Asked to write “a retrospect and prospect on civil rights,” I demurred. I have had to realize that I am not able, especially as to prospects, to offer anything like a definitive theme. Racism, not civil rights—which is first of all a legal value—is today’s challenge, and, like most commentators, I have not found the way to get hold of that protean phenomenon. So I settle for seeing matters not in the whole, but in bits and pieces. At its best, the South’s civil rights movement held a commitment to non-violence, and a common thread in these reflections is a hope for its revival, a hope that we might move away from the plague of guns, in the hands of individuals or governments, and from the intellectual arrogance that justifies their possession and use.
I am all too well aware of the incompleteness of what follows. It is what from one angle of vision, my own, is to be seen.
1. The Southern civil rights movement that we knew in the years between Brown v. Board of Education and the election of Ronald Reagan was a political movement that grew from and within the rich soil of personal meanings. It had caught hold of each of us who were absorbed into it where we were, and in one way or another changed us forever. Violence surrounded it, wounding and killing some of its best people, but the violence almost never was its own doing. I do believe it left hardly anyone who once gave it allegiance the poorer, in spirit or mind. It was a disturber of public sloth and slumber and a transformer of persons and societies. It was almost certainly an undiluted force for good.
We who were part of it were lucky Americans. May something like it emerge again to raise the sense of possibility of later generations.
2. Crisis, the NAACP magazine, in its January/February 1999 issue reprinted Chapter 1 of The Souls of Black Folks.It had been nearly 50 years since I had read the book; why was I so late doing so, for by then this great book was already a half century old; why especially when I was then a teacher of political philosophy?
We debate whether race or class provides better access for interpreting our social dilemmas, but in political philosophy, classical or modern, race is the new problem, class an ancient, even an original, one.
A leading purpose of Plato’s Republic was to find the way to subordinate economic classes to disinterested virtue. Aristotle, with better practical sense, sought in his Politics the same end by securing political power within the middle class, protected from oligarchs and the poor alike. Neither had anything much to say about race, unless to separate Greeks from barbarians. The United States is, probably, now forsaking Aristotle’s ambitions for middle class primacy, as our democracy slides into plutocracy. DuBois was perhaps glimpsing that sorrowful end when he saw America as a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness.”
That marvelous first chapter established right off one of the truths we all have to embrace: that the perception from within a racial group is on some matters superior to that of any outsider. No white person would have, could have conceived the idea of “being born with a veil and gifted with second sight—this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” It is one of those ideas which once enunciated is immediately recognized as factual and true and absolutely necessary. It is worth quoting further:
the Negro . . .is born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world, . . .a world which yields no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his twoness, . . .an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, . . .this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merger he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. . . . He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
I have long been dependent on Negro people to illuminate our societal situations, on Douglass, DuBois, Baldwin, Hughes, Ellison, Marshall, King, Franklin, Clark, Lincoln—the names flow on—and on non-intellectuals too, in Southern, and also Northern, circles of hardship. I used the word Negro above—and won’t again in this essay—because that is what these teachers called themselves.
I am not sure what improvement there is in the term African American, though it seems now to be preferred by those it identifies and therefore I shall use it. But not without a bit of regret. Those old names—colored, Negro, black—had the merit as I see it of keeping a measure of distance from being undeniedly “American.” I doubt also that switching about of names much helps in a search for identity, if that is what it is. But I am also aware that I am not the one engaged in that search (I have my own). There already have been too many white people telling other people who they are.
I do suggest that much of the intellectual and emotional self-examination that goes on within the non-white communities of the United States—and not only that of the African Americans—is an endeavor to leap over and dissolve what DuBois said a century ago about always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. That leap has been a declaration of racial independence.
It implies at the same time a responsibility for bringing an African American perspective to our besetting political issues. I believe in integration, but I hope that integration does not have to mean that African Americans are to bring no unsettling, upsetting, radical ideas and perspectives to the nation’s politics. So far, since the passing of movement days such has pretty much been the case.
3. That a succession of social movements would grow from the soil prepared by the civil rights movement might have been foreseen. No other minority had had a history of collective pain identical to that of African Americans, but the United States had created during its history more than enough discrimination and prejudice toward our nation’s array of discrete minorities; they were poised and ready to be set in motion. The latest of these “minorities” are the homosexuals, women and men.
They are too unlike other minorities to be thought of in quite the same way. They do, however, share at least one characteristic with those earlier aroused minorities: they seem not particularly well liked by their predecessors. Many blacks still regard the Fourteenth Amendment and the civil rights statutes of the 1950’s and 1960’s as their own singular possession (as the Emancipation Proclamation was). Latinos of their several kinds and Indians have not felt secure enough yet to champion the rights of others.
The women’s movement did surely get a strong boost from the Negro revolt, and the cause that the suffragettes and social reformers had much earlier fought gallantly for got new life from the civil rights struggle.
Except among women, my guess is that acceptance of homosexuals is lower within the other minorities than in the general population; at best, it is not noticeably higher. And I suspect that that is so regarding even those many homosexuals within their own groups.
Yet homosexuals test the nation’s commitment to equality and fraternity, on which the minorities depend, in ways that are clearly fundamental. If all the great social movements of the second half of the past century are seen as being one massive demand that our society be open to and inclusive of all who live here, then that is precisely the claim of the homosexuals. And just as our civics lessons have traditionally insisted, that American unity rests not on shared histories but on shared law and political values, the homosexual challenge agrees. The civil rights movement and all its successors based their appeals on established law; so too does this newest heir.
The barriers to acceptance are, however, high. One is that whereas other minorities are more or less physically distinguishable homosexuals are not. They are known to others by their own statement, by self-identification.
A second barrier is at least as high; sexuality. Heterosexual men (I would suppose, women too) struggle with their sexual wants and desires throughout much of their lives. So much of who we are, who we are to others and ourselves, is defined in and by that struggle. We who are heterosexual indistinctly recognize that homosexuals are having their own experiences and struggles, but they are not ours.
Nor, of course, do we who are white men know with any certitude the concerns and experiences of African Americans, Latinos, or women. White heterosexual men are probably the most privileged social class, but also arguably the one most cut off from the lives of others, their feelings, hopes, and cares. But knowing that one is apart from people of other races and colors or from women is not the same as believing that there truly are men and women who look very much like other men and women of their race but assert the right, even a legal right, to be accepted as different, simply by declaration of a status.
We may have difficulty in perceiving across racial or gender lines the problems that beset other persons but at least we generally recognize that those persons are there and have somewhat immutable identities. One may be full of prejudice against persons of another race without doubting that they indeed exist and share the planet. Nor do they call me to question my own identity. They don’t rival me. Our literature, particularly Southern literature, is full of white men’s fear that their women, willingly or unwillingly, would fall to black men, but essential natures were not at issue; only potency. For heterosexual men, there was truth—even comfort—in the solidarity implied in the old adage, that below the belt all men are brothers.
Have either society or individuals gained by the assertion of homosexual rights based on orientation rather than choice? There is, after all, a long and oft admired tradition of homosexual love affairs, freely chosen, going back to classical Greece. Would society come apart if it became commonplace for persons to say that they were homosexual or bisexual or now one and now the other, simply because they want to be? I doubt that it would, though many might find that intolerable; nor do heterosexuals typically see themselves as such by choice. We are “oriented” that way.
These reflections of mine are likely off-the-mark to others. At best, they probably illustrate again how hard it has always been to talk about sex. Those of us who are Christians or Jews have had that difficulty compounded by the maunderings of those men who ages ago wrote our holy scriptures.
My theme is hope, always, for peace. There was no credible hope for peace in a Jim Crow South. There is none in any American social order that is noninclusive. Many among us have difficulty understanding the legitimacy of homosexual orientation, a difficulty that impels some to hostility, even violence. We have not yet got beyond violence in race relations. Is there serious doubt that most racial violence is and has been committed by white heterosexual men? They are the carriers also of the disease of violence against homosexuals.
We heterosexuals have to re-direct ourselves; first have to find the will to do so. Southern whites, especially those of us of middle age or older, had this to do once before. And plainly, it was hardest and perhaps least successfully done by men.
A fact about movements against social oppressions is that once well launched they do not go away. The United States’s destiny is to be an open inclusive society. This has been its consistent tendency. The claims of homosexual men and women to be fully and rightfully a part of it will not go away. Nor should it. We—and that means first of all we heterosexual men of all races—will agree with those claims, or else we shall not have a society at peace.
4. Writing about the South sensibly in the 1990’s, hard enough for anyone to do, is an almost self-sacrificial task for one like myself, who in the 1950’s and 1960’s saw Elvis Pressley as a bad joke, Malcolm X as enemy of the kind of “beloved community” we believed King was directing us toward, saw the Black Power rage as a tragic wrong-turning, saw as King had come to see the militarists and plutocrats of the South and nation as the true and real foes, and still does, despite being left behind on all those convictions by the mass of today’s liberals.
That last separation from prevailing—though happily not the whole—of contemporary liberals is the hard and bitter one. The world can endure Elvis, Malcolm, and all that; shrug off and endure even us pokey ones who keep our distance from them. The plutocrats and militarists are another story. I have the dismayed feeling that the New Democrats of Mr., Clinton’s sort apparently think them compatible with the spirit and hopes of those earlier years. They are not.
Serious work was done in the South in those days. The Southern civil rights movement reversed the tides of the South’s history. Southern liberals, black and white, carried their share of the fight that ended the war in Vietnam. These years were the South’s historically finest hour. Our generation’s South, unlike that older one so well interpreted by our historians following C.Vann Woodward, had struggled through the fire and had not been defeated. We need to remember the pain of the time. We need to remember the successes too.
African Americans were always the driving power. But they were not alone. Whites, especially white liberals, were everywhere an indispensable part of the great reform, though the histories so far written don’t give them much applause. Whites need to identify with, and be identified with, the victory, need to celebrate that “something big happened down here and we were part of it.” We need some white pride.
The malignant stereotyping of the 1960’s as an era of rampant drugs and sex and excess is an insult to the memory of King and those who followed or were represented by him. They—black and white— stood up against the old South of white supremacy and against an America gone berserk in Southeast Asia. We diminish King’s stature when we look away from his radical opposition to that war. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,” of our poor and sometimes dangerous and riotous neighborhoods, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
That was King speaking in his great Riverside Church address of April 4, 1967.We have had more war making since the Vietnam War of that time, and more arming of our nation and other nations (“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”) I doubt that King would, if still among us, alter his judgment about who is the world’s leading purveyor of violence.
We could do with a bit less recitation of his appealing “I have a dream” speech and a good bit more of his prophetic—speaking truth to power—Riverside speech. The inner genius of the Southern civil rights movement was that it pulled back and left bare and exposed for a while the layers of American myth, letting our basic faults of militarism and greed and racism darkly to show their reality.
The present myth-making disparages the resistance to that war and those who avoided it. Mr. Clinton’s tormented way of avoiding and George W.Bush’s way—whether he sought special treatment or not, somebody did for him—were the sort of things that young men commonly did in those grim times, faced as they were with the life choices that a merciless government was forcing on them, either to avoid being killed or to kill others. Better if young Clinton and young Bush had gone off to Canada and sought help from the ACLU’s amnesty program; but young men did what seemed best to them at the time and are not now to be criticized for it. Not everyone can have the interior strength of Muhammad Ali.
Our war in Vietnam was a monstrous injustice. America never wants to admit its injustices. So we now hold the war blameless and impugn and downsize those who resisted it.
Is our late war, of bombs and missiles, against Yugoslavia becoming another in the long line of approved wars? Has our volunteer military service ended the era of young men and women’s dissent and resistance to war?
5. The health of rights and liberties, and of movements to secure them, depends on the rule of law, and that requires effective government. I sometimes wonder if we are not near the brink of being a nation ungovernable.
• a war in Iraq that goes on interminably, one in the Balkans which all too likely may follow the same course, and with little in the way of defined and popularly understood national purposes;
• a war on drugs in which we keep doing what has consistently failed and will predictably go on failing, while putting more and more of our poorer fellow citizens in prison for long stays and which involves us militarily with other countries;
• a “war” which infests our streets with handguns and crimes of violence and property;
• an increasing arms buildup when we have no likely threatening enemy, except imagined or invented ones, so that we are engaged in an arms race with ourselves;
• a Congress that declines to require observance of the War Powers Act solemnly enacted by a predecessor Congress and willfully ignored by intervening presidents;
• that legislates spending caps and then maneuvers around them;
• a Congress that determinedly refuses to protect the integrity of elections, including its own, from the corruption of money;
• a Senate that has turned its back on nuclear restraints as in the rejected Test Ban Treaty and which lusts to evade the peace-protecting ballistic missile defense treaty and which year after year continues to spend billions of dollars to research, develop, build and buy more nuclear arms and their delivery systems (for what?);
• a Congress and administration which, regardless of party, spread weapons throughout the rest of the world, jealous of our place as principal arms dealer of the world, fueling the warfare of the nations;
• and which while grieving over schoolyard and workplace shootings by its own example sows violence everywhere our flag flies;
• a government which so far as its public policies manifest has no concern over the ever-widening economic inequality within the citizenry;
• and a citizenry which, in all its diversity, cares too little for the common good to bother to vote.
Except for legislation hotly wanted by corporate powers, as was 1999’s banking measure, this government is not to be relied on for reforms; especially not for ones serving the people.
6. Here in North Carolina, Latinos now are everywhere one looks. It is much the same elsewhere in the South: wherever there are crops to be tended or construction laborers needed or meat processing assembly line workers wanted or yard workers for suburban lawns and college campuses—wherever, in short, there are low wage jobs to be had.
The Latinos have brought with them their festivals, music, grocery stores. They have brought new strength to the Roman Catholic Church, and to Pentecostal Protestant ones too. And they have put heavy new challenges on our public schools.
It is as if the South, which failed so badly in its long sharing of the land with African Americans is being offered a chance to redeem itself, to act now better and more justly toward darker and weaker folks. Much of that redemptive task rests, however, on the black South, for that is where the economic competition with these newcomers occurs. How capacious is the South’s reservoir of low wage jobs? That is where Latinos are entering and from which not enough African Americans have as yet risen.
The United States historically has provided work and home for other nations’ poor. It has been a great achievement. It may have been—it was—accomplished in large part through oppression, exploitation, and cruelty (as we are reminded whenever Columbus Day rolls around) but it has been done. There was always at least a veneer, and a progressively deepening one, of native manners and legal norms that moderated the hardness and gave grounds for the national boast of this being the land of opportunity. The world’s poor voted with their feet to come here, and to stay. And those brought here as slaves have overwhelmingly wanted to stay, and to be Americans, as DuBois said long ago. And as all these poor have come and stayed they have enriched the nation.
Until the present day incursion of Latinos the South had had relatively little to do with this assimilation. In this, as in so many ways in the South has, since Southern civil rights days, now joined the nation. The Latinos as yet (but it is still early!) have not been a united political force. They have become strong in some widely separated areas: in the Southwest where Mexican Americans have long lived; in Puerto Rican districts of New York City and the northern cities; and in south Florida where deracinated Cubans have muscled onto the rest of us a revengeful policy toward their native land. Probably Latinos elsewhere, including these newer arrivals, will soon shed their political quietism.
But how, and into what? Will these newcomers find common cause with the well rooted and growingly politically strong Mexican Americans of Texas and the Southwest? If so, they could become a powerful political force. Stronger yet if they also moved in step with those who came from the Caribbean Islands.
What will it be like in the coming decades to have no longer just one but two ethnically diverse bottom rungs in the region’s society and economy? What might it mean for the usual African American issues, affirmative action for example? What will be the political shape of the South if we have not one but two, all too likely disadvantaged, ethnic minorities? What might Republicans fear and Democrats hope for? Or vice versa?
7. Medieval feudalism had a territorial base but had other defining characteristics as well. There are aspects of modern America, all of them strongly noticeable in the South, that are suggestive of a “New Feudalism.” Substitute modern corporations for old duchys and earldoms, and there are important likenesses.
There is combat with other corporations, as once there was between feudal lords, the rivalry often ending in negotiated or “hostile” takeovers. There is the procuring of vassals, with terms of fealty imposed or negotiated depending on relative strength. The lords amass immense personal riches, their wealth and power over vassals grow—call the modern vassals employees, subcontractors and suppliers, retained lawyers and advertisers, local dependents—grow so large as to enable challenges to the government itself, and possible control of it. There was and is widespread practice of bribery, often in our time in the form of campaign contributions, comparable to the levies of old kings on their nobles or the purchase of the loyalties of courtiers by granting of favors and privileges.
And, of course, then and now, securing all this is government’s readiness to use its weaponry and military strength if necessary, for the crushing of foreign rivals to the corporations of its own domain.
An important difference from the old feudalism is, of course, that there is today in the United States as in the West generally, a large middle class. Will it hold, as the classes above and below it expand?
The alliance between corporation and state power is a part of Southern tradition, culture, and present-day reality. The reluctance of Southern workers to join unions and their general docility are legendary. The South’s Protestant churches have been well represented in the merger—for that is what it generally is—of governmental and corporate interests. If now and then churches may find cause to oppose the government, it is far rarer that they question corporate power.
Over the decades, black Southerners have tended to look for political support to the moneyed class in their communities. We are as far now as in the past from that long dreamed of coalition between African Americans and the white working class. There are cultural and historical imponderable causes for that, but also and probably more basic, obvious economic reasons. One aspect of it was to be seen in civil rights days, when in one locality or state after another African Americans saw their goals as winning over the “power structure.”
In the 1990’s, a new and potentially socially-wounding circumstance has emerged. Throughout the South, white liberals have in considerable numbers taken up environmental causes in many localities, and the Triangle area of North Carolina is one, environmental protection and its cousin, curtailment of developmental sprawl, have become liberals’ chief concern. It is only a casual one for African Americans, and seldom one for the moneyed class.
At least for the present, this tension between African Americans and liberals hardly affects national politics. In many localities, however, the split is sharp and growing. African Americans emphasize the jobs that development supposedly brings; besides, as themselves mostly dwellers in inner city neighborhoods—and many of those not very pleasant—they tend to give little weight to protecting a “way of life” from sprawl.
The moneyed whites as a class are Southern traditionalists; that is, by heritage they are little persuaded of nature’s rights, are shortrange in economic decision-making and planning, rigid believers in property rights, and subservient to the wills of the chief business powers of their areas. These being also late 20th-century Republican Party values, there has been a natural fit.
African Americans customarily have seen their own economic interests tied in with those of the elites of their localities. That was not seen, however, as political separation from white liberals. It is possible that liberals’ and environmentalists’ resistance to the developers and their political allies could yield such a cleavage. If so, how and where will we vassals of the new feudalism turn?
8. We Americans are told often that we are the world’s chief power. How is that message felt by the citizenry, high placed and low? How do we feel in being superior? Possibly like a Californian comparing himself to an Alabaman? Or a Harvard man, or woman, looking at someone from Podunk State University.
The South’s heritage of battlefield defeat set it apart from other regions. Presumably that induced among us a certain measure of humility. Does it still linger, or has it been erased by migrations into and from the South, by Southerners having become “mainstream?” Probably it has. Social scientists have their techniques of weighing and counting but they’ll doubtfully find much humility here; nor, in fact in the United State’s other sections, West, East, or North.
Certainly not in our capital, which knows that we are the world’s shepherd, pastor, mentor, guardian—in short its “number one”—and in need of no other nation’s approval or good opinion. The Democrats will usually be a little more courteous than the Republicans in saying so, but for both national parties, however, we are a norm to ourselves. We are the world’s leader in power, and therefore may define our responsibilities unaided by other authorities.
Are we independent of God too? or any “higher law” than our own perceived interests? Have we recruited God in their behalf, as Southerners did in slavery times, and just as surely did in the decades that followed?
We expect universal approval of all our ways, and the intentions that motivated them. First of all, we insist on that among ourselves. The war in Vietnam is being elevated to a level of orthodox approval and honor it never had in its own day. Its place in revered history is being proudly secured. The witnessing to the contrary of thousands of our best youth who resisted serving is being lost from societal memory.
We enjoy calling America a peace-loving nation, but it is not. We Americans are not. We by all objective evidence must love war, because in our relatively short history we have had so many. From the War of 1812 to the recently concluded one against Yugoslavia, there have been few years when we were not at war with some people. Indian tribes, Mexicans a time or two, Spain, each other, whomever.
This continual warring has deposited a thick layer of militarism over our culture. So thick and wide, as to cover us all inescapably, falling alike on Harvard, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, the Hearst papers, Bob Jones University, the Christian Coalition, the NAACP, the ACLU; all are swimmers in this ocean of militarism.
Nowhere more than in this South, unchanged despite migrations and a stronger economy from its devotion to things military. Our Congressional delegations are the Pentagon’s most loyal followers, teammates actually. The editorial pages of our leading papers seldom betray doubts that the military are our proper leaders. ROTC units are in many secondary schools. The presence of the military is visible throughout the region: in North Carolina, and the state is not exceptional, there are three Marine bases, one Army (Fort Bragg), two Air Force, and a Coast Guard base. About 111,000 active duty personnel and more than 17,000 civilian employees are stationed at them. That makes for a powerful bond between the Pentagon and the state’s political and business leaderships. What politician ever stands against, even questions, an employer of that size in his or her state?
My pastor when spurring his congregation to greater social concern and activity likes to say “pick up the near edge of some great problem” and take hold of it, at some sacrifice to yourself. If the overcoming of militarism and violence were to be our purpose, there is no better “near edge” to take hold of than our national affection for capital punishment. That fondness is most ardent in the South. The United States leads the Western world and the South leads the United States in this practice that sets us apart from most of Western civilization.
The death penalty is unfinished business of the Southern civil rights movement. It is a massive assault on the poor, discriminatory in application and in outcome.
What else so focuses on our African American citizens; or is so predominantly in all its processes administered by whites? When the civil rights movement, by first targeting on lunch counters in the early 1960’s lifted a “near edge,” it did not pull high enough to end this violation of human dignity and life.
The Southern movement was dedicated to non-violence. If there could be a movement of re-commitment to that, the death penalty would in near time fall. So might the culture of guns; so might in longer time even our predilection for military solutions to all diplomatic problems.
The great legacy—the history changing legacy of the Southern movement—could be, and in loyalty to that movement and its leaders and workers should be, the spread of the politics of non-violence.
Now that would be our good new, our good old, cause.
9. The old term, civil rights, is not as helpful as it once was. Given its history, it suggests that for the remedying of problems a law needs to be passed or a march held. I think we have very, very serious inequalities in American society and most of them are connected with race. My own view is that they are bred by the economy and by racism. Nothing original in that.
I may be a mite more, if not original at least novel, in admitting right off that I do not have an answer worth sharing for either. It does seem clear that neither laws nor marches are useful. There are, of course, egregious faults of law that from time to time surface and need correcting and racial offenses—police brutality cases, for prime example—that call for determined, demonstrative direct action. But the deep systematic inequalities of our economy and the racism embedded in layered strata of our culture are beyond the reach of those traditional responses.
Another of the many problems for which I have no answer is the schools and in particular the racial cleavages within them. The hours of discussion and planning by school authorities and committees and advisory bodies (and I’ve been a sometime participant) is matched by the huge federal dollars, beyond anyone’s early prediction of need, that have flowed since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965; there have been comparable state and local dollars. And still throughout the South, including southern and central Appalachia, too many children can hardly read or count. The schools surely can put more money to good use. That is not all they need, however, and probably is not the most important need; but what and how? I little know.
If the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which stripped “personhood” from African Americans, was the foulest action ever of our Supreme Court, the second foulest must be the 1886 decision in Santa Clara Co.v. Southern Pacific P.R.Co., and others like it, which conferred “personhood” on corporations. To that end, the Court used that same equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that was enacted for the benefit of and has been the charter of liberty for African Americans, and now for other discrete minorities. Unlike Dred Scott, Santa Clara has endured, expanded, and become hardly questioned. Even the ACLU enlarges it, as it fights strenuously for corporations’ right to free commercial speech and political spending.
We may not have political democracy for much longer if corporate powers can control elections and the policies of those elected; we won’t have economic democracy if these powers of the new feudalism are beyond the public’s regulations.
All I feel assured enough about racism to propose is that we—that means white people mainly—learn to recognize its appearance in nearly all we do, and excavate it as we can. But saying that is not particularly helpful. But what has been? I think back to Gunnar Myrdal’s famous “rank order of discrimination,” which in order of strength among white people ran downward from intermarriage to personal relations, to public segregation, to political disfranchisement, to official discrimination, lastly to forms of discrimination in earning a living. Myrdal believed that among Negroes the order was almost the reverse; i.e.they cared most about the last, least about the first. Economic discrimination being first for Negroes and of least concern for whites, Myrdal could feel some optimism about the future. Well, it has not worked out that way.
One reason it has not is what Myrdal in later writing termed “structural unemployment” and with it the emergence of an “underclass,” “unemployable persons and families of the bottom of society” who are relatively untouched by the upward trend, if there is one, of the general economy. William Julius Wilson has more recently deepened and elaborated this point. As long as our politics cannot get beyond welfare-to-work as a policy for solving poverty the country will not even confront it.
Instead, we shall wrap ourselves in controversy over so-called issues such as abortion—important in itself but, as a political issue a roadblock to those challenges government can in fact do something about—and trivial pursuits like political correctness, whose debaters often seem like intellectual children, jousting on their playground, swatting gnats and swallowing the camels of war and militarism, poverty and racism, and the degradation of nature. It is time to get serious, and to put aside these screens that facilitate our turning away from those problems that truly have our civilization by the throat.
This past October the Raleigh newspaper had a picture of North Carolina’s chief justice of its Supreme Court swearing in the newly appointed director of the State Bureau of Investigation (sort of state FBI). The only thing remarkable about the occurrence was that both gentlemen are African American. It is a happy fact that news like this is no longer unheard of. This is the bright side of this “new South.” That hard, almost unyielding underclass is its darkest side.
The true end of the Southern civil rights movement would be a truly all-inclusive society, one of bountiful and as near as possible equal opportunities, political and economic. We all share this planet. Pat Watters, in his book Down To Now, one of the handful of truly fine writings about the African American revolt, wrote:
If the movement’s best meaning is to live on, we will escape the notion of all-good against all-evil, and escape racial antagonism in the fight against racism. We will fight racism as the cancer that it is in the society and in individuals, opposing it in blacks, just as in whites, in the name of their humanity.
It will be an effort to break out of the economic, social and cultural traps that stunt and make gray the lives of so many people, an effort to understand and change the systems that peril the nation and the world, and most of all an effort better to know and understand and love, first ourselves, and then other people—in short, to find true integration with society, the environment and our fellow man. And what less, really did the movement seek in the South?
The enduring South, the one that has lasted through the decades and is still with us is not fried chicken, country music, and magnolias, not even our better manners. The South that has reared us and formed us is as it has been a region blanketed by the militarists’ spirit, the capitalists, too, and racial division.
But there was always more. That militarist spirit did inculcate and breed a disposition to acknowledge and accept duties. From somewhere within the strands of Southern history and culture there came respect for religion, even if not practiced.
And that racial division, no new thing but so old that its origins were forgotten except through studied recall, had become the fabric from which the region’s life was and had to be shaped and got used to, not comfortably but something that could be made do for most and even allow and occasionally nourish the arousal and raising up of talents. Blacks and whites had shockingly unequal shares in benefits and privileges, but that culture blanketing both races did at least produce for all a sense of belonging here, of having a place.
For our present generation, it has meant yet more. It has given us the heritage of possibilities made real, of a “republic of equals” not only as wish but as potential. Inequalities are still the norm in the region, but African Americans of the South did abandon subservience, have become an integral part of the region’s political decision making, —and have the awareness that it had and has been primarily through their own efforts that these great advances were achieved.The South’s civil rights movement created a new society, a better one, rife with possibilities and hope.
We have it in our power now to move toward realizing the deepest intent of the revolutionary spirits of that movement. Our power is not large enough to go all the way. But every generation has strength enough to move some distance from that place where it lives, to move its nation and its culture, for all of which it is present caretaker, toward a less violent, more humanity respecting social and political order. For the generations successor to the Southern civil rights movement that is both possibility and duty.