Salute to the Vanguard
Letter from Stetson Kennedy
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 30-31
I feel obliged to take processor in hand to take exception to David J. Garrow’s review [Southern Changes, Spring 1995] of John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, which chronicles the largely untold story of the civil rights movement from 1932 to 1954.
It is bad enough that Garrow has sought to brush off so notable a contribution, but intolerable that, in so doing, he should also seek to dismiss as “timid liberals” that vanguard generation which provided its full share of militants and martyrs whose struggles and sacrifices made The Overcoming of the ’60s far less bloody than it otherwise would have been. Too much timidity there was, but there was also audacity aplenty.
That is not just my generation that Garrow is derogating; it is the one which gave birth to the SRC, SCHW, CIO, Highlander, and the book What the Negro Wants, among innumerable other things. Not many of us are left alive, and in deciding to undertake the task of rebuttal I have asked myself–as I did upon infiltrating the KKK during WW II–“If I don’t, who will?” Besides, I owe it to Myles Horton, who said to me shortly before he died, “They like to think they have defanged and declawed us, but we know better, don’t we?”
There wasn’t a timorous bone in Myles or Zilphia, nor Florida NAACP leader Harry T. Moore, who together with his wife Harriett was blown up in bed on Christmas night, 1951. Nor in Lucy Randolph Mason, James Dombrowski, Mary McCleod Bethune, Virginia Durr, Kit Schryver, Louis Burnham, Mrs. Dorothy M.E. Tilly, Witherspoon Dodge, Fred Shuttlesworth, Aubrey Williams, Frank Graham, Josephine Wilkins, and a whole host of others whose names do not appear on that monument in Montgomery, but upon whom Egerton bestows long overdue credit.
Actually, what we are up against is in part a problem in semantics, living as we now do under a Dark Age tyranny of misdefinitions, when all one has to do to be elected President of the United States is to point at one’s opponent and say “L-word!”
Garrow’s primeval error lies in not taking into full account the fact that in those days the South and Nation constituted an integrally racist, white supremacist (not to mention male supremacist) , apartheid society. The hard-won Civil War amendments to the Bill of Rights were still writ on paper, but had been dead letters for more than half a century.
Back then, no hint of dissent, no matter how slight, could take refuge behind the liberal shield, but was promptly branded as arch-radical and positively subversive. The Klan said the Bible said that Jim Crow was God’s will and therefore eternal, and anyone, white or black, who dared say nay thereby made themselves a likely candidate for social, economic, and even rope lynching.
In short, our Jim Crow wall had a lot in common with the Berlin Wall (which was yet to come). But even so there were a great many of both colors and sexes–and just as liberal or radical as you please–who armed with crowbars and sledgehammers paced the wall looking for cracks and crevices to widen.
“Softening up the South for righteousness,” I called it at the time.
Neither Egerton nor Garrow take adequately into account the fact that to challenge Jim Crow head-on was to invite capital punishment. One very good reason why Lillian Smith and I were among the very few Southern white writers who dared proclaim that Jim Crow had to go
was that we were unemployed. Put another way, all the publishers, editors, teachers, and preachers who were on somebody’s payroll could no more have thrown down the gauntlet with impunity than, say, Sakharov in the Soviet Union.
But Garrow is right about one thing: it was black people power, on the march and sitting in, that finally laid low the Jim Crow wall and let the cleansing tide flood in. Had black America sat back and waited for the con-science of white America to assert itself, it would be sitting back right on! To which it should be added that it was preeminently black youth, constituting a veritable children’s crusade, that prodded their elders into action.
To be sure, our Jim Crow prototype of apartheid was the cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of white supremacy rested. But that edifice consisted of myriad inequities which could be mitigated and sometimes even rectified severally. In the circumstances, the question “what were we to do?” was not just one of morals, but of strategy and tactic, aka realpolitik.
What we did in that context amounted to a tacit division of labor. George S. Mitchell, while southeastern director of CIO/PAC during the latter ’40s (prior to heading SRC), said to me, “It’s good to have the likes of you raising hell way out in left field, because it makes it easier for those of us in the center to move things along.”
Acting on that premise, he and I together scrambled the chairs at the CIO meeting hall until there were no discernible aisles, horizontal or vertical, along which anyone could possibly segregate themselves. The rank-and-file looked, laughed–and thenceforth sat wherever they pleased. Neither Egerton as author nor Garrow as critic give due credit to the role played by the CIO in bringing working class white and black Southerners together as “brother and sisters in the union.” There was nothing timid about those organizers, Southerners almost all, whose blood and lives provided the catalyst.
Similarly, some “liberal” members of the SRC con-spired with some “radical” members of the SCHW, in persuading Macon to hire the first black policeman in the South since Reconstruction. He wasn’t allowed to tote a gun, or arrest white folks–but it went from there to where we are now.
As one of those who chided Ralph McGill during his decades of silence, I am entitled to applaud him for charging the South to obey the law once the die was cast. Make no mistakes: that was major.
While he was writing his book I presumed to urge Egerton to stress the issues with which we struggled in that pre-Overcoming era. Issues are the stuff of which all history is made, and historians are all too wont to ignore or gloss over them. The list in our time included lynching,poll tax, white primary, racial zoning, restrictive covenants, gerrymandering, whites-only quotas, racial and sexual wage differentials, feudalism, peonage, share-cropping, the commissary system, sweatbox, chain gang, illiteracy, hunger, pellagra, hookworm, malaria, no shoes, no screens, no lights, no running water, union busting, and masked terrorism. We–“liberals” and “radicals” alike–strove against these day and night, year after year, and racked up quite as many victories as did the freedom marchers of the 60’s. Ours may not have come in such large packages, but they added up and have endured.
It is to be regretted that Egerton’s sub-title helps perpetuate the popular misconception that “the civil rights movement” was confined to the 1960s. Fact is, all of history is a continuum and can only be comprehended as such. The beginnings of the civil rights movement in America go all the way back to the likes of Nat Turner and John Brown, and, if present trends are any indication, it may have to “keep shuffling” (as Woody said) forever.
As far back as 1947 when someone in my audience insisted that “great progress is being made,” I felt obliged to point out that “reaction is making great progress too.” And so it has. In many respects we were a half century ahead of the present, not behind it. Instead of casting aspersions on the vanguard generation, Garrow would have done better to address himself to the headlong flight of the present generation.
Whatever the shortfalls of Egerton’s book (and whose book is without them?) he performed a dedicated, meticulous, and monumental service in backfilling a major chasm in the history of America’s quest for equal rights, and we will be forever indebted to him for it.
Stetson Kennedy is a lifelong human rights advocate who, at 78, is still at it in Jacksonville, Florida; he first wrote for SRC in 1946. His most recent book is After Appomattox: How the South Won the War