The 1982 Lillian Smith Book Awards
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 7-10
The Southern Regional Council’s annual Lillian Smith Awards Luncheon was held in Atlanta in November as a part of the SRC’s annual meeting. The awards recognize the year’s best fiction and non-fiction books about the South. The 1982 winners were John Ehle for The Winter People (New York: Harper and Row) and Harry Ashmore for Hearts and Minds: A History of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan (New York: McGraw-Hill). Following are excerpts from remarks at the luncheon.
Mary Frances Deriner
Lillian Smith, Georgia thinker, activist, author and Southern Regional Council Life Member, died September 28, 1966, concluding a career of a Southerner who said that she never wanted to write about race, just about people. The Southern Regional Council created the Lillian Smith Awards shortly after Miss Smith’s death to honor her life, her work, and her commitment, and to recognize in her name those who, like her, have contributed to our understanding of or given us new insights into the Southern region, its people, its strengths, its problems and its weaknesses.
The Lillian Smith Awards are given annually. Five judges receive from fifty to seventy-five entries and judge them seeking a certain quality which is something like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography–you can’t define it, but you know it when you’ve seen it. The committee receives many good, even fine, works each year. This is a heartening sign to those of us interested in the Southern arts. But only a few of them every year have that undefinable quality which makes them Lillian Smith Award winners. Both of this year’s winners struck us immediately as having that quality, that relevance and humanity in abundance. This is a quality which brings to mind and keeps alive the life and work of Lillian Smith.
Lillian Smith’s fame came with her first novel, Strange Fruit, a small town story of a tragic black-white love affair. It sold three million copies and was translated into fifteen languages. It made her a spokesperson to the world on Southern sins of race. Her Killers of the Dream, a psychological analysis of the Southern system of separation became a classic of sectional understanding and a ringing demand for the liberation of Southerners, black and white, male and female, rich and poor from the bonds of segregation and sexism. Although Lillian Smith wrote many more books, I think that Killers of the Dream is her best, the one which spells out most specifically and clearly what I call Lillian Smith’s “whole ball of wax” theory: the theory that the Southern system, dominated as it is, and was when she was writing, by wealthy white males, invariably discriminates against those who are black or female or poor or a combination of the above. And the system, said Miss Smith, would work only so long as those wealthy white males could keep women and blacks and poor folks from joining forces with one another.
John Ehle couldn’t be with us today. Last year’s Lillian Smith book award winner for fiction was Pat Conroy, who was out of the country. John Ehle, his publisher tells us, is in the country and it’s reassuring to know that there are still places in the South so far back that even someone as persistent as Mary Francis Derfner can’t dig them out.
Those of you from North Carolina may know the man. He has been a writer of merit for twenty-five years and a champion of the arts in a state best known for tobacco and its residue: the politics of Jesse Helms.
The book we’re honoring today is called The Winter People. It’s unquestionably his finest work. In a better world ruled less by literary fashions and megabucks, this book would be a popular classic. Maybe today we can help it along in that direction.
The Winter People is set in the North Carolina mountains during the Depression. It is a story of love and violence, two human capacities frequently associated with mountain life. But the book is something more than that. It shows us an Appalachia before there was coal, before there were social programs, before the world outside meant very much. The forces at work in Ehle’s mountains are Scottish and Irish clans who measure their power in the quantity of children and the number of timbered acres they possess. The pageantry of warlords in homespun clothes reminds us of tales from across the water like Lancelot, but these people in John Ehle’s work appear real to us, not mythical. Their devotion to family is overriding and it takes no great leap of imagination to see the body and soul of today’s mountain people in Ehle’s wonderful prose. In giving us this first glimpse, I think, in fiction, of the people who pioneered our Southern highlands, Ehle has given us the year’s most original work of Southern fiction.
A few weeks ago I encountered one of your former executive directors, Leslie Dunbar, and was pleased to find that he had read Hearts and Minds–or at least
had checked the index to see wherein he might be mentioned. Since no account of racism from Roosevelt to Reagan would be complete without numerous references to the Southern Regional Council and its battle-scarred principals, Les had come upon a passage in which I referred to him as a “certified idealist.” He was somewhat taken aback, he said, since he thought “certified” was applied only to lunatics and recidivist criminals. I reminded him that it also designated public accountants, but this did nothing to placate him since, like all budget-ridden foundation executives, he regards those who draw up balance sheets as natural enemies.
The chapter in which I certified Les begins with an anecdote I hope bears repeating here today. I tell of returning to Atlanta to address the chief state school officers of the old Confederacy twenty-five years after Harold Fleming, John Griffin and I had arranged a gathering of their predecessors to consider the findings we were about to publish in a book with the incendiary title, The Negro and the Schools. The Brown decision was then pending, and the learned gentlemen responded to the invitation of our sponsor, the Ford Foundation, only on condition that we hide out in the suburbs and not only keep the meeting secret but make it, as they say in diplomatic circles, deniable–that is, that in the event of a leak to the press we would claim that no such assemblage had ever taken place, and even if it had the dread possibility of school desegregation had never been mentioned. There were, as I recall, several apparent cardiac arrests when a rumor spread that young William Emerson of Newsweek had been seen skulking in the shrubbery.
Now, a quarter century later, I again faced the chief state school officers, but this time each was accompanied by a black deputy and the pepper-and-salt audience was assembled at the Atlanta Biltmore under the glare of television lights. It was, I noted, a far cry from the days when we were working with black colleagues on the school project and the closest we could get to the Biltmore at mealtime was the Southern Education Foundation a block away, where we pulled down the shades and shared catered barbecue sandwiches–which, I must say, did represent an improvement over the cuisine available in a hotel ballroom, then or now.
My citation of the transformation that had, in that brief span, made Atlanta perhaps the most thoroughly desegregated major city in the nation prompted a question from one of the black participants. He agreed that on the surface there were a great many changes–but, deep down, did I think anything was really different? Indeed I did. Twenty-five years ago, I pointed out, the great majority of Southerners, white and black, acted on the assumption that there was a real difference between the two races: “Now we know this is not so. And that’s the root of the problem–blacks have turned out to be just like us, and we’re no damned good.”
This back-handed assertion of common humanity did, in its ironic way, recognize the widespread disillusionment among those of both races who had been sustained by soaring hopes in the glory days of the civil rights movement. The idealists had believed–perhaps had had to believe–that the inspired gallantry of liberated blacks and their white supporters would usher in the beloved community of Martin Luther King’s dream. It was in this company that I placed Les Dunbar, quoting from his recent appraisal of The South and the Near Future in Clark College publication:
We did not pass from a segregated to an integrated society. Only in a relative sense have we come from an unjust to a more just society; most certainly we have not passed from a wandering in the desert by blacks and from moral squalor of whites into a ‘beloved community.’ We attained none of these. What was accomplished, however, is a vast enlargement of choice.
And that, of course, is so. As the cliche has it, those who measure progress against the ideal of a fully integrated society see the bottle as half-empty; the pragmatists who measure against the point of departure see it as half full.
The indomitable woman in whose name we are gathered today surely qualified for the certification I bestowed upon Les Dunbar. By 1943, when SRC was created out of the remains of the more timorous Commission on Interracial Cooperation, Lillian Smith had already rejected the prevailing arguments for gradual change; for her, segregation posed a moral choice between good and evil, life and death of the spirit. She publicly declared that SRC’s temporizing policy made t-he organization “potentially more harmful than beneficial.” And she was unimpressed when Guy Johnson, the first executive director, replied that it was unrealistic to adopt a policy that would restrict SRC’s membership to those who were willing to denounce segregation but were powerless to do anything about it.
If Miss Lillian did not prevail, neither did those she scorned as killers of the dream–the dream she shared with the dedicated young preacher who became her friend. Her adamant rejection of the demeaning social conventions of the day may have scared off some potential allies, but it also made one of our most pragmatic presidents the first to employ the full authority of his office in support of Southern blacks who had taken to the streets to protest denial of their civil rights.
One evening early in 1960 Miss Lillian had dinner with Coretta and Martin King, and afterward they drove her to Emory University hospital where she was undergoing treatment for cancer. As they passed through a corner of DeKalb County a patrolman noticed a white woman sitting beside a black man and automatically halted the car. When he discovered that the driver was the trouble-making preacher who had just moved in from Montgomery he concluded that his driver’s license was bound to be invalid. Martin was fined twenty-five dollars, given a six-months suspended sentence, and released on parole. Some months later, when he refused bond and went to jail in Atlanta to dramatize a student sit-in at Rich’s, the DeKalb court charged him with violating parole. On this second trip to the drumhead he was whisked off in the dead of night to Reidsville state prison.
In desperation Coretta King put in a call to the young Democratic candidate for president who was then heading into the home stretch. Jack Kennedy offered reassurance, Robert Kennedy got in touch with the
DeKalb County judge, and Martin was returned to his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in a blaze of televised glory. Daddy King, who had been publicly supporting Richard Nixon on the ground that his Baptist faith would not permit him to vote for a Catholic, recanted and offered a ringing endorsement of the Democratic ticket. The resulting sweep of the black precincts in all the major cities provided Kennedy’s narrow margin of victory, and left him beholden to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he led.
From the beginning, the civil rights movement depended upon political finagling as well as eloquent appeals to the conscience of the white majority. There was a splendid irony in the maneuvering that took place in the traditional gap between rhetoric and reality–which became even wider after the Citizens Councils unfurled the banner of massive resistance and accentuated the discrepancy between what leaders of both races said in public and what they were privately willing to do. When Jack Kennedy was told that Daddy King had to suspend his anti-Catholic bias in order to convert to the Democratic cause, he said, “Who would have thought that Martin Luther King’s father could be a bigot?” Then, reflecting upon the life and times of old Joe Kennedy, he added, “But, then, we all have fathers.”
So we do, and progress on the race front can be measured by the tempering of attitudes from one generation to the next. The fathers of my generation of white Southerners took their stand on what their preachers told them was biblically-sanctioned moral ground, reducing the region to poverty as they sacrificed self-interest on the altar of white supremacy. My contemporaries, with no more valid claim to probity; concluded that they had rather abandon Jim Crow than pay the price required to maintain segregation in the face of mounting black protest.
So it was that when Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and firehoses against black children in Birmingham, Jack Kennedy employed his cabinet’s corporate heavyweights to convince the Big Mules of the Alabama establishment that racial violence was bad for business. After the White Only signs came down the President told Martin and his aides: “I don’t think you should be totally harsh on Bull Connor. He’s done as much for civil rights as anybody since Abraham Lincoln.”
Those of you who labor in the vineyard of race relations are painfully aware of the circularity that has always characterized public discussion of the basic issue. In the old days the demonstrably inferior social condition of the black minority was cited to justify the caste discrimination that perpetuated the inferior condition–and so the dogma of white supremacy came to prevail everywhere in the nation when blacks began to migrate from the South in substantial numbers. That ghost, at least, has been laid by the enlargement of choice that is the not inconsiderable legacy of the civil rights movement.
When the federal courts struck down the barriers of institutional segregation a third of the black population promptly moved into the mainstream, visibly giving the
lie to the myth of inherent racial inferiority. In terms of educational attainment, income level, and type of employment these blacks are certifiably middle-class, and are more or less being accepted as such by their white counterparts. The larger society–burdened as it is by the third of the black population still confined to a poverty-stricken underclass–is a long way from being free of the residue from the racist past. But the tempering of restrictive majority attitudes has been sufficient to change the dimensions of the American dilemma.
This shows up most significantly in politics. Those of us who were on the front line in the early days of the movement may be appalled by the resurrection of George Wallace in Alabama, but there is surely encouragement in the fact that he could re-enter the lists only by proclaiming himself a born-again integrationist, repentant of his race-baiting past and wholly committed to advancing the welfare of the blacks whose votes he sought and won. Then there is Ronald Reagan, whose political strategy writes off the black vote but who hotly denies that his reactionary policies are tinged with racism. “I want everyone to understand that I am heart and soul in favor of the things that have been done in the name of civil rights and desegregation,” he has proclaimed, and, if you accept his remarkably constricted view of contemporary society, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity.
But if the President has rejected the dogma of white supremacy he has fervently embraced the doctrine it produced–the old states rights federalism elaborated by our forefathers in defense of slavery and the second-class citizenship that succeeded it. The President’s so-called “new” federalism ignores not only the lessons of the bloodshot past, but the reality of contemporary demography, which reflects the transfer of the enduring race problem from the rural South to the center of the nation’s great cities, where it has produced what is rightly labeled an urban crisis. The black underclass is not trapped in northern slums by institutionalized race prejudice, but by a debilitating, self-perpetuating culture of poverty that cannot possibly yield to the kind of social Darwinism in which the President places his faith. We are long past the share-cropping days when blacks were kept in their place so they could be exploited as a source of cheap labor; along with the Hispanics and poor whites who share its misery, the black underclass has become surplus population, a non-productive burden increasingly seen as intolerable in a shrinking economy.
The secular theology called Reaganomics holds that this condition is of no concern to the federal government and can readily be disposed of by placing responsibility for its cure upon state and local authorities assisted by the benign working of the private sector. That delusion cannot endure, and when it is finally dispelled there will be much work to do–particularly for organizations like SRC which have always had to find their way in the void between rhetoric and reality.
I have never been blessed with a faith strong enough to take me to the mountaintop from which Martin Luther King caught sight of the promised land, and assured his people that, with or without him, they would get there one day. But I have never doubted that his vision of a beloved community represented the only goal that would, in the end, prove acceptable to Southerners. Miss Lillian believed that, too, and when, at the end of her life, she revised Killers of the Dream, she closed with these lines:
So we stand: tied to the past and clutching at the stars! Only by the agonizing pull of our dream can we wrench ourselves from such fixating stuff and climb into the unknown. But we have always done it and we can do it again. We have the means, the techniques, we have the knowledge and insight and courage. All have synchronized for the first time in history. Do we have the desire? This is a question that each of us must answer for himself.
Mary Frances Derfner is Vice-President of the Southern Regional Council and chairperson of the Smith Awards Committee. Other committee members for 1982 included Tony Dunbar, John Popham, Wilma Dykeman and Lottie Shackelford.