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The South Speaking

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Tar Heels. A Portrait of North Carolina. By Jonathan Daniels. Dodd, Mead and Company. $3.00. Below the Potomac. A Book about the New South. By Virginius Dabney. D. Appleton-Century Company. $3.00.

This comment on two books about the South is written at my home in the hills of New England. The books are by influential men who are at home in Virginia and North Carolina. It is not too much that one be allowed to call himself Southerner and New Englander at the same time. A hundred and seventy years ago Patrick Henry embraced the cod with the corn pone. Who am I to claim single allegiance, except to America? And my authors make it clear that they agree with President Harry Chase, then of the University of North Carolina, that the South is being, must be, Americanized. The issue of the Civil War decreed it, the coming of industry below the Potomac went far to enable it. The New Deal not only called the South “the nation’s No. 1 economic problem,” but set about solution with such huge social work projects as T.V.A. and Farm Security, and such standardizing laws as Social Security and Wages and Horn’s. Mr. Dabney says that the South is peculiarly conscious of the principles for which America fights at this hour, and that “the land which gave George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and Robert E. Lee to the nation can be counted on to play a worthy role in the great struggle for the preservation of western civilization and the democratic way of life.” Surely, the champion of democratic culture shall not demand concession to social discriminations of its own, however traditional.

Jonathan Daniels’ volume, “Tar Heels. A Portrait of North Carolina,” is an appreciation; Virginius Dabney’s “Below the Potomac. A Book about the New South” is more an appraisal. Daniels pays calls like the family doctor as much inclined to pass the time of day as bent on seeing a patient. Dabney conducts a diagnostic clinic, fairly impersonal. Not that Daniels does not take in the many-sided scene. As he visits low and high, malarial swamp people and mountaineers clinging to their upright clearings, Chapel Hill and mill hill, country dance and society cotillion, black and white in field and street, he is well aware of tears as well as laughter. With his geniality, he is too affectionate, and by the same sign candid, not to bestow blame as well as praise. He teaches by parable, how the last shall be first, how “a valley of humiliation between two mountains of conceit” may rise, by lack of pretension, to very great pretensions indeed. His study is a skillful portrait, flattering enough to please the sitter, faithful enough to make every relative and friend exclaim that it is the “spit image.” The firmness is there, and the foibles too. Not only is Daniels’ description of North Carolina likely to prove one of the best, intrinsically, in the Dodd, Mead series on “Sovereign States,” but the subject is one calculated to appeal to a wide American circle. The joyful crudity which no tradition, however cherished, can suppress, and the sterling achievement which yet remains ingenuous—they warm response in the farthest radius from Cape Hatteras.

Dabney, like Daniels, is no novice in depicting the South in summary as well as in day-to-day editorial comment. The present volume passes under review most phases of Southern life—one-party politics accentuated by poll tax and degraded by recurrent demagogues; staple agriculture promptly succored by the New Deal with cash and more subtly persuaded toward some belief in the family cow and the gospel of legumes; industry burgeoning on war contracts but hoping, vainly, to reclaim a wage differential below that of the North; education striving mightily in spite of limitations the chief of which is self-imposed by the white South; race relations with the grateful dwindling of lynchings; population, public health, public discussion, and prognosis. Generally Dabney, looking about him from the capital of the old Confederacy, avoids being accuser, as Helper was, or the apologist of the South whose name is legion. Here is an interpretation to be read while one is recovering from the quantitative exhibits of Odum’s redoubtable “Southern Regions.” Dabney gives crucial figures, points morals. Any constituency in the country should be proud to have a guide, philosopher, and friend so enlightened.

It is gratuitous and maybe inappropriate, in Mr. Dabney’s case, to lament that the good is the enemy of the best. My suspicion hangs on what seems to me the only shortcoming in his excellent recommendations. And here he certainly speaks for the vast majority of thoughtful white people in the South, though there is more doubt about the opinion of Negroes, both leaders and unlettered. Dabney rejects the demand of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that Negroes be admitted to public institutions for advanced training, academic and professional, on the same terms as whites are admitted on. This demand has been validated by the United States Supreme Court. Admitting the abstract right of the case, the author seems panicked by the proximity of the event. His reasoning becomes a little desperate, and unworthy of the rest of the book. If a few Negroes were admitted to publicly supported universities, medical colleges, etc., now reserved for whites, “uneducated ‘poor whites’ in the remoter sections . . . would be likely to register extreme resentment over ‘uppity niggers’ . . .” The Negroes would not be happy on predominantly white campuses. Few Negroes have gotten into West Point and Annapolis, and fewer have graduated, etc., etc. Dabney brings forward an opinion of Professor Corwin, of Princeton, that regional higher institutions, exclusively for Negroes, and supported by several Southern states, would satisfy the dictum of the Supreme Court.

It seems too bad for Mr. Dabney to use his wits in apprehensive guessing about how far or how fast the N.A.A.C.P. will press its victory in Missouri. We have always said that education is the chief aid of good relations between the races. In this faith, what is more imperative than affording training to Negro leaders in health, law, the social sciences and social work, school administration and other fields? It has to be ruefully admitted that the support of two school systems is the poverty of them both. Why cap the expense and inefficiency with separate universities and professional schools, regional (if legal) though they be? Negroes have been admitted to the University of Maryland law department and, despite direst warnings (not, incidentally, from poor whites in remoter sections) nothing untoward happened. But, says Dabney, results could be different in the far South. If so, it would be to the reproach of privileged whites who resign leadership to the ignorant and the violent of their race. Dabney boasts that “Imagination and vision, resourcefulness and daring are essential ingredients of the South” which must be enlisted in the service of democracy. When we are willing to risk so much (including the Jim Crow regiments) for democracy’s sake on the other side of the world, may we not be a little less attached to caution in the same cause in the South itself? The fact is that while we are shrilling for human rights and the American way of life, Negroes of the South are half-citizens. “That great future which awaits the South” is not in the hereafter, but in today’s performance. We are told, apropos a fact finding movement, that “Georgia is trying—truth.” How about the whole South trying justice? High-minded white leaders at the top are afraid of the application of civil liberties, the Supreme Court despite. At this point the South can benefit most from mass pressure, in the best American tradition, from below. In defect of mass organization, the right appeal is to Constitution and courts. If American history means anything, it is that regional inhibitions must be subordinate to national conscience.


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