The Civil Rights Act After Twenty Years Later. [Response]

The Civil Rights Act After Twenty Years Later. [Response]

By Paul Gaston

Vol. 7, No. 1, 1985, pp. 14-15

Prompted by Harold and Harry’s discussion of the new mythology–and particularly by Julius’ recollection of his student days at Chapel Hill and his recent return visit–I would like to tell a brief anecdote about my own teaching at the University of Virginia.

It seems to me that I see among white students in my Southern history class greater evidence of this conservative wave of recent years, and it’s been extremely troubling.

About the time I started to teach Southern history I read an article that James Baldwin published in Harpers’–this was in 1958. He said that for white people in the South to watch segregation taken apart and dismantled was going to be to watch an entire way of life of being discredited and that was going to be an enormously painful experience for them.

It was about that time that some of my students started dubbing my course in Southern history “Pain Infliction 102.”

Well, this pain infliction course was a great joy to teach because increasingly larger numbers of Southern students would shift from a belligerent attitude of open hostility to one of more open inquiry. Then, during the 1960s, a large number became converts and they wanted to join the movement and see that Southern history was made whole.

This year, the course in pain infliction continues to be taught. The students are required to read–among other books–Dan Carter’s book about Scottsboro, and we spent a long time on Richard Kluger’s monumental study, Simple Justice, which is an absolutely brillant and moving account of how the Brown decision came to be written.

There’s a significant group of white students in this class who, it seems to me, typify what’s happened. They don’t deny that all of the achievements that we’ve made are good, but these students are unreachable. A group of eight of them led a discussion of sixty students last week. Their subject was Kluger’s book and the origins of the Brown decision.

They were logical. They didn’t say anything offensive. They were coherent in their analysis. They discussed the move from Gaines to Sweat vs. Painter to Brown vs. Board of Education, and they weren’t touched by one bit of it.

After awhile I couldn’t stand it anymore. About fifteen minutes before the end of the class I got up and said, “You know you’re reading one of the most . . . you’re reading a magisterial work. You’re not likely to read many books like this in your lifetime. And it’s a book about one of the great movements for human liberation that you’ve never experienced. Where is the feeling? Where are the guts? Where are . . .”

Well, there was great silence.

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I’m not sure that they were touched. They know that I have these periodic outbursts. But I present them as evidence of this growing sense of conservatism-the teflon-coated group that can’t be reached, but they’re going to say the right thing.

The happy part of the story is that there are still some white students in the class who are on my side, but more importantly there are some black students in the class now and they, more than 1, make it uncomfortable for those students simply to pass this off as another work of history that you have to memorize and pass a test on. I came out of this a born-again historian.

During the fortieth anniversary meeting of the Southern Regional Council, held in Atlanta this past November, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Harry Ashmore, Julius L. Chambers-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and former SRG executive director Harold Fleming reflected upon the status of civil rights twenty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. An additional comment was offered by Paul Gaston, professor of history at the University of Virginia and current president of the Southern Regional Council. In the following pages, we present the perspectives of these long-time observers of, and participants in, Southern changes.

Paul Gaston, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is president of the Southern Regional Council.