In that curious history of what I might call the white Southern racial conversion narrative—that literature of the mid and late 20th century in which white Southerners told of coming up from racism and embracing racial brotherhood and sisterhood—the decade of the 1960’s would seem to occupy a particularly prominent place. Racial conversion narratives had been written before—most notably, in the late 1940’s by Lillian Smith and Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin—but the 1960’s transformed what had been random works of racial confession and conversion into a Southern literary sub-genre. The times were right, and rather numerous Southerners, the better angels of their nature awakened by the Civil Rights Movement, their sensibilities shocked by the atrocities of Selrna, Birmingham, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, looked inward to explore their own racial histories. Sarah Patton Boyle’s The Desegregated Heart (1962), James McBride Dabbs’ The Road Home (1960) and Who Speaks for the South? (1964), Lillian Smith’s revised and expanded Killers of the Dream (1963), Willie Morris’s North Toward Home (1967), and Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound (1970) were all, among other things, racial conversion narratives. So, at least in part, were Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro (1965), in which the author repented for the defense of racial segregation he had written 35 years earlier for I’II Take My Stand, and William Styron’s 1965 Harper’s essay, “This Quiet Dust”—not to mention Styron’s fictional The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which (despite its hostile reception from many black critics) was, in a deeper sense, the Confessions of William Styron, grandson of slaveholders and self-professed racial sinner.
All these works, and others, were written in the 1960’s. but few were so compelling as two other books, not so well-known, also inspired by that decade and published in 1971.Larry L King’s Confessions of a White Racist had begun as an essay written for Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s, at a time Morris was recruiting legions of Southerners, resident and expatriate, to tell about the South. Pat Watters’ Down to Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the most deeply felt of all the racial conversion narratives, was the product of a decade in which Watters had covered the Civil Rights Movement and reflected on Southern racial sins.
Larry King, whose Confessions had appeared a few month before Watters’ book, was just as fully a convert as Watters and others in the genre, but he came to racial conversion in a manner somewhat different from Watters, Smith, Dabbs, Boyle, and other racial converts of the period—not through religion (since, at least by his teens, he had little), nor through some extension of noblesse oblige (that, his family didn’t have either), nor even through early residence in the traditional South. King was born in 1929 in Putnam, Texas—a land far more Western than Southern—and he grew up largely in west Texas, the son of a family of no great distinction, historical consciousness, or social or economic standing. In fact, the Kings, it not actually poor, were of very modest means. King’s hither farmed for a time, then held a series of jobs, including construction worker and night watchman (or an oil company for about a dollar an hour. Nor did the young King himself have any driving ambition. He finished high school in Texas, joined the Army, went for a year of college at Texas Tech, and worked for a couple of Southwestern newspapers. Then, hitching his unpromising star to a Texas congressman, he went to Washington in 1954, and in the years that followed, just before and during the Johnson administration, he gained a certain cachet, as many country-smart and colorful Texans did during that era. If one were a poor boy from the provinces, it helped to be what was called a character—and King was adjudged to be precisely that. By the time Willie Morris met King in the mid-1960’s he was already a “flamboyant and outspoken” figure with a “hardy and questing eye.” He was also on his way to becoming a highly successful writer and playwright, the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which, as Morris has remarked, “allowed him to purchase a mansion in Washington, hire nannies for his children, and subsidize their riding lessons in Virginia.”
But King was hardly a success at first, not when he sat down in 1969 to write his Confessions. It was a time when King was preoccupied with race, as he felt any other American with social antennae should have been in the years just after the Civil Rights Movement, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., widespread riots in American cities, and a resulting suspicion, if not actual hostility, between blacks and whites. As King writes in his introduction, his “is a not a book about black Americans so much as one about white Americans and their racist attitudes.” Further,
It is not my individual confession alone, but a gratuitous admission of guilt on behalf of all white racists past and present, malignant or benign. It is not, I think (once the reader permits this opening oratory), a strident moral preachment so much as a journey of one white American who, boy and man, goes wandering through his time and his country. Sometimes he is blind; occasionally he sees. And always his journey is made easier by the color of his skin.
King speaks, then, as a representative white American, but he speaks as well as an individual, “forty-two, a veteran observer of racist America,” who “may have thought more on the subject of racism, and for longer” and may “have even come a longer way than most.” He realizes as well the price of his confession. He knows “that some old friends, relatives, or associates will recognize themselves in so personal a recitation, no matter what beards I put them behind, and will be offended or hurt or both.” Such was, King adds, “particularly likely to be true of members of my immediate family, who are perhaps too clearly identified (and seemingly too summarily judged) to make either them or the author comfortable with the results.” “Some of the people” King loves most “harbor their own disapproving opinions of my racial views, just as this book perhaps all too clearly reveals my disagreement with their attitudes.”
In the first chapter of his Confessions King discusses his own early racial history—which is, however, not nearly so rich and full as the histories of those racial converts born in the traditional South. Since his little west Texas town of Putnam “discouraged Negro residents,” and the town of Cisco where his family later lived had only a few more African Americans, his childhood memories were sparse—a few old black men shuffling along the streets of South Cisco, smiling obsequiously, a black shoeshine boy who was the butt of “rough country humor,” and blacks in grocery stores “step[ping] back to permit white customers easy access to the vegetable bins or to the single check-out counter.” Many of King’s early racial impressions, in fact, came from a distance—from Amos and Andy radio broadcasts; from a minstrel show that came to town, with Rastus and Sambo in cork-blackened faces; from hearing the broadcast of Joe Louis’s 1937 knockout of Jimmy Braddock for the world heavyweight championship. Indeed, “each time Joe Louis fought, the farmers of our community and their sons gathered before a common old battery-operated radio in the unifying prayer that some “white hope” would whip ole Joe’s black ass for us”—this at the same time, of course, that scores of rural Southern blacks were gathering around their radios praying just the opposite. From all these fleeting impressions—”quite without knowing how I came by the gift, and in a complete absence of even the slightest contact with black people”—King assimilated “certain absolutes”: “The Negro would steal anything lying around loose and a high percentage of all that was bolted down; you couldn’t hurt him if you hit him on the head with a tire tool; he revered watermelon above all other fruits of the vine; he had a mule’s determination not to work unless driven or led to it; he would screw a snake if somebody would hold its head.”
When King’s family moved, in his teens, to the oil town of Midland, he encountered both African Americans and the world of Jim Crow as he never had before, although neither made much of an impression on him at the time. He saw blacks being herded into the balcony of the movie theater, he saw signs for “White” and “Colored” waiting rooms at the train depot, and signs at the front of restaurants announcing that their proprietors reserved the right to refuse service to anyone they chose. It hardly occurred to him that human dignity was a casualty of such restrictions. But he was aware, even then, of curious intersections of race, class, and religion—in particular, was aware that “some of the more obvious white-supremacy advocates of my youth were men of the cloth.” Though “by the time [he] reached puberty,” King has remarked elsewhere, he himself was persuaded to attend church “only by shouts and main force,” his parents were so given to old-time religion that King’s mother had once hoped he would become a preacher. Thus in King’s formative years his home was “fair game for a series of trembling itinerant prophets,” “unlettered priests,” who visited the King home and held forth on the Virgin Birth, “how the earth was most assuredly flat,” and “the vast amount of Scriptural authority accounting for the black man’s lowly state and substandard conduct.”
King’s first racial crisis—one he met with something less than distinction—occurred when, as a part-time mailman at age 16, he refused to train a black war veteran whom the Midland Post Office had hired because of a manpower shortage. “Well, hell. . .he’s a nigger,” King had given as sufficient reason for his refusal, then added that he would be ashamed if his friends saw him with the black man. He reconsiders only because he himself will lose his own job if he doesn’t comply with the postmaster’s order. The morning his new duties are scheduled to begin, King arrives at work, shakes hands with the new employee—the first time he “had suffered such an intimacy with a black man”—and heads out on his route apprehensively. The night watchman’s son—embarrassed “when we encountered my classmates while walking in affluent neighborhoods”—is polite but formal to his charge: “The day Tim was assigned his own route was a happy one for me.” Taking no moral instruction from his two-week adventure in integration, King resolves instead to stay away from Negroes. When he finishes high school in 1946, he chooses the Navy over other branches of service because “it was said to admit fewer blacks.” Failing the Navy’s visual test, he is forced to join the Army after all—and is brought, unwillingly, to his racial awakening.
What King hears at first of black soldiers—from members of his all-white unit—reinforces his early prejudices: African Americans in World War II, he was told, were cowards in combat, “deserted in droves and generally were not worth the shot it took to kill them.” They also sought “to ingratiate themselves with European women.” Since President Truman’s order desegregating the Armed Forces was some months away, King at first had little contact with black soldiers. When, at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, he did come face-to-face with his first African American officer, he “felt a moment of panic while old prejudices struggled with newly acquired military disciplines.” Then King “snapped him a proper salute.”
His racial awakening, thus, was a gradual one—and all the more so since, in some respects, he had to go through all the racial stages a white youth, born in the heart or at least on the close fringes of Dixie, had undergone in early years. He had to come to know blacks on some basis, a goal he accomplishes when he makes the acquaintance of a good-natured cook from Alabama, “a good goddamn nigger” who makes the white soldiers laugh. King falls into the habit of sitting on the cook’s footlocker, drinking with him and listening to his tales. Gradually King comes to realize that “Brewster was brighter than most people I had known, more complex, full of more hidden secrets and silent victories.” Although it bothers King “as being against the Lord’s intent,” he “continued to sit at [the cook’s] feet.” One night, finding himself drinking from the same bottle as the cook—”not bothering to wipe the neck off, and feeling a little noble and extremely daring”—he asks Brewster what it is like to be a black man in a white outfit. “It’s all right,” the cook answers. “If you ain’t got no pride.” Then, King observes, “after a few throbbing seconds of silence he burst into laughter.”
But King is not to experience his first total immersion in racial integration until, a few months later, he is assigned to a base on Long Island where black soldiers are “methodically assimilated: to sit with us at table, sleep alongside us, and be assigned to jobs without regard to color.” Serving as administrative aide to the company commander, he works closely with a black first sergeant from rural Georgia, with whom his relationship is “proper and generally easy” and whom he comes to consider, at the time, a “close friend.” Only 20 years later, in writing his Confessions, does he realize they had not been close at all. In fact, much of King’s racial education takes place off base, and for reasons at first only tangentially concerned with race. Spending a great deal of his free time in Manhattan, he comes to know an aspiring actress, who introduces him to Greenwich Village and “my first show folk, struggling authors, lesbians, marijuana experiments, and revolutionary dialogue.” Although the Bohemian crowd to which he becomes attached is “more democratic than most in its racial attitudes”—and he adjusts his own attitudes accordingly—he is not prepared to accept some of what he finds. When he sees a black man with a white woman he finds that, “inside [his] white boy’s craw,” he is “resentful, fearful, perhaps a little sickened.”
By the time he leaves the Army in mid-1949, however, King considers himself racially liberated—at least in relation to his fellow white Americans. Returning to Texas and enrolling as a freshman at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where “not a single black face” is to be seen, he takes stock: “Though my racial experiences in the Army and in the East had been less complete than I had presumed, exposure to black people at least had taught me that they had minds, dreams, and hurts like the rest of us, and in no way deserved their automatic exclusion.” Cultivating the role of “crazy and unreliable” iconoclast, King finds himself speaking up in public gatherings and shocking people with his views on race. He has decided by this time that he wants to be a writer, and has concluded that detachment from the herd seems to be his natural state. He has run-ins over race with his father, whom he now calls a racist peckerwood, and, after he drops out of Texas Tech, run-ins with editors on the newspapers for which he works. Like Lillian Smith, Willie Morris, and other racial converts, he has willed himself out of the community in which he had once felt so secure.
The remainder of King’s Confessions, tracing his journey to Washington as a congressional assistant and his coming of age as a witness of—not a participant in—the Civil Rights Movement, consists largely of racial regrets and disillusionment. For a time he entertains hope, particularly as he finds himself caught up in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s speech during the 1963 March on Washington. “We thrilled to that dream,” Larry King writes, “and to the fantastically huge, orderly, singing, loving crowd of all shades and hues, backgrounds and heritages, opportunities and privations.” But the urban riots in the summer of 1965—”something more” than riots, he felt, “an insurrection, a revolt, a revolution”—put an end to that dream: “So blind was most of white America to ghetto conditions, so isolated and protected from the realities of the black slums, that we failed to realize how little even of their own squalor black people owned.” King’s pattern of hope and then disillusionment plays itself out several other times. He tires of Washington and begins to frequent New York literary circles, expecting—as he had expected when he came to Washington—to find racial enlightenment but finding instead another form of white racism. Later, in 1969, he goes to Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, expecting a respite from racial tensions; what he finds instead is racism, now both white and black. When a young black man at a party learns that King is writing a book to be entitled Confessions of a White Racist, he “sneered and berated me for my exploitations.”
King should have expected as much, particularly in the racial climate of 1969.A confession of white racial sins did seem rather self-indulgent, after all. Who was to benefit from such a confession, an angry African American might have asked. Certainly not American blacks. But, King believed, it was all he could do, given all that had gone before—that and his occasional “bleeding-heart good deed or two”—and his helplessness, finally, was the source of his frustration. Further, he found himself, after the riots of the mid and late 1960’s, becoming “sorely afraid of the black man.” He has a run-in with a black street gang in Washington, he has rocks thrown at him by another group of young black boys, he encounters rudeness in stores and on the streets. He understands why, but still he rues the fact that “where I had once walked the streets in confidence, I came to look ahead like a soldier advancing into enemy territory, alert for unfriendly blacks or side-street dangers, vulnerable, tense, and marked—at last—by my white skin.” As Washington burns in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder in 1968, Larry King finds himself cowering behind his door, looking through the peephole at two well-dressed black men and deciding, “for safety’s sake,” not to answer, while one of the men makes jokes about “Whitey being afraid to come out of his hole.” That night, hearing gunshots and the sounds of sirens in his neighborhood, King sleeps “with a billy club fashioned from a broomstick and a wicked butcher knife next to his bed.”
As King concludes his book, in September 1970, his outlook is altogether bleak. For him, as for Smith, Dabbs, and other racial converts, the Civil Rights Movement had been about much more than school integration, voting rights, and black access to public accommodations; it had also been about a spirit of interracial cooperation that he once had glimpsed but now feels has disappeared altogether. He understands the reasons for the new black militancy, but he deeply regrets it all the same. And he has no choice but to count himself, at least in spirit, among those white liberals who, fewer than ten years before, had marched and sung for black freedom but who now “tend to feel betrayed and sorry for themselves now that a large part of the black community rejects them”: “All that integrated praying, hand-clapping, and hymn-singing of yesterday having failed to purify the national heart, the black man wants no more.” The black American, rather, wants “black separatism, black control of black destinies, black institutions for black people . . .black power. And it scares us to death.”
The despair in King’s tone in his final pages is unmistakable. Racial confession—and conversion—was not supposed to end this way. He had recognized his sins, he had repented, he had been transformed, but now it appears that his own racial sins, and those of his white countrymen, had been too great to be forgiven after all—forgiven, that is, by those against whom the sins had been committed. Perhaps that was the trouble with secular conversion all along. “Increasingly,” King concludes, “I am judged by blacks as arbitrarily as I once judged them.” And, in response, he has “joined [his] countrymen in becoming more suspicious, more ingrown, more tribal, more cautious, more fearful.” When the ghettoes swelter and he hears a siren in the distance, he wonders “if it is the final signal that certain old white racist chickens are coming home to roost on my personal doorstep.” He rather suspects that is the case.
If the 1960’s, particularly the first half, had been a decade of racial affirmation and optimism, the early 1970’s was a time to take stock: the Civil Rights Movement was over, and many of those who had participated in it or observed it at close hand were in a reflective mood. Pat Waiters had observed the movement at much closer hand than had King: he had covered it for The Atlanta Journal and then had written about race relations for the Southern Regional Council, that racially progressive body, based in Atlanta, of which James McBride Dabbs had been president. At first Waiters had approached the movement as he had approached many other stories, as an interested but more-or-less dispassionate chronicler. But in 1961 and 1962, in a black church in south Georgia, that changed: Watters, a white Georgian of rather conventional racial leanings, was converted to the cause of racial justice. Down to Now is his story of that conversion, as well as of the Civil Rights Movement in its glory as well as its decline.
Two years before the publication of Down to Now, Watters had produced another book, The South and the Nation (1969), a more objective analysis of the problems and possibilities of Dixie. By the time he began Down to Now he had given himself over altogether to a more personal voice. Describing himself as “a white Southerner who did not participate in the movement—but whose life was essentially changed by it,” he announces his intention to “convey, pay honor to, glorify, that life-giving spirit of the southern movement which did so much for the South and for countless people who felt it in their hearts—including myself.” As he writes in 1970 and 1971 he tries to recapture what he had felt as he witnessed civil rights activity in Albany, Georgia, and other Deep South towns: “I have tried in my mind so many times, in so many ways to grasp the whole of this most elusive truth, finally beginning this writing to seek it from many different vantages . . .but not sure even yet if it is to be fully known, or even whether it is more than a fanciful projection merely of my own deeply personal reaction to the movement.” What he saw and felt, he finally decides, was “extra-cultural, beyond the normal limits of American culture,” and his own “inarticulateness. . .can be accounted for in terms of this extra-cultural quality”—a quality that was nothing short of “the power of love.”
Feeling he must tell his story for the reason all converts, religious or secular, have—simply the need to get it out, to connect with others—Watters is compelled for another reason as well: “American culture is so desperately in need of new alternatives,” and the love and brotherhood of the Civil Rights Movement, if they could be recaptured, would provide a kind of cultural salvation:
Salvation, “after all,” Watters insists, “on the most forthright level, was what the movement offered”—and what America missed.
If life in America were reasonably satisfactory for most of the inhabitants of the country, if the life of the world were not threatened by aspects of American culture and its self-imposed limitations of directions of change, then maybe I would not attach so much importance to what I think I saw and felt afoot in the southern movement. I would not be so anguished because what was there is seldom expressed now, would not feel this compulsion to go back in memory and time and old, spent notebooks trying to find what was there . . .trying, I guess, to find salvation.
It is clear, thus, that to Watters, as it was to Larry King and most of the other white racial converts, the Civil Rights Movement was about much more than race. It was about personal and cultural salvation in a broader sense. Part One of Watters’ narrative is entitled “A Southerner’s Quest: There Must Be a God Somewhere,” and that title suggests the religious form his quest for racial salvation will take. His experience of racial conversion begins, appropriately enough, in a church, a black church in Albany, Georgia, in the winter of 1961. The preacher-activist Will Campbell has written that as a child he had believed that all true Southern religion lay in the white church, that “Niggerchurch . . .had nothing to do with Christianity.” In fact, Watters discovers (as Campbell also had) that the black church had everything to do with Christianity, bringing together the Christian gospel and its application in society, thus combining vertical and horizontal strains of Southern religion. As he writes, Watters recalls the early civil rights meetings, which usually took place in churches, recalls “the singing in the church, that incomparable music”: “The mass meetings and demonstrations that I saw in the early 1960s were foremost for me a deep, personal awakening, in the real sense a religious experience.” He was “exalted” by what he saw and heard, “overwhelmed” by “the onrush and power of it.”
Watters recalls the thrill of his first experience, following the marchers out of the Shiloh Baptist Church onto the streets of Albany. He had walked into the church on a bleak and chilly day in December 1961 and had taken a seat on a back pew, so cold that he kept on his overcoat, and listened to the small band of worshippers and protesters, some in suits, some in work clothes, singing “the sweet and swelling, eloquent church [songs] of the movement.” Spellbound, he listened to a young black woman who earlier had been jailed for joining a group of Negroes gathered at the Albany city hall to pray “for the sins of the city fathers.” Holding a microphone in her white-gloved hands, “much as a priest [holds] the chalice,” she had led her listeners out of the church, into the drizzling rain, toward the bus station cafeteria and their rendezvous with the white police and with jail. “They were just ordinary Negroes up there . . .south Georgia Negroes, their faces, postures the familiar ones of all the cooks and filling station attendants I had ever seen,” but what they did was, to Watters, “incredible.” As he himself followed the marchers out of the church, he was full both of a certain fear and, “despite it all, . . .an exhilaration, a sense unstoppable of joy.” He witnesses their arrest at the bus terminal lunchroom and marvels at what has taken place:
I was seeing it for the first time and could not contain all the feeling and meaning of it, all that sense of fearsome forces that had hovered over all the consciousness of my growing up and living in the South, finally meeting, the brooding thunder heard far-off for a lifetime suddenly built to a full storm of lightning flashes, wild wind and a pelleting rain—all about me, all that irony, that bravery, that fear and that appalled or warily watching reaction of black and white Southerners looking on there at the bus terminal, as the arrests proceeded.
This was Watters’ awakening, a major phase of his racial conversion, described in the language—exhilaration, joy, thunder and lightning, the “onrush and power” of the moment—of religious conversions from the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay to the backwoods churches and tent revivals of 20th-century Dixie. And it was but one of many such experiences for Watters, the reporter who had, despite himself, become spiritual participant. He recalls in particular the clear winter’s night in 1961 when Martin Luther King came to the Shiloh Baptist Church, “this time with every inch of it crowded, all the seats taken, people sitting and standing, filling the aisles and the vestibule,” the singing “more fervent, more beautiful than I had yet heard it.” Watters, again witnessing an event “like nothing I had ever known,” listens as Ralph Abernathy exclaims, “I want the white man to be free,” then hears King, full of religious fervor, enrapture the crowd as a revivalist does his candidates for salvation. Looking back nearly a decade later, Watters reflects on that “miraculous night,” and on the Albany Movement of protests and demonstrations that followed. And he reflects too—for this is a parallel theme of his book—on the eventual decline of the spirit of the movement. “What happened?” Watters asks:
Suddenly, once, white and Negro southern involvement in race came together in positiveness, creativeness, instead of the old destructiveness and, pushing beyond cultural limits to unknown exaltation, hope, mysticism, ecstasy, produced a shimmering vision of what life between the races might be, and more than that, what life in America for all people might be. Then it was gone. It took exactly ten years, the decade of the 1960s, for all of it, the rise and fall of it.
After his intensely personal first chapter, Watters follows the pattern of all racial converts and digs into his own past to unearth those racial sins for which he must repent. He recalls his early education in Jim Crow: that one did not say Mr. and Mrs., sir and ma’am, to Negroes, but that one also did not, if one had the right upbringing, say “nigger.” Watters realizes now, as he had not before, how black women sacrificed their own family lives to cook and wash for white families; but “few of us even thought about it. . . . How were we able to achieve such insensitivity, such cruelty, with never a pang of conscience?” As a child growing up in Georgia, Watters was aware of lynchings and other racial atrocities, but even more than that, he realizes, as Larry King had, “it was the everyday cruelty, the ongoing grinding down of people, the hopelessness more than the physical helplessness, the petty and banal cruelty and the terrible economic disadvantage, which should have been apparent to even the most blind, most bigoted of us.” “How blind we had been made to be,” he repeats. The South had been an “evil system,” and by his consent he had been a part of that evil.
One finds echoes of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream in much of what Waiters says. As a child, he is taken into the black section of town by the woman who cares for him and he senses there a vast ease and friendliness; he “perhaps . . .perceived a superior sense of community, and perhaps for the first time, so early, began to know that all was not perfect in my parents’ world.” “It was comfortable, familiar, being with Negroes,” he had discovered. “Communication was easier.” Like Smith, Watters recalls the conspiracy of silence of his childhood South, both blacks and whites “never conceding, never speaking,” beneath the surface of harmonious race relations, “the secret knowledge . . .of evil in the situation, evil brooding over us, ever treacherously threatening that giddy and gay talk which, by its sheer will, kept the wretched, patched-up thing alive. . . .” And, like Smith, Watters decries a racial system that added to what was, in the best of cases, “the loneliness of existence.”
Watters speaks less specifically of his own racial sins than most others in the conversion genre, but it is clear that he is still “blind” as he enters young manhood. As a reporter for The Atlanta Journal in the early 1950’s, he viewed race politically, not morally. He sensed that “the big story, the one transcending all others,” was to be race, yet “I had no awareness at all of the background of struggle for Negro rights. . . .” Thus he “missed the meaning” of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955—56 and many other early civil rights landmarks. Not until the summer of 1960 when he went to the Atlanta airport to meet a plane carrying King (whom he had never before even seen), returning from jail after having been arrested in a sit-in, did Watters sense the impulse and the power of the Civil Rights Movement. Not until then did he sense that the movement was not only for Southern blacks but was also for himself. Following King’s car to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, Watters sees the car stop at the DeKalb-Fulton County line, hailed by a group of black students and sit-in veterans who have come to greet King. Listening to the students sing “We Shall Overcome”—”I had not heard the song before, did not catch all the words”—he nonetheless felt “all through me the spirit of it, its force and its meaning” and was profoundly moved in a manner he had not expected.
The spirit Watters sensed was that same spirit Lillian Smith and James McBride Dabbs had sensed before him, but the language, the cadences, Watters fell back on to express himself were more nearly William Faulkner’s:
Watters’ conversion on the road to Fulton County—more than a year before his experience in the Albany church—he describes as something completely unanticipated, but, more than he knew, he must have been ready to be converted. Such—the conviction of one’s sinfulness, the Puritans had held—always preceded the conversion itself.
I stood on the shoulder of the road, listening, and out of a lifetime of the way it used to be, out of knowledge of love forbidden, the hovering, hidden, unspoken knowledge of evil and wrong, out of all my life of acquiesence in the evil and their acquiesence, Negro acquiesence, our mutual acquiesence making the evil seem immutable and the South hopeless, and, most of all, out of all I knew of the striving of Negro and white Southerners to reach each other, love each other through barriers of evil, the potential for good in such strivings—out of all my southern experience, I listened and heard them saying in the song that the way things used to be was no more, was forever ended. And knowing all that that meant for them, and for me, I cried. I cried for the first time in many years, cried unabashedly, cried for joy—and hope.
As one of the newly converted, Watters found himself “increasingly impatient” with those who had not seen the light, “intolerant of all those who had not harkened to it, moderate friends spouting fashionable cant, racist neighbors.” People he had “tolerated, enjoyed in one way or another,” became offensive. The racist politicians, often charming and amusing, whom he had earlier humored, he now could not tolerate. The spirituality and the power of the Civil Rights Movement not only made “the commonplace rituals of the society I lived in, the white society, seem pale by contrast” but also “spoke a condemnation that made them, too, unpalatable.” When in a group Watters heard “The Star Spangled Banner” and looked around and saw no African Americans, he felt like singing no more. When he observed a Boy Scout awards banquet and saw no black faces, he found it difficult to accept the three-fingered salute and “hollering sentimentality.” The early 1960’s brought “a process of alienation for me, alienation from the South and the society I was raised in and thought I knew,” and the alienation from white society “drove me more and more often to the movement, deeper and deeper into its meaning,” into its “joy and hopefulness.”
More than any other of the racial converts, Watters seems to be emotionally moved by what he sees and hears. From his vantage point of 1970, he listens to tapes of the earlier mass meetings and, particularly, their music and, with tears in his eyes, feels “the old, choked aching joy and, for a second, the old leap of hope, boundless hope.” He recalls all the times he heard demonstrators sing “We Shall Overcome”—in the Albany movement of 1961—62, the Birmingham campaign of 1963 and 1964, the campaigns in St. Augustine in 1964 and Selma in 1965, in voter registration meetings across the South, and at the mourning for Medger Evers in Mississippi and for the black Birmingham schoolgirls, victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.As the early fervor of the Civil Rights Movement waned and cynicism set in, he heard it sung listlessly in 1967 and 1968.And he heard it sung, finally, at the funeral of Martin Luther King in Atlanta in April 1968—”but who, even in the instant’s lift of the music in the heart, could at such a time believe?” Watters himself had sung the song the night news came of King’s death, seated with nine or ten other mourners, joining hands with them, “as once it had been done in the churches,” singing “in all our grief and despair and hopelessness.” Watters depicts himself as one of the deeply stricken, one who had gone from hopelessness to the spirit of “hope and joy” of the movement, “only to be plunged at the decade’s end” by King’s death “into a hopelessness beyond hopelessness, like a man who has tasted for a little time true happiness and then lost it.”
Watters concludes his long first section with the death of King, but then goes back—for a brief period, more the historian than the participant—to trace those early years of the movement that he had missed altogether. A sort of latter-day Quentin Compson, discovering facts but fearing he is missing part of the truth, he worries that he is “romanticizing, imposing my own southern bias and wistful, desperate hoping on such things as these memories of the reality of the sit-ins and freedom rides. . . . I keep asking people who were there if I am wrong in thinking the theme of redemptive love was so much a part of those early events. They assure me that I am not.” In his mind he returns to Albany’s Shiloh Baptist Church, not in the chill of winter this time but in the heat of a south Georgia summer, nightly finding himself sitting on the floor beneath the pulpit. As the people in the sanctuary behind him sing the “unaccompanied, hand-clapping music of the movement,” he feels the songs carrying him to a “mysterious, unknown place” and gives himself “to the sweat and the heat and the music, a sense almost of loss of self, of having blended into all the other sweating bodies. . . .” Watters, the reporter, had gone to take notes, but there always exists in his mind “the powerful pounding of the music of the mass meetings as a counterpoint to my words of discovery and analysis. . . .”
In the pages that follow, Watters alternates between his role as reporter and his newly found identity as convert. Back in Atlanta, after his first stay in Albany in December 1961, he had reflected on his experiences: “It was as though I had been in some mystical new land, had seen and sensed the surface of its miracles and promise, and then, as in a dream, was gone from it.” But when he returned to the Shiloh Baptist Church six months later, “it was as though nothing had changed, nothing had happened, as though no time had passed and, as in a dream, that which had so stirred me and changed my life in December had been held frozen in the intervening months and now with magic, in a moment, had returned to life.”
Mixed with the exaltation of Watters’ Albany experience was sheer terror. Indeed, the “unreasoning fear. . .of southern white racism”—and, even more, the “fear of fear” itself—had been the “foremost motivation” for his going to Albany in the first place. In fact, his fear of the extremes of Southern racism was not “unreasoning” at all: in Albany his motel phone was tapped, his tires were slashed, sugar was poured into his gas tank, and he was trailed on the highway as he drove back to Albany after attending a meeting in a still more remote part of rural south Georgia. Later he experienced even greater fear when the movement took him into Alabama and Mississippi where he lived with the knowledge “that there was often virtually no distinction between police and the worst terrorist elements, including the Klan.” He overcame his fear at such times, Watters writes, by focusing on the music, the spirit, of the movement, “the love I had come to feel. . .the mystical, ecstatic experience I found in the mass meetings”: “Suddenly I knew that I felt more alive, more complete, more happy than I ever had before in my life.”
The feeling could not last. In the fourth section of Watters’ narrative, entitled “The Fall,” he laments the decline of the early spirit of Albany, the spirit that had found its most eloquent expression in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in August 1963.The following month, in Birmingham, he stands in the bombed sanctuary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in the midst of the shattered stained-glass windows and scattered Sunday School lessons, and realizes that it was in just such sanctuaries of black churches throughout the South that he himself had found a kind of salvation. Such churches had become to him “the only places where I had ever experienced real religious feeling, in a lifetime within the South’s church-oriented society, growing up in the Methodist Episcopal Church South.” He stands and stares, “unable to cry or even be angry, only numbly sorrowful—for the church, the people, the movement, what had been done to religion there, but most of all, in a sickened sense of defeat, sorrowful for the South.”
Even after Birmingham—in some measure, especially after Birmingham—Watters seeks refuge in the black church. Covering the movement in St. Augustine in 1964, he finds himself sitting beneath the altar on the floor of a church, listening to the demonstrators sing “Amazing Grace” and reflecting on the “meaning and truth and simple hope of the movement.” As he followed the marchers in St. Augustine, aware of “the terrible danger, the uncontrolled mob awaiting” them, he nonetheless felt—still feels as he writes—”the exhilaration, the joy that welled up in me . . . I threw back my head in exultation. This is the place to be, I said; this is where I belong.” In the terror and fear of covering, that same year, Mississippi Freedom Summer, he still returns to the memories of Albany: “I heard their songs and saw their faces, and once again . . . I found myself crying—not this time just out of hope still inherent in such a thing as had happened in Albany, not now just out of the joy of knowing old evil was dying, but now simply and unabashedly out of love, love of a great people, good people. . . .”
Watters concludes his narrative by attempting to make sense of the Civil Rights Movement and his own emotional involvement in it. He describes the “mood of hopelessness” he endured after Martin Luther King’s death and “the sad finale to [King’s] efforts,” the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.Like Larry King and others of the white racial converts, he mourns the death of the spirit of the early movement, that spirit in which African Americans seemed to give whites a second chance—the period, he believes, before SNCC and its “northern influence” came finally “to see whites and American society as totally evil. . .upsetting the balance of love and hate.” As he writes in 1971, he realizes that he has “been seeking since the [James] Meredith March and Dr. King’s death some kind of philosophical adjustment to all that the years of the movement meant to me.”
In the end the same question might be asked of Watters that could be asked of several other white racial converts. Did he expect too much of the movement? Did he truly understand what it was about? Did he expect the movement to do too much for himself? Watters does not avoid such questions altogether. “Was it ever there at all?” he wonders, “what I believed I saw and felt in the little churches of the movement? Sometimes, sometimes, I suspect myself of having all unconsciously shaped my thought about the southern movement on that most southern, most misleading model—harking back to a golden age and lamenting all the disruption and disintegration that has come upon us.” On one occasion, as he attends a rally in the late 1960’s and catches himself thinking that the music is no longer so moving as it once was, he accuses himself of a certain self-indulgence: “I felt foolish . . .sitting there concerned over so frivolous a thing as the spiritual quality of the music when children were starving and human dignity was still being destroyed in the black belt.” Even earlier, when he had been most emotionally involved in the movement, as he had followed the marchers in St. Augustine and had experienced a feeling of “exultation,” he had also for a moment “felt bad” for “somehow exploiting this great and serious thing that the Negroes were doing, and their suffering.”
But writing in 1970 and 1971, Watters defends his exultation and his involvement: “we should have felt proud. For we came as close as whites have in America to responding appropriately to the movement.” He recognizes that the Civil Rights Movement filled for him and for others a “religious” need—it was “not unlike the best ecstatic experience in the fundamentalist churches of the white South”—but he also believes that the spirit of the movement, if heeded, could redeem a region and a nation as well as an individual. That spirit “set out to heal the insanity in southern society, to end the sin of it, to allow expiation of it.” And its impact transcended the South:
In broadest terms, I think what happened was that the movement, which started out seeking to overthrow the southern segregationist order, eventually challenged all. . .at the core of American culture which could have allowed such an order, as one symptom of a system-wide sickness, to exist for a century under the American Constitution.
But in the final analysis Watters’ relation to the Civil Rights Movement must be read in intensely personal terms. In the latter days of the movement, the late 60’s, when he and others had nearly given up on it, he attends a civil rights gathering in west Tennessee and, for the first time in nearly a decade of covering the movement, he himself is called upon to speak. Unprepared for the moment, he stumbles and stammers, but given a second chance, a couple of nights later, he rises as a representative of “the city . . .where people seem all discouraged, seem to have given up on America,” expresses gratitude to the applauding black audience for its “hopefulness,” its will and determination, and experiences a moment of that “exaltation” he had seen in other speakers during the heyday of the movement. His was an expression of gratitude for all the Civil Rights Movement had done for him—for the manner in which it had lifted him out of the “commonplace,” had “freed” him. It was also a tribute—as indeed, in a longer form, Down to Now itself was to be—to a time, in the early and mid 1960’s, when some few people, mostly black but sometimes white, seemed better than he had thought people could be, more patient, forgiving, sacrificing, and loving, producing as dramatic a demonstration of practical Christianity as the nation had ever seen. If that spirit could not last, that was just because human nature would not allow it: African Americans could not forever turn the other cheek.