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A Tilt With Southern Wind-Mills

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

Having been born of white parents in a county in the Black Belt of North Carolina, I, of course, supported Davis in the last campaign. As it happened, I also wished that he might win. He seemed to me a good man for the job. That, however, is beside the point. Had William G. McAdoo been the candidate, I would have supported him, as many of my Ku Klux acquaintances did support Davis, sullenly but effectively. Had Alfred E. Smith been the candidate, without doubt the Protestant prohibitionist vote of the Solid South would have smothered opposition to his candidacy below the Potomac. Had Beelzebub been the Democratic nominee, the clergy would have been deprived automatically of the privilege of the franchise, and no doubt many of the laity also would have laid down the ballot unused; but I have a strong belief that the stalwarts would have rallied by tens of thousands and gallantly gone to hell.

It is of course, merely a matter of the payment of reparations. Two generations ago we bet on the wrong horse, as Germany did in 1914. Ever since, our political independence has been held in pawn by the winners. We retain it in theory, to be sure, much as the estimable Mr. Windsor in theory retains the sovereignty of the British Isles; but when the North and the West have finished their jousting we are no more free to reward the champion with a swift kick, instead of an accolade, than His Majesty is free to accord similar treatment to the man in whom the Commons have voted confidence. In the choosing of candidates, we do not count; and in the subsequent election we are already counted. With what delightful irony we claim to be followers of the man who had “sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man!

For proof of this, it is necessary to look back into history no further than June, 1924. The Democratic convention in New York that month developed into a furious battle between Catholic and Protestant, between Ku Klux and anti-Ku Klux, with McAdoo and Smith heading the contending factions. Where was the strength of the South while the battle raged? Alabama was voting for Oscar Underwood. Virginia was voting for Carter Glass. Arkansas was voting for Robinson. North Carolina was wandering around, casting fragmentary votes for every candidate in the race, including the leaders of both the combatant parties. The Texas delegation was torn by the internecine strife that later resulted in a massacre of the Ku Klux at the polls. Whatever else the South might have been trying to do, she was not attempting to nominate John W. Davis. Yet in November the South, and the South alone, voted for Davis. The real fight of the campaign was in New York, and if Georgia be excepted, the South furnished no shock troops to either side. Her forces were about as important in that fight as the Portuguese battalions were in the fight in France.

In the end, she did perform a more or less important service for the Democracy. She furnished the organization’s burial party, and accomplished the last sad rites over its mangled remains.

Naturally, we Southern Democrats prefer to blind ourselves to the real situation. Having no political principles, we set up the assertion that we are conspicuous for our extraordinary loyalty to our political principles. Do we not incessantly march through slaughter-houses to open graves behind the banner of the Democratic party? The trouble is that the Democratic party is hardly a more specific term now than the human race. The organization led by William J. Bryan, and the organization led by John W. Davis, were both termed “Democracy,” but only an imbecile could believe that the election of William J. Bryan would have meant the adoption of the same political policy that would have followed the election of John W. Davis. Neither would have been likely to put into effect the policy that was put into effect by Woodrow Wilson. Yet we voted for Wilson, too. Our sole political principle is to vote for anything bearing the Democratic label. The North and West determine the bearer of the label. The South supplies his votes. The list of candidates for whom the South has voted in the last twenty-five years is, by its diversity, irrefutable proof that the section is politically unprincipled. A section devoted to fixed beliefs and unswerving in its allegiance to those beliefs might vote for Parker or it might vote for Wilson, but it could not possibly vote for both.

Of course, all Southerners know what has happened—we have traded in our political principles in return for the privilege of maintaining a white man’s government, unmolested by attempts to enforce against us two constitutional amendments adopted in wrath and as irrational as the enactments of furious men always are. Under the circumstances, few Southerners are disposed to repudiate, or even to regret, the bargain. As long as there is even remote danger that division of the South along party lines will mean the loss of white supremacy, no such division can be accomplished. That is why, in case Beelzebub were nominated by the Democrats, the vote of the Southern clergy would inevitably be lost. They would feel that to cast a ballot either way would be to vote for a Prince of the Powers of Darkness.

But are we to remain indefinitely in this state of bondage? Are we to await always the result of the quadrennial contest between the North and the West, slavishly voting as we are bid, for some minion of the Money Devil if the North wins, for some Mad Mullah of the prairies, if the West wins? Are North Carolina, which is rapidly becoming an industrial state, and Mississippi, which remains purely agricultural, to remain forever “unequally yoked together?”

Perhaps an answer may be supplied, in part at least, by the great migration of the negroes, whose presence in numbers in many Northern and Western cities is bringing a sudden and uncomfortably acute understanding of the Southern attitude. It is more likely that an answer will bs supplied, in part, by the development of the Negro race itself in intelligence and in social and political capacity. But both these forces are in large measure beyond the control of the Southern whites. Is there nothing that we may do toward our own liberation from a position that is, to say the least of it, humiliating?

There is a great deal that we might do, but the project is so ambitious that one hesitates to outline it. It is, in brief, the ascent from Avernus. Our troubles, beginning with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, date from the Black Codes adopted by certain Southern states immediately after the war of the sixties. It is not of the slightest importance that unprejudiced modern investigators have found that the laws embodied in the Black Code were, in essence, intelligent, humane and honest. What is of importance is the fact that the North, still suffering horribly from its wounds, believed that they were an effort to cheat it of its victory and to reduce the negro to the slavery from which he had been so painfully freed. Then and there the South came under suspicion of the rest of the country. It gained the reputation of a people capable of trying to effect by fraud what it could not accomplish by force. That reputation still exists to some extent. The North is still afraid to give us an entirely free hand with the negro, and while it harbors that suspicion, while it is still under the spell of that fear, it cannot be expected to co-operate with us heartily and freely. It will always keep a gun behind the door if it can.

Obviously, the only way to dispel such fears and suspicion is to prove them groundless, and to prove it so thoroughly and so often that the most unscrupulous demagogue in all the country cannot revive them.

This is a task so terrific in its difficulties that its accomplishment is certain to be long postponed. But what more profitable form of self-searching can a Southerner indulge in than to ask himself seriously and soberly what the section is trying to do toward its accomplishment? It is easy to see what it is doing in the other direction. Every lynching in the South rivets our chains more firmly. Every nocturnal raid of the Ku Klux adds to the weight of our fetters. Every case of denial of a negro’s rights under the civil law, every gratuitous insult flung at the race by the lower element among the whites, every needless brutality practiced ostensibly to enforce segregation, every repression of the negro’s legitimate aspirations to education, to mental and spiritual self-development and to the right to a peaceable existence under decent standards of living—in short, every unnecessary hardship inflicted on the black South postpones the day when the white South can resume its full membership, political, moral and intellectual, in this union. That such just causes of offense have been fearfully numerous in the South, no honest and candid Southerner can deny. That they are becoming less numerous is all that the most optimistic among us dares to hope.

There is a discouraging significance in the fact that our accomplishments in the other direction are far less known, for we work at them much harder. It is infinitely more laborious to arrange and carry to a successful conclusion a conference on inter-racial relations than it is to perpetrate a lynching. But how many inter-racial conferences does it take to efface the impression made by a single lynching? More than one, I fear. How many schoolhouses for negroes must be built to win back that portion of the confidence of the country that the rise of the Ku Klux Klan has cost us? How many years of scrupulously just dealing are necessary to wipe out the memory of one race-riot?

Inter-racial conferences, schoolhouses, additional safeguards of civil rights represent the South’s conscious program of race relations. The barbarities are convulsive reactions to local stimuli. This really does not help our case, since as long as we are unable to prevent the convulsions and adhere to our carefully reasoned and deliberately adopted policy, we cannot be regarded as trustworthy. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this argument, it is worthy of emphasis that this is the South’s program. Without exception, every Southern leader of any genuine dignity and worth, and 99% of the leaders of any influence, long years ago subscribed to the theory that the South must afford to the negro equality of economic opportunity and equality before the law. If the negro has not as yet acquired either, he is in that on a par with most workingmen elsewhere. It does not affect the theory, any more than the fact that a newly-arrived immigrant in New York is at a disadvantage as compared with the descendant of the patroons affects the theory of New York justice. The fact remains that the white South, as represented by all its outstanding characters, does accept the theory, and does labor to put it into effect, albeit with the fitfulness and inefficiency which men exhibit everywhere when they are striving to live up to their ideals.

Of late years it has been the fashion, especially among negro writers, to speak with bitter scorn of this ideal. The theory of the white South, that its business is to do what it can to make an industrious, intelligent, socially competent citizen out of the negro, is spat upon by negro essayists and novelists. That, however, does not affect the truth that it is an ideal so high that its like is not to be found in history. Where else has the dominant race ever admitted its duty not merely to afford to the dominated race the advantages of the stronger’s civilization, but to assist the weaker race to achieve competence in that civilization, which necessarily means to move toward its mastery? The point may be raised that this ideal was not originally the ideal of the South, but the ideal which the North imposed upon the South by force of arms. The answer is that the imposition of ideals by force is a grotesque contradiction in terms. The ideal of Northern abolitionists and the ideal of the white South are separated by the extent of the universe. The difference is the difference between my belief that you ought to be a noble fellow and your belief that you ought to be a noble fellow. Your belief is an ideal—mine an impertinence. The abolitionists’ creed was that the South ought to treat the negro in a certain manner, but the abolitionists were not Southerners; and that fact made the imposition of their creed an impertinence so prodigious that, to find a greater, one must go back to Iscariot’s kiss.

The ideal of the Southern white on the face of it involves the surrender by the dominant race of a considerable share of its present advantage. To educate the negro, to safeguard his rights in the courts, to encourage his spiritual development is unquestionably to make him more formidable and more resolute. None the less, the thoughtful leaders of the South have for years admitted the section’s obligation to do just that, and little by little the individual states have been induced, in their political capacity, to discharge more and more of that obligation. It is conceivable that the Southern states, as political entities, may within a comparatively short time be discharging their duty to their negro inhabitants so conscientiously as to disarm every honest critic from the North and West.

But if and when that comes to pass, only the simpler and easier part of the problem will have been solved. After the political problem has been solved, there will remain the infinitely more perplexing social problem. The possibility of making the state live up to the high ideal of the South is already plain; but how are the people to be made to live up to that ideal in their individual contacts with the negro?

It is a rank impossibility. There is no more hope of its being done than there is hope of living a Christian life in this world—a task that has been attempted by hundreds of millions for two thousand years, and that has not yet been accomplished. Nevertheless, there are those who hold that the mere attempt to introduce Christianity has done more toward making the world habitable for civilized men than has been accomplished in that direction by all the successes since time began. Social justice for the negro is out of the question in this generation, but what of that? Social justice for anybody else seems to be equally beyond our grasp. None the less, the pursuit of social justice continues to be the behavioristic character of a civilized people. The more difficult that pursuit, the more it absorbs the energies of the people, the higher the grade of their civilization.

For the South this pursuit is more difficult than it is for any other section that has a race problem to contend with, because in every other case, if political justice be assured, the problem is more than half solved since the weaker race has some sort of culture of its own, frequently a culture far older and richer than that of the dominant race. The South alone is under the necessity of strengthening the dominated race with her own culture, as well as affording it the protection of her own institutions while it assimilates that culture. Thus it comes about that the Southerner must inevitably go to extremes. He must fail completely in his effort to solve his problem, and become a barbarian, or he must carry it to the level of success of, say, the Californian, by becoming not merely as decent a citizen as the Californian, but something a great deal higher, something far exceeding the Californian in tolerance, in sympathy for the weak, in intelligent dealing with the mentally limited, in higher aspiration, in clear vision, in unbreakable resolution, in generosity, in self-sacrifice. In brief, if he is not to become a barbarian, the Southerner must needs become something not readily distinguishable from the saints in glory.

Omitting the possible effects of negro migration, and omitting the certain effects of what the negro is doing for himself, this is the way out. This is the way to complete political freedom, to full and adequate functioning as American citizens. After all, it does not include anything that is altogether beyond reason. It does not contemplate anything so profoundly repulsive to a white Southerner that it seems worse than barbarism. No one expects or desires the white South to repudiate its racial integrity. No one, except a fanatic, expects or desires it to abandon reasonable police regulations, as, for instance, separation of the races, provided such regulations are enforced equally, which is not done now. It does not contemplate the abandonment of any Southern ideal. It contemplates merely living up to those ideals.

But even at that I dare say most of us will elect to remain Democrats.


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