty gabble, innocent of logical consistency or historical perspective. Logically, the existence of this republic can be justified only on the assumption that the status of a freeman is favorable to the development of political competence; were it not so, we should have done better to adhere to some other system. Historically, Runnymede, starting point of the English-speaking peoples’ struggle for political liberty, is nearly seven hundred and fifty years in the past; yet he who thinks that we have perfected our competence is an optimist indeed. Shall we then brand the Negro as inferior because he has not accomplished in ninety-five years what the white man has not completed in more than seven centuries? Or shall we brand the white South as wicked because it has not performed the miracle of endowing another race with qualities it is still struggling to develop in its own character?
Citing individual exceptions is no rebuttal. Certainly to call Ralph Bunche a second-class citizen would be as preposterous as to call King Arthur a second-class Briton. Thurgood Marshall is a first-rate lawyer, Marian Anderson a first-rate artist, and so it goes down a long and scintillant roster. But these are examples of what the Negro is capable of becoming, not of what he presently is; and what he presently is determines his influence upon the situation existing here and now.
The difficulty of the South is that, although it sees clearly enough what is directly before it, its distant vision is blurred. It is weak in applying the logic of its own experience to test the hypothesis now presented. It is beyond belief that many Southerners will concede that their political history since 1776 has been so complete a failure that they have made no advance in the art of selfgovernment. It may be admitted that they have produced no masters of the theory of government superior to Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Clay, and Calhoun, but the masses certainly know more about the management of public affairs than their great-great-grandfathers knew, and the development of their skill they owe to long practice under political freedom.
The hypothesis now presented is that the same conditions will produce in Negroes the same effect. The method of testing it is, of course, to proceed as if it were true. The objection to applying that method is the necessity of risking the whole social structure upon the outcome. For this a courage is requisite that to many Southerners seems temerity, not to say foolhardiness. Their opinion is perfectly honest and could be correct. The sole answer to their objection is Dan ton’s advice to the Convention, that audacity is the only way out.
Above and beyond all this, there is a psychological, or perhaps a biological, block, ignored by the thoughtless, but formidable nevertheless. It is the primeval impulse, not monopolized by man but shared by bird and beast and creeping thing, to equate “alien” and “enemy.” Jeremiah, who antedates the Confederacy by a very considerable time, took note of the speckled bird that “the birds round about are against her.” Whatever is not of our kind is ipso facto objectionable, and a definite exercise of the intelligence is required to neutralize the repugnance. The Negro merely by his coloration is, of all other races, the one most completely alien to the white man, hence the one surest to arouse — and to reciprocate — this ancient hostility. The primitive, or in ordinary parlance, the natural relation of black and white is one of dislike.
This is no defense, but it is a partial explanation of such policies as segregation. Morality may be defined as the conscious suppression of destructive biological urges, and the advance of civilization is measured by the success of that suppression, so the appearance of any instinctive reaction is a slip backward toward Neanderthal man. But that such reactions do appear constantly is attested by trials everywhere and every day for homicide, theft, rape, and abduction. It will be a very long time before they are eliminated. Race prejudice will not be eliminated soon; the hope is not to eliminate it but to prevent its expression in race injustice, at least as far as the forms of law are concerned.
The theory cherished by idealists that race prejudice is exclusively the product of miseducation and bad environment is only about 90 per cent true. There is a residue that can be traced back certainly into prehistory, and the attitude of the animals toward a variant strongly suggests that it can be traced back into prehumanity. However well suppressed, the thing exists, in Detroit as certainly as in New Orleans, in Massachusetts as in South Carolina. Latent everywhere, it needs only a certain combination of evil chances to become manifest. And its existence is one more complication added to the other troubles of the South.
THIS adds up to a dismal sum. The odds are plainly against the South, and if the region survives as more than a mere Boeotia, as an effective participant in American civilization, it will be only by dint of bitter travail, for it contends against itself as well as against adverse outward circumstance. The passions and frailties common to all humanity are doubly dangerous to the South, made so by the peculiar course of its history; while it must also contend with all the dangers and difficulties that bring woe to other regions, because they are inherent in the democratic process.
What, then, is the reason, if there is a rational reason, for a Southerner’s pride in his birthplace? Why, its difficulties, of course.
“I,” said Saint Paul when they taunted him with being a nobody from nowhere, “am a citizen of no mean city.” Every Southerner knows how he felt. We are sons of a land that has paid its way. For a century, in fact, it has been paying not only its own debt but that of the whole nation, first incurred in 1619 when that Dutch ship of evil omen cast anchor off Jamestown and, among other items, sold the Virginia colonists “twenty negurs”; and that was augmented for the next hundred years by the middle passage of New England shipmasters, running rum to Africa, bringing slaves to Southern ports, and thence carrying molasses to Medford to make more rum.
For their part in that crime the North and the West were let off at the price of four years of blood and agony a century ago. But the South paid that price, and in addition to it, ten years of military occupation, thirty years of poverty and grinding toil, ninety years of harassment, anxiety, frustration, and moral deterioration. The South has been granted no favors. The South has paid in full.
Every historian is aware that, up to about the year 1900, it labored in economic thralldoin under a fiscal system that exploited it ruthlessly for the profit of the industrialized sections, but that loss was merely monetary. Far more galling to intelligent Southerners has been the inevitable result of the acceptance of fraud as a legitimate device in politics. Heaven knows, fraud is no stranger to the politics of any part of the country, but elsewhere it enters furtively and is killed by exposure. It is a vice that pays to virtue the tribute of hypocrisy. But in the South the grandfather clause and, later, innumerable tricky registration laws were adopted for the open and avowed purpose of doing indirectly what the Constitution forbade being done directly. Political leaders otherwise of good repute publicly justified this course, and in order to sustain it did not hesitate to appeal to every villainous prejudice and passion in the lowest elements of society.
The inevitable result was the reduction of the political process to a level so ruffianly that it became a national scandal, and this in the very region that in the early days had produced more brilliant thinkers on the art of government than came from any other part of the country. The South that had once graced the halls of Congress with Pinckneys, Randolphs, Clays, and Calhouns now sent Heflins, Bleases, Bilbos, and Eastlands. The South that had given to the presidency the Virginia dynasty — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe — could furnish only one President in ninety-five years, and that one by first having him processed by twenty years’ residence in New Jersey.
The South has paid in money. It has paid in toil and trouble and anxiety and humiliation. But it has paid in full, and it still survives. More than that, even as it staggered under its backbreaking load, it has accomplished a feat unparalleled in the history of the white race. In less than a century, it has brought a formerly illiterate and servile population numbering many millions from tutelage to a point so close to the van of civilization that they are now ready to assume the most difficult citizenship in the world, that of responsible members of a selfgoverning nation that is also a great power.
In this, the white South did indeed have assistance, but not from the victors of the Civil War. It was the assistance of the Southern Negro himself, who wrought the major part of his own transformation and therefore is entitled to the major part of the credit. But not to all. The ignorance, prejudice, and stupidity that would have blocked the Negro’s advance have always been combated valiantly and not without success by Southern whites.
The very Alabama that produced lom-tom Heflin also produced, and in the same generation, Edgar Gardner Murphy. The same Georgia that is in socage to the Talmadges also tolerates Ralph McGill. “Our Bob” Reynolds flourished in North Carolina, but so did Howard W. Odum, and so do Frank P. Graham and Jonathan Daniels. If it can ever pay off its debt to the past, the South still has the germ plasm to produce great men, and they will be tempered and toughened by the tribulation through which they have come.
With the eyes of a child I once saw the process at work, although it was many years before I understood what I had seen. At the age of perhaps ten, I was one midsummer noon at the house of a kinsman when he came in to dinner from the cornfield where he had been stripping fodder, one of the nastiest jobs attached to farming in those days. This man had taken his degree at the University of North Carolina just in time to spend the ensuing four years as a trooper in Wheeler’s Cavalry, C.S.A. But as he stepped up on the back porch that clay there was nothing about him suggestive of either the scholar or the soldier. The oven heat of the cornfield had had sweat rolling off him all morning, and the black soil’s powdery dust had settled and caked until he was inky except for his teeth and the whites of his eyes. On the shady porch I pumped, and he held his head and then his arms under the spout for a long time before it became evident that he was actually a white man.
But his comment on his own state has rung in my ears ever since. When he had mopped his face and was toweling his hands and arms, he looked at me with a sardonic grin and broke into the thundering strophes of one of the Georgies of Virgil: O fortunatos nimiurn, sua si bona norint, agricolas —O most happy farmers, if only they knew their good fortune!
The small boy was merely startled by the rolling Latin measures, but an aging man knows now that he had there before his eyes the South triumphant. The soldier had returned from the war ruined, like everybody else. Like everybody else, he had moiled through thirty years of a depression that made the episode in Hoover’s time a trifle by comparison. Not for his own fault, but by the ruin of his country, he had been sentenced to hard labor for the term of his natural life, with small hope of ever achieving ease, none of achieving luxury. Yet in the stifling heat of the cornfield, in a land of poverty and defeat, so far was he from broken that the ear of his mind could hear a great poet singing and his stc it heart could laugh at the absurdity of human fate.
The small boy gaped, but the aging man remembers how Desdemona found “ ‘twas strange . . . ‘twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. She wish’d she had not heard it . . . yet she wish’d that heaven had made her such a man.” I, too, Desdemona, would to God I were such a man!
But he was my kinsman. However far 1 may fall short of his strength, we are of the same blood, of the same origin, we are of the South. Therefore, I would be ashamed to fall into despair because the rising generation in our land is hard put to it to cope with the same problem, unchanged except in the degree of its urgency. Time is running out, and the South must not oniy lift itself by its own bootstraps, but lift suddenly. The problem is what it has always been — to raise 30 per cent of the population, now handicapped, to the level of the rest, politically, economically, and culturally; the change is that it must be done more quickly than most of us had believed was imperatively necessary.
But to accomplish the feat, the white South must first lift itself to a moral and intellectual level higher than it has ever attained, or than has been attained by any dominant race anywhere in the world. It is a formidable task. It is so formidable that the Southern lower classes — lower, even though some have millions and pedigrees of enormous length — have shrunk back and renounced it. But the lower classes have always failed in every great emergency, so Faubus and Eastland and Talmadge are not of any great significance. The men who will count are the saving minority, unbroken and unbreakable, men who can respond to a challenge after the fashion of sturdy old Pierre-Samuel, the original Du Pont de Nemours. In 1816, when a swarm of troubles seemed about to overwhelm the new republic, he wrote to his old friend Jefferson: “We are but snails, and we have to climb the Andes. By God, we must climb!”
The South will climb. A romantic illusion? Possibly, but a living faith at this moment, nevertheless, and one not destroyed by reports from Little Rock, or even Poplarville, not shaken when presumably sane men talk of interposition, of concurrent majorities, of the compact theory of the Constitution. For it is precisely by wrestling and overthrowing the giants of madness and despair that the thews and sinews of the South will regain their old-time power, endowing it with the moral and intellectual vigor to become again the great instructor in political philosophy that it was when our history as a nation began.
I am a Southerner, and I wish the fact to be known; for the land of my birth is right now enduring the discipline that makes a nation great. So, in the midst of its current tribulation, I can think of it as my toil worn kinsman did, and can echo his chant: 0 fortunatos nimium, O most happy, land!