Renewal and Endurance: A Personal View
By Steve Suitts Steve Suitts
Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 4-5
In those torturous moments of human relations 35 years ago, five Southerners of prominence and good will signed their names to the legal charter of the Southern Regional Council, Inc. On January 7, 1944, Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University, editor Ralph McGill, Bishop Arthur Moore, Charles Johnson, president of Fisk University, and Howard Odom, sociologist at North Carolina, incorporated an organization “for the improvement of economic, civic, and racial conditions in the South, in the endeavor to promote a greater unity in the South and all efforts towards regional and racial development. . . .” In that same month, McGill’s newspaper reported the uninvestigated murder of a Black Southerner.
The long journey from legal segregation to the existence of more than eighty federal laws and executive orders protecting the civil rights of Blacks and others (and more than 20 state and local agencies furthering human relations) has been an experience of triumph and unfulfilled expectations. During this time the very best and most base elements of Southern conduct and attitudes were witnessed by our neighbors and the world. It was an era of contrast: self indulgence and self-sacrifice; death and enduring hope.
The distance of 35 years for an organization like the Council focuses clearly the monumental accomplishments which have taken place in the South and touched the lives of all Americans. The accomplishments include:
– The passage of national legislation ending segregation of the races in all public places;
– The passage of legislation allowing Blacks the right to vote and to hold elected public office;
– The increase of income for the average Southerner
– Improvements in health and education.
These achievements, in which thousands had a hand, ought not be forgotten for the lessons they teach and the human capacity of compassion, sacrifice, and change which they exhibited. They gave all Southerners of good will a proud moment or two – demonstrating that the heroic and persisting efforts of Blacks and some Whites in the South were not in vain.
These accomplishments were not, however, the harbinger of a completely new order nor do they now present reasons to celebrate an uncontested victory. While Blacks as a whole have been brought out of a bondage of constant fear, intimidation, and humiliation, neither the South nor the nation has yet arrived at the beloved community. The end of blatant hatred and outrageous, open cruelty is not a signal that we have achieved a more equitable, humane and peaceful society. It only allows us the possibilities.
In its 35th year, the Council shares 1979 with the 25th anniversary of the historic decision of the Supreme Count, Brown v. The Board of Topeka, Kansas. And, appropriately so. Probably no area of human conduct demonstrates better the many sides of our quest for equality than do the issues surrounding education.
Although the guarantee that Black and White children will sit in the same room in the same school still appears to me a simple notion, most efforts in that direction have failed and still meet the most nagging resistance. Not surprisingly, integration has been applied most fully in those communities where Blacks or other minorities are in small numbers. Still, in all communities, school practices such as suspension, expulsions, and exclusionary special education classes keep many of the Black and, White children separated even under the same roof.
Where Blacks or other minorities constitute a large percentage of the population, integration of the schools has met with least success. On the whole in these communities, the sons and daughters of those who attended segregated high schools in the 1950s probably have little more contact with children of other races than did their parents in the same school. The Black children of Atlanta still go to mostly Black-populated schools within the central city and the White children go mostly to the schools in the suburbs. The Black children of Marengo County, Alabama, still go to public schools that are largely Black while the Whites continue to support the private, all-White academies.
Although no Southerner in late 1954 would have been surprised by the resistance to integration in the schools, it has been surprising to witness in the 1970s how resourceful and successful the attempts have been. It almost seems that the increase of personal income for many Whites has been an enabling bounty to allow them to bear the expense of retreating from integration.
As this pattern suggests, integration today works best usually when it
is on terms advantageous to Whites. The rural Mississippi public schools to the northwest of Tupelo don’t mind integration so much. The fact is that the number of Black teachers has been reduced and the number of Black students is relatively small compared to Whites. In Mississippi as elsewhere, integration of the schools has largely placed the burden of long transportation, reduced jobs, and increased sacrifice on the Black students and parents. Even so, Whites continue to flee from potentially integrated schools.
The resistance is, of course, not exclusively White. While the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attempts to find broad remedies to integrate state supported colleges and universities, the presidents of those predominantly Black institutions protest. While Black and White parents are suing for metropolitan wide desegregation in Atlanta, the predominantly Black school board in Atlanta opposes the effort -claiming the potential dilution of Black control of institutions.
The guarantee that Black and White children sit in the same room in a school building does not insure that the building blocks for education will be there; however, it does remain true that in absence of integration it is most likely that Whites, who constitute 90 percent of this country’s population, will refuse to support good education for Blacks and other minorities. While some Blacks’ distrust of proposals to integrate are not misplaced, the facts have not yet changed: only with integrated schools will there possibly be a chance for the quality of education which all seek. In one way, the sum of our predicament in education is that the self interest of Blacks and Whites is no longer often seen in integrated schools. As a people, Southern Whites have seldom, if ever, observed such an interest and now an increasing number of Blacks have joined them.
There is no legislation capable of resolving all the questions of quality and equality of education. Yet, in grappling with them, we must not forsake both goals for they are more than compatible – they are essential to the lasting progress of each other.
The growth of complex issues within education may hide the fact that there remains some opportunity to muster a unity of vision and purpose among diverse peoples. If it is outrageous conditions which we must have as a motivation for joint energy and devotion, they can be found – too easily.
The plight of rural poverty and joblessness persists as the bedrock of a country which has become largely metropolitan. Almost 40 percent of Black males in rural areas are not in the job market because of physical handicap, age, or their decision to stop looking. Most of the rural Blacks are in the South and almost the majority are poor.
The difference between the status of Blacks and Whites in the South and the country is not confined to rural areas. While hymns of prosperity and economic growth have replaced “Dixie” as a battle cry, Blacks in the South still lag far behind Whites in median income. The mortality rate for infants born Black remains substantially higher than for Whites and, in some rural places, twice as high.
And with the development of Southern cities, we have ignored or tolerated the thickening core of poverty at their centers. Today, pockets of poverty in Southern cities – perhaps overshadowed by the glass skyscrapers – are settling in. The heaviest concentration of poor in the South are now within the heart of the big cities.
The duplicity of Southern life in 1944 was unmistakable. White over Black – clear and simple. While regional promotionists still bellowed out the myth of a New South where Whites and Blacks beloved one another – separately, of course – the plight of Blacks and poor Whites in the South were assumed conditions. In 1979, the essential harm of that duplicity remains. While standing side-by-side, Blacks and Whites continue to be separated by the difference of jobs, economic status, health, and malnutrition. The condition of the poor Whites continues to be obscured by the fact that they may have a dead end job. The differences which continue to separate Southerners from one another on the basis of race and poverty remain deep and unyielding barriers which too few have been able to overcome.
True, we should celebrate the vast changes which have gradually come into the Southern folkways and stateways. By recollection of the heroes and aspirations of our past we can be reminded of what forces and visions can charter our future. But, the progress of the past 35 years and the view which it places upon some questions of Southern development today must not blind us from the fact that the task is far from complete, the need is no less demanding, and the potential – while hidden and obscure – stands ready to be tapped. Improvements are not final accomplishments.
The renewal of the charter of the Southern Regional Council after 35 years gives witness to the durable belief by both Black and White Southerners that, careful and enduring, we must follow our original mission to search for that beloved community. If we fail, as surely we may, we will have at least made some contribution to good work and have carried on that essential tradition spoken so poetically in the Movement’s hymn which we must never forget – Black and White together.