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Search for Racial Justice

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
Civil Rights and Wrongs; A Memoir of Race and Politics, 1944—94. By Harry S. Ashmore. Pantheon.$25.

“If e pluribus unum —from the many, one—still represents the nation’s goal,” writes Harry Ashmore of the racial sphere, “we have been moving away from it for two decades.”

A cogent case is made for this statement in this, Ashmore’s 10th book. Interspersed with his thoroughly insightful account of events before and after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision against school desegregation in 1954 are autobiographical notes.

He recounts service as a lieutenant colonel during World War II after growing up in South Carolina; his editorship of the Charlotte News —at age 30—and afterward of the Little Rock Gazette, and his appointment while still in his mid-40’s as a fellow and then president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in California.

But he does not mention his Pulitzer Prize and a second one for his newspaper after the Little Rock School crisis; and he confers a scant paragraph upon his stint as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps because he felt it bore minimally upon the civil rights struggle.

As one of a handful of Southern editors who spoke out—having been allowed to do so by their publishers—for black legal rights all the way from 1954—Ashmore is fully equipped to impart a measured pessimism.

He grants that for middle class blacks, progress has been pronounced; even historic. The percentage of black families with annual incomes of $50,000 or more, he recalls, increased from 5.8 per cent in 1967 to 13.8 per cent in 1990.

This and other facts led the author in an earlier book, Hearts and Minds, to express the belief that the progress, if maintained, “may yet be reckoneded the most profound social change mankind has yet achieved without resort to violence.”

But before the ink was dry, so to speak, Ashmore was afraid he would have to take back those words. “With the return to power of the Republicans under Ronald Reagan it immediately became evident that another effect of the new visibility of blacks had been to reinstate, and further distort, corrosive racial issues that had intermittently dominated national politics since the founding of the republic.” A major by-effect, he says, is that “The rhetoric associated with the Southern strategy had a polarizing effect on both races, and reduced white support for government programs that had been instrumental in opening to blacks the kind of employment required to provide middle class status in a market-oriented society.”

And at the lowest levels, the working poor and below, things were even worse.

The book is another expression of personal, and, as was the case of The Little Rock Gazette, corporate courage (the paper lost several thousand in circulation and never fully recovered).

At the beginning of the school desegregation period and for long years afterward, the self-imposed proscriptions upon editorial language were numerous. As he says, “there were no moral leaders of consequence who were prepared to force the issue, and certainly no politician could reasonably be expected to do so. This meant that those seeking to promote change—including newspaper editors—were constrained to deal with the race problem in other, more pragmatic terms,” he added.

Like compliance with the law, rather than obeisance, which to some with hair-trigger sensitivity has a connotation of being down on all fours; and always, “desegregation” rather than “integration.”

At the beginning in Charlotte, Ashmore says he “aroused no great outcry when I campaigned for the right of blacks to vote and serve on juries. A reasoned argument for justice could attract considerable support as long as there was no implication of social equality.”

As he points out several times in the book, Ashmore himself advocated social segregation during a transition period. Whether there was strategy behind this is not known. But I believe it is possible that such a position has reserved a special fury against him by some young black academics.

Civil Rights and Wrongs has apt comment on the American scene throughout, and special interest in such observations as:

—Dwight Eisenhower not only opposed the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling but was against President Truman’s postwar order desegregating the Armed Forces.

—In opposing Brown, James Jackson Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News-Leader, told Time magazine: “The Negro is fundamentally and perhaps unalterably inferior. He is also immoral, indolent, inept, incapable of learning and uninterested in full racial equality. The segregationist South has no guilt about keeping the Negro in his proper place—that is to say, in separate schools.”

—Virginius Dabney, editor of the other Richmond newspaper the Times-Dispatch (same ownership) says that meanwhile, the Times Dispatch “did not attack massive resistance, although it would have liked to do so.” He added, “Neither did we espouse it actively. . . . Most of the time we simply acquiesced in it silently without making overtures in its behalf.” (From his autobiography, Across the Years. )

—The trip to Africa in 1979 on which California Gov. Jerry Brown took with star singer Linda Ronstadt may have seemed a romantic interlude but, Ashmore implies, it wasn’t. Brown was warming up to run for president by courting the black vote, and the presence of Ronstadt at his side at picture opportunities “helped allay the inevitable suspicions that attended a middleaged bachelor with unusual personal habits.”

—The Camp David Accords were successfully engineered by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, Carter wrote, because “I had to repair my damaged base among Israel’s American friends, and in the process build further support for our peace effort.”

—Television “has foreshortened perspective for the rising generation, and introduced an emphasis on pop psychology that personalizes—and usually trivializes—the coverage of social change.”

In sum, Ashmore says the assumption that the alienation of the past could be dealt with by integrating the segregated minority into the larger society—beginning with education—did not work out.

The white move to the suburbs left the majority of poor black children behind in deteriorating urban public schools, he observes. “On college campuses more or less voluntary racial segregation prevailed in living accommodations and amenities.” The little interaction between blacks and whites was in the classroom— “and there it imposed a severe strain on the collegial spirit.”

My own reaction is only a notch or two above on the scale of optimism, based on observations from time to time of genuine friendship in academe and effective cooperation in the workplace.

Where I would be even stronger than Ashmore is in assessing the quite enormous tragedy—to this day—of blacks struggling with college work for the sole reason of unequal and inadequate high and elementary schools.

You can say this about Ashmore: he writes as well as he talks—a rare accolade. His conversation and stories are legend. In this serious account, understandably, his humor is largely self-suppressed. Here and there, however, it bursts forth.

As in his recollection of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, 1948.A massive committeewoman shouldered Mr. Sam Rayburn away from the microphone and, as the city’s tribute to the nominee, President Truman, pulled a cord that released 48 white pigeons to serve as doves of peace.

“The first thing I saw,” Ashmore relates, “from the press pen, was clouds of white feathers as some of the birds flew into the huge fans set up around the sweltering hall. The next was Sam Rayburn swinging his gavel at pigeons zeroing in on his gleaming bald head.”

The incident improved the atmosphere at the tense convention. So was humor the saving grace many times during this crucial civil rights time.


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