Recognizing Activist-Scholars: 1999 Lillian Smith Award Winners
Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 8-13
On November 6, 1999, the Lillian Smith Book Award for nonfiction was given to J. Morgan Kousser for Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press; and Leroy Davis for A Clashing of the Soul: John Hope and the Dilemma of African American Leadership and Black Higher Education in the Early Twentieth Century, University of Georgia Press. Below are remarks from the winners and former SRC president Paul Gaston and Lillian Smith jury member Rose Gladney who introduced Kousser and Davis.
You know there are a lot of good citizens in the country and there are a lot of good scholars in the country. But there are very few scholars who are good citizens or citizens who are good scholars in the sense in which Morgan Kousser has been all through his career. In the sense that a scholar uses his or her knowledge, his or her expertise, as a citizen to make this a better society in which we live. Too many scholars avoid confronting the big issues of our day. Too many citizens avoid using their citizen skills to write as scholars. When you have that combination of the citizen-scholar-as exemplified by Morgan’s mentor C. Vann Woodward–the result is a powerful book. That is what we are blessed with in Colorblind Injustice.
Let me tell you a little bit about the origins of this book. It stems essentially from the expert testimony that Morgan gave in a series of voting rights cases, from Texas to Tennessee, to Georgia, North Carolina, and his adopted state of California. It was about twenty years ago-in 1980-at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association that then-president of the Southern Regional Council, Julius Chambers, had the idea of corralling scholars to give expert testimony in court cases. Out of that meeting there emerged a fraternity of brilliant dedicated people who used their scholarship to help us have a more just society.
Morgan’s arguments, his testimony, didn’t always persuade people. Sandra Day O’Connor is still not a fan of his, but this testimony formed the basis for Colorblind Injustice. It is a book that every member of the SRC should read. Now it is not bedside reading. Some critics have said that it’s not easily accessible, that it is too difficult. Well, it’s not difficult at all. But it tells the truth on the assumption that the truth lies in the details. We cannot understand contemporary disfranchisement, contemporary political problems, unless we understand the historical context.
Colorblind Injustice is a book that is at the heart of the concerns of the Southern Regional Council today and it will be enormously important as we look to redistricting after the 2000 Census. We are deeply endebted to Morgan for writing it and to our jury for awarding him with one of the 1999 Lillian Smith book awards.
Paul Gaston, life fellow and former president of the Southern Regional Council, is emeritus professor of History at the University of Virginia.
J. MORGAN KOUSSER:
To conceive the racial views that Lillian Smith did, at the time that she did, was advanced; to express them was radical; but to broadcast them throughout the nation was positively daring, even foolhardy. Probably only her genteel upbringing and demeanor, her gender (patronized and not taken altogether seriously then, but less threatening to men than it would be today), and her residence in the mountains of North Georgia, far from the center of segregationist hard-liners, saved her from a cross-burning that she might not only have seen, but that she might have felt much too warmly.
I cannot claim to have been as brave or to have risked as much as Lillian Smith did when she published Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream. But I have, in Colorblind Injustice challenged the conventional wisdom in the press and much of articulate opinion, which holds, first, that racial discrimination against minorities is largely dead in this enlightened era, merely important now to irrelevant people like historians; second, that the “conservative” judges appointed by Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, are unbiased, non-partisan, and anti-activist, unlike those of the notorious Warren Court; and third, that, as conservative icons such as Ward Connerly and Justice Clarence Thomas have asserted, the only thing needed to provide equal opportunity for all is for governments to adopt what they call “colorblind” policies, repealing affirmative action and all other protections of minorities against governmental and non-governmental discrimination. If such policies result in almost entirely white and Asian-American elite universities, governmental bodies, and corporation offices, then, they tell us, that merely reflects the fair, natural order of things.
By attacking such popular dogmas, I have merely risked being ignored, failing to attain the celebrity of such racial neo-conservatives as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, Dinesh D’Souza, or Shelby Steele. Until today’s award, I have been. The Thernstroms’ derivative and poorly argued America in Black and White was launched with a two-page spread in Time Magazine. In contrast, Colorblind Injustice has yet to be reviewed, as far as I know, in a single newspaper or popular journal, and it may never be. When I was finishing the book, my friend Tom Pettigrew, a leading social psychologist and fellow native white southerner, who spent a good deal of the 1960s and 70s testifying as an expert witness in school integration cases, warned me not to hope for too much attention. “The times are not right,” he wrote me. “Greed is in style, not justice.” Fortunately, justice has never gone out of style at the Southern Regional Council.
But I am more interested in this book in injustice than I am in justice itself, in tracing the history and structure of inequities and the struggles against them than in prescribing a normative utopia, in discrimination than in equality. It is, after all, a book about American race relations, and there’s a lot more inequality and struggle to study than there is justice. In the most general terms, I argue that institutions and institutional rules, not customs, ideas, attitudes, culture, or private behavior, have primarily shaped race relations and racial change in America. More specifically, I concentrate on black and Latino political participation and the processes by which their political power has been increased or diminished, emphasizing to a greater degree than other historians the importance of small, incremental changes and relatively obscure people.
But at the center of my story lies the most powerful actors for good and bad, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. No amount of courage and hard work can withstand an authoritative decision of that court in the American system, and no amount of skullduggery and discrimination can finally survive unless the Supreme Court blesses or agrees to ignore it. Lillian Smith recognized that, calling for southern whites to put the Brown decision into force quickly and fully, and she properly realized the power of the Court to begin a startling transformation of the southern discriminatory structure and culture. It did so, too, in voting rights, beginning with the white primary case, Smith (no kin) v. Allwright, which the Supreme Court published the same year that Lillian Smith published Strange Fruit. After the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Goldwater landslide in 1964 made the Voting Rights Act (VRA) possible, the Supreme Court, working closely in line with stable congressional majorities, largely expanded the protections guaranteed by the VRA through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Thus, in 1991-92, for the first time in American history, favorable judicial decisions interpreting the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution enabled African-American and Latino politicians and interest groups that represented minority voters to enjoy a fair chance to frame election arrangements. Supported by both the Republican and Democratic parties and at least tolerated by a white public opinion anxious to appear fair toward minorities, the resulting reapportionments produced the largest increase in minority representation in Congress and southern state legislatures since the early 1870s. That upsurge, however, was too much for the right-wing Supreme Court majority.
In the longest chapter in the book, I examine the Supreme Court’s decisions on so-called “racial gerrymandering,” especially the 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno and its principal successors, Miller v. Johnson and U.S. v. Hays in 1995, and Shaw v. Hunt and Bush v. Vera in 1996. I argue that they are radical departures from earlier decisions; that they are based on formalistic standards that ignore both common sense and readily available empirical evidence; that they are inconsistent with each other; that they impose a variety of racial double standards, a separate and unequal equal protection clause that makes it much easier for whites than for minorities to win cases about voting rights; that they ignore or misinterpret evidence from the particular instances of redistricting that they consider, evidence that undermines their conclusions on racial intent; and that, along with other contemporary Supreme Court rulings on redistricting, they also impose a partisan double standard that
strongly favors the Republican party which appointed the five-person Shaw majority and which benefits most strongly from the ethnic antagonisms that Shaw exacerbates. These decisions are not “colorblind,” as their defenders claim, but intensely color-conscious. They are designed to make blacks and Latinos the only interest groups that cannot be recognized in redistricting, thus, ironically, employing the Fourteenth Amendment to deny equality to those relatively powerless minorities that the Amendment was meant to protect. If the nation is to fulfill the egalitarian promises of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, I conclude, Shaw and its progeny must be reversed.
In one of the few scholarly reviews of Colorblind Injustice so far, my position has been linked with those of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in Dred Scott and Justice Henry Billings Brown in Plessy v. Ferguson, on the grounds that all color-conscious policies are fundamentally the same, and that by recognizing that race always has played a role in redistricting, I am contending that it always should. This is a bit like saying that in Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith was attempting to mandate that all sex be interracial, not just to argue for an end to discrimination against people who happened to fall in love with others, of whatever race and perhaps, in some recent interpretations of her work, of whatever gender. If I have to be associated with a Supreme Court justice, I prefer Harlan Fiske Stone, whose famous footnote four in U.S. v. Carolene Products (1938) recognized the special responsibility of the Supreme Court to insure fair political processes and to protect those “discrete and insular minorities” who were relatively powerless against discrimination by adverse majorities even if the political process was fair.
As an interdisciplinary book, spanning history, political science, and law, Colorblind Injustice doesn’t quite fit anywhere and gets criticized everywhere. Two of the fundamental postulates of the common law were that the law made sense and that the judges didn’t matter–that law is “found,” not “made”–and the residue of these postulates still clogs the minds of law professors today. Thus, when I presented a paper based on part of the book at the University of Southern California Law School, faculty members treated with icy disdain my suggestion that the best explanation of the inconsistent, illogical, and unprincipled opinions of the Supreme Court in Shaw and its successors was that a radical majority of the justices was partisan and racially unfair. It was as if I had done or said something so embarrassing that the really genteel thing to do was to ignore it. This strikes me as an insular and unproductive response. The only way to build knowledge is to confront and refute findings that you believe are wrong or otherwise not in accord with the evidence.
But that is not a popular methodological stance in history today, either. Thus, in a review of my book by a historian, my efforts to regularize the search for racial and other motives by offering explicit guidelines, as well as to test hypotheses about intent in particular instances, are treated as quaintly naive. According to the reviewer, judges will never respond to anything but their “political values and ideology,” and because historians only “mirror their own times,” attempts to arrive at better explanations through systematic analyses of theories and evidence are futile. Racial reform through the courts is hopeless, and only a new and continuing civil rights movement will accomplish anything lasting.
I reject these counsels of political and intellectual despair, and I think Lillian Smith would have, too. Though she was not a systematic thinker or researcher, and though she relied heavily on psychology and emotion in her books and essays, she did also appeal to reason, and the very act of trying to persuade indicates that she thought persuasion possible, even in times much bleaker than today’s. It is just as wrong to think that better arguments and evidence never prevail as that they always do, to believe that interest always clouds vision as that it never does. Superior logic and evidence sometimes convince even a hostile judge, and if they do not, they may at least make her law clerks sweat more. Historians find plenty to dispute about within every generation, and explicit statements and tests of hypotheses, while not trendy today in the discipline of history, have long been the standard practice in science and social science. And while a new grassroots movement would no doubt be desirable, it is hard to see how it would move life-tenured judges, many of whom serve for a generation or more, or how it would affect such legislative decisions as where, precisely, the boundaries of election districts are to be placed. To wait for a new incarnation of Martin Luther King Jr. is paralyzing and to demand it is irresponsible to the task of intellectuals, which is to use what means they have to increase knowledge and understanding, and ultimately, to make a better world. Lillian Smith was dedicated to this task, and I am proud to
accept the award given in her name.
In introducing Professor Leroy Davis of Emory University, co-winner of the 1999 Lillian Smith Award, let me share with you something from and about A Clashing of the Soul, Professor Davis’s biography of John Hope.
First, to quote from John Hope Franklin’s preface: “Despite that fact that Ridgley Torrence published a biography of John Hope some fifty years ago, Hope remained . . . the least known major figure in the annals of African-American history between Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps that was because he is one of the least understood figures during that period.”
A Clashing of the Soul shows how Hope fundamentally changed Atlanta and the course of higher education for black Americans, and how this product of an interracial union typified African-American race leaders after the Civil War. John Hope was relentless in his support of public education, of adequate housing, of health care, job opportunities, and recreational facilities for African Americans in Atlanta and the nation. As an advocate of full black equality, Hope also embraced civil rights organizations such as the W.E.B. DuBois-led Niagra Movement, the NAACP, and the southern-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation-predecessor to the Southern Regional Council. Renowned as an educator, Hope became the first black president of Morehouse College in 1906 and then, in 1929, was selected as president of Atlanta University, now Clark-Atlanta which, under his leadership, became the first college to provide exclusively graduate education for African-American students.
John Hope meant to the development of black college education in the United States what Booker T. Washington meant to the development of black vocational and industrial education. Until the 1920’s, the general position in America was that African Americans had no need of a college education, given their proscribed role in the Jim Crow political economy. Northern philanthropic institutions such as the Slater and Rosenwald funds, and the Rockefeller-controlled General Education Board, advanced the goal of education for American blacks. They looked, according to Professor Davis, to John Hope as a person who would influence the curriculum in black colleges, help determine the kind of teachers who would be produced, and the kind of leadership to emerge.
Hope sets the stage for the wide acceptance of black college education in the United States. Equally important to A Clashing of the Soul, Professor Davis brings forward what Hope personified through his interactions inside the black community. Here was a multi-layered complex milieu where relationships and power played out along class, gender, and color lines. Davis asks us to look not only at the history of African-Americans’ relations outside the racial group, but also, through Hope’s life, at the black experience inside the black “community”-the intraracial dynamics.
The tension inherent in Davis’ choice of the title, A Clashing of the Soul, comes out, I think, in a wonderful letter that John Hope wrote to W.E.B. DuBois. In 1924, Hope is weighing the cost of being the president of a black college in the South in era of racial segregation. “An institution of learning,” he wrote, “is such a delicate organism. It is almost human. It is human. The slightest touch sometimes disturbs its healthy function. Courage, the necessity of enterprise and a certain amount of pugnacity along with a modicum of self-respect make me continue rather ceaselessly in the fight, but I am bound to tell you, my dear friend, that blowing one’s brains out is a great sight easier than some of the things we have to do and stand.”
It is a great insight that Professor Davis brings to this study of John Hope, that we see not only the costs of fighting for black education, but the great costs of fighting for where you are going to put your energies on a day-to-day basis. At the 1927 Negro Problems conference, another first black college president, Mordecai Johnson of Howard University described how difficult it was for African-American leaders, especially in the South, to remain an active part of the separate African-American world, while at the same time, working hard to make that world fade away.
For Johnson, observes Davis, black America operated as a separate nation within a nation, that included both domestic relations and foreign relations. Domestic relations consisted of policies designed to improve the lives of the black nation’s citizens. Foreign relations had to do with policies designed to improve relations with whites. “It would be perfectly foolish if we spent ninety percent of our time in foreign relations.” Johnson said, “While we battle for liberty and equality, we must develop these segregated institutions as if we expected them to last until the end of time.” In words from which Professor Davis takes his title, Mordecai Johnson acknowledged that the two activities were inconsistent. “There will always be clashing in the soul, but both of them are absolutely necessary and must be carried on at the same time.”
As the 1920’s ended, John Hope, an African-American college president who was also a principled race leader, understood that the clashing in his own soul would continue. In awarding the Lillian Smith Award to this biography, we on the jury want to celebrate and recognize the importance of John Hope’s work and his accomplishments in his life. We also want to recognize and applaud Professor Davis, for his reading of John
Hope’s life and for his interweaving of gender, race, and class relationships along and across racial lines.
Rose Gladney is Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and editor of How Am I to Be Heard: Letter of Lillian Smith.
In many ways, A Clashing of the Soul owes much to the musings a of young man over thirty-five years ago, trying to come to grips with an inherited world he did not fully understand. It was a world of integration in the workplace, but blanketed with segregation every place else. His world in those days included high school, black domestics, and motorcycle jackets, shining shoes in white-owned barbershops, playing sports in public housing community centers, and secretly reading about Buffalo Bill in segregated libraries. However, it was also a world that included people like Lyman T. Johnson, Whitney Young, Jr; organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and Colored branches of the YMCA; concepts like racial pride and solidarity; and a host of black male and female leaders, struggling daily to create a future free of racial inequality. That world came crashing back to my consciousness as I dug deeper into the life of John Hope.
What led me to write A Clashing of the Soul, however, is not what I would want to highlight in these brief remarks. More important are the lessons learned from Hope’s life about the historical development of the South, and of Atlanta. These lessons provide a backdrop and perspective for contemporary issues and concerns that progressive organizations–such as the Southern Regional Council–and policy makers are grappling with today. Hope’s life sheds light on both interracial and intraracial relationships in the South,upon Black leadership in education, religion, character training, class and gender identity, and community formation and transformation in time and space. I do not apologize for looking at history to gain an understanding and perspective on the present. Nor am I apologetic for believing that historical understanding has a role to play in engendering social action and social change. Perhaps I take this approach because I began as an activist and only later became a professional scholar. In my view, the two go hand-in-hand. Scholarship without a social vision is like a trained physician uninterested in treating patients. John Hope illuminates an Atlanta, and the South, in a state of constant change–although at times so subtle that it was barely detectable.
African Americans in the South had no choice after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 but to fight primarily for as close-to-equal facilities within the segregated system as possible. Not only did John Hope understand that, but while he remained in the South, W.E.B. DuBois understood that as well. Militant activity in the early part of the twentieth century involved African Americans asking city hall–once it became clear that the Carnegie Foundation was going to provide a public library for the white community–to put one in the black community as well. That was militant in that time and place.
It was also militant then and there to talk about equal recreational facilities, equal health facilities, and close-to-equal pay for black and white teachers in segregated schools. People get historical amnesia as time moves on. But we need to be very careful about how we use terms like conservative and militant. This is very important for understanding black leadership as well.
John Hope, like DuBois, started with a belief in the principle of full equality. But what his clashing of the soul included-and this was important for other African-American leaders as well-was the recognition of the need to serve the community where it existed at that point in time.
While African Americans wished for a South free of racial prejudice and discrimination, the reality of the Court’s 1896 decision only allowed them to fight for equal facilities within that segregated setting. DuBois understood that very well. It’s there in the letters he wrote to people like Ira Reid, E. Franklin Frazier, and a number of others who finally decided they could no longer remain in the South. They found that it was too difficult for them to maintain the kind of clashing of the soul that Hope had to maintain all of his life. What DuBois told the prominent black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier was that to stay in the South, you had to endure humiliation. If you can’t handle humiliation, then you need to leave.
DuBois’ advice made me realize how difficult it was for John Hope to remain in the South. But Hope had a vision of
establishing and legitimizing the importance of black college education. John Hope loved Morehouse College. He loved Atlanta University. He foresaw the whole Atlanta University Center as constituting a major black university in the South. So, he made a conscious decision that, in order for him to pull that off, he had to remain here in spite of what he would have preferred to do.
Throughout his life, John Hope was very involved in insuring that African Americans would have access to educational institutions and to organizations like the YMCA and YWCA-the “colored branches.” The choice was not between segregation and integration. The choice was between segregated facilities or no facilities at all. It was very difficult for people like Hope to deal with these kinds of issues. A Clashing of the Soul does gives us more of a window to the interactions among African Americans themselves.
When I was writing the book I fielded a lot of questions about why African Americans, long after the Brown decision, still gravitate towards certain community institutions. Are African Americans willing to give up their fraternities? Are they willing to give up their sororities? Are they willing to give up their churches? No, they are not. An emphasis on black-white relations alone does not explain why. These institutions were often formed in reaction to a discriminatory environment. Over time, these institutions became extremely important to African Americans, as they continue to be today.
You would have a major fight on your hands, and I often say this to many of my students, if you dared think about eliminating the Howard Universities, the Morehouse Colleges, the Spelman Colleges, and so on. It is just not going to happen. Or if you talked about doing away with the Alphas, the Deltas, the AKAs. In order to understand the historical relationships that have developed among African Americans, we must investigate and understand the interactions that went on in spite of the clashing within the souls of black men and women. We must consider the impact and realities of past discrimination in structuring solutions to continuing societal problems.
I would like to thank the SRC for this award and for bringing us here today to reflect on the life of Lillian Smith and others who seek a society free of racial, gender, and homophobic discrimination.