A brave voice in the wilderness

A brave voice in the wilderness

Reviewed by John Egerton

Vol. 14, No. 2, 1992, pp. 29-30

Simple Decency & Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement, 1938-1963, by Linda Reed. (Indiana University Press, 1991. 257 pp.).

In a half-century of painful fits and starts preceding Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott, a thin trickle of Southerners, white and black, opposed the angry tide of racial discrimination that flowed from region-wide passage of the segregation laws.

The efforts were meager, halting, ambivalent, and finally, woefully inadequate. On a few occasions, independent people and delegates from Southern organizations and institutions came together in hopes of finding comprehensive solutions to the region’s social problems.

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Such gatherings sometimes emboldened people to be more frankly and outspokenly critical, more courageous, than they dared to be alone.

Of all these collective quests for what historian Linda Reed calls simple decency and common sense, none was bigger or more ambitious–or initially more promising–than the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, an all-Southern network of progressives organized in Birmingham in November 1938.

Reed’s book is the first full-scale treatment of the SCHW and its education and research wing, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, since Thomas A. Krueger’s book, And Promises to Keep, was published 25 years ago. With the benefit of those additional years of hindsight, historians can now put these two groups in sharper perspective, and Reed does that well. Of particular value is her assessment of the increasing activism of SCEF after it split with the founding group and the latter folded in 1948 (Krueger’s study didn’t go beyond that date.)

Among the strengths of Reed’s study is her discourse on the realization among white liberals in the organizations that Jim Crow laws were at the root of the South’s social, cultural, political, and economic malaise (most blacks had long since figured that out). With insight and sensitivity, she shows how massive was the resistance to such outspoken whites as James Dombrowski, Clark Foreman, Aubrey Williams, and Virginia Durr, all of whom were branded as radicals and eventually as Communists by the reactionaries in power. It was red-baiting, in fact, as much as anything else, that finally sealed the doom of the two organizations.

The involvement of some prominent public figures of the time in SCHW and SCEF activities–Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Porter Graham, Mary McLeod Bethune–is well-handled here though not much is added to earlier accounts. Of more interest to me is the new and revealing material on some lesser-known activists, both white and black, whose contributions to the cause of racial justice deserve wider attention. In this group are such people as Carl and Anne Braden, Osceola McKaine, Witherspoon Dodge, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lucy Randolph Mason, Paul Christopher, Maury Maverick, Homer P. Rainey, and John B. Thompson.

Well before Brown and Montgomery, a remnant of Southerners of both races tried to point the way to a season of social change that they saw as long overdue, ultimately inevitable, and in the best interests of the region and its people.

For their idealism and vision, says Linda Reed, they paid a high price. Her book brings a fascinating band of progressive Southerners into focus, some of them for the first time, and follows them from the late thirties into the sixties. They bear following, and remembering. So does this book.

John Egerton lives in Nashville and from there describes, comments on, and interprets the South with rare quality and distinction.