There were liberal souls in the civil-rights-era South

The Argument

New insights examine the human drama of the internal and public struggles over the evil legacies of slavery.


September 23, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

Bell Wiley was born in 1906 on a farm near Halls, Tenn. He grew up plowing behind two mules when he wasn't in school or church. His parents and neighbors were inclined to "hellfire and brimstone" evangelism; today they might be considered part of the religious right. His grandmother was a Confederate widow, and she and a Confederate veteran friend and other adults imbued in Wiley, with their stories of the Lost Cause, a dislike for "Yankees" and a disbelief in racial equality.

His generation was programmed by such an upbringing to oppose the civil rights movement when it came, emotionally, intellectually, nostalgically, even brutally.

But like a substantial minority of his peers, Wiley didn't, even though his life work as a historian was the South's past, especially the life of its ordinary people, including most specifically the Confederate soldiers who fought for it. He had the greatest respect for their sacrifices and their character, as he made clear in his 1943 The Life of Johnny Reb (still in print by the Louisiana State University Press, 444 pages, $29.95 / $16.95 paper).

Wiley was representative of the least known characters in the Southern drama in the 20th century: the middle-aged liberal intellectuals who relished their region's past, had had direct personal exposure to the participants in the Civil War and Reconstruction, and who opposed the segregationists who dominated the politics and the headlines of the 1950s and 1960s.

That and other aspects of his life are told in his writings, speeches and a long interview in the newly-published The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader edited by Hill Jordan, James I. Robertson Jr. and J.H. Segars (Louisiana State University Press, 332 pages, $65).

Professor Wiley, who spent most of his career teaching at Emory, is also mentioned in another new book, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. By Carol Polsgrove (W.W. Norton, 296 pages, $26.95).

Wiley wrote an introduction to a collection of speeches others had delivered to the Southern Historical Association in 1955. Polsgrove writes: "This pamphlet, he said, would show that there was a 'liberal South: soft-spoken and restrained, but articulate and powerful -- that is earnestly pledged to moderation and reason.'"

"'Moderation and reason' -- this became the mantra of liberals North and South," she continues, "They wanted to speak out for desegregation without stirring up too much opposition."

Polsgrove, a journalism professor at Indiana University, writes of the Wiley types alternately with a curled lip and a teary eye. She scorns them on one page, is sympathetic and saddened on the next. I think she doesn't really appreciate what this quotation she provides says about the environment of the South of the 1950s and 1960s:

"It is difficult to convey to persons who did not live in the South during those years a feeling of how it was. ... Imagine the emotional and political atmosphere of the [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy days intensified many times and compressed within a single region, and the South of the late 1950's may be suggested."

The speaker was Leslie Dunbar of the Southern Regional Council, a careful, sedate biracial reform group regarded as practically communist by many Southern whites.

Among the Southern whites in the same category as Wiley are C. Vann Woodward, the historian (b. 1908, Vanndale, Ark.) and Ralph McGill (b. 1898, Igou's Ferry, Tenn.), who as editor and publisher wrote a daily front page column in The Atlanta Constitution.

Both get the Polsgrove treatment. While praising Woodward for his early liberalism, she really gives it to him, as in this: "He wanted change, but like William Faulkner did not want change forced on the South. So carefully did he phrase his comments that detecting his own preferences requires some imagination, but now and then he came out of the thicket and showed himself plainly." She cited Woodward's "unkind" review of a book about the South by a black journalist and accused him of misrepresenting the author's words.

She comes close to suggesting Woodward was a closet segregationist. That's a strange innuendo aimed at the man who wrote what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the historical bible of the civil rights movement." That's a book that was published in 1955 when Woodward was teaching at Hopkins; a new, commemorative edition is coming out in November: The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $25 / $13.95 paper).

Polsgrove describes McGill as "cautious and cautioning," but not really anti-segregation. In the 1940s and early 1950s McGill was equivocal on desegregation. But as Dunbar said, you had to be there. I recall how "cautious" McGill was the object of segregationists' pure hate. In a time and place when being "a known liberal" was a damning epithet, McGill's critics called him that and much worse. They made telephone threats to him and his family, shot up his home mailbox.

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