Still, It's Home
Many Southerners who came of age in the '60s will identify instantly with Curtis Wilkie's Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the South. For whites of conscience in the region, as it was for much of America during the era, Wilkie's story hits home. The innocent and comfortable unawareness of childhood in Mississippi turns into a gnawing discomfort about the injustice of segregation, a discomfort that is followed by a life-transforming revelation.
For Wilkie, a child of Summit, Miss., who later became a reporter with The Boston Globe (and a fixture in Washington for a number of years), his transformation occurred during college in upstate New York, where he felt obliged to explain and defend to fellow students from the Northeast a system about which he had already grown uncomfortable. "I did not acknowledge my shifting beliefs to anyone, but at Lake George, in my twenty-first year, I finally accepted the idea that my homeland's customs were unjust, and I began to see the senselessness of Southern resistance," he writes.
That moment of self-realization turned a familiar universe into a distant and uncomfortable place. His world before had been the polite coexistence of decent people in a small Southern town. "Although I had been taught by my parents to eschew racial epithets and to treat colored people respectfully, our household abided by segregationist codes," Wilkie recalls. "While I made a point of shaking hands with Negro men—and felt self-satisfied that I was making a generous gesture because many whites felt it beneath their dignity to do so—I never thought of inviting a colored person into my home; I knew no one well enough to do so, anyway."
Like many Southerners who struggled with conscience and the sad reality around them, Wilkie embarked on a now-familiar course: He got out of the South. He became a newspaper correspondent, first for the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal and then for The Globe.
During Wilkie's reporting career, his Southern roots and experiences—and his politics—at times led him to be more judgmental than insightful. One instance came as he covered Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign. When a black activist attempted to integrate Carter's Baptist church in Plains, deacons canceled morning worship services. Wilkie was furious with Carter, whom he believed was lying when the candidate denied knowing in advance what would happen, and with the deacons. "The Baptists," Wilkie declared, "had held back the South for a hundred years, and now they were about to destroy the region's hope to regain political parity."
Carter, Wilkie thought, had been equivocal in condemning the deacons. Later, after a stumping trip on the West Coast, Carter and reporters gathered around a piano that had been hauled onto the plane and sang. One of the songs was "We Shall Overcome." Writes Wilkie: "Hearing it brought back memories of the civil rights movement,and I didn't feel comfortable standing alongside Carter."
The shining parts of Wilkie's story are his reflections on the conversion of a Southern boy vaguely uncomfortable with the inequality surrounding him—and, years later, his acceptance of his homeland, to which he has now returned.
Wilkie writes honestly; he makes himself neither larger than life, nor nobler nor more astute than he was at the time—a potential temptation when one is recollecting one's place in the South of the civil rights era. There's something satisfying and wholesome about the story of Wilkie's journeys. He has come to terms with all things Southern—except, that is, Baptists and Republicans.
His view of the GOP was fixed in his formative Mississippi years. "Since I had failed to be a brave advocate for civil rights, I was determined not to show the same weakness on the [Vietnam] War issue," he writes. The antiwar activism led him, while working as a newspaper reporter in Clarksdale, Miss., to join an insurgent delegation that successfully challenged Mississippi's official representatives at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Wilkie supported the antiwar candidate, Eugene McCarthy.
His distaste for Republicans appears to have boiled over during the Nixon years. "From the disgruntled ranks of the Citizens Council and the ambitious orders of the Jaycees, Nixon's agents recruited the leadership for a new, indigenous Republican Party in the South. In many locales, the GOP chairmen were glib, well-scrubbed lawyers who knew better than to use racial insults in public. But in some peckerwood counties, the Republican converts held views so extreme that they were merely scrubbed-up equivalents of the Ku Klux Klan.
"The party was built with Babbitts and boosters, doctrinaire conservatives and fundamentalist preachers, American Legionnaires and ladies from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, used-car salesmen and closet racists."
Strong stuff! Even cur dogs get better press.
This book, I suspect, was written to fulfill a promise made to another Mississippian who had made a similar life journey, Willie Morris, author of North Toward Home. Over drinks, Morris had urged Wilkie to write a book about coming back home—and had scrawled four proposed titles on the back of a blank check. The first was "Code Word: Dixie." The second was "Dixie." The other two were the liquor talking. Morris had also written two suggestions that Wilkie includes in his book: "Shit-head right-wingers in tuxedos." And "A squalid arrogance." The subject of the evening's round of drinking had, no doubt, been those damn Republicans.