Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920-1944 by John T. Kneebone. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Reviewed by Patricia Sullivan
Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986, pp. 22-24
The term “liberal” often obscures more than it explains. The adjective “southern” is certain to add to the confusion.
There is an implicit assumption that “southern liberal” means white southern liberal. The image of a southern liberal between the two world wars, the period John Kneebone addresses, evokes an ambivalent figure. The system o~ legalized white supremacy was firmly intact, and many “liberals” endorsed Mark Ethridge’s 1942 statement that “there is no power in the world-not even all the mechanized armies of the earth, Allied and Axis-which could now force the Southern white people to the abandonment of the principle of social segregation.”
Thus, John Kneebone feels compelled to qualify his definition from the start. “Southern liberalism,” he explains, “must emphasize the adjective. Downplaying the southernness of these people tends to identify them with national racial liberalism that takes its traction from a history emphasizing the ideals of Jefferson’s declaration, the abolition movement, the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction, the abolition movement, and Negro protest in the twentieth century.” The liberalism Kneebone writes about has limitations which time brings to the fore. His is a provocative study of a particular style of “southern” liberalism which came of age in the 1920s and 1930s and was moribund by the end of World War II-a victim of its own inner contradictions, underscored the emerging black protest movement.
Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920-1944 is organized around the lives and careers of five men: Gerald W. Johnson (1890-1980) of the Baltimore Evening Sun, George Fort Milton (1894-1955) of the Chattanooga News, Virginius Dabney (1901-) of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Ralph McGill (1899-1969) of the Atlanta Constitution, and Hodding Carter (1907-1972) of the Greenville (MS) Delta Democrat-Times. Hardly two generations removed from the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the past was very much present in the minds of these journalists. They maintained that the slavery system bore the seeds of its own demise, and, therefore, the Civil War was an unnecessary war. The journalists focused their attention on Reconstruction as the event which traumatized the process of change in the South, and caused the political and social unrest that disrupted the region through the turn of the century. The Progressive era brought back a semblance of order through the enactment of segregation and disenfranchisement law in the South. A delicate balance had been restored, and the subjects of Kneebone’s study dedicated themselves to maintaining social harmony while nurturing the progress promised by increasing urbanization and industrializtion.
These men came of age professionally during the post World War I period. Southern journalists of the 1920s won national acclaim as the voices of reason and tolerance in a region that seemed woefully lacking in both. They applied a critical eye to the southern social scene and challenged the excesses of fundamentalism, the Klan, lynching and prohibition. By the end of the decade, Kneebone explains, an identifiable southern journalism existed. The journalists had assumed their “class” responsibility as social reformers with a twofold mission: to educate the southern white masses, and to explain the South to northerners in order to discourage “outside” interference in southern affairs. They further refined their position during the Agrarian debate of
the early 1930s when they held forth as proponents of progress through “regulated industrialization.”
Race relations remained largely on the periphery of the journalists’ concerns during the 1920s. In 1930 the number of lynchings, which had been on the decline during the previous decade, increased dramatically. The Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) responded with an investigation which reinforced the belief that these evils were uniquely lower class in origin. The key to establishing and maintaining good race relations, then, was to modify and cultivate the behavior of the white southern masses. The Scottsboro case also failed to raise any serious questions about the base injustice of legalized white supremacy. While striving to curb its excesses, the journalists worked to insure that the segregation system worked. They were confident that urbanization would contribute to better race relations, and adopted Robert Parks’ model of vertical segregation as their goal in realizing a more equitable society. Black folk remained an invisible people whose patience, endurance and submission were taken for granted as white reformers promoted gradual change within the limits of Jim Crow.
Events during the 1930s tested the position that the journalists had secured for themselves. They enthusiastically endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first term as the embodiment of Rational Leadership, a true statesman who stood above partisan squabbles. His aggressive legisla. tive program met the crisis of the depression and implemented programs to provide for the larger social good. By 1937, however, their view of the President had begun to sour. Roosevelt’s second term victory was based on a coalition of labor, black and urban voters, suggesting a class appeal which countered the journalists’ ideal of social harmony. The President’s court-packing plan and his attempt to purge conservatives from the Democratic Party in the South completed the disillusionment. Outside interference in regional affairs could never be justified, even if it intended to mobilize political support for New Deal programs the journalists favored. By 1938 their opposition to FDR and the New Deal paralleled that of the South’s most conservative representatives in Congress.
The Depression and the New Deal had released forces for change in the South which challenged the moderating influence of Kneebone’s subjects. Just as they retreated from Roosevelt, another group of Southerners rallied to demonstrate their support of the President in founding the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). As Arthur Raper, a founding member of SCHW, explained to me a few years ago, the events of the 1930s had shaken the foundation of southern society. “A lot of folks were up on their feet and talking and expecting things that they had never expected before …. Here was … a very basic ferment, and people needed to respond to it in some way.” The SCHW went beyond the CIC (which addressed itself to the “better” elements of the community as agents of gradual change), and made a mass, interracial appeal. Organized by southern New Dealers and labor activists, the SCHW hoped to build a broad-based constituency for progressive political action in the South. The organization concentrated on eliminating voter restrictions which kept the great majority of southerners from the ballot box, and later joined the CIO and NAACP in promoting voter registration and education drives throughout the South. The SCHW acted on the assumption that an expanded electorate, which included working class and black voters, was essential to liberalizing the South. This approach contradicted the basic premises shared by the southern journalists. They believed in cooperative endeavors led by the elite class, and they strongly opposed any type of racial or class activism. These men lacked a basic faith in the “democratic” process, and did not promote enfranchisement of the masses as part of their reform program. They eschewed politics in favor of Howard Odum’s ideal of social planning by “nonpartisan” leaders as the means for advancing the general welfare.
By the end of the 1930s, the journalists were on the defensive. Events overseas, however, seemed to provide a reprieve from pressing social concerns. “Dr. Win the War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal” and the journalists enthusiastically endorsed the war against fascism. World War 11 caused them to abandon the anti-war doctrines which had served as the intellectual foundation of the southern liberal program for gradual reform. Their support for the war undercut an earlier notion that the Civil War had demonstrated the futility of war for principle. Hitler had changed
all of that. There were moral issue worth fighting for. Gerald W. Johnson acknowledged that “the principle of freedom is a unit to the extent that when any man’s freedom is attacked every man’s freedom is threatened.” George Fort Milton proclaimed, “the world cannot endure half slave and half free.” The war became their cause-and their undoing. For when black Americans internalized wartime rhetoric, and publicly endorsed the indivisibility of freedom and democracy, the journalists were forced to confront the color line. When they did, they qualified those very principles which justified the war against Hitler. By the end of the war, the journalists had become apologists for the segregation system and relinquished whatever leadership role they might have played in the emerging civil rights movement.
Kneebone demonstrates quite convincingly that the black protest of the World War II period caught his subjects totally off guard. Clearly, there had been very little communication of consequence between most whites and blacks in the South prior to the war. As Kneebone points out, his journalists along with the rest of the CIC leadership had very limited relations with a very limited number of black leaders, and always with the assumption that “white southern liberals would determine the agenda and set the pace for racial reform.” Charles S. Johnson and others were consulted for their endorsement and cooperation, not for their critical judgment or unqualified participation. The journalists had effectively insulated themselves from the ferment within the black community. This ferment took on sustained momentum and direction during the 1930s when Charles H. Houston and a team of black lawyers around the South began coordinating the legal attack on the segregation system which would culminate with the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Building on the protest surrounding the Scottsboro case, Houston used the courtroom as a classroom to further educate, politicize and organize local blacks. These preliminary efforts helped to revive and expand NAACP membership in the South, which boomed during the war years. The fact that Charles Houston is not mention in Kneebone’s study further suggests the extent to which Kneebone’s subjects ignored the dynamics for change emerging within the black community.
John Kneebone has written a compelling study of the evolution of a predominant strand of southern liberal thought between the wars, and its ultimate demise. However, it is important to note that as Kneebone’s subjects were turning inward, southern liberalism was blossoming through the lives and careers of a number of their contemporaries. Hugo Black, Claude Pepper, Clifford and Virginia Durr, Clark Foreman, Aubrey Williams, Lucy Randolph Mason, C.B. Baldwin, Frank Graham, Palmer Weber, Arthur Raper, Josephine Wilkins and others were also rooted in the southern past. But they looked beyond the Civil War Reconstruction period to the Jeffersonian ideals of the late eighteenth century. These individuals concentrated on givng the democratic process full play in the South, and in the nation. Their concerns complemented the efforts of Charles Houston, Ella Baker, E.D. Nixon, Charles Gomillion, and a host of black leaders throughout the South who were motivated by the promise of the Constitution. Virginia Durr’s Outside the Magic Circle, and Robert J. Norell’s Reaping the Whirlwind are important companion pieces to Kneebone’s Southern Liberal Journalists. Together they help demonstrate the broad range of “liberalism” that should be suggested by the adjective “southern.” They also direct our attention to the New Deal-World War 11 period as an exciting and important era in the history of the South–and of the Civil Rights Movement-and one which historians have just begun to explore.
Patricia Sullivan is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Civil Rights and lecturer in history at the University of Virginia.