In the South, change that could have been

January 01, 1995|By Michael Kenney | Michael Kenney,Boston Globe

Between the election of Franklin Roosevelt in November 1932 and the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in May 1954, writes John Egerton, "the South left Yesterday and entered Tomorrow."

But "tomorrow" should have come sooner, and Mr. Egerton, a Southern writer who came of age during that period of transition, says that the "conditions [were favorable] for substantive social change" in the years immediately after World War II. "It appears to have been the last time -- perhaps the only time -- when the South might have moved boldly and decisively to heal itself, to fix its own social wagon voluntarily."

But it did not act, and in "Speak Now Against the Day" -- the title is from William Faulkner -- Mr. Egerton has set himself the important task of pondering why it took "a virtual revolution in the courts and in the streets" to bring the South "to the point which was almost within our reach" when the war ended.

In Mr. Egerton's compelling account, there were strong forces for social change stirring in the South during the 1930s and '40s. "Speak Now Against the Day" is a stirring account of the men -- they were mostly men and mostly white -- who led those movements to the brink of "amicable and equitable" change.

In most cases, they were not the region's political leaders. In a captivating phrase, Mr. Egerton calls the leaders "The Locust Confederacy." Even after the benefits the region received from the New Deal, "what mattered to them more than economic recovery, more than democratic reform, more than anything, was the preservation of their own privilege and advantage and power, and of the fabled Southern way of life."

Nor were they the region's novelists, essayists and journalists. It would be an overstatement, Mr. Egerton writes, to call those writers influential. Mr. Egerton does, however, honor them for having left behind "incontrovertible proof that someone in the South in the 1930s saw and recognized what was really wrong with the region -- and, in a few rare cases, even spelled out the remedies that would eventually and inevitably be necessary."

Most of those whose work Mr. Egerton chronicles are now but dimly remembered. It wasn't big names who brought the South to the brink of change, but a Myles Horton, an H. L. Mitchell, a Jessie Daniel Ames (a rare woman) or a Gordon Blaine Hancock (an even rarer black person).

Horton founded the Highlander Folk School, and Mitchell, the Southern Tenants Farmers Union, "home-grown Southern ventures of the 1930s that departed in controversial ways from the prevailing dogma on labor, race, class and other fundamental issues." Ames and Hancock were instrumental in producing "The Durham Manifesto" in 1942, a bold statement by black professionals on the issue of "interracial cooperation and development."

One name that most readers will recognize among those who challenged the myth of a separate-but-equal society is that of Frank Graham, president of the University of North Carolina and a spokesman for Southern liberalism throughout the period. And it is the ultimate fate of Graham that helps Mr. Egerton define the failure of the South's "one last chance" to accomplish "amicable and equitable" change on its own.

Truman's victory in 1948 (especially his defeat of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond) suggested that there was a "momentum for civil rights reform." But "obstructionist" Southerners and conservative Republicans in the Senate were able to block virtually all his reform proposals.

Graham had been appointed to a vacancy in the U.S. Senate in 1949, but when he ran for the unfinished term in 1950, he was targeted as soft on communism. This, writes Mr. Egerton, was "the raw nub of Southern demagoguery, the essence of its deceit and venality" -- for the demagogues had found in the anti-communist hysteria an ultimate weapon.

"From the smouldering ashes of the Dixiecrat defeat in 1948," writes Mr. Egerton, "a handful of reactionaries had fanned the sparks into a flaming new rebellion, one more lost cause to die for -- the same cause of racial and regional chauvinism that had rallied their ancestors." Graham was defeated and "the thin scattering of Southern liberal and progressives and moderates who opposed them had lost their last and only hope of a peaceful and voluntary social reformation."

Title: "Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South"

Author: John Egerton

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 688 pages, $35

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