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The Pre-Brown South

ISSUE:  Autumn 1994

“This is the place,” said Carl Sandburg, a Yankee emigrant from the windy shores of Lake Michigan. Standing for the first time on the porch of Connemara, the farmhouse he had come to buy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the famed poet and Lincoln biographer felt a strong sense of belonging, and the vista of forested slopes before him brought a smile to his face. It was the summer of 1945. In serene disjunction with the times (whether behind or ahead, he had no way of knowing), Sandburg, at the age of 67, was about to plunge into the northward-flowing American population stream and swim south against the current.

You could read a lot of symbolism into his choice. In a period when millions of people, white and black, were leaving the South in search of the elusive Promised Land, Sandburg was moving into the region. For someone of his national stature to take such an affirmative step could not fail to boost the spirits and the pride of people all over the much-maligned South. Not even the bigots among them were boorish enough to dismiss him as a Jew, a Socialist, a Swede, or a Chicagoan (all elements of his heritage); on the contrary, Sandburg and his wife were washed by waves of Southern hospitality. Until his death there more than 20 years later, the poet would proudly remain an adopted Southerner, delighting in the porch talk at Connemara with such frequent visitors as his friend and biographer, Charlotte writer Harry Golden (also a Northern emigrant), and a well-known native of the upcountry South, Ralph McGill.

This is the place, Sandburg said—and, he might have added, now is the time: time for the South to turn its gaze from the past to the future, to secure the blessings of liberty and equality for all its citizens, to cast off the stigma of inferiority and take its rightful place as a full and equal partner in the family of states. It was time for the South to decide whether it was going to be a backward-looking feudal society or a modern and progressive democracy. Idealism certainly pointed the South toward a democratic future—but realism and tradition stood in the way.

At war’s end, the 11 states of the old Confederacy still lagged far behind the other 37 by almost every measure of collective strength, from education, employment, and income, to health, housing, population growth, and political participation. (It is an arbitrary convenience to define the modern South as comprising the 11 Confederate states; Kentucky, Maryland, and other border jurisdictions could justifiably be counted as well, and I do include them from time to time in this narrative, but for obvious reasons, the historically rebellious states make a suitable unit for statistical comparison.) And not only did the South trail the North; in much the same way, blacks in the region were shortchanged compared to whites. A few numbers from the field of education drive home the point.

The Southern states averaged spending only about $50 per pupil in their public schools in 1944—45 (compared to more than $100 in the other states)—and of that meager sum, roughly $40 went to schools serving whites and $10 to the black schools. Expenditures for teacher salaries, books, buildings, and equipment were likewise imbalanced, both North to South and white to black. While teachers in, say, Michigan or Colorado were earning above the national average of $1, 500 a year, white teachers in Mississippi or South Carolina were drawing less than $800, and their black counterparts got only about $500.

Schooling in the South remained a privilege, not a right. Almost a million people over the age of 25 had not completed a single year of school, and one of every four (compared to one in eight nationally) hadn’t even made it through the fifth grade. In Atlanta—vaunted oasis, fount of opportunity—the more than 100, 000 black citizens could avail themselves of only one public high school. Fewer than one in every 25 adult white Southerners had a college degree, and an even smaller fraction of blacks had completed high school. The proportion of college-age young people in the region who were enrolled in degree-granting institutions in the late 30’s and early 40’s was extremely low too—about one in 12 whites and one in 25 blacks. Southern schools awarded fewer than 200 doctoral degrees a year—a scant 5 percent of the national total.

Inseparably linked with the dismal state of education were numerous other measures of inadequacy. The South had 27 percent of the nation’s population and 40 percent of its natural resources, but only 12 percent of its money and its manufacturing capacity. Housing for a huge segment of the population could fairly be described as primitive, devoid of the basic comforts and conveniences that mainstream Americans considered standard. Poor health was manifest in the low number of doctors and hospital beds, the high number of mothers and babies who died in birthing, the high homicide rate (but curiously, a below-average suicide rate), and lower life expectancy overall for every racial and sexual category of Southerners. And perhaps most telling of all was the chronic poverty of millions of people in a society historically structured to favor an elite leisure class. As late as the start of the 1940’s, some ten million people in the region—one of every three—had cash incomes of less than $250 a year. Even as the South was about to enter the modern age, its leaders clung to the slavery-inspired notion that the many should sweat for the comfort of the few. And, in so believing, they perpetuated a distorted Southern concept of work—its methods and traditions, its outcomes and rewards, its status, its very nature.

Much non-farm employment in the South amounted to little more than low-skill, low-wage drudgery, not only unsatisfying but often mind-numbing (textile work, for example) and hazardous (coal mining). Unemployment had fallen sharply and family income risen for this segment of the population during the wartime boom, but wages hadn’t gained much relative to those paid in other parts of the country—and wouldn’t, without more labor unions and collective bargaining. Furthermore, with the manufacture of the tools of warfare now ending, it was unclear how successfully the factories would be able to convert to the making of consumer goods. Regardless of the products they turned out, Southerners on hourly wages typically earned only half to two-thirds as much as Northern workers. And once again, there was an added racial disparity: the median income of Southern blacks was only about half that of Southern whites.

It was still true in 1945 that more Southerners were engaged in farm-related work than in all other occupations, but that was changing rapidly. Farmers worked longer hours for less pay than anyone else—and Southerners, not surprisingly, were the poorest of the nation’s farm workers. As in earlier times, big planters dominated the region’s agricultural economy, and it took tens of thousands of laboring men, women, and children to keep the old-fashioned system in operation. It would be well into the 1950’s before the rural-urban balance in the South shifted decisively to the cities, largely as a consequence of the mechanical revolution that escalated on the region’s farms after the war. In 1945, the typical Southern farm still ran on mulepower; more than three million of the beasts of burden were in the fields, compared to fewer than 150, 000 tractors. A substantial majority of the region’s farms had no electricity, no telephones, and no indoor plumbing.

Still, the most profound change in Southern agriculture in the 40’s may have been more demographic than technological: the mass exodus of tenant farmers and sharecroppers and field hands, black and white alike, from the cotton and tobacco patches to the towns and cities. Two million more blacks moved out of the South than into it during the 1940’s; the net loss of whites due to migration was much smaller but still substantial. These declines were masked by high birth rates in both races, resulting in an overall population increase of about four million white and 200, 000 blacks.

By 1950, there would be more than 36 million people living in the 11-state region; more than nine million of them—one of every four—were African Americans. (The South had been 35 percent black in 1910 and 30 percent black in 1930; now the fraction was 25, and that pattern—a 5 percent decline every twenty years—would be repeated once again in 1970, when the black-to-white ratio would slip to about 20—80.) Other races (mainly American Indians) accounted for fewer than 60 thousand of the South’s people in 1950—a seemingly understated number, until you consider the fact that the Census Bureau at that time had no category for Hispanics; it simply counted them as whites. The South at mid-century was still classified as rural, but only by a margin of 53 to 47 percent—meaning that about 18 million people lived in towns and cities, over twice as many as in 1930.

In spite of the absolute gains realized during the transition from a state of depression to a wartime economy, Southerners in the mid-1940’s still presented an image of pervasive disadvantage and need. So much had changed for the better in the dozen years since the coming of the New Deal—and yet, so many problems were still there, unresolved, and new ones were riding on the wings of postwar reconstruction. Far from ushering in paradise, this “peace era” would be turbulent and unsettling. Inflation, layoffs, strikes, labormanagement violence, a shortage of consumer goods, political conflict, racial antagonism, cold war anti-communism, the atomic threat—there would be no end to the concerns, and they would be deeply troubling to all Americans. To Southerners caught up in the long and frustrating search for equal opportunity in the national arena, the obstacles would be especially dispiriting.

The region had been at rock bottom when the Great Depression struck, but the whole nation and much of the world was spiraling downward then; Southerners could rationalize their lowly status—cold comfort though it was—in the knowledge that at least they weren’t the only people who were hurting. But now, with the war at an end and the South’s condition still poor relative to the rest of the country, an altogether different impetus—a forward thrust—was propelling the ship of state. America seemed on the verge of a great renewal, a reinvention of itself. With an air of invincibility, it was facing the future in an expansive, opportunistic, idealistic mood. Implicit in that positive spirit was the admonition that the time to move was at hand, and those who didn’t get on board would be left on the dock when the ship sailed.


The South could not have skipped the postwar revolution of new technology and rising expectations no matter how hard it might have tried. The Roosevelt New Deal and the war itself had already opened up too many possibilities, too many visions of a better life for the taking; Southerners, like all Americans, had to be included in that bright and promising picture.

Innovation seemed to have a multiplier effect. Consider the impact of the Tennessee Valley Authority: from its inception in 1933, the agency generated cheap and accessible electric power in the upper South by building hydroelectric plants next to its dams. Soon, town and country people alike had electricity, and they bolted out of the dark ages in a rush. When rationing and austerity ended after the war, a pent-up demand was loosed for appliances, radios, record players, motor vehicles, and a host of time- and labor-saving tools and gadgets. This was also the time when mass advertising came into its own as a consumer stimulus (not that people really needed stimulating to snap up the new cars, refrigerators, boats, clothes, and other goods as soon as they came off the assembly line).

Novelty begat novelty in the private sector, too, with much the same far-reaching consequences. The postwar boom in automobile sales led directly to massive road-building programs and eventually to the interstate highway network, begun in the 1950’s. Cars allowed people to drive longer distances to work, shop, and play, and that mobility greatly reduced the South’s isolation. (One unwelcome consequence of the increased traffic, though, was a soaring highway death toll.) Motels, fast-food chains, expanded parks and recreational facilities, supermarkets, and drive-in theaters would head the long list of developments spawned by the car culture. A nation on the go, America roared out of the war years with practically everyone behind the wheel; cars (and especially in the South, trucks) quickly ceased to be thought of as luxuries and were looked upon as necessities.

Air conditioning likewise modified social behavior, particularly in the subtropical Gulf Coast states. The tobacco and textile industries had begun to use cooling systems to maintain quality control of their products even before the First World War, and by the end of the 30’s, most of the railroads and movie theaters operating in the region had put in temperature-regulating devices for the comfort of their customers. Soon after World War II, technological advances made air conditioning commonplace throughout the society; in less than a quarter of a century, the South would be converted from a muggy, oppressive, sweat-drenched summer place to a labyrinth of air-cooled cocoons—cars, homes, schools, churches, even shopping malls and sports stadiums. Air conditioning spurred industrial growth in the region, too, and stimulated trade at restaurants and hotels, and influenced architecture. So quickly did we become accustomed to refrigerated air that the inescapable heat we once tolerated with hardly a passing comment became an agitating and intolerable discomfort whenever we were forced to stay in it.

It was the blessed relief of air conditioning that eventually lured people away from long-winded conversation on the porch and into the cool, enclosed parlor or “family room,” there to watch in enthralled silence as yet another major postwar technological force—television—cast its magic spell. Within a few years, TV would be acknowledged as the most powerful tool of education and culture available (proving, its critics said, that not every novelty is an unmixed blessing). In the final analysis, television probably has done more to transform American culture than all other technological innovations of the 20th century, including air conditioning and automobiles.

Richmond, Atlanta, Fort Worth, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans were in the first wave of Southern cities to inaugurate commercial television stations in 1948—the same year CBS and ABC began operating as networks in competition with NBC, the 1946 TV pathfinder. The video screen profoundly altered the way all Americans thought and acted about virtually every aspect of their lives. The South would be especially affected. Think, for example, of the rise of professional sports, the desegregation of pro teams, and their entry into Southern urban markets in the 1960’s—all spurred by the pervasive power of television. And think of the impact on journalism brought about when visual renditions of the news could be delivered instantaneously to virtually every home. In a sense, the civil rights movement was a made-fortelevision drama. Not surprisingly, Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge and other segregationist Southern politicians would complain publicly in the early 1950’s that television was undermining segregation. In point of fact, it was.

By mid-century, a substantial majority of Southerners would be totally dependent on their cars and trucks, and soon thereafter they would embrace television and air conditioning as essential to their workaday lives. Those who still lived on farms would be mastering mechanical cotton-pickers and other harvesting machines, and assembly-line workers would be learning to use ever more sophisticated equipment (with computers soon to come), and homemakers would be cleaning, cooking, and freezing with the latest electric or gas appliances. Their health would be further protected by miracle drugs like penicillin and the polio vaccine; still another revolutionary medical marvel, birth control pills, would be introduced in the early 1960’s. All in all, these irreversibly Americanizing influences served to push the people of the Southern states ever closer to the national fold.

For nearly a century, the United States had lived with the destructive consequences of regional hostility and estrangement. Now, the cumulative effects of the depression, the New Deal, and the war were breaking down those sectional barriers and compelling all Americans to think in national rather than regional terms. The United States in 1945 was a vastly different country than it had been in 1929. The federal government’s role as a provider of services (health, housing, jobs, education, welfare, highways) and as a regulator of activity in such fields as agriculture, banking, broadcasting, and interstate travel had expanded enormously, and that trend would not be reversed as the nation grew ever larger and more complex.

The national economy, having tripled in size during the war years, was severely tested in the mid-1940’s by two daunting challenges: the absorption of ten million military men and women into civilian life, and the conversion of industry to the production of consumer goods. Some of the pressure would be relieved by federal investments in education, job training, and housing under the G.I. Bill of Rights— yet another example of a national response to what had once been thought of as state or local or even private concerns. As a practical matter, however, no other force except the federal government was powerful enough to remove price controls, lift wages, and try to keep a lid on inflation and unemployment—just as, by the same token, only the nation had had the resources to overcome the depression and win the war.

Now, for a brief moment in history, the United States stood proudly as a victorious and unified country—a single people under one flag, one army, one political system, one currency, one language (albeit diversely accented). The same basic institutions—religious, academic, economic, informational— undergirded the national structure. Ever since the Southern war of rebellion in the 1860’s, the issue of federal sovereignty had been sticking in the South’s craw. Now, 80 years later, the answer finally seemed abundantly clear: like it or not (and many old Rebs didn’t), this was one nation, indivisible.

National authority was unquestionably secured as the United States took up its domestic agenda in the late summer of 1945. More decisively than ever before in American history, federal solutions were widely seen as the primary response to an expanding array of problems. Government was no panacea, but it was the essential engine of a progressive society, and most people adjusted to that fact. (It would remain for the next generation to discover the flip side of big government: the arrogance of power, the paralyzing crush of bureaucracy, the susceptibility of politicians and parties to corruption, and all the rest.)

The cry of states’ rights would still be raised, but it would never again prevail against higher authority exercised in the national interest. Even so, the certainty of failure had not been enough to deter the breakaway South in the 1860’s, and it would not be enough in the 1950’s and beyond. Though they would stop short of war this time, the region’s leaders would foment yet another rebellion in the name of states’ rights and Southern sovereignty—with the same disastrous results as before.

No matter how passionately the guardians of Old South culture yearned to live by antiquated social rules, there was no realistic possibility that the region could go on following its traditional course indefinitely. Isolated, undemocratic, backward in many ways, beset with contradictory feelings of superiority and inadequacy, determined at all costs to maintain a rear-guard defense of its race and class divisions, the South was hopelessly stranded in the trailing ranks of the national parade—and all for the comfort and glory of a handful of its citizens. The end of the war brought with it a pervasive sense that a new age was beginning, and nothing would be quite the same as it had been. Change would not come to the Land of Cotton swiftly, precipitously—but it would come.


What was it that set the South apart from the rest of America in the middle of the 20th century? Was it history, tradition, geography, isolation, ruralism, violence? Was it culture, class, religion, mythology, language, music, food, families? There were many elements, some positive, some negative, but one was paramount. What divided the South from the nation—and Southerners from one another—was race.

The wall had loomed since European explorers first encountered the native inhabitants of the Americas in the late 15th century, and since the first Africans were brought to this continent against their will in 1619. Periodic epidemics of religious and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia down through the years have underscored the pervasiveness of intolerance. It was never just Southern whites but whites in general who separated the races and assured the one of perpetual advantage over the others; as Gunnar Myrdal so convincingly showed in An American Dilemma in 1944, white supremacy was a product of national, not regional, failure.

Even so, the vast majority of blacks in the population of America had always been in the South—first as slaves, then as freemen, and finally as the lowest segment in the regional labor pool. In spite of massive migration to Northern cities, three-fourths of the country’s 13 million black citizens still lived in the states of the Old Confederacy after World War II (as did much smaller numbers of Hispanics, Indians, and Asians). It was primarily here that segregation and discrimination and inequality were so blatantly practiced and so intricately woven into the fabric of everyday life.

The white South had never spoken with one unified and unwavering voice against the humanity of the AfricanAmerican population. To be sure, most politicians and lesser numbers of journalists, scholars, and religious leaders did often perpetuate the myth of a solid white South. But there were always dissenters who spoke and worked for some degree of justice and fair play for people of color. Most of them voiced a kindly and well-intentioned paternalism; others stressed the need for equal protection of the laws; still others felt that blacks were entitled, on an equal but segregated basis, to all the programs and services available to whites. But it was one thing to favor nonviolence and common decency, and quite another to stand up and speak out for complete racial equality. When it came to outright criticism of segregation itself, only a handful of Southern whites with any public stature or following at all had found their voices by 1945—and all of them were on the outer margins of power, not at its center.

Writer and editor Lillian Smith was getting national attention as an outspoken integrationist. H.L. Mitchell, Lucy Randolph Mason, and other regional leaders of organized labor were firmly in favor of full equality for blacks, and so were James Dombrowski of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School. A few religious radicals—Howard Kester, Alva Taylor, Claude Williams, Don West—stirred controversy by living out their belief in the brotherhood of man. (Some denominational bodies passed resolutions on racial tolerance, but virtually none gave up segregation.) Ex-New Dealers Will Alexander, Aubrey Williams, and Clark Foreman had all declared their opposition to Jim Crow laws by the end of the war. Broadus, George, and Morris Mitchell, the three sons of Samuel Chiles Mitchell, the aging liberal scholar, were all activists like their father. Social scientists Howard Odum, Guy Johnson, Rupert Vance, and Arthur Raper headed the list of academics linked to progressive causes.

Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall and Florida Senator Claude Pepper stood out among a handful of practicing politicians who called themselves liberals, though they didn’t feel free enough to take advanced positions on racial issues. Perhaps the most noted Southern liberal in a role of real authority (unless you count Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black) was the longtime president of the University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham, soon to be appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. He too felt compelled at times to equivocate a bit on matters of race, but he and Dorothy Rogers Tilly of Atlanta, the only Southern members of the U.S. Committee on Civil Rights appointed by President Truman in 1946, would distinguish themselves as forthright advocates of a new national course in race relations.

A number of the South’s leading newspaper editors leaned modestly in the direction of liberal progressivism, but not on all issues; race continued to hold them back. Even in the late 40’s, most of them shied away from federal solutions to what they saw as state or local or private problems—lynching, job discrimination, poll taxes and other impediments to voting. Early liberals, including Virginius Dabney in Richmond and John Temple Graves in Birmingham, were drifting further to the right, while Atlanta’s Ralph McGill, Raleigh’s Jonathan Daniels, Mark Ethridge of Louisville and Hodding Carter of Greenville, Mississippi, were searching for a middle course between what they saw as radical and reactionary extremes. Younger men just back from the war would soon offer progressive editorial leadership, among them Harry S. Ashmore in Little Rock, William C. Baggs in Miami, and C.A. “Pete” McKnight in Charlotte; John N. Popham, a native Virginian, would play an influential role as the first Southern correspondent of the New York Times. But not one newspaper in the region editorialized against Jim Crow segregation laws until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision mandating desegregation of the public schools.

More than a few black Southerners had seen clearly for a long time the urgent need to end legalized segregation and extend the privileges of full citizenship to their race, but their power to effect such changes was severely limited. Often they were caught between oppressive whites close at hand and militant blacks voicing criticism from the relative safety of the North. Some black newspapers in the region tried to fly the flag of racial liberation, but they were essentially conservative enterprises with small circulation and limited influence —and in any case, only a few had writers of the caliber of someone like John H. McCray, editor of the Lighthouse itInformer in Columbia, South Carolina. The Southern black church was conservative, too, and without much latitude in the struggle for equal opportunity; a postwar decade would pass before it joined the battle against white supremacy.

In the 30’s and 40’s, independent educators headed the list of progressive black leaders in the South. Prominent among them were Charles S. Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Benjamin Mays, Rufus Clement, F.D. Patterson, and Gordon Hancock. Numerous others, in and out of the region, showed a prophetic understanding of social issues in those years. Among the most eloquent in their advocacy of racial equality were writers James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Saunders Redding, and Sterling Brown; attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston; activists W.E.B.Du Bois, Walter White, Paul Robeson, and A. Philip Randolph. The list of black reformers was longer than that of whites, even though it was defined by one restraining reality: only those who were not dependent on whites for their livelihood could afford the risk of speaking their minds candidly.

These were some of the primary figures, black and white, in the early struggle for racial and regional equality, and most of them would still be there on the liberal side in the postwar battle for human rights in the South and the nation. If their numbers were small, it only proved how hard it was to speak out with logic or even pragmatism on an emotional issue like race. More than three centuries of white dominance had developed and reinforced traditions that defied logic and ignored self-interest. Segregation gripped the minds of many Southerners like a chronic disease, an incurable addiction; in their fervor for it, some whites would prove themselves to be as ready to ride it down to defeat as their forebears had ridden slavery.

If the liberal-progressive remnant had been able to agree on goals and methods, ends and means, they might have won a substantial following among the South’s silent majority. With united leadership and a little luck, both the black minority and the region as a whole might have managed in the late 40’s to break free from their long-standing positions of enforced disadvantage. But human nature had the last word as the liberals fell into conflict among themselves.

The Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the Southern Regional Council, the two leading social action organizations of the 1940’s, eyed each other more like suspicious rivals than collaborative allies. SCHW spun off a new organization in 1946—the Southern Conference Educational Fund—ostensibly to receive tax-exempt contributions and leave the SCHW free to engage in political action. But in truth, the decision cloaked a personal and philosophical split within the group and marked the beginning of the end for SCHW. For its part, the Southern Regional Council would be locked in internal debate about segregation for several years after the war. Even at that, SCHW and SRC fared better than the Southern Policy Committee, an earlier conclave of liberals that by 1940 had all but dissolved in frustration and anger.

Blacks in the region who courted either Southern whites or Northern blacks in the campaign for social reform had critics aplenty no matter which way they turned. More militant blacks in the North often branded them as Uncle Toms, while white liberals sought to exploit them as buffers against the more conservative whites—who in turn regarded even the most diplomatic black reformers as disruptive troublemakers. Whites who showed even the most modest inclination toward racial accommodation were likewise squeezed between reactionary white politicians on the right and radical activists, black and white, on the left.

Internal squabbling, petty jealousies, and personal hostility sometimes brought almost as much grief to the liberalprogressive cause as did ideological opposition from the right. (Conservatives had to face internal dissension too, but they had the advantages of incumbency, vested power, and majority-white privilege on their side.) Ralph McGill and Lillian Smith never liked each other, and they were too proud to meet and iron out their differences. McGill also had little use for Don West, Claude Pepper, the SCHW, or the labor movement—but he greatly admired labor’s Lucy Randolph Mason, who was a friend of Pepper and West and a member of SCHW. Smith was a harsh and disdainful critic of the Southern Regional Council, and though she eventually joined the rival Southern Conference, she didn’t stay long in its ranks. Frank Graham never was active in the SRC. Howard Kester, a Christian Socialist, and H.L. Mitchell, an agnostic Socialist, shared an abiding distrust of all activists they suspected of being Communists—including fellow agnostic Myles Horton and fellow Christian Jim Dombrowski. Blacks were equally as hard on one another; the conference of black Southerners out of which the Southern Regional Council grew was soundly criticized by black leaders in the North even before it began.

And so it went, as the thin ranks of reform-minded Southerners and their outside allies struggled against tradition, inertia, ignorance, silence, the old guard of ruling reactionaries—and themselves. For all their differences, the progressives seemed to have enough interests in common to lay the foundation for a coalition. By and large, they were RooseveltTruman Democrats. Consistently through the years, they had opposed the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing terrorist organizations. They were for better race relations, expanded civil rights for blacks, full and fair application of the rule of law. Most of them had more positive than negative opinions of labor unions and the federal government, and they enthusiastically welcomed the postwar emergence of nontraditional young politicians in the aging ranks of demagogic office-holders. And still they fought among themselves.

Their real adversaries were those very demagogues, and the people on the right who kept them in power. Here were the most strident critics of Roosevelt and Truman, the swom enemies of federal authority, the defenders of states’ rights; here were anti-union, anti-black partisans, who slapped the red label on all who strayed from conservative orthodoxy on race, religion, and politics; here were people who not only tolerated the Klan but supported it, even belonged to it; here were the beneficiaries of democratic exclusion and apathy.

And yet, as clear-cut as the left-right ideological split was, the liberals could never muster more than a thin shadow of the unity that kept the conservatives in harness throughout. Always outnumbered and constantly working against the grain of the culture that had evolved over generations, the progressives couldn’t overcome emotion with logic. Once again, the reason was race: when all was said and done, white Southerners were more willing to stand against basic justice for their black neighbors than for it.

In the nine years that separated the coming of world peace and the historic Brown decision, the white South tried in vain to deal with race by avoidance and indirection, hoping all the while that somehow the issue would resolve itself and simply fade away. Conservatives and liberals alike knew how crucial the matter was to the future of their region, but they could see no way to settle it, and so they resisted it as an unthinkable thought, an issue only to be approached defensively, in reaction to initiatives taken by others. Conservatives saw disturbing trends coming out of the war—trends toward urbanization, industrialization, a broader franchise, diversification of the Democratic Party, the re-emancipation of blacks. Liberals were not so much alarmed as encouraged by those trends, but they saw and dreaded the hardening of reactionary resistance, the rise of violence against blacks, the signs of hostility to organized labor, the national outbreak of red hysteria, and the stain of the Communist taint on all progressives.

Throughout the Roosevelt years and right on into the first postwar months of adjustment, race was a low-priority agenda item for virtually all whites, North and South, left and right; most seemed inclined to simply let things rock along until a crisis of some sort forced the public to pay attention. But black Americans—the targets of discrimination—were not so indifferent. By war’s end, they seemed more universally determined than ever to gain the basic freedoms for which they had fought overseas. Their first order of business in the summer and fall of 1945 was to make rapid progress in two areas: employment (access to jobs, union membership, equal pay for equal work) and political-civic standing (voting rights, political party participation, fair treatment at the hands of the police, the law, and the courts). There were other pressing needs, of course—in education, housing, health care, transportation—but working and voting came first.

Much had happened in the previous decade or more to forewarn all Americans that the whole range of racial issues would eventually have to be opened up and examined. A small library of novels and nonfiction books about race had been written—illuminating volumes by such noted authors as James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Gunnar Myrdal, Rayford Logan, W.J. Cash, Lillian Smith, and numerous others. Many more stirring portents of change echoed through popular music, art, movies, and theatrical productions. Blacks who had been locked out of combat roles and defense industry jobs had won concessions by threatening a massive march on Washington, In the armed forces and in labor unions, blacks had fought successfully for certain basic rights, and more victories were coming. Here and there in the church, the university, and the press, individual voices raised calls to conscience. The Democratic Party, once the fiefdom of conservative Southern politicians, was becoming more diversified, more responsive, more liberal. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans now lived in cities such as New York and Detroit, and white intolerance there was fueling deep hostility, even deadly riots. Federal courts had issued several pathfinding decisions against racial discrimination. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had gradually shifted the moral weight of the White House toward a more inclusive democracy.

Only those who weren’t paying attention could fail to notice that the United States was moving ever closer to a formal acknowledgement of its 325-year-old racial dilemma, its crisis in black and white. The lines were being drawn for a classic ideological faceoff between the conservative right and the liberal left—tradition versus change, old opposed to new, the past standing with arms folded against the future. Many people knew the odds, and the stakes; even though the vast majority of uncommitted citizens remained on the sidelines awaiting instructions, the factional leaders on the right and left knew that a crucial test was at hand.

The South would have a few months, at most a couple of years or so—only a little time, as time is measured—in which to determine its future course, and to establish the pace and tone and tenor of its response to the pressures for change. Realistically, the odds still favored the continuation of white supremacy. It was decreed and enforced by the politicians, reinforced by the social institutions, chiseled into the hard stone of Southern history; it permeated the culture. The South had virtues and graces that were not minor or insignificant, but they were largely obscured by the deep-rooted heritage of exploitation, violence, and demagoguery. The seemingly immovable object, white supremacy, stood across the field of battle from some elements of opposing energy that held out the threat, the promise, of becoming an irresistible force. According to the laws of physics, the meeting of such powers invariably produces a violent explosion. The laws of history and humanity that came to be applied in the postwar South would eventually bring a similar consequence.


On Oct. 11, 1945, a mob of white men went to the county jail in Madison, Florida, a small town near the Georgia border, and removed a prisoner, Jesse James Payne, from his unguarded cell. The 30-year-old black laborer had been awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a little girl. The mob took Payne out into the countryside and tortured him to death. Sheriff Lonnie Davis later said the prisoner had been removed by someone who had a key to the cell. Further questioning revealed that the only known key was the one belonging to the sheriff himself.

The semi-official statistics on lynching in the United States compiled annually by Tuskegee Institute in Alabama recorded Payne’s death as the only such incident in the country that year. But Payne was by no means the only victim of Southern mob law in 1945. Within three months of VictoryOver-Japan Day, published reports told of at least five other black men summarily slain by whites without due process of law in small Southern communities—one in Union Springs, Alabama, two in the southwest Mississippi towns of Liberty and Woodville, and two others in north Florida, at Branford and St. Augustine.

Atop Stone Mountain, just east of Atlanta, an October rally of the Ku Klux Klan came off as both a celebration of these acts of terror and a warning to blacks of more violence to come. Dr. Samuel Green, grand dragon of the Georgia Klan, claimed that there were more than 20, 000 members of the secret society in his state alone. The huge cross that the Atlanta obstetrician and his hooded followers torched that night could be seen glowing on the horizon from 60 miles away.

One war had ended. Another was heating up again.


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