A White Progressive Sounds the Trumpet from Inside.
Reviewed by Anthony Dunbar
Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 18-20
Hearts and Minds, A Personal Chronicle of Race in America by Harry S. Ashmore. Foreword by Harold C. Fleming (Cabin John, Maryland: Seven Locks Press. Revised Edition, 1988. $14.95 paper.).
It was an exceptional book when it was first published in 1982, and its 1988 revision, which extends to their finale Ashmore’s treatment of the Reagan years, fills out one man’s sweeping view of the civil rights struggle in America. Harold Fleming has contributed a fond and substantial Foreword to the revised edition, further enriching the book. The subtitle of Hearts and Minds has changed from the earlier edition’s “The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan” to “A Personal Chronicle of Race in America,” a truer characterizing of the book.
Although there is enough sound history to make this book useful as a text, what gives Hearts and Minds its strength are Ashmore’s own glimpses of events and personalities as he knew them over five decades of living in and observing the South. As a South Carolina journalist and later editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the Little Rock crisis, and as an adviser to Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy in their runs for the White House, Ashmore offers profiles aplenty of people in their unguarded moments. I especially liked his picture of the young and pugnacious Thurgood Marshall.
Ashmore began his journalistic career at the “delivery end,” carrying the morning paper in Greenville, South Carolina, the type of area in transition from farms to factories in which the New South originated. His own transition toward objectivity about southern problems began with a two-week trip in 1938 through the Northeast to produce a six-article series exposing the condition of working people in New York City, New England, and Philadelphia. It was a defensive piece–the North is just as bad as the South–and it was enthusiastically reprinted in a number of southern papers. The reception made him uncomfortable, for it came to him that he was implicitly supporting the ill-treatment of southern workers.
He was a World War II infantry captain in Europe, saw blacks in service, and concluded in retrospect that their war experience “marked the real beginning of the civil rights movement.” He was disappointed in his own generation of
white Southerners who fought totalitarianism abroad, who then returned home to stand for office and assert themselves in their communities but, under pressure from their elders, perpetuated the racial status quo.
In 1947 Ashmore became editor of the Arkansas Gazette, the year before Truman’s presentation of a civil rights package to Congress precipitated the Dixiecrat revolt. In those days Ashmore would argue with Walter White, director of the NAACP, that “total dismantlement of institutional segregation was a practical impossibility.” Ashmore was close to the Southern Regional Council and tracks its difficult struggle, under Alexander, Odum, Johnson, Mitchell, and Fleming, to grapple with defining a position on segregation that would not cause the withdrawal of supporters who had clout.
By 1951 the SRC was, if not denouncing, at least discussing the irrationality of segregation, and indeed its perhaps most politically influential whites did proceed to withdraw from the organization. Ashmore, however, when recruited by the Ford Foundation to direct a documentation of the racial disparities in educational programs of the South, which was also a handbook that could be used for post-Brown desegregation orders, drew upon the expertise of those who had stayed in the fray, principally John Griffin and Harold Fleming but other SRCers as well.
As an editor Ashmore placed his Gazette at the opposite dole on the spectrum of establishment press from James J. Kilpatrick’s Richmond News-Leader. The Gazette was the primary institutional target of segregationists during the battle at Little Rock’s Central High. In retrospect Ashmore claims that his own position was easy since, “By natural process of prior selection most of our close friends shared the views expressed in the Gazette, and those whose opinions shaded off to the right or left maintained our company because they enjoyed arguing with us.” He credits a fusion of the country club set and the black community, more than the presence of federal troops, for keeping the lid on the city and ultimately keeping control of the schools away from the allies of Governor Orval Faubus. Eisenhower, who like Reagan later had power to foster peaceful change but didn’t, is one of Ashmore’s special villains.
Ashmore took leave from the Gazette in September 1955 to work in Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential campaign as a speechwriter and crafter of positions. He takes credit for pushing Stevenson toward a clearer position on civil rights, which might he summed up as, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown is right and is the law. President Eisenhower’s failure to affirm that, or even to convene white and black leadership to discuss how Brown could he implemented, earns him Ashmore’s contempt.
Ashmore began pulling up stakes in the South after 1959 when he became an officer of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, and then editor-in-chief of a revision of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Consequently, his blow-by-blow account of the civil rights battlefield suffers, for he watched it from afar.
His appreciation of the anti-Vietnam War mobilization and of the political currents of the 1970s is strong. I would take issue with his description of the college student movement in the 1960s, as a disorganized collection of “partially educated free spirits who expected their further development to result not from disciplined intellectual inquiry but from the liberated libido,” as the viewpoint of a Southerner lost in California. It looked a little more serious to those of us who were on and off campus in those years. While Ashmore opposed the Vietnam War, he was not a marcher because, he says, of his aversion to those males who avoided military service not from moral conviction but from physical cowardice. I (a marcher) was fortunate to know more of the former than the latter.
The first person quality of Hearts and Minds trails off during the Nixon presidency, and the historian takes over. As for Jimmy Carter, he “came along after my time in the South, and I never knew him.”
The history of the civil rights movement has now become a well-paved road. What is special about Hearts and Minds is Ashmore himself, his own path, those whose paths he crossed, and the perspective–that of a white progressive within the Establishment–that he represents. Added value is given to the history he relates by Ashmore’s thesis–drawn from personal experience–that there was a humane and temperate quality in the South that made change possible.
What the South’s reactionary leaders of the 1950s, even its intellectual apologists like J. William Fulbright, ignored, and those who retrospectively evaluate the causes of change overlook, is, he says, “the fact that the Southern environment also contained a remarkable reservoir of interracial goodwill. Had this not been so, the Southern cities could not have opened their public and private facilities to blacks so rapidly and with so little disorder.
When the federal courts unleashed the spreading blade protest movement and made it clear that there was no practical alternative to desegregation, ordinary white citizens proved to be ahead of their leaders; the new breed of moderate politicians who emerged in the 1960s did not produce the change, but were produced by it.”
In the new end revised Chapters, those dealing with the Reagan presidency, Ashmore soundly drubs Reaganomics, especially the president’s “failure to devise a system that could salvage underclass youngsters.” Of Reagan he says, “His insensitivity was rooted in his conviction that there was no serious racial discrimination in America, and indeed no enduring poverty.” It is a disturbing conclusion to Ashmore’s chronicle. For to him, the march toward civil rights is continuing and “may yet be reckoned the most profound social change mankind has accomplished without resort to violence.” I am pleased to report that a writer of Ashmore’s stature and vintage is still sounding that trumpet.
SRC member Anthony Dunbar is a New Orleans writer and lawyer. His latest book, Delta Times, reflects on Mississippi’s Delta and its people.