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The South Before the Movement

ISSUE:  Winter 1997
Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. By John Egerton. North Carolina. $18.95 paper.

Gaining a second wind with its appearance in paperback, John Egerton’s prize-winning book (the John F. Kennedy Award, the Lillian Smith Award, among others), originally published in 1994 by Knopf, is now moving into university classrooms and claiming a dependable place on the “Southern” shelves of bookstores. Speak Now Against the Day is sure to be welcomed by students and general readers for years to come as the most engaging and compassionate overview of social change efforts in the South between the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the Brown decisions of 1954 and ‘55.

A self-described “middle-aged, middle-class, white Southern male with moderately liberal biases,” Egerton is writing what he calls “my history,” an account of these years framed by a personal pursuit of understanding and interpretation. Whether or not readers come to share his view of “how favorable the conditions were for substantive social change in the four or five years right after World War II,” they will be drawn to Egerton’s lively and empathetic narrative filled with vivid impressions of scores of characters whose works and days spiral and interweave across more than 600 pages.

Speak Now is social and cultural history personalized through the frame of autobiographical reference. This leads, as Egerton admits up front, to “a partial and subjective account” rather than a comprehensive synthesis. Since all our accounts are more or less subjective and partial, what comes with his particular vantage point? Egerton’s career as journalist and independent writer leads him to tell us a great deal more about the era’s newspaper editors and writers, for instance, than he does about labor organizers or public health workers. His moderate liberalism leaves him stopping short of any serious questioning of liberalism’s contribution to the ideology of modern capitalism. On the other hand, Egerton’s situation as a socially conscious white journalist in the South means that he keeps his focus upon the big story of race relations on the verge of an enormous transformation.

Perhaps one has as little choice in choosing a father figure as in choosing a father. Egerton’s is Ralph McGill, Atlanta Constitution editor, selected intentionally as a too-fallible paragon of reluctant public leadership. If McGill can be brought around to an eleventh hour renunciation of segregation, so might the Southern Regional Council, so might all white Southerners of goodwill. “As I have peered into the shuttered recesses of regional and personal history,” writes Egerton, “McGill and my father have taken on an almost interchangeable persona in my mind’s eye.” As Prologue moves toward Epilogue, Egerton returns again and again to check McGill’s incrementalism. Having set up this paternal comparison, Egerton leaves one wondering about what course, if any, his actual father lived to take.

For anyone unacquainted with the story of social change in the South during the first half of the 20th century, Speak Now Against the Day serves as a wonderfully welcome introduction. Egerton has integrated his pages with lively sketches of black and white participants, of men and women, of senators and sharecroppers. You read the scattered, tantalizing references to someone such as Osceola McKaine—merchant seaman, combat soldier, cabaret owner in Belgium, co-founder in 1944 of the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party—are immediately intrigued, and want to know more. The same can be said for a whole index of Southern prophets and temporizers, reactionaries and radicals who stirred to life around the New Deal years.Speak Now should lead many new readers to the more focused studies by historians and biographers, and to a rereading of fiction by such writers as Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Lillian Smith, and Ralph Ellison.

It is with the white liberals that Egerton spends the most time, regretting their tiny steps toward racial justice. He visits and revisits the Virginius Dabneys, Mark Ethridges, Howard Odums, and Ralph McGills, as if hoping to find them altered from their last appearance. But they remain, belabored, decorous, dignified, mannered liberals, perched on the leading edge of the status quo. Egerton writes that it is a matter of “ideological hairsplitting” among “the fragile network of liberal Southerners” that kept them “from coalescing in opposition to the dominant forces in the region.” But the differences between the politics of, say, Myles Horton and McGill, Jim Dombrowski and Hodding Carter, or Lillian Smith and Odum were genuine, and considerably broader than the widest hair. Egerton knows this of course, but is long on filial loyalty, a tenacious and frequently treacherous Southern habit.

Speak Now gathers energy when Egerton encamps with the socialists and racial democrats, and drags, sometimes tediously, when he retraces the liberal loop. In “Homegrown Progressives” and “Anticommunism, Southern-Style,” two important sections of the book, Egerton assesses the efforts of liberal-left organizations in the South of the mid-to-late 1940’s and recounts the “familiar litany of common failings” that plagued groups such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Highlander, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, and the Southern Regional Council.

Whether radical or moderate, aggressive or low-key, they were plagued by a chronic shortage of money and members. None of them managed to raise funds in the South as successfully as they did among liberals in the North, and none could have survived for long without those Yankee dollars. What’s more, they couldn’t put together anything that approached the dimensions of a mass movement in the South—and without the numbers, they couldn’t get the press or the populace to take them seriously as an influential force for change.

Egerton also points out how Southern politicians seized upon any questioning of Jim Crow social arrangements as evidence that reds were undermining the peaceful relations between the races. Given his own candid assessments, it is hard to credit Egerton’s view that the moment following Truman’s election and the Dixiecrat defeat was any kind of “golden opportunity” or “last best chance” for the South “to take control of its own social reformation.” Even as he proclaims this on one page, he takes it back a couple of pages later in a characteristic sort of divided consciousness that testifies to his heartfelt, repeated longing to balance the what-ought-to-have-been against the what-was. “In point of fact, a small minority of powerful white men still controlled the political and economic machinery of the South, from the bankruptcy courthouses to Capitol Hill, and they were not about to share their power, much less surrender it, simply because others told them they should.”

When the movement for civil rights stirred toward visibility in the 1950’s, the impetus came from many sources other than the much lamented white liberals. This is a story that Egerton respects, indeed is in admiration of, yet, at the grassroots level, seems to constitute less of his personal history. In fact, we are all still learning this history through such state-focused works as John Dittmer’s Local People (1994), Adam Fairclough’s Race and Democracy (1995), Constance Curry’s Silver Rights (1995), Charles M. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (1995). Important to this story was the organized and mounting pressure of millions of African Americans, inside and outside of Dixie, who were increasingly demanding their citizenship, their rights to the vote, to education, health care, housing, and jobs. They worked with Southern whites when they could, in places like Highlander and the citizenship schools of the Sea Islands. But they also worked among themselves, building NAACP chapters, putting lawyers and plaintiffs together, planning the strategies of social struggle. Ultimately they were aided and abetted by a transformed United States Supreme Court, by federal district courts in the South, and by the shameful spectacles of white racial hatred enacted on national television.

Looking back on the era between FDR and Brown from the 1990’s vantage point of affirmative action backlash and the Reagan Court’s redistricting decisions, we can see how remarkable was the Civil Rights Movement. We can also understand, and Egerton’s book helps us to do this, how important for tilling and preparation are the years between movements. For what we must generate now is not only a rededication to the national commitment for civil rights and voting rights, but a further commitment to economic justice during this era of triumphant capitalism. In a nation which continues to deny both the visible and hidden injuries of class, we are faced with a familiar obligation not only to speak, but to act.


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