How Southern whites woke up to the new reality of civil rights

Review History

August 27, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Speciall to the Sun

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975

By Jason Sokol

Alfred A. Knopf / 416 pages / $27.95

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s confronted embedded beliefs and behavior, and transformed the social, political and legal landscape in the American South. Virtually no one, black or white, remained untouched by it. In There Goes My Everything, Jason Sokol, a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, examines the response of ordinary white Southerners to the "new realities" - in public schools, municipal pools, motels, restaurants and voting booths.

Well-researched and judicious, There Goes My Everything reminds us that before the civil rights movement exposed "old truths" as myths, segregation had "the feel of something natural" and immutable for many whites. Convinced that they understood their blacks, white Southerners interpreted deference as a sign of friendship, silence as satisfaction. By the '50s many of them acknowledged that segregation was a social construction. Nonetheless, Sokol argues, stereotypes of potbellied, tobacco-chewing, Confederate-flag-waving "good old boys" have hidden the wide range of responses to the assault on racism. To be sure, there were dead-enders aplenty, like Lester Maddox, proprietor of Pickrick, a popular fried chicken restaurant, who lambasted "outside agitators," organized Georgians Unwilling to Surrender (GUTS) and brandished an axe handle to keep blacks out of his establishment. But many others waffled, embraced some aspects of the new social order or "walked gingerly across its threshold."

The civil rights movement, Sokol demonstrates, forced Southern whites to take a stand. Rather than integrate its schools, Prince Edward County, Va., closed their doors. But a sizable number of whites did not accept segregation at any cost. They did not necessarily endorse racial equality but they loathed "the grosser manifestations of racial prejudice," urging accommodation not because it was right but because it was inevitable. Thus, the mob of 500 to 2,000 trying to bar Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes from the University of Georgia in 1961 stimulated a backlash. "Play Caveman and throw rocks," exclaimed one student. "No!!!" "I personally don't care whether or not they integrate," wrote another, "just as long as they get it over with and let us go back to our studies."

Southern whites, Sokol indicates, had an inflated sense of what they had given up. Long after Brown v. Board of Education, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and a voting rights bill, whites still called the shots. De facto segregation of public schools occurred, especially in the suburbs, in the 1970s. In politics, whites learned to work with blacks, especially in counties with black majorities. But "black power" was offset with the creation of at-large seats in cities and counties, a concerted effort to register more whites and, as Lyndon Johnson had predicted, the emergence of a powerful, all-white Republican Party in the South. "I voted for a damn Republican," a life-long Democrat confessed in 1972. "I just couldn't vote like all the hippies. I'm not saying I'll ever vote Republican again. I'm just not saying."

Most importantly, "the color of economic power remained white," especially in rural areas. The paycheck, black journalist Chet Fuller wrote in 1981, is "a more powerful controller than a hundred vicious dogs." Blacks are "still working in the fields, or in the stomachs of these mills and factories. Still working in the dust, dirt, and filth, just like always." Despite a few blacks in elective office, whites "still have the power to strangle us or let us breathe." In Southern cities, employers used integration as a bogeyman to undermine unions and keep wages depressed. In Laurel, Miss., for example, Masonite sowed racial friction by integrating showers and bypassing seniority. More often than not, such tactics worked.

What changes, then, were wrought by the civil rights movement? Were they "lasting or fleeting"? Sokol asks. Did they demolish the social structure or tear at its edges? His answer is a bit disappointing. Generalizations, Sokol implies, "must falter under the weight of diverse and complex experiences." Of course. "To think," Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, "is to forget a difference." But, as Borges knew, think we should - and must. Revolutions, whether they are violent or nonviolent, never change everything.

So it may not be "a stretch" to say that the civil rights movement ushered in a social revolution. After all, as Sokol acknowledges, "events moved so fast in the 1960s, and with such force, that new realities could appear in the blink of an eye" as civil rights struggles "upended and recast everyday life in thousands of towns." Sokol is right to remind us that "the trek toward a racially just society remains agonizingly slow." But the civil rights revolution changed a lot. A whole lot.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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