Reviewed by John Egerton
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 22-23
Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist, by Ann Waldron (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1993, 369 pages).
All through the late 1950s and early ’60s, as Mississippi led the white South into its second stinging lost-cause humiliation in less than a century, you could have collected the Magnolia State’s voices of sanity in the back room of Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville—and they would have rattled around like B-Bs in a boxcar.
There was the historian James Silver at Ole Miss, eventually to be run out of the state. (Will Campbell had already departed.) Silver’s Oxford neighbor William Faulkner sometimes wrote or spoke eloquently about the South’s afflictions. There were a few editors—Oliver Emmerich in McComb, Ira Harkey in Pascagoula, Hazel Brannon Smith in Lexington, George McLean in Tupelo, and the quixotic P.D. East in Pedal, down by Meridian. No doubt a few others were scattered here and there, risking life and limb by expressing the radical belief that federal laws and court rulings applied to the South, yea, even to Mississippi.
And there was Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of Greenville’s Delta Democrat-Times. He had been at it for much longer than the others—since the 1930s—and he was an inspiration to them: an aggressive and pugnacious journalist of the old school, a man more devoted to his craft than to his business, more committed to finding and publishing the truth than to the get along-go along boosterism so common among, small-city publishers.
The combination of his fearless attacks in the DD-T on racial intolerance and his national exposure through books, magazines articles, and a Pulitzer Prize made him the most prominent white Mississippi in the uncrowded field of social criticism. He never ducked a fight. After the Mississippi House of Representatives censured him by a vote of eighty-nine to nineteen in 1955, Carter put his angry response on page one: “I herewith resolve by a vote of one to zero that there are 89 liars in the state legisla-
ture,” and “those 89 character mobbets can go to hell collectively or singly and wait there until I back down.”
By Mississippi standards, Hodding Carter was a flaming liberal, a prominent and prosperous white man who refused to defend the unequal and unjust patterns of white supremacy that the majority accepted uncritically as the Southern Way of Life. From a wider perspective—and with the aid of hindsight—he looks more like a flaming moderate, a man who insisted throughout his career that he favored segregation (as late as 1963, he threatened to sue his publisher for calling him “one of the South’s leading integrationists”).
In the context of his time and place, it seems a bit simplistic and misleading to call him a racist, as the title of Ann Waldron’s warts-and-all biography of Carter does. The tag certainly applied when he took his Louisiana Confederate sensitivities to college in Maine in the 1920s, but when he got to Greenville in 1936, he was instantly in conflict with the undisputed king of Southern racists, Senator Theodore Bilbo, and for the next eighty years Carter’s editorial dueling pistols were seldom holstered.
As a native Southerner herself (a University of Alabama graduate who has worked for papers in Atlanta, Tampa, St. Petersburg, And Houston), Ann Waldron is not at all uncomfortable with or perplexed by the ambiguities in the Carter chronicle; such seemingly contradictory twists and turns are so much in keeping with regional character that they hardly need explaining. With a good reporter’s unflinching detachment, she builds her fact-rich chronology brick by brick, without much interpretive mortar in the joints.
The emerging portrait captures the editor and author, his wife Betty Werlein Carter of New Orleans, their three sons, and to a lesser degree their friends and family, the river city of Greenville, the state of Mississippi, and the South. Betty Carter’s substantial contribution to her husband’s career (in quiet sacrifice of her own ambitions) is an integral part of the story, and so are the triumphs and tragedies of their sons.
Hodding Carter himself is the primary figure throughout, of course, and several things about him stick in the mind. One is his love of writing, his obsession with its unending challenge, and his prolific outpouring of work—editorials, magazine articles, books (about twenty in all) of contemporary fact and opinion, history, fiction, and even poetry. Another is his complex character: courtly and combative, soft-hearted and hot-tempered, pro-Roosevelt and anti-Truman (and an Eisenhower backer in 1952), puritanical, honor-driven, past-haunted, patriotic, hard-drinking, given to bouts of depression.
He was better at attacking than defending, as witness his blistering campaigns against Huey Long and other Southern demagogues, the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, the Communists, Joe McCarthy, the NAACP, the Dixiecrats, smugly self-righteous Northerners, the White Citizens’ Council, civil rights activists working in Mississippi, protesters against the war in Vietnam. On the other side, he stood up for Greenville, for civil liberties, for underdogs, for fairness and justice, for the Constitution, and for the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954 (the court could not have done otherwise, he said, “in light of democratic and Christian principles”).
There is much to reflect upon in Waldron’s telling of this extraordinary man’s productive but short life (he died at sixty-five in 1972, and his last decade was eclipsed by blindness and a multitude of other infirmities, physical and mental). Waldron has dug deep for the facts, and organized them well.
Too seldom, for my taste, does she venture to explain or interpret or analyze the facts, or to offer her opinion on their meaning. Once in a while, though, she lays it out there—as, for example, near the end of the book, when she concludes that “the persecution he suffered” was a factor in Carter’s deterioration:
“The people of Mississippi literally drove him crazy. It is a miracle that this proud and sensitive man endured for as long as he did the calumny, the slurs, the insults, the abuse, and the ridicule that his neighbors poured upon him. Perhaps the bitter segregationists did not drive him out of town … but their evil, malicious words helped break his spirit and his mind.”
Now there’s an informed judgment with some meat on it.
The thing I always liked about Hodding Carter was his willingness—his aggressive eagerness—to tell you what he thought. You didn’t have to agree with everything he said to admire his forthrightness and courage. He was probably as much of an integrationist as any white Mississippian of his time could be, and stay in the game. Ann Waldron presents him in such a way that his strengths and flaws seem altogether real and human and understandable. I think Carter the journalist, the reporter, the editor, would have admired very much the thorough job she did.
Nashville writer John Egerton’s latest book on Southern history, Speak Now Against The Day, will be published in the fall of 1994.