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The Anatomy of Counter-Revolution

ISSUE:  Winter 2001
Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. By Pete Daniel. University of North Carolina Press. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paperback.

Leander H. Perez was perhaps the most implacable and cunning of the segregationists battling against the Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana; and, as the “boss” of Plaque-mines and Saint Bernard Parishes, he once delivered a lecture, which I attended, in New Orleans circa 1966. “Just because we were poor,” he reminisced of his family origins, “didn’t mean that we turned Bolshevik.” Perez was hardly unique. Dialectical materialism was very rarely grasped as the remedy for poverty among whites growing up in an overwhelmingly agrarian region. Its distinctive culture has largely protected both white and black citizens from the allure of Marxism-Leninism, though the explanations for such immunity have varied: rambunctious individualism, an appreciation of traditions defined as rigidly resistant to change, or the superior claims of Christian faith. The values ascribed to folks who have preferred to live and die in Dixie in any event make problematic the very notion of revolutionary solutions to social problems.

But that yearning to be exempted from the convulsions of modernization—so noticeable elsewhere in America—has historically coincided with the persistence of terrible racial injustice. Such a conjunction has often encouraged liberal historians of the South to look for missed opportunities, which the region forfeited for the sake of white supremacy and other forms of backwardness, insularity, and cruelty. Much of the scholarship of the late C. Vann Woodward was animated by the quest for such lost reforms (if not revolutions), and Pete Daniel’s monograph belongs to that genre. Energetically researched and handsomely designed, this book speculatively pushes back to a previous decade the transformation into a New South which the civil rights struggle wrought in the 1960’s. What if “lost opportunities” had already been seized in the immediate wake of the Second World War, rather than after the Vietnam War? What if Southern politicians had not championed states’ rights but instead exhibited statesmanship, had become “visionaries”? Why didn’t the white South spare itself—as well as the subjugated blacks whom it claimed to “love”—the agony that resulted from massive resistance to liberal egalitarianism?

These are good, interesting questions; only the answers which Daniel provides are unsatisfying. The author had an inspired idea for a book, but the execution is perplexing. Lost Revolutions starts by showing how the fight against Jim Crow coincided with changes in the land—the mechanization of farming, the precipitous decline of sharecropping, and the concentration of power in a planter class that was dependent on federal subsidies and was also closely allied with the lily-white bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What Joe in Show Boat found so awesome about the a river which “don’t plant taters . . .[and] don’t plant cotton” also became true of those who lived along the Mississippi. Far fewer “hands” were needed, so they and their families moved to towns and cities. There, according to the middle section of this book, rural values became altered and reworked into a “lowdown culture” (a less pejorative adjective than “lowbrow”) so richly creative that Daniel needs the noun “genius” to categorize both the music (from rhythm and blues to rock and roll) and the stock car races (from Darlington to Daytona Beach). No other manifestations of “lowdown culture” are examined. They must suffice to reveal the spontaneous power of lower-class expressiveness—suspended between the rural world to which the guitarists and racers and their fans could no longer return, and the commercialization that would soon tame the good ol’ boys and enmesh them completely in the nexus of capitalism. What was lost, Daniel suggests, was not so much a revolution but the spontaneity and vitality which the last generation of sharecroppers and their children managed to exhibit.

The third section of the book shows the gathering force of the counter-revolution. Both middle-class and lower-class whites ducked the challenge of change. But the effort to maintain racial segregation was mostly conducted, Daniel argues, by patriarchal elites, whose non-violent and respectable strategies ranged from gradualism and “moderation” to fundamentalist opposition to rock and roll. These stances were also intended to reinforce the privileges of class. In The Case for the South (1960), for example, South Carolina’s William D. Workman warned against “the disturbing effect of mixing whites, blacks, and primitive music”; the authorities to whom the conservative journalist and politico appealed for proof were not ethnomusicologists, however, but Northern cops. The counter-revolution was organized, as Daniel nicely demonstrates, into: the Citizens’ Councils and the State Sovereignty Commission in Mississippi, the North Carolina Patriots, the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, and CROSS (Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools) in Arkansas. Ole Miss kept potential black matriculants away—no matter how spectacular their test scores or their grades—by requiring character references from five alumni.

The counter-revolution was also successful. That is why the book of Daniel resembles other examples of the historiographical genre: the Old South was not yet ready to yield to the New; the Cause of white supremacy was not yet obviously Lost; liberal Southerners were more Southern than liberal (and nobody was turning Bolshevik); and “uppity” blacks were intimidated, boycotted, murdered, or given the choice of tearing up their poll tax receipts or losing their jobs and their homes. Could what the author calls “cultural fusion” have occurred sooner? His book omits mention of an incident in 1956, when Elvis Presley performed before a hometown crowd at the baseball stadium of the Memphis Chicks. The size of the audience— seven thousand—was not surprising. But what made its scale intriguing was that, earlier that afternoon, at the city’s Overton Park Shell, Senator James O. Eastland (D-Miss) managed to attract only half that number to a rally denouncing desegregation. The music of the white South was circuitously getting integrated well ahead of the pace with which all deliberate speed affected the public schools.

A photo taken a year earlier in Memphis shows Presley (not yet The King) with his arm draped around the blues bard B.B. King. In duplicate the picture is reproduced on the dust jacket of Lost Revolutions, and then appears again on pages iii and 168. But Daniel does not expatiate on the possible meanings of that encounter and misses a chance to demonstrate how the “fatal divisions” (as he calls the third section of his book) in the 1950’s might have been bridged. After all revolutions are normally made against kings—not by them, and the ambiguous but decidedly apolitical role of Presley in suggesting racial harmony and mutuality is only one of the complications which make Daniel’s claims so confusing. For virtually no one could have foreseen the suddenness with which the white South had to meet black demands in the 1960’s; indeed the nation had to revise its political agenda by dismantling Jim Crow. In 1956, among the majority of voters wanting Dwight D. Eisenhower to remain in the White House was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Less than a decade later Southern-born President Lyndon Johnson would stun a joint session of Congress by promising: “We shall overcome!” How the region was forced to confront and then to transcend the burden of the past ought to have formed a tantalizing saga.

Instead Daniel mixes up the various features of Southern society on which he concentrates, without showing how they activated hopes for racial equality that other forces were to delay, if not doom. As early as page seven, “racism” is not classified as traditional but is instead listed among the “revolutionary components that swept through the South after World War II.” The most important judicial blow to segregation was of course Brown v. Board of Education, a decision which Daniel mystifyingly blames for having “fatally divided society,” as though the South had previously been united, as though “good race relations” had earlier been sustained by the willing assent of black Southerners. After 1954, he adds, “most whites hardened their hearts against their black neighbors, especially those who insisted on testing the color line.” On the contrary, lynchings had steadily declined after the horrid record numbers of half a century earlier; and neither the old ultra-violence nor the unashamed enunciation of bigotry could be perpetrated after 1954, when the whole world—especially an increasingly post-colonial Third World— was watching. Hearts could not have been hardened too much, however, since this book also claims that “among white southerners of all classes, a substantial well of goodwill for African Americans coexisted with apprehension over an integrated future.” Alas, the proof for so benign a generalization is scattered, and moreover is contradicted by much evidence to the contrary. Lost Revolutions portrays the region’s liberals as cautious, shunned, sometimes contaminated by prejudice themselves, conscious of their own limited influence and their vulnerability to dynamite sticks thrown in the dark.

The dynamics by which dreams of justice were frustrated are left unspecified. Did the energies invested in the music and in the NASCAR of “lowdown culture” deflect lower class whites from pursuing racial egalitarianism? That argument would be, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive. In 1963 a black driver named Wendell Scott won a Grand National race at the Speedway in Jacksonville, Florida, but was initially deprived of a victory; a white “queen” was, after all, stationed in the winner’s circle, which would have meant inflaming fears of interracial sex. Bill France, Sr., the impresario of stock car racing, campaigned for presidential hopeful George Wallace in 1972. Did “lowdown culture” instead promote greater dedication to the realization of the Fourteenth Amendment? That too was a remote possibility, and Daniel concedes that “some of the same white youths who cheered. . .B.B. King. . .or Chuck Berry also enthusiastically cheered segregationist politicians.” Blacks had long fulfilled the function of entertaining American society, and the ethos of rebellion which endeared rock and roll to teenagers impugned parental authority—not white domination. If Beale Street could talk, it would undoubtedly have advised Daniel against making music too much of a harbinger (or a substitute) for acts of political mobilization like Freedom Summer. In ending his account with Fannie Lou Hamer (who is shown in a photograph which the author took in 1971), Daniel highlights the symbolic role of a courageous champion of voting rights who was also an inspiring singer. But here too the fit is imperfect: she was authentically rural, not first-generation urban; and she was quite alien to the youthful (and Dionysian) power of professional rock and roll. Nor could Hamer’s impact have been exerted had not national media exposed in prime time the gap between democratic ideals and the terror of the Delta.

Perhaps modernization could gain momentum because even the prominent defenders of the status quo were so outlandishly disconnected from reality, so provincially incapable of making sense to anyone but themselves, so obsessed with their own ugly fears that the facts of common humanity could not be acknowledged. Virtually at the onset of the 1960’s, a Northern attorney representing the Freedom Riders jailed in Mississippi called upon its governor in the vain hope of urging the state to comply with the law of desegregated interstate travel. But Ross Barnett made clear that the issue was not the purchasing power of a bus ticket, but “what would you think if your daughter married a dirty, kinky-headed, field-hand nigger?” When the attorney retorted that such a decision was hers to make, the governor dismissed the reply as “some of the Eleanor Roosevelt junk” and proclaimed that miscegenation was what “all the niggers want.” No wonder the case for the South had to be scuttled. But how the revolution was “lost” remains open to further scrutiny.


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