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A Southerner Confronting the South


ISSUE:  Spring 1988

It is good to have Anne C. Loveland’s Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (Louisiana $22.50), because she was a creative, wise, and strong person, and because Professor Loveland respects her enough, takes her seriously enough, to write of her critically. For roughly 30 years, from the peak of the New Deal until the eve of her death in 1966, Miss Smith spoke and wrote about and often acted a prominent part in public events, most notably those related to the South. Always, however, she saw herself as first of all a “writer,” a philosophically deep one at that, and was often grieved that others, she felt, did not well enough appreciate her as such.

Part of the explanation for society’s valuation of her as primarily a Southern dissenter must surely have been the striking unity between her thought and action. Her case was comparable, say, to a person who today has decided that national sovereignty is a political curse—as a number of us have—and then says so in every forum, not merely in intellectuals’ cloisters, and is also, and therefore, selective in the laws he obeys. The person may have, as did L.S., reached that decision by serious reflections on philosophical principles, but those are likely to be neglected by the public audience’s focus on the actions. Somehow or other, by her mid-thirties at the latest, L.S. had come to think of humanity as evolving toward a better nature and that the way toward this called for the breaking down of all those walls which have kept humanity divided and fragmented. Thinking this, she said it and acted it. Long before all but a very few, she said that racial segregation is wrong, and therefore not to be temporized with, not to be respected in any of its principles, including miscegenation; nor, she said in a number of explicit ways, are men and women to be taught to be ashamed of wanting each other’s bodies; nor the reality of homosexuality to be denied. She spoke of myths, or taboos, that had to be outgrown.

Neither the Negro nor sex was often discussed at length in our [childhood] home. We were given no formal instruction in these difficult matters but we learned our lessons well. We learned the intricate system of taboos, of renunciations and compensations, of manners, voice modulations, words, feelings, along with our prayers, our toilet habits, and our games. I do not remember how or when, but by the time I had learned that God is love, that Jesus is His Son and came to give us more abundant life, that all men are brothers with a common Father, I also knew that I was better than a Negro, that all black folks have their place and must be kept in it, that sex has its place and must be kept in it, that a terrifying disaster would befall the South if ever I treated a Negro as my social equal and as terrifying a disaster would befall my family if ever I were to have a baby outside a marriage.

When one was not only thinking such things—and she was not alone in her time in doing that—but saying and writing them vividly and acting accordingly—and she was almost alone in her time and region in doing that—it doesn’t surprise that her role as public figure attracted more attention than hers as artist and intellectual.

Forty and more years later we may have put out of mind what a stunning event Strange Fruit was, what shot it to the top of the best-sellers list, gave it seven printings totaling 140,000 copies in its first three months alone, was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review by W.E.B. Du Bois (favorably), banned in Boston, and barred from the mails by the Post Office until President Roosevelt, spoken to by his wife, quietly intervened. The achievement of Strange Fruit was, above all, that it took black people seriously, as intelligent individuals who love and hope each in his or her own way; and then said to her times that though a community could practice physical segregation of races and could rigidify different roles for men and women it could not disentangle the shared resulting fortunes, mostly bad, of all its members. She told this against the backdrop of the mess people were making of their religion, their sexual relations, and their family life. I think she told it pretty well and honestly. I’ve never myself met a Nonnie Anderson, and can hardly imagine her, but I feel I’ve encountered every other character in the book. In 1966, L.S. was recorded reading excerpts from the novel. When you hear her, you realize how really good was her replication of regional idiom and dialogue, the words coming across as she speaks them with an authentic sound.

Strange Fruit thrust L. S. into celebrity status and opened up for her a wide range of friends and acquaintances outside the South. I was struck by the breadth of her correspondence. The fame also set her apart in the South. Although she had already begun an involvement in Southern racial issues, now for the rest of her life she would be an independent force on those issues, never a decisive one, sometimes a quite weak one, but at all times known and usually heard, on her own terms.

She found no organizational home that satisfied her for long. She broke in 1945 with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare; it was, she thought, undemocratic in its decision making and composition (too few Socialists, opponents of the war, rural people, professionals, Negroes; and an over-representation of labor unionists and Communists), too absorbed with “The South’s Part in Winning the war,” and in her opinion “very mealy-mouthed” on segregation. She declined membership in the Southern Regional Council, formed in 1943, finding it (correctly) too equivocal on segregation; later in her life she changed her opinion (as SRC had changed its), though never took an active part. She almost resigned in 1956 from the American Civil Liberties Union— she had been a vice chairman—because it did not actively defend her against what she believed to be collusion between her own publisher, Dell Books, and Southern booksellers to keep her Now Is the Time unavailable. She did resign in 1966 from the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), an organization to which she had been devoted and financially generous, because it had formally dropped the requirement of nonviolence for its adherents.

It is this public person who Anne C. Loveland, Louisiana State University historian, describes and convincingly interprets, in a volume handsomely designed and printed by her university’s press. She has located and read thoroughly in L.S.’s correspondence (impressively large, even after the loss of some 13,000 letters in a fire set by arsonists in 1955) and interviewed many who had known her. L.S. had for most of her life liked to say to her friends that her personality was divided between “Mary” and “Martha,” one the creative artist and the other the dutiful servant who “must do something to change things.” Professor Loveland’s biography is about Martha. Even when discussing the books, she is mainly interested in the reactions they stirred. This is not arbitrary. The biographer’s final judgment is, “Regrettably, her philosophical thinking was generally derivative and superficial and her literary effort unexceptional. Her primary significance lies in the role she played in the southern civil rights movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.” A judgment too blunt, too harsh. A writer surely can be “derivative” without being superficial. She was not the latter, ever, and all Southern writers I can think of (and nearly all anywhere) have been philosophically derivative. I myself think Killers of the Dream as fine as any book interpretive of the pre-1965 South, and Strange Fruit a very good novel, better than several of Faulkner’s.

Readers should be advised, however, that if this book portrays well “Martha,” it offers but small insight into how L.S. became it. If the “mind of the South,” especially the mind of that South in which L.S. was raised, continues to intrigue us, this book will help some but not much in the understanding of it. So intent is it on the public role, that the first 38 years of L.S.’s life—from her birth in 1897 until 1935—are given all of 19 pages. This is the more remarkable in that L.S. herself, in all she wrote, put such heavy, even controlling, weight on psychological factors. (She had once said of Cash that his book was “too distant from today’s psychological problems to be of much help in giving insight.”)

Those first 38 years were, as a matter of fact, pretty full. School teaching for a while after her family’s move in 1915 to what was to be her home for the rest of her life in Rabun County, Georgia; a year at a small college; several years of study at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and then inner realization that she would not be good enough to be a concert pianist; three years of teaching music at a woman’s school in China; ten years as director, about seven of them as owner, of the girl’s camp her father had created; two winter semesters at Columbia Teachers College and practice teaching in Harlem; several years in connection with the Rosenwald Fund of traveling widely through the South and visiting black colleges; five consecutive winters among friends in Macón; lots of reading; and the fashioning of her craft by writing two novels and three novellas (none published and all lost in the 1955 fire): of one of the novels she later said, she “might never write so personal, so terribly honest a book again.”

II

Readers of this biography may infer something of the legacy of those years—something of their psychological influences—from the heavy emphasis given here to L.S.’s later struggles and resentments. Those provide the book’s framework, four in particular that interest and in Professor Loveland’s telling were of crucial importance to L.S.

One was her anger (justified) at Southern moderates’ rejection and virtual isolation of her, causing her to work mostly alone or only with blacks in the struggle for reform—and ultimately leading her into a sad folly. A second was her anguished feeling that literary critics and New York editors and publishers would not take her seriously as a writer, only as “that nice little woman who does so much about racial segregation”; she said that critics did not try to understand her novel One Hour, because “It was not about race—how dare L.S. [sic.] write a book not about race!” A third perceived enemy was the Communist Party and its sympathizers. A fourth was the leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), after 1964.

All four of these groups, even the Communists, might have been seen by her as friends and allies. That all, while professing some at least of her own ideals, obstructed what she conceived to be the way toward those ideals made them, in a sense, “killers of the dream.” When she turned on SNCC in early 1966, she did in fact title her statement, “Old Dream, New Killers.”

Her oldest and clearly most justified complaint was over her treatment by other Southern liberals and moderates. She focused much of her resentment—again justifiably—on Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, her own state’s leading paper. She usually bracketed with him Hodding Carter, Jr., sometimes included Jonathan Daniels; at best these men, she said in fine phrases that Professor Loveland has run down by reading the columns L.S. regularly wrote after 1948 for the Negro newspaper, the Chicago Defender, fight the “foul drainage” from the “sore of segregation,” not segregation itself.

“My strongest objection to the self-named “moderates” is their bigotry,” she told the Arkansas Council on Human Relation. She admitted their right to be cautious. “But they refuse to let others move faster, or to speak more clearly and perhaps even more persuasively than they. They are almost fanatically religious in their view that their way is the only “holy way”.” In the letter to [Harry] Golden [of late 1957, as the speech also appears to be] she named Hodding Carter, Jonathan Daniels, Virginius Dabney, and especially Ralph McGill as the chief villains. “Mr. McGill does not like to believe in the existence of anyone in the South who dares to speak out more plainly than he; he is God—but perhaps you did not know: and when God says “This is not the time to speak out plainly,” He punishes those who seem deaf to His words.”

L. S. was right all around, I think. McGill—whom I knew, admired, and respected—and the others she named had two strengths which did for years effectively type L.S. in many minds as a fanatic; “a prisoner in the monastery of her own mind,” McGill called her in the course of a brutal review of Killers of the Dream. For one, they were the accepted interpreters of the South to Northern audiences, and L.S. during the late 1950’s felt they shut her out. For another, they set the pace for white Southerners of good will; they led, and no one, so it was thought, need go beyond them or faster than they. And, of course, L.S. did.

It is a complicated business. Always, it seems someone is left out. L.S. once keenly offended Alabama liberal and New Dealer Aubrey Williams; Professor Loveland recounts the episode with admirable objectivity, and this reader, left thereby on his own, concluded that L.S. acted, at best, unfeelingly. Perhaps for that reason, Williams would, according to his biographer, John Salmond, rather astonishingly link her with McGill as moderates and “fair weather liberals.” In the late 1950’s and in the 1960’s, similar resentments against the leadership of the Southern Regional Council were frequent within the Southern Conference Educational Fund and the Highlander Folk School, though by 1960 at least there were hardly discernible differences of view, though still of method and manner.

But however complex are such matters, opinion leaders like McGill went too far. The Atlanta Constitution even refused to publish L.S.’s “letter to the editor” following and praising the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954; she sent it on to the New York Times, which printed it. What the South was struggling out from under in these years was orthodoxy, a socially compelled uniformity of opinion and behavior. For liberals and “moderates” (what a strange word that was!) to attempt to fashion their own was inexcusable.

L. S. ‘s bitterness toward the lords—mostly New Yorkers— of the literary world is another story, and Professor Loveland recounts it well and fairly. It is hard to escape the feeling that L.S. got fair treatment, on the whole, from critics and publishers; as fair as they give, at any rate. She actually got a lot of praise. L.S. wanted more. She wanted to be recognized as good as Faulkner; she thought she was. Faulkner situated his books in Mississippi and she hers (mostly) within Southern racial conflict; he was read as transcending the context of his novels, and she was not: she was hurt and, probably, jealous. “Why under God’s heaven can’t the critics and reviewer treat me as the artist I really am! This the hurt of my life.” In a deeply moving letter about a year before her death she wrote to George Brockway, her friend and publisher:

. . . it is prestige I hunger for. I want to be called a novelist, a critic, a writer. I don’t care if they criticise me just so they accept me. Now this is dam-foolishness. I know it.

Now and then she attributed some of the slights and mistreatment she felt to the influence of Communists within the literary “establishment.” She was fairly explicit about that as a cause for the Broadway flop of the dramatization of Strange Fruit. Of more interest to us were her beliefs and attitudes about the party and the “ism,” as they were formed in her mind by mid-life, and as they remained.

III

From her own earliest involvements in public affairs, L. S. shied from Communists. She did within the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, repelled, Professor Loveland says, by their “rigid adherence to the party line.” During World War II she saw “most American communists” as apparently having “psychic problems;—furtive and secretive—and I just didn’t trust them.” One supposes that the party’s reversal of position about the war, once Russia was attacked, did nothing to reassure, for she had started out as pretty much an isolationist (in the terminology of that day) and remained fairly detached from the whole convulsion. (In May 1945 she wrote to James Dombrowski: “A war cannot be “won.” Some day we shall all learn this; but God only knows when.” Years later she said she may have been wrong, that she had underestimated the evil of Hitler.) Mainly because she liked President Truman but also because of her distrust of Communist influences she opposed the Progressive Party in 1948. These same attitudes she was to carry into the hurly-burly of the 1960’s.

On the other hand, she was an early outspoken foe of Joe McCarthy, spurned Sidney Hook’s brand of militant anticommunism, and advocated as early as the 1950’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China. She hoped her 1959 novel, One Hour, would help combat the “mob spirit” that had savaged Alger Hiss and J. Robert Oppenheimer; and having made personal friends of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Robeson, she, in character, spoke up for him, once in the Daily Worker (apparently so: the book follows the recent fashion of packing wads of citations into a single footnote, and it is not always easy to fasten onto the correct source):

Here was one man who was a different kind of Communist— not a silly American Commie following a stupid Stalinist line; he was a Communist because he loved the Russian people who had treated him and his wife and their son as real persons all the time they lived in Russia; you can’t blame a man for that.

During the 1960’s L. S. was one of the people who fretted about possible Communist penetration of the “movement.” A lot of people did once in a while, myself included. So did the Department of Justice, and not only its obsessed and overbearing Hoover-led FBI. There probably was some, but if so it didn’t matter; such Communists as there were didn’t hurt anything and possibly helped as much as most. That is, of course, a hindsight judgment; but I think one good for the future. Dreams do have killers, but what American history since the Russian revolution of 1917 should by now have taught, even us hard-to-be-taught Americans, is that anticommunism becomes itself a lethal ideology. It is the American disease. We catch its germ, just as the child Lillian caught the germ of racism, with “no formal instruction,” and in the same way we learn how “terrifying” would be the consequences if we ever dropped our enmity.

L. S. found repellent the rigidity of Communists. She was right in that, right too in her fear of all other rigid beliefs and strict obedience to them; but she was unseeing in not recognizing that our own anticommunism contains the same qualities. We might, in our political maturity, propose to ourselves the rule, that whenever we find ourselves accepting or dismissing an opinion, statement, or value simply by reference to some large ideological system, we then know ourselves to be on dangerous ground from which we should flee. On such ground, we walk where the spirit of violence— rationalized violence—soon comes to take us by the hand and lead us. There are no short cuts to enduring values and rational beliefs, and that is what every ideology purports to be: a short cut, a way to organize one’s life without thinking about it or being personally responsible for it. Segregation was such an ideology; so has become communism which, unlike segregation, was not born evil; so was and is American anticommunism, in the name and service of which we—and not only our government—justify any violence we choose to perpetrate. L.S. of all people should have known and taught us a deeper understanding of this. On the contrary, as Professor Loveland makes all too clear, she was drawn instead into apology for our war-making in Vietnam and into disapproval of our peace movement’s protest against it.

That was where she was, when her once enthusiastic support of and strong identification with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) unraveled. L. S. had been thrilled by the Montgomery bus boycott, by the words and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., by the onset of the direct action movement. And the workers within this new revolt against racial segregation and discrimination gave her honor. They read her books, sought her out, invited her to speak, visited her in her mountain home. Martin King was driving her back to the hospital—where her cancer was being treated—when arrested in 1960, beginning an episode that, following his imprisonment and the Kennedys’ intervention, may have determined the presidential election of 1960. No one or no group, however, meant as much to her as the young people of SNCC; and the feeling was reciprocated.

So strong was her attachment that from the earliest days she felt that she could offer advice and cautions. These grew, and the warnings came more and more to focus against those she perceived to be faithless to nonviolence or, to put a name on them, leftists.

Lillian thought that many participants were unaware of what was happening to the movement and that it was her duty, as one who was not blinded by the smoke of the battle, to speak out. Her main concern was the commitment to nonviolence. Without naming individuals or groups [in her last book, Our Faces; in correspondence she did], she attacked the “Intruders” in the movement whom she described as hate-filled, violent men pretending to be nonviolent, and as people who were making “a dangerous caricature of the Non-violent Movement” and assuming “the outer ways without making the inner sacrifices and spiritual decisions.”

All these feelings came to a head when, in January 1966, SNCC issued a statement of opposition to our war in Vietnam and support of draft resisters, and when the Georgia House of Representatives used that as cause for refusing to seat the newly elected Julian Bond, a staff member of SNCC.

L. S. wrote a long personal letter to Eugene Patterson, McGill’s successor as editor of the Constitution, critical of the legislature, supportive of Bond (whom she greatly and even extravagantly admired), supportive, too, of President Johnson and mildly defensive of his war policy—and strongly critical of SNCC. She was ready to believe that the “Intruders” had cleverly designed the anti-war statement to provoke an incident and that the legislature had fallen into the trap. When Patterson asked for permission to publish the letter on his editorial page, she was glad to give it. She had finally been accepted by the Constitution! She was very pleased.

That pleasure is almost as saddening as is the position she took. The last full-length article she ever wrote was on this subject. She called it “Orpheus and Roast Pig”—the innocent naif, Bond, was Orpheus—and sent it off to the Saturday Review, which mercifully rejected it, and it stays unpublished. Professor Loveland’s account of it makes one hope that will be permanent. She comments, in her typically straightforward and just way, “her conviction that SNCC had become a revolutionary group, combined with her long-standing suspicion of communism, led her to engage in the very red-baiting she had deprecated in earlier years.”

But we must try to understand why she felt so strongly about the so-called “Intruders.” All of her life she had stood bravely, and far too often stood alone, for a view of human possibilities that affirmed love and tenderness and an openness to all relationships. If much of her life’s work had been struggle with “killers of the dream,” in the nonviolent movement that had begun to sweep the South clean—her South— she may have seen the dream itself take form. “I mothered SNCC during their first three years,” she wrote to a friend, and, though that is an exaggeration of facts, it could go a long way toward explaining her later hurt and anger at those she thought were taking away her hopes.

IV

It is wonderful to have, or have had, among us men and women who can believe in the rest of us enough to have hopes for us, whose hopes are so large that they lift all our lives. An elderly L.S. may have lost her balance—that seems the best way to put it—in the hurt she felt to hopes she may have grasped too greedily. We can forget that, except as a cautionary tale, and return to the wisdom of one who could hope for, and actually believe in the possibility of, a day

—when man learned finally to esteem tenderness and reason and awareness and the word which set him apart forever from other living creatures; when he learned to realize his brokeness and his great talent for creating ties that bind him together again—when he learned to accept his need of God and the law that he cannot use Him, to accept his need of his fellow men and the law that he cannot use them either—

If we were listening to hopes like those, were listening to her plea that we not rob humanity in any of its parts of hope, we would not be today maniacally squandering our talents and treasure in arming ourselves with ever more barbaric weaponry; nor would we be merchandising arms all over the earth, so men can more efficiently destroy each other and their civilizations. We would not be today bullying Nicaraguans; not be presuming a semidivine right to use our power wherever we like; not be cherishing economic and political policies that make the poor poorer and the rich richer. How very much did L.S. and many of the rest of us expect from the overthrow of Jim Crow! Much good did come, but not the new day hoped for, when men and women would cease their ruinous assaults on each other. L.S. turned on SNCC when, in her judgment, it was becoming just another self-interested party. She had allowed herself to want of it something more.

We should all be very grateful to Anne Loveland for bringing that good and brilliant person, that person of boundless hopes and dissatisfactions, back to our thoughts again. The book is far richer than this review has suggested, in its recall of the people and events of the time when L.S. lived, and in its description of her work. Hers was a time and place we already begin to see as more abundant than these later years in large talents and great spirits; among them all, Lillian Smith was one of the very finest.

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