The Continuum of Struggle
Reviewed by Calvin Kytle
Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995 pp. 21-22
Georgia in Black and White: Explorations in the Race Relations of a Southern State, 1865-1950, edited by John C. Inscoe (University of Georgia Press, 1994, 312 pages).
If, like me, you went to school during the South’s long Age of Denial, and if, like me, your introduction to Southern history came years before it was corrected by C. Vann Woodward, this book will come as a revelation.
Georgia in Black and White is a collection of eleven essays written by graduate students in history at the University of Georgia. Together, the essays constitute a survey of the state’s racial history from the end of the Civil War until the first sparks of the civil rights movement 95 years later.
Foremost, this book is an example of a trend in Southern historical research that, as editor John Inscoe explains in his introduction, “challenges the earlier assumption of W.J. Cash, Lillian Smith, and others as to the rigidity and perpetuity of the racial order of the pre-Civil Rights South.”
What the authors give us, among other things, is confirmation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ observation that “the color line” during this period was far less rigid and absolute than most of us have been led to believe. The Georgia after Emancipation it describes is no less violent, no less spiritually rent, than in previous accounts. Nor is there any effort to make the case that it was anything other than a society in which, to quote the dying words of a black bishop, “no matter what social or political changes might appear, the white man would be on top.” Still, by focusing on specific individuals, many of whom would qualify as heroes, as well as showing them in action and interaction during critical episodes in illustrative settings, the authors move us into a new dimension and give us sometimes startling new insights. They identify a culture in which relations between the races were intricate and ambiguous, in which attitudes shifted imperceptibly with the exigencies of time, place, and human nature. The cumulative effect of their work is to explain, better than any other history to come to my attention, the twists and turns in the continuum of struggle that preceded the civil rights victories of the 1960. It deserves a place on the shelf right next to John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day.
There is material here that one writer with a gift for narrative could shape into a popular piece of literary non-fiction. But as is almost inevitable in any anthology by writers of varying talent, the prose is of uneven quality, and there is more redundancy in the collected pieces than a less kind editor would have permitted. This is not a book to be valued for style. Its importance and its utility derive from the richness of its content, almost all of which is
enlightening and much of which has the fascination of fresh discovery.
I, for instance, had never before heard of Abram Colby, a freedman from Greene County. Colby was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1868, was beaten by Klansmen and left for dead, and survived to be reelected to a second term in 1870 following another attempt on his life two days before the election. When a group of merchants had earlier offered him $2,500 to resign his seat, he refused; Colby wouldn’t do it, he said, “for all the wealth in Greene County.” I long ago rejected the version of Reconstruction sopped up from repeated viewings of Birth of a Nation in my childhood (it was one of my father’s favorite movies), but even so, I had never quite seen the Reconstruction period so clearly as the tragedy of human betrayal it was until I read the story of this idealistic and steadfast black man.
Similarly, I now see Governor Rufus Bullock as a political figure of considerably more substance than Margaret Mitchell represented him to be in Gone with the Wind. To draw from the evidence in Georgia in Black and White, Bullock was a man of principle who on more than one occasion stood by his black constituents at great personal cost.
I read Georgia in Black and White with admiration and appreciation for everybody who had anything to do with it–especially the eleven students (who are, I hope, continuing to look into other neglected corners of Southern history) and their professors, Numan V. Bartley and William McFeely. I consider it one of the more validating signs of basic social reform, of which we have too few, that students in a publicly-supported Georgia institution are now free to pursue research into matters that less than two generations ago were taboo. It seems only yesterday that the president of Georgia Tech was prohibited by an act of the legislature from using state funds to pay the salary of Glenn Rainey, an outspoken English professor; Rainey’s chief credentials as a radical were that he opposed the county unit system and the poll tax, and thought blacks had a right to vote.
My other reactions were more personal than I find it comfortable to admit. Reflecting on the depth and direction of contemporary scholarship exemplified in these essays, I have been embarrassingly alerted to my ignorance, particularly of what really went on immediately after the Civil War and during the early years of Jim Crow. As one the “white Southern liberals” of the 1940s whose collective experience is now a subject for such scholarship, I can’t quite account for my failure to have learned more about the source and eddies of the current that moved me.
This book also made me feel deprived, for on almost every page was something to remind me how, in the classroom of my youth, Southern history was taught–or rather, how it was sanitized, romanticized, bowdlerized, and significantly suppressed.
The Georgia public schools in my day–say from 1926 to 1937–were tacit agents of a culture in which the Confederacy was celebrated and white supremacy was the governing theology. I can still hear Miss Bolton in our civics class at O’Keefe Junior High: “You will not speak of the Civil War in this room. It was not a civil war, and no true child of the South ever calls it that. It was…” a significant pause here until she’d satisfied herself that we were listening, and then, almost reverentially, “…it was the War Between the States.”
At no time was I taught anything about the origins of the war, by whatever name (my Uncle Ray unfailingly called it “The War of Northern Aggression”). Aside from the dirty pictures in my head implanted by D.W. Griffith, I knew nothing about Reconstruction other than what I inferred from Henry Grady’s “New South” speech, which I’d had to memorize for a declamation contest.
I entered Emory at a time when Hitler was rising and our minds were turned to events abroad. History, as I recall, was an elective, and European history was generally preferred. The sum of my knowledge of the Civil War obtained there was from a course in American biography that dealt chiefly with Robert E. Lee. In sociology, I remember much talk about community and individualism, and nothing about race relations. When members of my class auditioned for the Glee Club, we were asked to sing a few bars of “01′ Black Joe.”
Whatever civilized feelings I had about race during my teens can be credited not to my teachers but to an experience one summer at an Epworth League leader-ship training institute, which in the detached setting of Lake Junaluska, dared raised the possibility that segregation might be un-Christian. What I’ve learned of the hard facts about the biracial society I was born into began a few years later when, sometime in the 1940s, an older friend thrust upon me a copy of Vann Woodward’s mind-opening biography of Tom Watson.
How I wish that in those formative years somebody could have given me a copy of Georgia in Black and White.
Calvin Kytle is a retired publisher living in Chapel Hill, N. C. He was the author of “Race in the News” (1950), the Southern Regional Council’s first study of discrimination in the press, and served briefly as deputy director of the U.S. Community Relations Service in the 1960s.