Black and White and Rosy.
Reviewed by Charles J. Bussey
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 17-18
Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present by David R Goldfield (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. xviii, pp. 321.)
The American South reminds me of ancient Sparta. Both were entrapped by their past, by their fear of change, and by their using every means at their disposal to keep outside ideas and people away. The charge “outside agitator” was prevalent in Sparta, as it was in the American South. David Goldfield’s book, Black, White and Southern, reinforces this analogy.
“Appearances are important in the South,” writes Goldfield, “and white Southerners have a great capacity for ignoring unpleasant things…. But at some point it is no longer possible to pretend.” Goldfield has written a book using religious metaphors. “It is,” as he says in his preface, “. . .a book about redemption, a Southern story that begins by defining the sin of white supremacy and how it poisoned a region and its people; it continues by relating how that sin came to be expiated, and how the sinner and the redeemer managed to be transformed without destroying their unique land, the South…. ”
Goldfield’s analysis of “racial etiquette” is provocative, and I think correct in the conclusion that it “was, above all, a system of control.” Southern racial etiquette bolstered the notion of white supremacy and strengthened the concept of black inferiority. By treating blacks as less than human, white Southerners turned the American Dream upside down. Blacks got their small rewards when they lived down to low expectations, were punished when they attempted to secure an education or to develop landowning ambitions. Loud protests to the contrary, white Southerners like my Mississippi family never knew or understood their black neighbors.
In fact, they only rarely saw them. William Alexander Percy understood that, and wrote in 1941 “that whites and blacks live side by side, exchange affection liberally, and believe they have an innate and miraculous understanding of one another. But the sober fact is we understand one another not at all.” The Mississippi Delta aristocrat was right, but was as trapped as the rest of the white South and could take no action.
Goldfield is especially articulate and convincing in
analyzing change in the South. He argues persuasively that change had to come from outside the region. There was too much accommodation within, even from white Southern liberals, for change to have occurred unaided inside the region. “White Southern liberals,” he said, “were not only marginal to the process of change, but in some cases actually inhibited it; and the intrusion of the outside world did not set back the cause of racial equality but, to the contrary, enhanced its chances for success.”
One thing particularly disturbing to me, a white Southerner, was the “respectable resistance” movement led by white intellectuals and members of the aristocracy. A key figure in resisting the 1954 Brown decision to integrate the school was James Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick, today a respected conservative and syndicated columnist, wrote editorial after editorial in the 1950s and early 1960s in support of the dual school system, offering arcane arguments to support an anachronistic way of life.
Although this is not a history of the civil rights movement, Goldfield provides an adequate account of that era. But though he emphasizes the role of school desegregation in bringing change to the South, he fails to mention the role of Head Start. From the beginning, key administrators of that most successful of the “Great Society” programs viewed Head Start as a tool for integration. Julius Richmond, the first Director of Project Head Start, said that Head Start began “with a very conscious determination…to…develop integrated programs.” Although not always successful, Richmond said, Head Start at least “highlighted the issue, and we kept working toward this and communities kept learning that we were serious about this.”
Goldfield is not very convincing in his argument that Southern mores have shifted regarding race. He believes that “the debate over black poverty has shifted from race to class issues…. ” And that “for the crusade against economic injustice, Southern blacks and whites are likely to be partners.”
There is considerable evidence that race remains vitally important as a Southern dynamic and as an inhibiting factor in the fight against poverty. Likewise, there is a significant debate going on right now concerning the effect integration has had on improving the quality of life for blacks in both the North and the South. The July 1990 issue of Sojourners magazine, for example, is devoted to that very question; one of the authors argues, for example, that integration was co-opted by whites. Goldfield is, I think, more optimistic than current circumstances warrant. His desire, along with mine, is that black and white together can descend from “the mountaintops of hope” to “the green valleys of complete equality and justice.” That, however, remains a dream, not a foreseeable reality.
Nonetheless, Goldfield’s book is an important contribution for people who seek to understand being black, white and southern. His bibliographical essay is thorough and provides a key starting point for any reader.
Originally from Mississippi, Charles Bussey now is on the History faculty of Western Kentucky University. He is researching the life and work of Julius Richmond, the architect and first director of Head Start.