The South Revisited
By Stetson Kennedy
Vol. 9, No. 4, 1987, pp. 4-7
“One difference between you and most of the Southerners who pioneered in the reform movement of the Thirties and Forties is that you are still alive,” one of the editors of Southern Changes said to me. “That is why we would like to get from you, against the background of your experiences then, your view of what is happening in the South today, and its prospects for the future.”
So, across the span of the 40 years which have elapsed since my book Southern Exposure, here goes. My intent- I suppose I should warn at the outset-is not to harp upon “great progress made,” out rather to suggest that there is urgent need now for someone (else) to write a Southern Exposure II, calling for yet a Third Reconstruction.
With a view to getting our hearings, let’s start with a backward look at the South that was.
No matter how you looked at it, the 1930 Census was a revolutionary document. Not only the statistics, but the bowlegs of pellagra attested that the American South was one of the major hunger areas of the world. And the Great Depression was making an already-horrendous situation infinitely worse.
The honest observer had no choice but to characterize the South as a feudalistic, colonial, undeveloped, largely illiterate, disease-ridden Jim Crow apartheid society ruled by a racist one-party white oligarchy. (And so I did.)
Anyone interested in getting a quick fix on the way it was (if not satisfied by my Southern Exposure) need only turn to the collection of oral histories gathered by the WPA Writers Project and published by W. T. Couch as These Are Our Lives at Chapel Hill, and to the mirror held up by Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White in You Have Seen Their Faces. Beyond that, for an in-depth focus, the literature is copious.
The feudalism which had replaced chattel slavery was characterized by the commissary system, peonage, share cropping, and tenant farming. Family “dirt farmers” were being “tractored off the land.” The specter of a mechanical cottonpicker loomed over the horizon, threatening to make rural blacks “surplus people.” (Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge’s solution was to plant cotton along Peachtree Street “so city folks could see what it looked like.”)
Industry remained largely extractive, with discriminatory freight rates conspiring to keep the South a colony of the industrial North. The last of the South’s timber fell to the “cut out and get out” lumber barons, and naval stores (turpentine) shifted from the Carolinas to Georgia and Florida and back again, as slash pines were bled to death and then given time to replenish. When in rare instances an FBI agent would venture into a camp in search of peonage, he was jailed for trespass.
Malaria, dengue (“breakbone fever), and hookworm were endemic, the incidence of the latter being one hundred percent among rural Southerners at some point in life (principally acquired by going barefoot to the outhouse). Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins observed that “A social revolution would take place if shoes were put on the people of the South,” to which Senator Duncan Fletcher of Florida rejoined, “There is a considerable colored population in the South who would regard it as a distinct punishment to be required to wear shoes.”
In the early Thirties most of the South’s roads were still made of clay, and everybody waved whenever an automobile went by in a cloud of dust. “Rural electrification” was still largely a New Deal promise, and rural housing com-
monly lacked running water and window screens. FDR was putting it mildly when he said that one-third of the nation was ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. One of my black neighbors put it even more eloquently when he described his shanty as having “so many cracks in the walls you could see as much of the outside from the inside as you could if you went out the door.” He went on to state that once a week the company commissary offered “all kinds” of fresh meat-“pig feet, pig tail, pig ears, neckbone, sowbelly, hog maw, and all such as that.”
Black children who were in school at all were typically to be found-all ages-in one-room structures, presided over if they were lucky by a teacher paid by the Rosenwald Foundation.
The Jim Crow system of compulsory racial segregation-our American prototype of apartheid-was all-pervasive, unchallenged by any but a few random black martyrs. The Klan said that Jim Crow was here to stay, and just about everyone, no matter how they might feel, was obliged to agree that it looked that way. Through the centuries, the institution had taken on the aura of the sacrosanct, and those of us who were so inclined, and took to heart Sandburg’s admonition to level “old walls and crumbling foundations,” were hard put to find any fissures.
In housing, transportation, accommodations, recreation, education, religion, employment, government, and the armed services, segregation was de rigeur. Not just the South but the USA was no less an integrally racist society than is the U of SA today. And if anyone thinks Botha is being intransigent, he should have been around (in 1935) when Oklahoma Gov. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray swore to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling against racial zoning by invoking martial law in perpetuity if need be.
I mean, those were the days when the Florida Times Union reported, “Marion* sang well last night,” and ran classifieds reading:
Neat colored girl wanted for maid. No Yankee talker need apply.
Just what this sort of thing meant to the black domestic was fully explained by one, who told interviewers from Fisk, “I feeds white folks with a long spoon.” With my own eyes I saw blacks refrain from getting in line to buy a postage stamp, until all white folks had gotten theirs. Myrdal notwithstanding, a black old-timer said it all: “When you in Rome, Georgia, you got to act like it.”
As for the halls of government throughout the South, they were “lily-white.” White rule-even in the 191 counties where (counted) blacks were in the majority-was made easy by a combination of state – and vigilante-terrorism, and such institutions as the white Democratic primary and a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting. With the electorate in these “free elections” thus reduced to a minimum, the same old rabid racists were resumed to Congress time after time. What with the committee chairmanships they garnered by virtue of seniority, the “South” was firmly in the saddle.
Up against a system so entrenched and seemingly formidable, we of Uncle Sam’s Loyal Opposition could not help but feel like Li’l David sallying forth to meet Goliath. There was never any shortage of individual blacks, of both sexes, to defy the system at the risk of life or limb. They paid the price, but results were not immediately apparent. As for whites, one could become an instant agitator merely by shaking hands with a black. Breach of the interracial etiquette was quite enough to get one driven into internal exile.
In my own case, I was still in attendance at Robert E. Lee High School when my classmates began to ask each other, “What got into Stet?” They were simply at a loss to understand why I did not want to take part in their favorite sport, sideswiping black grocery-delivery boys on their loaded bikes.
Not many years later, one of my sisters remarked at table, “I do believe you would rather be with n-s than with us,” whereupon I rose and said, “As a matter of fact, I would.” It was on those terms that my family and I parted company, and the separation has continued by mutual consent through all the decades since, with no other communication than an occasional poison-pen letter addressed to “Mr. BLACKsheep.”
Such cases are not uncommon in Southern history. They had their prototypes during Reconstruction, when the press exhorted “Southern womanhood” not to “bestow any favors” upon any man, Southern or Northern, who allied himself politically with blacks. A more recent example was that of Federal Judge J. Waites Waring of South Carolina, who in 1947 handed down a major decision against the white primary. He was obliged to take his family out of the South, at least for a time.
All thought of somehow changing the system was up against the fact that there was no organizational channel through which to do it. A few people, taking a fundamentalist view of Marxist texts, tried to sell the notion that the only hope for black liberation was through proletarian revolution. But blacks refused to listen, much less buy.
The only mass black organization around was the church, but it was no longer the church-militant of Reconstruction, when the AME had led its flock out onto the railroad tracks in a forlorn effort to halt the first Jim Crow coaches.
Although Thurgood Marshall, as chief counsel of the NAACP, was waging his perennial fight in the Supreme Court against that cornerstone of American apartheid, the spurious “separate-but-equal” doctrine, leadership of the Southern NAACP branches was largely in the hands of “hanky-head” churchmen-with some notable exceptions, such as the Evers brothers in Mississippi, and Robert Saunders and Harry Moore in Florida. As for the Urban
League, it was locked into its traditional preoccupation with the problems of the rural blacks who were flocking to the cities.
And as for the widespread economic and social problems besetting white and black Southerners alike, the worldwide Depression had stirred critical faculties to a degree seldom equaled before or since. There was general apprehension that such crises would prove to be cyclical, and therefore the system itself must be at fault, and in need of integral revision. Under the heading “Never again!” it was not only legitimate but fashionable to probe for roots of the problem.
My father, an agrarian turned merchant, avowed that all of man’s problems began when he began to take his food from a paper bag instead of the good earth. “Back to the land” subsistence farming movements proliferated, but to little avail. Town or country, those were “root-hog-or-die” days.
The New Deal came by way of response. By surrounding himself with guys and gals of goodwill (as contradistinguished from gimlet-eyed corporation lawyers), FDR came up with a broad array of redemptive measures: Social Security, unemployment compensation, a twenty-five cent minimum wage, the right to organize and bargain, WPA and CCC jobs on public works, farm loans, public housing, and regional development projects like TVA and Grand Coulee. Except for subsidies of their own operations, the “economic royalists” denounced the entire package as “inspired by Moscow.”
Roosevelt also appointed a Commission of prominent Southerners, who in 1938 produced a Report on the Economic Condition of the South, labeling the region “the Nation’s economic problem no. 1.” This document was destined to prove even more of a turning-point in Southern history than the compromise peace sealed by Booker T. Washington or the New South speech of Henry Woodfin Grady.
Indeed, the Report was to become the Magna Carta of all of us who were interested in regional reform, and it was pursuant to it that the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) was launched later that year. Compelled by police to segregate at its first meeting in Birmingham, the SCHW pledged never again to meet where it would be required to segregate, and it did not.
We inveighed, resolved, educated, exposed, petitioned, and protested with all our might, but it was mostly indoor activity, and a far cry from the sit-ins, freedom marches and confrontations that were yet to come. Even so, it was the victories won then, the exercise of the rights to organize and vote, and the campaigns to curb lynching and Klan terror, which paved the way for the Big Push of subsequent decades.
It was in the mid-Thirties that the CIO announced it was coming South “to organize the unorganized, white and black in the same union.” To this the KKK responded, “We shall fight horror with horror”: What the Klan had in mind was exemplified shortly afterward, when five men picked up CIO organizer Frank Norman at his home in Lakeland, Fla., and drove off with him-forever.
It so happened that while the Klan et al. were going about the business of perpetuating apartheid and white rule in America, a man named Hitler set out to impose “Master Race” dominion over Europe.
The coming of WW II was seized upon by employers all across the country as an opportunity to tell workers that it was their patriotic duty not to strike, and for white supremacists to tell blacks it was their patriotic duty not to protest. Happily, blacks refused to listen to such nonsense. My fellow Floridian, A. Philip Randolph, put it neatly on the
letterhead of his March on Washington Movement: “Winning Democracy for the Negro is Winning the War for Democracy.”
As wars sometimes will, WW II gave rise to speculation as to what it was we were fighting for. At the outset, the Army put out a four-page indoctrination pamphlet on “Fascism,” but it was speedily withdrawn, and no one in official U.S. circles has used the word since. FDR eventually came up with his “Four Freedoms” (who can name them now?), and the CIO waxed eloquent about “jobs for all” and a voice in management. From Britain came the Beveridge Report, with its vision of the “Garden Cities of Tomorrow.” Seemingly out of nowhere came the war song:
There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover Tomorrow when the world is free…
In short, all over the world, everybody who was anybody (or thought they were) was inspired to expound upon “The World We Fight For.” I saved every bit that came to hand, and, a scant 20 years later, sent a file drawer full to the New York Public Library. From Acquisitions came the tart reply: “In future kindly query us before sending such stuff, as we have no room for it.” Sic semper casus belli.
After the manner of Lincoln, who sugar-coated the Emancipation Proclamation by billing it as a war measure to weaken the Confederacy, Roosevelt promulgated by executive order a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), billing it as a win-the-war necessity for employers to make the most of manpower reserves. The foot leading to black liberation was in the door. The Klan’s contribution to the war effort was to try to slam the door shut by running want-ads “Are You on the Job? The KKK Is Watching You!”-the intent being to keep blacks picking crops at pennies-per-pound instead of seeking more lucrative defense jobs. FDR in effect countered by having the IRS tack a $670,000 jeopardy tax lien on the KKK’s Imperial Palace in Atlanta, effectively shuttling it down for the duration, the Wizard simply boarding it up and retiring to Miami.
It had been a very long time indeed since blacks had issued any ultimatums, but in the Durham Statement, adopted in 1942, they served notice that Jim Crow would have to go. By way of response, the Southern Regional Council was formed later that year, absorbing the old Commission on Interracial Cooperation. At birth, the SRC was engulfed in controversy as to whether it should stand four-square with the Durham Statement against segregation per se, or-as a matter of conviction or strategy-delimit its programme to seeking amelioration of discrimination. The fear was that if “Mr. Charlie” were told up front that the end goal was desegregation, he would stonewall every attempt at movement.
The magazine Common Ground, edited by Margaret Anderson, became a focal point for airing the controversy. Lillian Smith got in the first words: “Not much is going to be done to bring about racial democracy by this group until its leaders accept and acknowledge publicly the basic truth that segregation is injuring us on every level of our life and is so intolerable to the human spirit that we, all of us, black and white, must bend every effort to rid our minds, hearts, and culture of it.”
In a subsequent issue, SRC director Guy Johnnson was given the opportunity to respond:
“Our goal is democracy and equality of opportunity. We are striving to improve the social, civic, and economic life of our region in spite of a deep-seated and undemocratic pattern of segregation…Personally, I should rather capture the foothills…than merely to point out the distant peak…”
Then, “to kick the controversy another step forward,” Anderson published a chapter, “Total Equality, and How to Get it,” from my forthcoming Southern Exposure. The strategy I proposed was for blacks to arm themselves with ballots in one hand and union cards in the other, and then, arm-in-arm in solidarity with their white union brothers, launch an all-out frontal assault upon all barriers.
Sad to say, wartime America was not all that keen on white/black solidarity. Although some GI Joe was being quoted as saying, “up front, you’re damned glad to see somebody in the right color uniform, regardless of what color his skin is,” on the home-front what were virtually anti-black pogroms took place in Texas, Detroit, and elsewhere.
There was talk in some circles, not only of war against the Reds when the war against the Axis was over, but war against blacks as well. When in 1944 the Supreme Court dealt a death-blow to the white primary, a portent of the struggles to come could be heard in the typical reaction of South Carolina state senator John D. Long: “As for the Negro voting in my primary, we’ll fight him at the precinct meeting, we’ll fight him at the county convention, we’ll fight him at the enrollment books, and, by God, we’ll fight him at the polls if I have to bite the dust as did my ancestors!”
Stetson Kennedy wrote extensively for the labor and black press, was Southeastern editorial director of CIO-PAC, and is the author of Southern Exposure, Palmetto Country, and I Rode With the Klan. He lives near Jacksonville, Fla.