The South's Hard Swallow

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3m 28sec

White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945–1975.

By Jason Sokol.
Knopf. 433 pp. $­27.95

Negroes know their place and are happy with segregation.  They have no desire to vote or take part in political ­affairs.  Integrating schools and public accommodations will lead to mongrelization of the ­races.  The civil rights movement is a communist plot and a threat to the freedoms of white ­people.  God is a segregationist. He says so in the ­Bible.

If you were a white person living in the South before the world turned upside down in the 1960s, you probably believed every one of those statements. You probably believed them if you were a white Northerner, too, but that’s another story. Jason Sokol, a young historian at Cornell University, is concerned with white Southerners, and he is determined that we not forget how far the South had to go to expel the poison of ­racism.

Here is but a sample of how deep the poison ran and how casually it was accommodated by otherwise-decent people. A white woman who headed the Dallas County, Alabama, chamber of commerce told an interviewer in 1952, “I’d say this is a nigger heaven. . . . The niggers know their place and seem to keep in their place. They’re the friendly sort around here. If they are hungry, they will come and tell you, and there is not a person who wouldn’t feed and clothe a nigger.”

Sokol naturally devotes much space to the netherworld of Alabama and Mississippi, but he also reminds us that the upper South, from Virginia to Arkansas, produced politicians willing to exploit the racism of the white majority. He does not rely on some collective memory to remind us how widespread such thinking was, but presents his ­evidence—­oral histories from libraries and universities across the South, books and articles on the civil rights era, and a paper trail of apparently thousands of records left from the ­period—­so relentlessly that it almost appears as if he fears not being taken seriously. He means to let no skeptic get away ­unpersuaded.

A young white Southerner reading this book today may be tempted to think, “Those attitudes could not have been pinned on me,” but Sokol produces several polls from the 1950s and ’60s demonstrating that a vast, embarrassing majority of white Southerners certainly did harbor such thoughts. As late as 1968, a poll in North Carolina found that more than ­three-­quarters of the state’s whites believed that “whites work harder than Negroes” and 58 percent believed that “Negroes are happier than whites.”

The history Sokol chronicles is not all bleak. He goes to pains to find the ­open-­minded exceptions and the ­born-­and-­bred segregationists who ­slowly—­or, in rare cases, ­abruptly—­changed their minds. He makes clear that those people helped the civil rights movement accomplish as much as it did. There were the small bands of newspaper editors, educators, church leaders, and others who were simply blessed with inquiring minds and a sense of morality that finally weighed heavier on their consciences than the beliefs they had inherited.

But the whites who did the right thing do not need to have their story told again. It is the others who deserve to be memorialized. These were not evil people, as evil is generally conceived. It was their very ordinariness that made their poison so toxic. If millions of people could pray in church every Sunday and live side by side with millions of other people they believed to be inferior beings, that can only mean that a great sickness was among them. The astonishing thing is that the sickness prevailed through so many generations without destroying the ­society.

Look closely and you can still find signs of a lingering ­fever—­on both sides of the ­Mason-­Dixon ­Line.


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