Skip to main content

Which South? Benighted Or Beloved?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982
The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. By David J. Garrow. Norton. $15.95. Why the South Will Survive. By Fifteen Southerners. Georgia. $16.00 cloth, $8.00 paper.

David J. Garrow concludes his excellent book by calling for close study of why the FBI tends to behave so badly rather than exclusive concern with describing that behavior or contending over the best legal grips to put upon it. His own research and thought lead him in the direction of seeing the Bureau as paranoid in its perception of threats to the prevailing culture and as likely to remain so, unless diminished in its bureaucratic autonomy and lessened as well, somehow, in the sameness of its personnel.

His view holds, in other words, that the FBI is (Mr. Garrow says “was,” but I think he means “is”) “a most representative and faithful” American institution, and that attempting to harness it by a “charter” (why has that word crept into discussion of the regulation of the FBI and CIA, as if their mightiness and independence require something more grand than an ordinary statute?) is delusionary. Looking backward, the view also holds that the FBI’s persecution of Martin Luther King, Jr. was expressive of public values and suited the public tastes. It is on both counts a pessimistic reading and probably too close to the truth for most of us honestly to face.

Mr. Garrow makes, of course, his own greatly valuable contribution to the indictment of the FBI. His is, in fact, a remarkable job, maybe unprecedented in its combination of social-science analysis with skilled investigative reporting. The latter appears to have been both brilliant and courageously principled in the teeth of FBI intimidation. The book is an outstanding illustration of why the Freedom of Information Act—one of the truly worthy reforms of this generation—must be defended. He implicitly raises too the question which should be but is not widespread in our nation (including the universities) and that is why we need an FBI anyhow for anything other than the investigation of federal crimes.

Martin Luther King, Jr. led the movement that in the 1960’s liberated his fellow Southerners. He was my friend and, after his death, I loved him, which is the way it too often is. One day in 1965 a newspaper editor phoned to tell me of a tape the Department of Justice’s FBI was peddling to “opinion leaders,” and that was the way most of us first learned of the vendetta. It had begun in bureaucratic curiosity as early as 1958 and reached its crescendo between 1962—68. Mr. Garrow neatly and interestingly dissects the stages of it. We came some years ago to learn of persons important to the Southern civil rights movement who were hardly at all known to Southerners themselves outside King’s inner circle; the late Stanley Levison was the main one. Here in this book come at us other and considerably less worthy names— Morris and Jack Childs, Jim Harrison, and others. The Childs brothers (“Solo” they were jointly called) were the Bureau’s men within the Communist Party, and Harrison became its informant within King’s own office.

Mr. Garrow not only peoples our consciousness with such figures but recounts in savage detail the FBI’s various campaigns and assaults on King. Given the treasure and high energies put into them they were strangely bumbling and unsuccessful. But so are most of what we learn of the doings of our secret agencies. Involved in this surveillance and harassment—and not merely as spectators—were men widely respected by liberals: to mention only the living, such as Nicholas Katzenbach, Burke Marshall, Bill Moyers.

Such men were “thoroughgoing believers in the Cold-War view of communism and the pressing danger of Communist subversion and espionage. They also believed the myth of the FBI . . .that the Bureau’s expertise on communism in America was so great that its accusations . . .could not be wrong—it never occurred to them to doubt.”

I have left out of this review, as space virtually dictates, an account of Mr. Garrow’s findings, and his analysis of them. The book lies in the bookstores and libraries to be read, and it ought to be, especially by students, because most others of us are incorrigible believers in those myths or pretend to be for social ease. There are, in my opinion, flaws in this book, but not ones that amount to much or are worth going into. Mr. Garrow, or someone, will have to revise it one day when government records now still secret are let go. In my space, I’ll restrict myself, as the author suggests, to the question of why the government and its constabulary act as they do.

Mr. Garrow gives weight, but not enough I think, to the ideological mania over Russian communism (we seem able to tolerate other varieties). He sees it as important, but essentially similar to earlier links in the American chain of conspiratorial beings, with predecessors like the Salem witch trials or the Know-Nothings. Maybe. I can’t and won’t dispute. I do know, however, that no other passion has for so long permeated the American people. The major theme of America’s 20th century has been fear of the Bolshevik, at home and abroad. Wars, depressions, reforms, and glories have come and gone; that bitter fear stays with us, on and on. When will we ever put it down, clear our heads of it (and fatten our purse in doing so)?

Never? or someday before it is too late, as the white South in our time let go its ancient fear of sharing its world with the black man?

It would be ridiculous to attribute the social ethos which generates a mendacious and lawless FBI to the mind-set that approves Why the South Will Survive, except for one thing: it would be exactly in keeping with the sort of analysis to which the majority (which is to say, happily, not all) of its authors seem addicted. They like to take whatever about modern political and cultural times they disapprove and lay the blame for it on the liberal temper. Two of the authorities they often refer to are Richard Weaver and Eric Voegelin, who, with historical determinism never surpassed by Marx, saw Western history since gnostic and nominalist currents of the Middle Ages as a long descent, whose reversal can come only by the erasure of those influences. Some ideas do sometimes have consequences, but to condemn as evil any of those which issue from serious discourse is to condemn what humankind is called most urgently to do, i. e. , to reason and hold dialogue in search for credible faiths. It is to succumb, all too willingly, to the conviction that heretics and heresy abound, which conviction—whether in its dogmatic Christian, its Communist, or its white supremacist variant—has devastated civilization endlessly.

But it is a ridiculous mind-set, for the lucky mystery is that all things are possible, and will probably happen; if a J. Edgar Hoover is cast up by American culture, so does that same culture produce a Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, does so more characteristically. Hoovers are everywhere, a universal phenomenon, as likely to pop up in one place as another. Who can imagine King as anyone but an American—and a Southerner?

In 1930, as readers of VQR need no reminding, Twelve Southerners published I’ll Take My Stand. They were young men then, and most went on to larger fame. They were angry about their times and gloomy about the future. What intellectuals in 1930 were not? The years since have been so full of social horror that having been gloomy then now appears like, as the saying goes, shooting fish in a barrel. But which of that time’s many dark thoughts are to be preferred, which were the more probing in diagnosis?

One asked to review what Fifteen Southerners (plus Andrew Lytle for good measure) now write would, unless more fortunate than I of memory, read again that famous book. I can report for myself that I found it as exasperating as before—chiefly because of its indifference to racial injustices—but also as admirable. The Twelve were not only angry—always a useful quality when contemplating the mess we generally make of society—but were bold in their principles. Like Davids, they stood up against Industrialism, said some pretty radical things about it, and in doing so contrasted it with the gentler agrarian life they knew of their own region and which they knew even then was slipping fast away. They were good Democrats of an anticapitalist sort, and they tended to see communism as but another cousin in Industrialism’s family.

The Fifteen have none of that blood in their eyes. One of the contributors explicitly says that he will abandon the antiindustrialist cause and continue only the Twelve’s case for the South. “What needs to be reasserted . . .is the case for provincialism.” His fellow contributors are of like mind. This book would suit Mr. Reagan, as that one of 1930 would never have pleased Mr. Hoover.

A reviewer is obliged to look for the core of truth there may be in a book, and Why the South Will Survive does have such, oft restated. It is, as one essayist put it, that “man is not always at the center.” That is a religious and ethical principle, and one does well to hold it. Southerners as I know them are a good bit less committed to it than the Fifteen insist they are, and the rest of the nation as I know it is not so completely faithless to it as they tirelessly contend. Some of the writers do, rightly I think, point to another observable Southern quality, and that is tolerance. One says it well: it is mere abstraction to talk about the brotherhood of man without acknowledging “that there is more than a little of Cain in every brother.”

Unfortunately, this tolerant spirit does not extend to the North. The Twelve of 1930 were also irritated by the North and, given their times and situation, understandably so, especially as they perceived the North as being primarily the embodiment of an economic system they disliked and feared. Fifty years later, and with little more than a zeal for their own provincial rights—if I may use a word the Fifteen would not—it is merely bad manners—to use a phrase they celebrate. There is a whining surliness, a nastiness, about this book of the Fifteen, a constant bitching about the “world beyond” that one would have wanted to believe Southerners had outgrown. At its most preposterous reaches, it produces the complaint of Samuel T. Francis that the “Puritan Yankee establishment of the Northeast” has controlled our foreign policies. Shades of Cordell Hull, Jimmy Byrnes, George Marshall, Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Tom Connally, Walter George, William Fulbright! Is nothing sacred? Not even the old Southern conviction that the region’s politicians were the shrewdest, most adroit, in all Washington?

Mr. Francis gives us more to ponder. He says that Southern traits might rescue our foreign relations. He particularizes them, as realism (by which he means the unembarrassed use of power to pursue national interests), a “tradition of command” (which he personifies by reference to General Patton), and the “ideal of community” (by which he means public order). The steely eyes have come South. One of the lines from the Twelve which the Fifteen like is the one that denies that “soft material” can be poured in “from the top.” But we have seen all too vividly, and J. Edgar Hoover was only an examplar, that hard material indeed can be. There is, however, reassurance. Another essayist assures that “Southerners have tended toward unity in the defense of individual civil liberty . . .take intellectual integrity very seriously.”

There is much in the essays celebrating Southern writers, and justly so (but, an interesting question, why is Lillian Hellman almost never admitted to that pantheon; or Lilliam Smith?); but enough. This South of the Fifteen’s is not the one some others of us know—and care as deeply for. Yet it is one authentic face of the South and thus does reveal what makes the South so continually interesting, which is its complexity and yet unfathomable cohesion. One can believe, as I do, with that other self-conscious Southerner, Mark Twain, “that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.” But that is not the Fifteen’s doctrine, and they are entitled to their own.

One would, nevertheless, wish that their writing contained more than the small change it does in favor of a South that showed compassion for the poor, concern for just dealings with its minority people, and determination that there be peace in our world.

Will the South survive? Surely it will, just as will the rest of the world’s parts provided we escape nuclear destruction. Which South, though? That of the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. , who called us to live together nonviolently and in justice; and who was trusting enough in us and in the Fatherhood of God to speak even of the possibility of a “beloved community”? With the Lord’s help, that is our question.

What is finally so disturbing about Why the South Will Survive is that it treats the struggle of blacks for their civil rights as nothing more than another “late unpleasantness.” No one should want Southern whites—or American whites either, for that matter—to beat their breasts in public and cry out their guilt; not even blacks, I’d think. But the lasting need is that we not forget the wrong done for so long, that we never deny it, never explain it away. We are all in David Garrow’s debt for having so bravely and well described one of the incredibly many facets of our society’s instinct for smiting the man of color. We should read his book not out of fascination with our guilt, but for learning what within ourselves and our society to be on guard against. Perhaps for the same reason, we should also read the book of the Fifteen.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading