Democracy Looks At the New South
By Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1982, pp. 1-4
The news is full these days about people returning to the South, black and white, poor ones as well as those better off. The question is, will democracy return with them?
I don’t, of course, mean the democracy of actual life, for the South never had that, not even in the stumbling, wavering ways realized in the rest of our country. I mean that democracy of aspiration, which dwelt in the spirit and grand hopes that Southerners, as much as people anywhere in the world, have in times past thrust upward for the challenging of our lives. In the greatness of such as Jefferson, Madison, George Mason, and–closer to our own time–Hugo Black, James McBride Dabbs, Clifford Durr, Frank Graham, Paul Green, Fannie Lou Hamer, Estes Kefauver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lillian Smith, Dorothy Tilly, John H. Wheeler and Aubrey Williams, the South taught men and women everywhere to love and labor for liberty and equality.
In their own region, the thought and example of those like Jefferson went into a long, sad neglect after their passing. Will the same be true of the legacy of these later leaders, who rekindled the spirit that made the Civil Rights Movement an example to be cherished wherever the wind of democracy moves?
My own odyssey as a follower of those, our recent and deeply missed prophets–for that is what they were, persons speaking truth to power–began on a Spring afternoon in 1949. As the then youngest member of Emory University’s political science faculty, I had been assigned the generally unwanted task of adviser to the Club of Departmental Majors. I had already, in my first months at Emory, voyaged once or twice to that foreign world where the Negro campuses of Atlanta were; and so, casting about for a speaker for a club meeting, I’d suggested inviting a man I’d met, Professor William Boyd of Atlanta University, to come out and talk about race relations. Rather nervously, and feeling bold, the students acceded. I extended the invitation, it was accepted, and Boyd came and spoke to our small group. While sitting in the back of the room and listening to him, I was suddenly troubled by a new thought; in old-fashioned language, I might say, was touched by grace–and as we all know, that happens but seldom to any of us. It came to me that
my invitation had been wrong, even insulting. Here was this man, our professional colleague, responding to his first invitation to appear among us at the “white” school, and being asked to speak not about his own professional field–which happened to be international politics–but about race relations, as if that were all he had the competence to teach us.
When the meeting was over, and he and I had sat down in my office, I apologized to him. Bill Boyd, whose untimely death a few years later took from us one of our natural leaders, smiled in his ironic but accepting manner and then as the afternoon wore on gave me alone his second talk of the day. Without reference to laws or political controversies, he, out of his own goodness, calmly told me what being a black in the South entailed, of what it meant to him and his family in their daily lives, of the heartbreaking dilemmas involved in rearing his children of the never-ending succession of little things that had to be coped with in traveling through the South or getting about in Atlanta. The elephant at the Grant Park Zoo had died and a campaign was on in the schools to get the children to contribute their coins to help buy a new one. How, he asked, does one tell his eager youngster that you may give your dime, but you won’t be allowed to see the elephant when it’s bought? There was more, much more, of that; and as I listened I suddenly had my second thought of the day: I did not need it because had I ever given a moment’s thought, I could have known it on my own.
That illumination has come back to me over and over again. I have trod about ever since in the tangled morass of America’s racial struggles, not only those of blacks, but of our Hispanics and Indians as well. Time and again, I have been taught and have been made to see realities to which I had been blind theretofore. And nearly every time, I have had ruefully to reflect that I should not have needed the instruction, that the lesson could have been–should have been–deduced from my own knowledge of what American society is.
Discrimination is a social product, a fact to which the present Supreme Court, in its insistence that only that discrimination which can be proven to have arisen from the specific intentions of specific officials is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment, seems to have willfully shut it eyes. And, not the Supreme Court alone. Does, for example, any thinking person need to be shown that poverty and housing discrimination are root causes of criminal behavior? In recent years, we have had to have large studies to show a direct connection between poverty and hunger and malnutrition; did we truly need to be taught that? There comes a point when our craving to be shown, to be given documentation, is a mask for irresponsibility, a resistance to realities which we know full well but which to admit would threaten too strongly our willful belief in the morality of our social order.
The lesson that Bill Boyd taught came back to me anew when years later I read Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Do you remember where he said:
“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers suffering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Fun Town is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’ When you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you. When you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘White’ men and ‘Colored’; when your first name and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respectable title ‘Mrs.’ when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Shortly after that “Letter” was written, the Southern Regional Council, of which I was then Executive Director, was asked to join another agency in its printing and distribution. I declined. I suppose I had practical reasons
–of money and such like–for doing so, though what they were I can no longer recall. It was a bad mistake, one of which I am ashamed. It did not keep that classic statement from being printed, but it did keep what was then the South’s principal bi-racial organization from standing with it and for it. It was another missed opportunity, of which there have been so many, when the voices of black people were turned from in the South.
All that which Dr. King described happened in a past that, although but a few years ago, now seems distant. This is the New South, men say. And they are right. The Civil Rights Movement did accomplish great deeds, the South is vastly changed, and is the better for it. Yet much lies ahead to be done, to build democracy here, as well as in our nation. And sometimes one wonders if the cutting edge, as we used to call it, is still sharp. Way back in 1946, W.E.B. DuBois made a speech in Columbia, S.C. In the course of it, he said:
“White youth in the South is peculiarly frustrated. There is not a single great ideal which they can express or aspire to that does not bring them into flat contradiction with the Negro problem. The more they try to escape it, the more they land in hypocrisy, lying and double-dealing; the more they become what they least wish to become, the oppressors and despisers of human beings. Some of them, in larger and larger numbers, are bound to turn toward the truth and to recognize you as brothers and sisters, as fellow travelers toward the dawn.”
Whatever else must be said about the experience of being white in the pre-1970 South, there was always that bothersome conscience which DuBois described. I may be wrong, and hope that I am, but I doubt if it has still the same force, among either white youth or their elders. The war is over and done, the burden of conscience has been discharged, the duties it imposed are no more, it is time to cease doing good and instead simply start doing well for ourselves. The edge has gone out of too many of our young people. Compassion seems to have become unfashionable. To be heard, one must appeal to material interests, as such are perceived by what today passes for political parties and by our media.
If the future is now, it is a grim forbidding one. The Civil Rights Movement did its great work, just as men like Jefferson in their day did theirs. It has left us the next and even greater task and that is the combating of war and poverty, and the South is central in both.
We must never allow ourselves to take our sights off the main event, and that is the terrible bombs ready to explode in the center ring of all our our existences. One bomb, is quite literally, the bomb of nuclear warfare, to which the governments of the world approach closer day by day. The other is the bomb of world-wide poverty, compact of the misery of probably the majority of human beings now living, of whom all too many dwell here in the South and in urban and rural ghettos throughout our land.
It is instructive to go back in our thinking to Gunnar Myrdal. Perhaps you will recall the famous “rank order of discrimination” which he set down in The American Dilemma. Researching prior to and during World War II, he believed that he had found that white Southerners were and would be most resistant to any change that had to do with sex between black men and white women and with intermarriage. Following this, he found that the white South would yield most slowly on, in order: personal relationships and the “etiquette” between the races; the use of public facilities: political disfranchisement; discriminatory law enforcement; and finally, would yield most easily on economic discrimination.
His survey of Negro Southerners gave him just the opposite conclusion; namely that they cared most about economic opportunities, least of all about sexual mingling. Myrdal went on to acknowledge that he might be wrong about the white South’s dominant interests, and of course he was. We know now that, when push came to shove, the white South has far more cared about maintaining its economic privileges than its sexual codes or traditional etiquette. The harsh fact is that today at least one-third of black Southerners live below the poverty line and that upwards of two-fifths of the nation’s poor, white and black, live in the South. We have reached that disappointing level–and that is what it seems, a level ground which year to year does not rise or fall–after and despite all the great, and they were indeed great–events and victories of the intervening decades: the court battles over the white primary and higher education, the work of President Truman’s Civil Rights Committee, the suppression of the Dixiecrats, the 1954 and 1955 decisions on segregated schools, the bitter and finally successful battles against “massive resistance,” the sit-in movement and the magnificent demonstrations and voter registration campaigns of the sixties and early seventies, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the “War On Poverty” declared in 1964.
But all that accomplishment left poor people still poor, and some of them poorer than ever; and left the white folks mostly still in charge. Working alongside Mack Jones, a successor of my old mentor, Bill Boyd, as a professor of political science at Atlanta University, I have in the last year and a half helped out the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, as it fought off the harassment of the Department of Justice. That episode showed, among other things, how determinedly and resourcefully the white economic and political powers of the Black Belt will act to put down a poor people’s organization that is perceived as threatening their control.
The episode suggests another possibility. It is that the economic reform which this country so desperately requires may not come about until poor people organize themselves at local and state levels to insist upon it; that the reform to be effective must include new structures, as in the co-ops, which end the dependence of poor people on established economic and political powers; and that just as the struggle for civil rights did not gather strength and momentum until black Southerners took charge and gave leadership, so will the struggle for economic justice not really move very far until its leadership comes from the poor and those who have earned the poor’s trust.
The “beloved community” which the Civil Rights Movement in its glory days proclaimed may exceed our grasp. Must it also be beyond our reach? I would if I could call us back to those mind-changing, nation-rocking, soul-lifting ideals of non-violence and equality and freedom for all. I would because they are, ultimately, the only realistic and practical guides for our action. It is impractical and unrealistic to expect millions of people of our nation–and of a couple of billion, more or less, world wide–to endure indefinitely their poverty and degradation and not to tear down somehow the peace and prosperity of the rest of us. It is utterly unrealistic to believe that we and the Russians, not to speak of a host of lesser governments, can continue the grossest arms build-up in all history, one which features nuclear weapons of civilization destroying potency; can continue “projecting our power” all about the globe without uncontrollable war erupting. The madness of our times is that what is palpably irrational
and even insane passes for pragmatism, while realism is dismissed as soft-headedness. Yet it is only through that idealism of the Civil Rights Days, which was in fact hard realism, that our nation and the world and the civilization that keeps us from being mere brutes stand any chance of survival.
It was through it that the possibility of democracy was brought back to the South, from which it had departed with Jefferson’s generation. Will it become more than a possibility? Democracy means the rule of the people. Its attainment and keeping are never-finished tasks. First of all, comes the establishment of equality, for the rule of the people without at least enough equality among the people so that self-reliance is everywhere is a contradiction in terms. Then comes justice, for that means that every person is to be treated fairly and with equal rights. And then true democracy requires peace, for without it the people will never rule, for commanders must, and justice will not prevail, because force and regimentation will.
We are generally led and ruled by men who though often as not good and conscientious individuals are by their policies unwitting killers of the dream, foulers of the nest, sellers of the birthright. And not America’s birthright only but that of the civilization to which we were born and which has given edge and strength to our character, given us eyes to see and to be aware of the world’s beauty and the world’s callings.
But I have too pessimistic a faith in political leaders, in the absence of ground swells of public opinion, to call upon them. As I said before, if I could I would call upon us to reclaim the ideals, the realism, of the old movement. If we did, I think we should now be saying, and acting on the saying, that we stand for no political or economic system, no ideology; that we stand instead for women and men, boys and girls, living freely, everywhere. We stand for the hope of equal chances for all, and the demand for good chances of all, now, in our own time. We stand for peace; peace between nations: peace with each other. To be for peace is to be against violence. It is to be against inculcation of the values of violence, the training of the world’s youth in violence, the all-absorbing preparations for violence. We can no more make peace by threatening war than we can make friendship by threatening enmity. Sooner rather than later, that game will not work.
From the great nuclear plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Savannah River, S.C., to the Pantex Plant in the Texas pan-handle where the bombs and warheads are assembled, the South is deeply embedded in preparation for nuclear holocaust. From the hollows of Appalachia to the migrant farm labor camps of Florida the South is still the poorest of regions. Here, if anywhere, is the place to redirect America from policies and values that will not work, toward those that have been tested–and do.
Dr. Leslie Dunbar is the former director of the Southern Regional Council and of the Field Foundation. He now works with the Fund for Peace, Washington, D.C. The article here its adapted from. remarks to the Blue Ridge Institute for Southern Community Executives, July 26, 1981.