This article is adapted from the first of three Lamar Lectures given at Georgia Wesleyan College April 3—4, 1984. It was written while the author was a Fellow of the National Humanities Center.
Around 1970, a number of Southerners began to say something rather odd. Independently, they had concluded that the South might be coming out of a tense and turbulent era in black-white relations in better condition than the rest of the country. Some even ventured to hope that the South could show other Americans, and the world, what an equitable biracial society looks like. The then-governor of Virginia, Linwood Holton, for instance, told a Rotary convention in St. Augustine that “we in the South have a better opportunity than any area of America to resolve the American dilemma, to become a model for race relations.” Other observers—journalists and scholars as well as politicians— were starting to express similar opinions. It was about that time that I wrote an article with the self-explanatory title, “Can the South Show the Way?”
As the seventies began, black Southerners were worse off than non-Southern blacks by nearly every measure one might examine—the standard of living they were able to achieve, their influence in politics, the white attitudes they confronted. But, I argued, their circumstances were improving faster in all of these respects. This had two important implications. In the first place, it helped to explain the otherwise puzzling fact that one opinion poll after another, throughout the 1960’s, had shown “that Southern blacks [were] less resentful, more hopeful, and less alienated than other black Americans.” People evaluate their situation not only in terms of how good or bad it is, but in light of how it is changing, and how rapidly. Things were clearly getting better for Southern blacks, and the polls showed that they recognized this. In consequence, they showed a degree of satisfaction to which many non-Southern blacks (for whom things were not improving as fast, if at all) were not disposed. This translated into a degree of patience, I wrote, that gave Southern whites the chance to make change “gracefully, in an atmosphere relatively free of urgency and acrimony.”
The other implication, by simple arithmetic, was that the condition of black Southerners would soon be better than that of non-Southern blacks in absolute terms. I hedged: “The question is what the limits of these changes are to be. Straightforward extrapolation suggests that Southern blacks will soon be better off . . .than Northern black people; cynicism suggests that this is too much to hope for, and that [white Southerners] should be content with a pattern of race relations and racial inequalities no worse than that found elsewhere.”
I don’t know what Governor Holton’s audience made of his speech, but the response to my article was . . .mixed. Some conservatives liked its insistence that the North was far from perfection in racial matters, because it supported their view that Northerners ought to leave the South alone and put their own house in order. But others didn’t care for the assumption that white supremacy was doomed; they were not hog-wild about biracial societies in the first place and equitable ones least of all. A few liberals seemed to like the article because it could be used to shame Northerners (“If even the South can have good race relations, surely we can do better”), but others disliked what they saw as my complacence; they pointed out that the trends I was so coldbloodedly examining didn’t just happen but were the product of human struggle and sacrifice. Other liberals apparently didn’t feel the South deserved good race relations. And still others were damned if they were going to agree with any article published in National Review, as mine was.
All in all, however, the world little noted nor long remembered that article. I am still fond of it, though, not just because it was my first effort at political journalism but because its predictions increasingly look to be right.
Even at the time, although nobody knew it, black Americans were beginning to vote with their feet. In the early seventies, for the first time since the end of the slave trade, more blacks moved to the South than left it—a pattern that continues. As an expanding economy and the death of Jim Crow have created a black middle class in the South alongside the old segregated triad of preacher, teacher, and undertaker, black managers and professionals have been moving to the South’s cities and suburbs. The in-gathering has been taking place at the bottom of the economic ladder, too, although there it is often not a matter of Southern promise but of crushed hopes in the North: poverty in rural Mississippi is at least safer and warmer than poverty in a Northern ghetto.
The pattern I noted of greater satisfaction and less impatience among Southern blacks has continued. A University of Michigan survey in 1978, for instance, found blacks in the South more likely than those elsewhere to say they were “completely satisfied with life”: one non-Southern black in five said that, but one out of every three black Southerners did. In part this simply indicates that Southern blacks are good Southerners, since the same regional difference exists among whites. But the difference was greater among blacks than among whites; Southern blacks were more likely to express satisfaction than whites from any region; and the difference between Southern and non-Southern blacks was greater in 1978 than it had been seven years earlier. Those data suggest that conditions were still improving faster for Southern blacks than for non-Southern blacks, or at least that black Southerners were more likely to believe their conditions were improving.
If that is what they thought, they were correct. We can look in more detail at three ways that their situation was changing, corresponding roughly to what Max Weber identified as the three ways someone’s situation can improve or deteriorate: one can have more or less money, power, and respect.
Money is the easiest to deal with, since it lends itself best to counting. In 1970 Southern blacks were (as they always had been) poorer, on the average, than blacks in any other part of the country. Black Southern families were nearly twice as likely to be poor as black families in every other region of the U.S. The gap was closing, but one could not expect it to close immediately. Part of the problem had to do with the South’s economy: white incomes were lower in the South, too. And black Southerners of the older generation carried the burden of past discrimination: they had, on the average, poorer education and less of it than blacks elsewhere in the country; they were already in worse-paying jobs, with little likelihood that would change anytime soon.
Despite all of the built-in inertia, though, the gap has been closing, and in 1982, for the first time, the poverty rate for black families in the South was no longer the highest in the country. It was still higher than that for black families in the Northeast or the West, but it was lower than in the North Central states, and that is something truly unprecedented. Figures for family income show the same convergence. In 1982, black family income in the South averaged about $13,000—some 5 percent higher than the figure for the North Central states.
Obviously many Southern blacks still have economic problems, but their problems are now no worse than those of black families everywhere else in the nation. In part, unfortunately, this is because the situation of blacks elsewhere has been deteriorating. During the 12 years from 1970 to 1982 the percentage of black families living in poverty decreased by five points in the South, while it was increasing everywhere else: by 14 points in the North Central states, by 12 points in the Northeast, and by two and a half points in the West. Currently 38 percent of black families in the South are poor—a disgraceful figure, but that percentage is decreasing and is already lower than the figure for one other major American region. Black poverty is a serious problem, but my point here is that it is no longer a peculiarly Southern problem.
Moreover, the South may be better-equipped than some other parts of the country to deal with that problem; if so, the trend of the past 15 years or so should continue. The “Sunbelt” is not wholly a fiction, and the economic prospects for the South are certainly rosier than those for the cities of the Northeast and North Central states, where most blacks outside the South live. It has often been observed that a no-growth economy means one group can improve its condition only at the expense of another, which quite naturally resents and resists that improvement; in an expanding economy, though, one group can improve faster than another without anyone’s particularly noticing. If the South’s economy continues to generate new jobs, some at least will go to black Southerners, and some benefits will trickle down (probably an accurate phrase) to those who are now the poorest—the economically marginal rural black population of the Deep South. Finally, it is ironic that the weakness of labor unions in the South, which some see as an unmistakable mark of Southern backwardness, may work to at least the short-run advantage of Southern blacks. Elsewhere, unions may have kept up the wages of those who had jobs, but it seems likely that they have reduced the total number of jobs available and they have often operated, one way or another, to exclude blacks from employment.
When we turn from economics to politics, we see the same pattern, but even more dramatic: faster improvement, and in some respects a better situation, for blacks in the South. Here one finds an especially striking discontinuity, and it can be dated precisely: 1965. The Voting Rights Act of that year is arguably the single most important accomplishment of the entire civil rights movement.
Only 25 years ago, a mere quarter of the eligible black voters in the eleven formerly Confederate states were registered to vote. The poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices that kept that figure low are a matter of public record; the economic and sometimes physical intimidation used for the same purpose usually operated less conspicuously. In 1964, well into the era of the civil rights movement, that figure had increased from 25 percent or so to only 38 percent, and in some states, of course, it was much lower. In Mississippi only 6 percent of eligible blacks were registered in 1965. By 1968, three years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the black registration percentage had increased from 38 percent to 62 percent in the South as a whole, and from 6 percent to nearly 60 percent in Mississippi. That percentage has not changed greatly since—it went up a little more by 1970 and subsequently decreased a bit—but it is almost as high as the percentage of whites registered to vote; it is about the same as the figure for black registration in the rest of the country; and it is high enough to have transformed Southern politics.
The most conspicuous change has probably been the election of blacks to public office in the South. There are tens of thousands of elected officials in the South, serving in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, in city and county offices and in law enforcement, on state and local school boards. Of these tens of thousands, in 1965, precisely 78 were black. By 1970, when Governor Holton made his speech and I wrote that article, there had been a ninefold increase, to 711. By 1981, that figure had more than trebled: more than 2,500 blacks held elective office in the eleven ex-Confederate states, and Mississippi had more black elected officials than any other state in the Union.
Between 1970 and the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, there was no increase in the percentage of Southern blacks registered to vote, so the growing number of black politicians in the South clearly indicates the growing political sophistication of the region’s black voters.(Still, registration does no good without voter turnout. Here, too, though, there are encouraging portents for those who believe that black political participation indicates a healthy body politic. In the Democratic primaries on “Super Tuesday,” March 13, 1984, black Southern Democrats were half again as likely as white ones to vote; and their votes delivered Georgia and Alabama to Walter Mondale and kept Jesse Jackson’s candidacy alive.)
While the number and percentage of black elected officials in the South continues to grow, there remains a disparity between the percentage of black population and the percentage of black elected officials. Although blacks are about 19 percent of the South’s population, only 3 percent or so of the South’s elected officials are black. But in the Northeast only 1/2 of 1 percent of elected officials are black; in the North Central states and in the West, 4/10 of 1 percent. Put another way: 22 of every hundred thousand black Southerners are elected public officials. In the North Central states, the figure is 19 per hundred thousand; in the West, 15; in the Northeast, 12.
Here again, there is little cause for Southern self-congratulation. Whites are much more likely than blacks to hold public office in the South, and the number and variety of ingenious schemes to keep it that way may well merit the attention of the Justice Department. But blacks are now less underrepresented in the South than in other parts of the country; that is a remarkable change; and that is my point.
This is not because Southern whites are more willing than non-Southern whites to vote for black politicians. Public opinion polls and election results reveal no such difference. In the South, like everywhere else in the country, most elected black politicians represent constituencies with black majorities or close to it. But there are many more such constituencies in the South. The same concentration of black voting strength has drastically affected the behavior of white elected officials, even when it has not produced black office-holders. Southern white politicians are much more likely now to respond to the interests of their black constituents. Black enfranchisement has produced new faces: Jimmy Carter is probably the epitome, but there are many others. In other cases, the new faces have been affixed to old heads. Think only of George Wallace’s last gubernatorial race or Strom Thurmond’s recent sponsorship of National Historically Black Colleges Week.(It is probably unkind to point out that the senator has always been in favor of black colleges.)
Political predictions are even riskier than economic ones, but there are some reasons to expect these trends to continue. In the Every-Cloud-Has-a-Silver-Lining Department, the increasing segregation of the South’s cities means that more and more of them, like more and more cities elsewhere, will find themselves with black mayors and city councils (although a variety of redistricting and municipal reorganization schemes—all under intense judicial scrutiny—could affect this one way or the other). Less troublesome is what may be the increasing willingness of some white voters to support some black candidates. Charlotte is only the latest in a long string of Southern communities where black officeholders have been elected by biracial majorities. For the time being, at least, these majorities seem to result from the so-called “Atlanta coalition” between blacks and middle-class whites, rather than the populist coalition of have-nots that Chandler Davidson claims in his book, Bi-racial Politics, to have spied once in Houston.
When we turn from considerations of money and power to matters of respect, the problem of measuring well-being gets even trickier, but what we are talking about here is essentially the attitudes of white Southerners toward their black fellow citizens, and we can turn to attitude surveys, with all their problems, for at least a first approximation. Here again, there is the familiar pattern of faster change in the South than elsewhere, leading to regional convergence.
Consider where we started. In 1942, public opinion polls showed that 98 percent of white Southerners favored absolute segregation of the public schools. Ninety-eight percent. That’s everybody.(Two percent probably misunderstood the question.) By 1956, two years after the Brown decision, there had been only a little change in white Southern opinion: 14 percent of whites from the Southern and border states thought black and white children should attend the same schools. But by 1970, only 16 percent of white Southern parents—one in six—objected to having their children in school with “a few” black children, and this trend, too, has continued. By 1980, only 5 percent of white Southern parents said they didn’t want their children in school with any black children. Again, that’s practically unanimous, but it’s on the other side; and that number—5 percent—is no different from the figure for the country as a whole.
Imagine: a regional difference of great—indeed, calamitous—importance 30 years ago has simply evaporated, or so it appears. Of course, some of these people are lying: it is not entirely respectable in the 1980’s to express segregationist views to a stranger who turns up on your doorstep. But in 1942, and 1956, it was not respectable not to express such views. And that, too, is a change of great importance.
There are still some regional differences in other measures of racial attitudes. White Southern parents are more likely than white parents elsewhere to say they don’t want their children in schools with a black majority, for instance. But the regional difference is small, and most white parents everywhere say they would object to that. White Southerners are somewhat less likely than other whites to say they would vote for a qualified black presidential candidate, but most say they would. Most white Southerners say they do not approve of racial inter-marriage, but almost as large a majority of non-Southern whites say that. All in all, the differences in racial attitudes between white Southerners and other white Americans are now differences only of degree, and of relatively small degree at that. Those differences are smaller than they have been at any time in the recent past, and they are getting smaller still with each year.
In practice I doubt that these remaining differences mean much. In the first place, what matters to non-Southern black people, day to day, is less the attitudes of all non-Southern whites than those of whites in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where most blacks outside the South actually live. What whites in Vermont or Oregon think about race relations is of some academic interest, and occasionally of political importance, but it has little to do with the everyday experience of black Americans. I have not seen the attitudes of whites in Chicago, say, or Boston broken out separately in attitude surveys, but surely few would care to argue that they are good examples for white Southerners to emulate.
In the second place, and more important, the attitudes someone expresses to a survey rsearcher are only part of the story and often not the most important part. The norms, the customs, that govern interaction can be as important as your attitudes in determining how you treat somebody. We saw how this worked under Jim Crow: how a white person felt about black people (or vice versa) had very little to do with how they interacted. That was prescribed in detail by an “etiquette of race relations” (to borrow the title of Bertram Doyle’s 1937 book on the subject); individuals could only embroider the basic pattern a bit to suit their attitudes.
Perhaps I should say that some of us saw how it worked under Jim Crow. It bears emphasizing that upward of 60 percent of Southerners, black and white, are too young to remember Brown v. Board of Education. Those Southerners who did not live through the last 30 years—my students, for example, who have a way of being born a bit later each year— find it hard to believe what most of us took for granted as just the way things were in the 1940’s and 50’s. My students find it hilarious when I tell them that the Brown decision apparently produced a measurable deflection in the white Southern birthrate, or when they read in Howard Odum’s Race and Rumors of Race about the “Eleanor [Roosevelt] Clubs” that many Southern whites believed their black maids belonged to. The splendid anthropological studies of the Jim Crow South have about as much immediacy for them, I would guess, as Malinowsky on the Trobrianders. When I describe the segregated bathrooms and water fountains and dry cleaners and basketball teams of my youth, they appear to believe me—just as one would believe a Martian’s description of his home planet. I gather that their parents, as a rule, don’t talk about it.
It gives me some sympathy for immigrant parents who have to deal with American children. Southerners in their forties and older have “immigrated,” in effect, just by staying put. The South we grew up in is as different from our children’s as the Polish shtetl from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, or Naples from Boston’s North End.
Even those who remember sometimes find it hard to believe. At least I do. Last year I saw a couple of etched glass doors in a small South Carolina town: one said WHITE, the other COLORED. I was almost literally stunned—stunned to realize that signs like that had once been an ordinary part of my life and stunned to realize that it had been nearly 20 years since I had last seen any. Like so much that was once thought to be terribly important, they had disappeared, largely without my noticing. It is a nice touch, I think, that these doors last year were in an antique shop—and if the dealer hadn’t wanted 50 dollars for the pair I would have bought them. God only knows what for—maybe I’d have used them in my teaching and taken an income-tax deduction.
Obviously things have changed. Laws have changed, and attitudes have changed, and (to return to the point) etiquette has changed. Not long ago, I had to do business in the courthouse of one of the poorest and blackest of North Carolina’s counties. Ahead of me in line for the tax clerk was an elderly black man. Thirty years ago, he would have automatically effaced himself and I would just as automatically have gone ahead of him. I cannot say what he would have been thinking, but I probably would not have noticed. When his turn came, the young white woman at the counter would have addressed him as “James” or maybe, in that part of North Carolina, as “Uncle.” She would not have meant to demean him, and, like me, she would not have been thinking about the implications of her behavior. Indeed, she would probably have denied that her behavior had any implications. She and I—and he, for that matter—would just have been doing what we were supposed to do, and our attitudes would have been neither here nor there.
That is not, obviously, what happened in 1984. I dare say that if Gallup ever came to that county, he would not find it a hotbed of racial liberalism. If he interviewed the young woman at the counter, I doubt that her attitudes would satisfy the members of the old Civil Rights Commission. But in 1984 she waited on the man in his turn, exchanged some routine pleasantries with him about the unpleasant weather, called him “sir” at first and “Mr. Jones” after that—she treated him, in other words, like any other presumptively decent citizen of that county. And she was just doing what she was supposed to do.
Argument from anecdote is bad form in my trade, and I won’t let my students do it, but I do believe that episode is increasingly typical. Manners have changed. More and more, in places like courthouses and stores and schools, Southern whites seem disposed to treat black Southerners as sort of honorary white folks—and by and large, whatever their private opinions of one another, white Southerners treat each other with courtesy and at least the appearance of good-natured respect. Southern blacks, for their part, seem willing to return the favor. The upshot is that on a day-to-day basis (which is how most of us lead our lives, after all) black-white relations in the South seem more cordial, less prickly, than black-white relations in the cities of the North. There is even some survey evidence to support this (again, from the University of Michigan): overall, 44 percent of non-Southerners described their lives as “very friendly;” 54 percent of all Southerners—and 58 percent of black Southerners—did so.
There is an irony here. William Chafe, in his study of the civil rights movement in Greensboro, Civilities and Civil Rights, argues that the value Southerners place on civility worked against the movement—to oversimplify his point, that even blacks’ potential allies in the white community saw sit-ins and other forms of black protest and self-assertion as a violation of the norms of civility, as bad manners. If I am right, those same norms may contribute to amicable race relations today and in the future. Walker Percy has written somewhere that Southerners know the point of manners: they exist so no one will not know what to do. A great many Southerners are apparently willing to do what they are supposed to do—whatever that may be—and that can contribute to good race relations as easily as to bad.
No doubt some would argue that the value of civility still keeps many unresolved issues from being addressed squarely, and they may be right. One should recognize, though, that it is not just white Southerners who value civility. That black Southerners for a time were not willing to do what they were “supposed to do” does not indicate that they do not share that value: instead, their actions were dramatic evidence of the extent of their frustration and exasperation.
One more story: After Chicago disgraced itself last year with a bitter black-against-white mayoralty campaign, Harvey Gantt, who was running for mayor of Charlotte, said that race would not be the same sort of issue there. “We’re much politer here,” he told the North Carolina Independent. “We’re not going to see that kind of down-in-the-gutter fight.” He was right: Charlotte didn’t, and he is now Charlotte’s first black mayor.
Gantt’s choice of pronouns points to another change that anyone who wishes the South well must welcome. Notice who is more polite: it is we (Southerners), not they (whites). When William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, was on William Buckley’s “Firing Line” a couple of years ago, he said something fascinating: “In the decade of the 80’s what we’re seeing is an interesting kind of evolution from the 60’s and 70’s to a sense of Southerners as Southerners as opposed to black versus white.” Well, some days I am more ready to believe that than others, but there are signs of the growth of a sense of regional identification that transcends racial differences, if one wants to look for them, and that would be something new, and wholly delightful, in my view.
There have always been similarities of style and culture between black and white Southerners. How could it be otherwise? One frivolous example: On television last year I saw the Mighty Reverend Al Greene lead the Soul Train Dancers in a remarkable rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The very next day (I swear it), on the radio, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis swing directly from “Great Balls of Fire” to “If We Could Spend Our Vacation in Heaven.” Which better illustrates W.J. Cash’s observation about the mixture of hedonism and piety in the Southern mind?
The great cultural similarity between black and white Southerners seems especially evident to those who have come to know one another outside the South. That experience is increasingly common, and it may have something to do with what Bill Ferris told Bill Buckley: Ferris came back to Mississippi from the Ivy League. Anyone who needs convincing really should read Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place, a remarkable book with the bad luck to be published at least ten years before its time. It is certainly no accident that Murray was returning to Alabama from New York.
Despite the cultural similarity, though, Southern blacks have not generally been inclined or encouraged in the past to think of themselves as black Southerners, and there is survey evidence to show that as late as the 1960’s most probably did not. As Merle Black and I showed in an article in the Journal of Politics, though, that has changed dramatically since then. (Unfortunately we had no data on how Southern whites construe the word Southerner and whether that has changed). We will know the process of identification is complete when more black Southerners, like Harvey Gantt, talk, of the South’s superiority—and when they habitually complain that non-Southerners do not understand the South, that they are tired of hearing the South put down, and so forth. Examples are still rare enough to be collectible, but they are starting to turn up here and there. When Robert Botsch, a political scientist, asked a black North Carolina furniture worker why he was planning to vote for Jimmy Carter, for instance, the man told him he was getting “tired of listening to all these slick Yankees who think they know everything and have all the answers.” It is hard to sound more Southern than that.
To repeat the question some of us were asking circa 1970: Can the South show the way? Can the South, I wondered then, “do more than catch up with the Northern pattern of race relations?” Can it “break through to an accommodation qualitatively different from and superior to that displayed in, say, Philadelphia or Cicero?” Well, perhaps it is beginning to. It is not really for me or for any other white Southerner to say whether the South has already become a better place than the Northeast or Midwest for black Americans to live, but it is certainly a better place now than it was 30 years ago, or 15— and that may not be true of other parts of the United States. The South has not shown the way yet. Black Southerners still have many legitimate grievances. They still do not have their share of money, power, and respect. But at least there is no reason for Southerners to apologize to Yankees anymore.
There is, to repeat, no reason to be smug about it. Catching up with the rest of the country is not an especially impressive achievement, and only a few white Southerners can take much credit even for that. But black Southerners can be proud of their accomplishment, and they have served their region—our region—well. The South is now more worthy than ever of Southerners’ affection for it.
Those of us who predicted that 12 or 15 years ago have no reason to be smug either. A remarkable article in this quarterly predicted the same thing a decade earlier, in 1961, at a time when it sounded not just unlikely but downright crazy. Leslie W. Dunbar, then executive director of the Southern Regional Council (the South’s oldest biracial organization) had no illusions about his fellow white Southerners. He knew that white supremacy would not be given up without a fight, less because whites profited from it than because many Southern whites would feel it a duty to defend their past and their society. But Dunbar wrote:
Once the fight is decisively lost (the verdict has to be decisive), once the Negro has secured the right to vote, has gained admittance to the public library, has fought his way into a desegregated public school, has been permitted to sup at a lunch counter, the typical white Southerner will shrug his shoulders, resume his stride, and go on. He has, after all, shared a land with his black neighbors for a long while; he can manage well enough even if the patterns change. There is now one fewer fight which history requires of him. He has done his ancestral duty. He . . .can relax a bit more.
And so, surprisingly enough, it has come to pass. The South has taken on a new character, as Dunbar said it would. Despite the conflict and turmoil since he wrote—indeed, largely because of it—the South still has the opportunity he saw a generation ago, one “it can fulfill better than any place or people anywhere.” The South may yet “give the world its first grand example of two races of men living together in equality and with mutual respect.”