Most things, public things, happen and go by and you forget about them, but not the Mississippi riots. Not for me, anyway, and I don’t suppose I’m alone. There must be other Americans who find those faces in their minds as I do—flickering, twisted faces on last September’s television screens and still there, still staring. You wonder why.
Not, I’m pretty sure, for the usual reason, the reason we’ve decided to give ourselves: not because we were shocked by the open defiance of the law. Southern segregationists, including Southern segregationist lawyers, including Southern segregationist lawyers who have actually read law, have been shouting defiance of the law for years, declaring that the Congress is the sole lawmaking body under the Constitution, that when the Congress means by its laws is for every citizen to decide for himself according to his locality and his inclination, and that the interpretations of the laws by the federal courts in general, and by the Supreme Court in particular, are irrelevant, impertinent, and immaterial, Marbury v. Madison and its innumerable successors to the contrary notwithstanding.
I am not suggesting that anyone outside the foggier bayous of Alabama or Louisiana or South Carolina or Mississippi has taken these contentions seriously. I am merely noting that we had heard them before the Oxford riots as we had heard, too, that the doctrine of nullification is till sound doctrine, that John C. Calhoun is the father and fountain of pure constitutional thought, and that the Civil War has been repealed. What was said in Jackson, in other words, and shouted at Oxford was not new and could scarcely have astonished us. Most of it, indeed, went back a hundred years or more. An anonymous professor at the University of Mississippi told the New York Times that “sources of information on the thinking of the rest of the nation were shut off” in 1830, at which time “the state’s leaders ceased to react to public issues in terms of established fact but were governed instead by the orthodox view,” and, in brief, “stopped thinking.”
The date may surprise us. It is difficult—or is it?—to think of Faulkner, who spent his life in Mississippi, writing out of a deepfreeze a century old. But the argument itself sounds plausible. A state in which a decision of the highest American court can seriously be called a “Communist conspiracy” must necessarily be a state which has been out of touch with history for a rather long time. And a local mentality which can actually read, to say nothing of write, pronouncements like those which appeared in the Clarion Leader and Jackson Daily News at the time of the riots is obviously a mentality which only the Boston fudge manufacturer who invented the John Birch Society could regard as in any sense contemporaneous.
The same thing may be said of the violence which pronouncements such as these excited. That, too, should have been foreseen. Elsewhere in the Republic one might be surprised to find a governor who approved the lawlessness he was sworn to suppress, but not in Mississippi, where there were two kinds of law. And elsewhere one might be shocked by state police officers who deserted federal officials in a situation of obvious and increasing danger, but not in Mississippi, where federal officials and state policemen are on opposite sides. Once an entire state has seceded from history—which is, in a sense, to secede from reason—almost anything can happen. Even Ross Barnett. Even the sudden and inexplicable timidity of Ross Barnett’s state police.
But if the governor of Mississippi was foreseeable in the light of his history or lack of it, and if the defiance was familiar, what was it that astonished us in Oxford? Why were we shocked into silence by that Sunday’s news? Why did we spend the days and nights that followed fiddling with our television sets, watching the faces of little crowds of students on the university campus, following the slight, grave figure of the man who was the center of it all as he moved in and out of doors and corridors with federal marshals at his side and jeers and spitting catcalls in his ears? Why is it that those scenes come back and back and the heart sinks and a heavy apprehension which was not there before—was never, as long as I can remember, there before?
I think, for myself, what shocked me, sickened me was the black pit of public hatred into which I looked. I had known, of course, that racial hatred existed in this country as it exists elsewhere. I could hardly have helped but know it after the events of my own lifetime. But, whether because of the kind of life I have lived or because of some failure of my own understanding, I had always thought of this hatred as something exceptional, something transient, something which would disappear with the illiteracy and poverty and ignorance out of which it came.
I knew, of course, that there were presumably educated and visibly well-to-do men and women in the South and elsewhere who looked down on Negroes, because I had met such men and women. I knew there were college graduates with enough intelligence to write books who believed, or said they believed, that all Negroes are biologically inferior to all whites. I realized there were people who called themselves Christians who knew that God intended the black man to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water to the white man, any white man of any qualifications or none—particularly none. But I also believed these people to be what they so obviously were—waifs and strays from the great process of history who needed to find somebody or other to look down on in order to look up to themselves. And I never doubted that in an actual test between these petulant opinions on the one side and the Republic on the other the opinions would wither away in shame and disappear. But what happened in Oxford was that they did not wither away. They stared back at you out of young men’s faces ugly with spite. They spat back at you out of the faces of middle-aged men whose words would have been incredible if you had not heard them. And it was the Republic which gave ground. In spite of the decisiveness of the President and the courage of the marshals, it was the Republic which gave ground.
For the real confrontation in Mississippi was not a confrontation between federal marshals and a mob. It was not a confrontation between the President of the United states and the local governor. It was not even a confrontation between the Constitution and the doctrine of nullification. It was a confrontation between the Republic itself, the great idea on which the Republic is founded, and the one idea which may, someday, destroy it.
“All politics,” as Valéry once said, “presupposes an idea of man.” But only the United States, among the nations of history, was brought into being by an explicit and reasoned idea of man to stand. It is not the second of July, 1776, when the thirteen colonies declared themselves absolved all allegiance to the British crown, which we celebrate as our national anniversary. It is the fourth day of July. And it is the fourth day of July because America, as the delegates to the Continental Congress well understood, did not begin with the repudiation of British rule. It began with the assertion of the American idea. And it was on the fourth that the American idea was spelled out. At the beginning of the Revolution and down through the first bloodshed at Lexington and Concord there had been no talk of independence and no desire for it. What the Colonists was British liberty in America. Only when the Tory ministers made it clear that there would be no British liberty in America, that liberty, if the Colonists were to have it, must be American liberty, did independence became a national objective, and even then independence was a means rather than an end. Liberty was still the prime concern, and until American liberty was defined—a new liberty for a new people in a new world—America had not begun.
It was for no sentimental or idealistic reason, in other words, that the old fathers celebrated the American festival not on the anniversary of American independence but on the anniversary of the declaration of the American idea. For the American idea, quite literally and realistically, is America. If we had not held these truths to be self-evident, if we had not believed that all men are created equal, if we had not believed that they are endowed, all of them, with certain unalienable rights, we would never have become America, whatever else we might have become.
But if this is what America is, then it is less difficult perhaps to understand why Oxford shocked us, for what looked out of those flickering faces was the antithesis of America—the passionate repudiation of the American proposition, and thus the implicit rejection of America itself. What we saw in those faces, heard in those words, was not hatred of James Meredith. Not a single member of the mob could have told you what he looked like. He was a Negro, and that was enough. But to hate a man because he is a Negro is to hate an abstraction. And to hate an abstraction is to hate an idea. And to hate the particular idea the mob at Oxford hated is to deny America. For the idea those young men and those old men hated was precisely and literally the idea on which this Republic was founded, the idea that any man may claim his equal manhood in this country, his unalienable right. What the mob at Oxford hated was the intolerable idea that this different human being should claim a manhood equal to their own.
Insurrection, a congressman called the Oxford riots. And insurrection they were in the strict legal sense of that term—a revolt against lawful authority. But to those who still love this republic they were far worse than insurrection; they were subversion. And not subversion in the current witch-hunting sense, which sniffs with terror at every dissenting view, but subversion in the honest meaning of that word—subversion of the country itself. For America cannot survive if the American idea is repudiated. Nations are not made by territory, or the greatness of nations by extent of land. Nations are made by commitments of mind and loyalties of heart, and the nobler the commitment of the mind, the higher the loyalty of the heart, the greater the nation. If the American proposition is no longer the proposition to which the American heart and mind were committed at our beginning, then America is finished, and the only question left is when America will fall.
Not soon, you will say. We survived for the first three generations of our history with slaves and masters, and thereafter we survived for a century with segregation and lynchings and all the rest of it, and as for the American idea, it is not our treatment of Negroes alone which has menaced it. Millions of Americans whose forebears came to the United States in the last century and the beginning of this came from countries where the American idea was strange and outlandish and where even the basic conception of self-government was unknown, with the result that there are pockets of opinion in the country even now in which the right of a citizen to exercise his American privilege—to make up his own mind for himself and say what he thinks—is deprecated; where censorship flourishes. All this, of course, is true. The American idea has had to struggle for survival for close to two hundred years, and not always against lynch mobs and White Citizens Committees.
But there is a great difference, notwithstanding, between ignorance of the American idea or misconception of it or even indifference to it on the one side, and denial, denunciation of it on the other. The woman who tries to expurgate her local library of books she does not like and to tell her fellow citizens what they may believe or learn regards herself as a good American—usually as a better American than anyone else. But the man who attempts to deprive other men of the equality of manhood to which the American idea entitles them has no illusions about himself or his relation to the American proposition. Hatred comes first with him, and everything else comes after—including his country’s laws, his country’s order, and his country itself.
No, it was not the openness of the defiance of the law that shocked me. It was the openness of the hatred, the open recklessness as to the effect of the hatred on anything or everything—United States marshals. United States troops, and the fundamental moral and human belief in which and by which the United States exists. Like a tragedy in which the clown prepares the scene, the great American drama of belief in man moved toward collision with the contempt for man which is its opposite. And before the night was over the people of the United States and of the world—but most immediately the people of the United States—had learned that a considerable body of Americans reject, violently reject, the American idea.
It was a sobering realization and one that should continue to be sobering for a long time to come. Before the Oxford riots we had been aware that our actions as a people did not always chime with our words. Our words described us as an open society, a free world, a bulwark of liberty. Our actions sometimes confessed that there were many Americans to whom our society was not open, many Americans to whom our world was not altogether free, many Americans whose liberty had fences around it. But our distress in these contradictions was more embarrassment than anything else. They lost us propaganda battles, and occasionally they made us feel like fools, but we were sure of ourselves notwithstanding—sure of our own integrity and sure, above all, that our hypocrisy was nothing compared with the hypocrisy of the Russians and the Chinese, to whom peace means war, conquest is called liberation, and democracy is the state police. Oxford changed all that. Oxford was not a mere propaganda victory for our enemies. Oxford was a defeat for ourselves.
The question which haunts us now is how it came about. Was it an aberration, a local flaw in the fabric of the Republic, a defect in the Mississippians attributable to their peculiarly parochial history? Or was it a larger fault, a graver fault, in some sense the fault of all of us? This is a question every man must answer for himself, but nevertheless must answer. To me, it seems the fault of all of us, for all of us seem to me guilty, in one degree or another, of the neglect out of which it came. I mean our neglect as a nation, as a people, of our own purpose, our own concern, in our obsession with the purpose, the concerns, of other nations, other peoples. For fifteen years, almost twenty, we have allowed the purposes, the plans, the maneuvers of the Communist countries to dominate our attention to such a point that we have all but forgotten what we mean for ourselves, what we propose for ourselves, what we intend. Where once the test of loyalty in an American was his love for his own cause, the test has now become what we call his “anti-Communism”—meaning his hatred of the Russian cause, that iron religion which the Russians would like to impose on the world.
That we should detest Communism is natural and inevitable. But that we should make the detestation of Communism the test of our own loyalty to our own intentions is neither natural nor inevitable nor even intelligent. A nation which define itself in terms of what it is not inevitably begins to forget what it is. And a nation which forgets what it is is a dying nation. What “anti-Communism,” as the great American slogan, produces is not the triumph of America. What it produces is organizations like the John Birch Society and people like the California fanatics who were recently intent on rewriting the California constitution in the image of the late Senator McCarthy.
What it produces is the Oxford mob. For Oxford would have been impossible if the students in that mob who shouted “Communist” at the United States marshals had been brought up in a generation which believed not in anti-Communism but in America; a generation which understood that the American idea is not a rhetorical proposition but a realizable cause, the greatest and most powerful of all political cause, a cause which has no need to express itself in hatred for something else but only in affirmation of itself.
There is a moment and there are words in our history which prove that statement. The moment was the darkest our people have ever known, the great division which brought about civil war. The words are words spoken by Mr. Lincoln at Independence Hall in Philadelphia as he traveled to Washington for his inauguration as President of a divided land. It was at Independence Hall that the Union which was now about to fall had been created. But how, he asked, had it been created? What was it that had made the Union? What had held those different states so long together? Mr. Lincoln had often inquired of himself, he said, what “great principle or idea it was.” And here in Philadelphia he thought he found the answer. “It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all men should have an equal chance.”
What had created the Republic, in other words, was an idea, a principle. And it was that idea, that principle which alone could save it now. Many of those who listened to him then, like many of those who hear his words today, may well have thought that an idea, a principle was a poor defense in the dreadful struggle which lay ahead. But Lincoln, having found his answer, never doubted it. Two years later, when the war was all but lost, when by defeat after defeat and Great Britain was on the point of recognizing the South, he put his faith to the test of action. He emancipated the slaves, political and constitutional cause to the cause affirmed in the Declaration of Independence, ended once and for all the danger of British recognition of the slaveholding South, and saved the Union.
What we might perhaps he asking ourselves as we look back on Oxford, Mississippi, today and out over the Gulf toward Cuba and on toward the infinite dangers and difficulties which lie ahead is whether we have been wise to put our trust not in our love but in our fear, whether we should not listen even now to the man who knew this country better than any other ever has and find our future and our safety where he found it.