Human Rights and the South
By Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, pp. 3-5, 28
In the closing months of the pre-atomic age, the Southern Regional Council was formed out of conviction that race was the central issue of the South. Though it may seem to us that nearly all else has changed during the hectic decades since, I doubt that race has yet yielded its place, though the problems it shapes and propels grow in their own various ways.
Nor has it yielded its place of primary importance elsewhere in the world. Even our own attention these days is more concentrated on the grim racial conflicts of southern Africa than on the still harsh relationships here. In truth, though, we can see that it is all one continuing struggle of mankind to free itself from a wrong turning it somehow made dark centuries ago, into the sadness, sickness and cruelty of racial pride.
There have been political revolutions that have blazed outward all over the world because they seemed to express noble ideals as well as partisan interests. One thinks, principally, of the American, the French, and the Russian Revolutions of modern times. I expect generations to come may see the Civil Rights revolt as like them, as America’s second sending forth of impulses toward freedom to enchained peoples. I don’t believe it is fanciful to see the road from Selma turning now toward Pretoria.
To say that is, of course, not to say that we stand on the edge of happiness. Twelve years after Selma we certainly don’t have freedom in any satisfying measure, and in some important ways, it sometimes seems to me, we are worse off. I have worked and lived most of the last 12 years in the New York area, and as far as I can judge, the conditions of Black and Puerto Rican poor (and most Blacks and Puerto Ricans are poor, or close to being so) have worsened by almost any measure one selects, whether it is political power, housing, employment, or schools. Indeed, when one considers the vast changes within the South and then looks at the conditions of the urban poor of the North, it is as if they, almost alone, sacrificed for the progress of others.
There have been other kinds of setbacks as well. We have traded in the, perhaps impossible, dreams of the sixties, and accepted meaner ideals in return. And, saddest of all, the grave has had its victory. We lost Martin Luther King Jr., and George Wallace survives. We gave up Medgar Evers, but Jim Eastland will run again and likely win. Robert Kennedy was killed, and Richard Nixon ruled. Whitney Young and Audrey and Stephen Currier drowned, but red-lining bankers and self-protective foundation boards go on as before, controlling the money. George Wiley drowned too, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan prospered. Walter Reuther; that man who always wanted labor to connect with humanity’s call, crashed to his death, while Frank Fitzsimmons, who wants only to connect with dollars, was becoming the single most powerful labor leader. These were crushing losses, and yet, unreplaced. There were others as well. Has any nation or cause ever lost so many of its natural leaders in such a short time?
Indeed when one looks back on the shining values of a dozen years ago and compares them with what columnist Bill Raspberry in the Chicago Sun Times correctly called the “situation ethics” of contemporary politics, what can we do but weep, or rage? What instructions about political morality are we supposed to receive when a month ago the Senate celebrated Messrs. Eastland and Stennis for their 30 years of joint membership in that body, three decades in which they have powerfully opposed just about any and every move toward human rights, justice for the weak and peace for the world. From the White House, Mr. Carter wished those men “many more years of dedicated service.” Surrounded by capers and cut-ups like this, one can only wonder if we are supposed to take politics seriously? Are we all expected to fall into the game, chanting I’m 0. K., you’re 0. K., Eastland and Stennis are 0. K., Helms is 0. K., Nixon too; the Vietnam War and all who made it-and especially those among its makers now called back to serve a Democratic president-, they’re 0. K. too.
All of this is done in the name of political realism, but I no longer can believe in that. Somehow down those winding roads of so-called realism, the poor of this and foreign nations as well always seem to stay poor. The wars and preparations for war ceaselessly plod on, and the owners of the world’s and our nation’s wealth go on owning it. John Lewis had it almost correct when he went up to Vanderbilt back in 1968 while still a staff member of the Southern Regional Council. In a speech titled “Human Rights-A Final Appeal to the Church” he pronounced “Woe unto the political leaders who listen to the voices of expediency and act in the interests of a Great Consensus, rather than do what is right.” Almost correct, because most of the woe, at least so far as we can see, falls not on the political leaders but on those they lead.
Let us confess, in honesty and fairness toward ourselves, that the ideals of the early sixties were perhaps too
high and hard, that the hopes for nonviolence and the “beloved community” lie beyond us. Let us accept that, let that be our “realism,” even though any of you who share with me the good luck of knowing personally any of the heroes of South Africa, many of whom are now banned, will have to add that those same impossible ideals are moving people there as they once did here. Nevertheless, let us come down from the mountain, a bit. We do not need to come down so far.
The Southern Regional Council, along with the rest of the Civil Rights movement, has trusted in and practiced the methods of education, enlightened propaganda, political empowerment, and economic pressures of one kind or another. There have been at least two other methods. They were the methods of making friendships across racial lines and, to use a recent term, consciousness-raising. We need more of both today. It is too bad that the state and local councils on human relations have been allowed to decline. We need them, or their spirit, for the South is now as it was, a region where human relations, both bad and good but too often the former, weave the fabric of social life.
I have the feeling that, despite desegregation, there is almost less racial contact today than a decade ago. I have to admit that most of my own Black friends are ones I’ve known for a long time, and I suspect that too many other liberals, Black and White, might have to concede the same. We need to learn again why we used to like each other. So let us not be wholly preoccupied with “doing.” Let us give more time to “being” with each other, and in each other’s hopes and needs.
On the whole, I think the estrangement I sense is more the responsibility of Blacks than Whites, and the bridging of it will have to depend more on Blacks. There is a historical reason for that. At various points during the 1950s, it became clear that despite the loving and tireless effort of many good and even some great White Southerners, their leadership would not succeed. The reform of the South passed then to Black leadership. The greatest of Black leaders, Martin King, and others such as George Wiley knew how important it was that Black goals be linked with all those of democracy and peace. Their appeal was always to the nation as a whole to fulfill its Constitution, its principles, to become in its own interest transformed.
It is tempting today for Black leaders, rightfully impatient with the pace of change, to address themselves not to the whole nation or even to its liberal elements, but just to its political and corporate leadership, to its so-called “power structure,” and to speak as race leaders, not as popular or national leaders. That is what opponents of reform covertly or unconsciously welcome. For, if unemployment, poor learning in the schools, or crime in the streets are allowed to be seen as Black problems (or Puerto Rican or Chicano ones) they will likely never be solved, and their persistence year after year will only deepen and re-confirm, all racial stereotypes in White minds.
That is why one so fervently wishes that “summit” meetings of Black leaders would not merely make demands on Congress and the White House, but would see themselves, as their predecessors of a decade ago did, as the reform leaders of this nation, and would boldly claim the allegiance that is rightfully and historically theirs. Unemployment, bad schooling, and crime are not racial problems, no matter how many Blacks or Hispanics may be trapped in them. They are national problems, residues of inequitable political and economic systems, and the responsibility of all of US.
There is nothing I know of in the history of our times to lead one to believe that political office holders or corporate executives will do much about these tough and very real problems, unless the sort of Black and White multitude that demanded the reforms of 1964 and 1965 again come into being.
It is time for Black leadership to call upon White liberals to come back home. To do it, Black leaders will have to accept the fact that today Hispanic leaders must stand beside them. And it must be done without rancor; the time for scapegoating ‘liberals” is past. There will have to be an effort made to understand liberal devotion to causes like peace, anti-militarism, the sanctity of the environment, and the dignity and aspirations of women. But it is time for liberals to come back to the cause they slipped away from, the unfinished business of equality; and it is time for Black leadership to summon them. There has been enough knocking at the door of Washington and Wall Street. Those 50 percent Black youth unemployment rates will go downward only when the kind of liberal mass that brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is made again to know what democracy requires of it.
Energies have not, of course, been dormant. Possibly never in the history of our nation or any other have they so flourished. Those energies ended a wretched war in Vietnam, threw hard punches at the CIA and the government’s other lawless snoopers, probed the Pentagon, weighed obstacles to industry and consumer ravages of the environment, built countless and durable, if small, new community organizations, fought for the rights of children, hungry people, mental patients and prisoners, and gave women a new vision of themselves. And it all began in the heat of Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and the rest of our South, just as was born here the impulse that has stirred Hispanics and Indians, and just as came from here the deeper resolve of people in southern Africa. And it all serves the same end, and though that end may not be as holy a one as the “beloved community” it is a good and lovely one nonetheless, of men and women living at peace with each other and with nature.
The South has had, as Vann Woodward put it, the burden of its own history. The South has also, of course, been a burden to the rest of the country. It still is, though becoming less of one. Its senators and representatives are almost never to be found at the forefront of good works. On the other hand, they are not, in anything like the degree they once were, barriers to the satisfaction of national
I have spent some time recently studying certain votes of this 94th session of Congress, and I think what one can currently report is that the Southern delegations are about as bad or as good as the rest of Congress: which is a milestone in the further Americanization of Dixie, no doubt helped along by a Georgian at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There is no distinction among the Southerners, certainly no Estes Kefauver or Frank Graham, nor anymore a Sam Ervin, William Fulbright, or Lister Hill who, though terrible on civil rights, would partially atone by distinguished service in some other area.
It is perhaps the age to which I’ve arrived, but all the world these days seems dominated by mediocre talents; in art, literature, science, philosophy, wherever, the days of genius or even brilliant sparkle seem gone, for a while. It would be too much to expect that Congress would rise above, or even up to the level of conquering modern mediocrity; and it does not.
If not generally worse than their colleagues, Southern congressmen and congresswomen do still sometimes hear the old tribal drums. Southerners in the House voted better than 2-1 to build the B-1, even over Mr. Carter’s opposition; but in the old days, not a third of them would have resisted the military. So one may take what consolation he can from that.
The worst display of Southern militarism came on the vote whereby Mr. Carter’s all-too-modest program to upgrade the less-than-honorable discharges of Vietnam veterans (which in disproportionate numbers were Black and other minorities) was mean-spiritedly put down by the House by denial to them of all veterans’ benefits. Only one representative of those states that once had themselves been in rebellion, Joseph Fisher of Virginia, voted for compassionate justice for those many thousands of young victims of our war-making in Vietnam.
One Vietnam veteran put the case exactly, though futilely, in a statement to a sub-committee of the House: “Those possessing bad discharges are already so burdened by unemployment, poverty, and lack of education that the benefits would have provided some new ray of hope to an otherwise dark future. One wonders why some congressmen persist in policies that result in holding down those who are already at or near the bottom.” (Interestingly, although nearly all the rest of the “Black Caucus” were against this punitive bill, Representatives Harold Ford and Barbara Jordan were not, choosing to stand with the Southern bloc rather than the racial one. May they find a better issue the next time they do! To their credit, both of them did vote against the B-1, as did nearly all the rest of the “Black Caucus.”)
On abortion, the Southerners in the House stood about 5-4 against on the many votes that have been taken in 1977 on the crucial issue of the use of Medicaid funds, a ratio no worse than the rest of the House (but one as good as it is only because of the astonishing support of the Carolina delegations). There have been so many votes taken on this issue in 1977 that an exact picture of where legislators stand is hard to come by, but on the votes in the Senate that I have examined Southerners are voting a consistent majority for the pro-abortion position.
If the tribal drums seem to be responded to less readily, the leading strings of economics seem about as tight as ever, all flighty talk of Southern populism notwithstanding. Sixteen of the Southern senators voted, against Carter, to end price controls for newfound natural gas. A bill in the House to end federal farm subsidy payments to absentee corporations came within a surprising eight votes of passage, but only 19 of its supporters were from the South. And so it goes. One could add more examples, to the point that Southerners in Congress seldom fail to wait on the interests of big oil, big finance, big farms, and big money in general.
I have gone to this length into congressional behavior for two reasons. One is to suggest to you that the South has a different political position than it used to have in relationship to the rest of the nation. Southern Blacks and White liberals used to look to Washington for indispensable help in solving their problems. That long lasting period of political dependency is now so close to being over that we may as well call it finished. Now the South must play its full part in the resolution of national issues, and has no excuse for not doing so.
Secondly, I wanted to suggest – and here I unashamedly speak as a liberal – that the South must play its part in the great liberal causes of our day. It was wrong, morally and politically unacceptable, for a Hill, Fulbright, or Ervin to be “good” on other issues, and reactionary on civil rights. It would be also wrong and unacceptable for a Southerner today to excuse his positions on war and peace and militarism, on secrecy and surveillance, on ecological necessities, on the economic rights of the poor, on the dignity of women, or on the claims of other minorities by doing a good turn here and there, or even many of them, for civil rights. When one bears of possible or actual support for an Eastland or Wallace or Thurmond, how dearly can one say the old dreams are valued?
I had an experience some years ago, in one of my first visits among Indians of the Southwest, which made me vividly realize something Black friends bad been gently and tactfully telling me, but that I had not heard well. I sat with some Indians one day, and they began attacking me- me! for policies and actions of the Government in Washington. It struck me forcefully that they weren’t distinguishing between me, tthe possibly,
somewhat prideful critic of politicians and bureaucrats, and those very fellows: all one, all pale face. I’ve come to accept this. I can accept the fact that to a Black person, dealing with a White liberal may be only a variation of dealing with a White segregationist: all one, all White. It is beside the point. For the point is, to build a society at peace, with itself and other societies, to build a society with_ in which all men and women, and their children too, can find decent and dignified lives. And in the service of that purpose, we have all equal duties.
Our politics is throwing up men (e.g. Nixon and Agnew; you can add other, and many, examples) whose instincts are not for life and not for civilization, but for their destruction. Such men are a revolt against evolution. These are men who have the smell of death about them. But we are all infected with that plague, or else we would not elect and reelect such people. We lust for skill, we admire it and are infatuated with it, and we admire its possessors, those who can deal efficiently with the “system.” But being smart in dealing with the ” system” is small potatoes in this nuclear age. These men who govern us are the custodians of life itself.
Speaking about women, Erik Erikson once wrote that “True equality can only mean the right to be uniquely creative.” I believe the same can and must be said of Blacks, of Hispanics and Indians, of White ethnics long cast down; must be said of Africa and Asia and Latin America as they come into the councils of nations. What America wants and what the world wants is not simply for new groups to share in its few privileges, but for those new folks to bring with them their own rich insights and understandings, for them to shape society to themselves and not they to it and its death-ridden ways.
Talk like that sounds more out of place today than it did when Baldwin said he didn’t want to be integrated into a burning house. All I can say is that I have little faith that the house won’t burn unless those who, in our region and nation and world, are cut off from its power and riches find or create ways to make the economy and politics serve them, adapt to them, rather than be their suffocating embrace.
New ideas and values have more often than not come from “new” people, i.e. people newly emergent into social consequence. The world has no need for a “Black political theory” or a “female” one either; nor for a “Black” or a “female” theology, or life style, or what have you. But it is likely, I believe, that the thinking which may give birth to sanity in our lives and culture will be bred, is being bred, in the experiences and insights of being Black (or Hispanic, or Asian, or American Indian) or being woman.
And so I conclude by speaking again to you as Southerners, and as one who wants still to think of himself as a Southerner, and to such, and as such, say that I don’t like that bastard label “sunbelt.” The “sunbelt” is, at best, nothing more than an expanse of land and sunshine, at worst a place replete with problems you don’t need. To be a “sunbelter,” if that’s what it is called, is to be a rootless, non-historical person: and that, no matter what else, no proper Southerner can be. The South is not merely a geographical term. We are too far down the road of time for that. The South’s identity, all that it has to offer, is a history, and a spirit dragged and wrenched from it. A spirit that, at its deepest, knows that life – mere life – is worth all, because it can come back another day and is, anyway, in the final judgment all we have; and knows that each of us has claims on each other that may be denied for long, but not forever. Let the burden of Southern history be transformed now into the message of Southern history. Let the South stand publicly for what it has always stood privately since 1865, for life, for the tenacious holding on to it and for the unavoidable sharing of it.
To some it may seem ironic that “human rights” became the government’s announced foreign policy when a Southern moderate became president. Let us now not stop to ponder causes for that, but only give thanks for the event, while we closely and critically watch for its carrying out. If that policy grows out of a truly Southern understanding of the rightful needs of humanity, it will everywhere stand for the protection of life and the equal claims of all to it. And if so, the South would have turned the burden of its history into a lovely gift to our republic, and to human kind.
Leslie Dunbar is presently on leave from his duties as executive director of the Field Foundation in New York City. He is a former director of the Southern Regional Council and the author of several articles and A Republic of Equals published in 1966.
Editor’s Note: Last year Leslie Dunbar gave the major address at the annual meeting of the Southern Regional Council. This piece is adapted from that speech.