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The Treasury of Virtue Revisited

ISSUE:  Winter 1987
Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920—1944. By John T. Kneebone. North Carolina. $26.00.

In his brilliant retrospective, The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), Robert Penn Warren offered us a pair of contrasting metaphors that evoke in all their symbolic complexity the abiding effects of that war’s outcome on the collective psyches of the victors and the vanquished. For the South the loss of the conflict gave rise to the “Great Alibi,” while the result enabled the North to lay claim to the “Treasury of Virtue.” In Warren’s elaboration on these images the South has used the “Great Alibi” to explain, condone, and transmute everything, “to turn defeat into victory and defects into virtues.” If the Southerner is trapped by history according to the “Great Alibi,” the Northerner is automatically redeemed through history’s having conferred the “Treasury of Virtue” on him, and with it a plenary indulgence for transgressions past, present, and future. In the case of the “Treasury of Virtue,” as in that of the “Great Alibi,” the respective self-identifying legacies may be used and extended almost infinitely for the purposes of diminishing guilt and avoiding facing up to the nature of the inner-conflicts of our history.

One might have thought that the passage of time, with its steady accretion of a common (rather than sectionally divided) national experience would have so nearly exhausted the Great Alibi and drawn so many notes against the Treasury of Virtue that other justifications, excuses, and self-celebratory myths would have been forged out of the need to sustain a vision of a renewed sense of national unity, innocence, and success. And indeed such myth-making has gone on, as it always does in the efforts of established political entities to sustain their places in hitory. Yet, at the same time, it would be too much to expect that the momentous events of what the late Professor T. Harry Williams often referred to (and only half-facetiously) as the “axis time” of American history, i.e., the Civil War era, to pass out of historic memory without residue, and without a continuing influence on the history of our own times and into the future.

From that perspective, essentially a cultural anthropological one, the book at hand may be seen to be dependent at its core on the survival, somewhat subliminally to be sure, of the legacy of the treasury of virtue to sustain its demythologizing central thesis. Stated simply, that thesis is that liberal journalists in the South between the two World Wars have been given credit beyond their due for improving race relations. On the contrary, by their piecemeal reform, evolutionary method of dealing with the worst of the specific sources of conflict between blacks and whites, and above all by their failure to accept and articulate what the black civil rights activists (and the American black population generally) wanted, these highly respected and publicly recognized opinion leaders refused to come to workable terms with the realities of black demands (i.e., to be able to attain what white American citizens generally had by way of equality and simple justice). The Southern liberal journalists in fact continued to think in terms of a racially divided society, and even when black protest reached demonstration stages in World War II the journalists never conceded that persuasion and gradualism were not sufficient and that demonstrations and federal intervention were necessary to put an end to racial segregation. As a result, they eventually forfeited their claims on the very title “liberalism,” with which they had been identified. In the author’s terms, by the time Southern blacks had begun (with federal assistance) to attain some results from the civil rights movement the flow of events had made the gradualism and moderation of Southern liberal journalists anachronistic, and it was not long thereafter that “. . .the southern liberalism of the Jim Crow era . . .finally faded away.”

Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920—1944 is a most difficult book for a reviewer to assess, either critically or positively. In part the problem is that in a book whose text runs to only 230 pages an effort is made to cover people and events that one would normally expect to consume at least twice that much space. And even at that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. For while its content is mainly focused on efforts to relieve the worst forms of oppression and violence directed against Southern blacks and to work toward more stable and orderly relations between the races in the South from 1920 to 1944, the main outlines of the civil rights movement are sketched in through the mid-1960’s, and a good part of the author’s analysis of the moral failure of the journalists that he covers in the era identified in the title is found in these addenda. The treasury of virtue is so heavily drawn on in the extended sections that all possibility of redeeming grace is denied to the offending journalists.

The author does attempt to limit his central characters to a manageable number. Although he lists and comments briefly on more than a dozen prominent Southern journalists, including owners, publishers, and editors as well as influential editorial and feature writers mainly associated with urban papers in the South, he confines most of his analysis to five of them—Gerald W. Johnson, Virginus Dabney, George Fort Milton, Ralph McGill, and Hodding Carter [Jr.]. They were chosen because they were the sort of newspaper men who worked in ways that could shape public opinion and not just report on it. Their names were well known to their readers, and they were seen to be independent and not simply reflections of their newspapers’ policies as developed in the publishers’ and editors’ offices. They continued to have personal identity with leadership in the formation of public opinion and public policy in the eyes of the readers even when they moved into executive positions because they maintained a working journalist’s affinity with the idea of being consciously on top of events and giving direction and meaning to the complex assortment of actions that made up the news and reflected the personalities and human motivations that gave rise to public action. Neither were they simply observers, but were themselves involved in the critical actions affecting public programs. They had flair in both what they wrote and what they said in the forum. Furthermore, they were intellectuals who mingled with other intellectuals in and out of the universities and other centers of communications. Finally, they wrote about the South from inside the South, directed their books and periodical writings to audiences both in and out of the region, and nearly always published their larger work under the imprimatur of prestigious publishing houses and quality magazines. Thus they went beyond the day-to-day coverage of news to provide a critical and even theoretical perspective on major public problems that offers an historical dimension rare in the journalistic scramble to cover the daily news. At its best, such a perspective reaches out to the timelessness of the permanent, or at least the perpetually recurring, in the human situation.

The South witnessed the arrival of this kind of journalist on the emerging urban scene in the 1920’s. As intellectual historians have become increasingly aware, this phenomenon was related to a number of developments that were harbingers of a general intellectual awakening in the region, the most important of which was the Southern Literary Renascence. In its early manifestation this intellectual revival was grounded in a spirit of social and cultural criticism—essentially of the South—which was to grow, under the progressivist impulse of the time, into a stimulus for change, and eventually for instrumentalist reform in public-policy at all levels of government.

One of the problems of the aforementioned effort to cover too much in too little space is that the author tries to discuss not only the entire movement of events from the consolidation of the counterreconstruction of Southern society and politics at the turn of the 20th century (the final triumph of the Southern “Redeemers”). He also tries to relate every event that had even the remotest connection with change in race relations as background to the alterations and preservations of the culturally produced mindset of the South from 1940 through the beginning of the end of the accurately denominated “Second Reconstruction”—an incomparably more effective one than the first.

It is not often that one runs across a sparkling figure of speech in a professional social science journal—one that combines sense, sensibility, and a sharp (but not cruel) critical wit, all embodied in a precise image. A celebrated review appeared in the American Political Science Review in the late 1930’s, when more social scientists could write well than is now the case. It was written by an older professor about the first book of a young man who went on to become a luminary in the discipline. A singular arresting metaphor in that review passed through my mind more than once as I read Southern Liberal Journalists: the reviewer noted that the young man whose book was under review “hopped around among concepts with all the abandon of a flock of sparrows at a horse show.” Many of the concepts that Kneebone addresses in Southern Liberal Journalists are admittedly abstract and lack the precise definition that would make them useful analytical tools for the social sciences. And the numerous civic organizations that were formed on an ad hoc basis throughout the 1920’s and ‘30’s, with Southern liberals (including journalists) in leadership positions were organized with commendable intentions but often without programmatic goals—especially long-term ones—being clearly defined and backed up by commonly understood methods for effecting them. The author’s description of the way in which Southern liberals operated programmatically is clearer and more useful than is his understanding of the ideas and principles that moved them to action.

In the matter of race relations the liberal journalists in the early period concentrated on the abolition of lynching and bringing the Klan under control. But except for measures to promote community order in matters of race relations, they were not prepared to make efforts to change the condition of Southern blacks substantially, even in those matters in which their general reform measures involved either governmental restraint or more active intervention to effect. At this point we are back to what I referred to earlier as the central demythologizing thesis of the book, whose proofs depend on discrediting both the intentions and the efforts of the Southern liberal journalists on the issues of race in the South between the two World Wars.

If space permitted, it would be interesting to analyze the extensive proffered proofs, with special attention to the part the treasury of virtue played in establishing the moral culpability of the liberal journalists to the charges of neglect placed against them. The most important of these charges, of course, was that they never placed, or even seriously considered placing, racial desegregation on the agenda for reform. But that would take far too long to do properly and might involve raising questions that would make it appear that the reviewer is reviving the great alibi in defense of a cause whose loss has long since been conceded. Instead I shall simply raise one or two historiographic points that seem to me to mar the effectiveness of the author’s argument, at least at its level of attempted Draconian destructiveness. As far as rhetorical warfare goes, Southern Liberal Journalists is a veritable Sherman in its assault on the honor of the opponent.

Two quick comments then on historiography. 1. To pass absolute moral judgment on the failure of those who took part in the events that led eventually to a now known and accepted resolution involves one in an odd sort of historicism. It wipes out the past as it was seen from the perspective of those who lived through an era and substitutes for that the account of an observer whose perspective is controlled by an outcome that has vastly altered Southern history in what is now accepted as the right direction. The result is a simplification of both the course of events and of the complex moral issues that cut across lines of race and class, sometimes in strange and contradictory ways. 2. The lumping of representative individuals into a small analytical unit creates special problems for the historian. The five journalists who were formed into such a unit as a way of realizing the purposes of this book certainly had some working traits and beliefs in common, but they were also distinctive individuals engaged as journalists in trying to provide the public information for keeping current on a day-to-day basis and, at the same time, as intellectuals and as activists trying to devise longer-range solutions to problems that often appeared intractable and always embedded in a social atmosphere that was menacing beyond anything conveyed in Southern Liberal Journalists. Again, the puritanical simplicity with which the solution to the problem is advanced reflects the pride attached to having a strong handhold on the treasury of virtue.

Two other recent books are suggested corrections to the more serious problems posed by Southern Liberal Journalists. They provide a coherent account of the part played by Southern liberals generally and liberal journalists particularly, in the early Southern intellectual awakening. The books respectively are Harry Ashmore’s Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan and Charles Eagles’ Jonathan Daniels and Race Relations: The Evolution of a Southern Liberal. Ashmore’s account of the civil rights movement from its earliest origins through current manifestations of old and new contingencies that still need to be addressed is by far the most comprehensive, best balanced, and most sensitive first-person story of that sea change in American race relations written by a journalist, or anyone else for that matter. And Eagles’ clear portrayal of Daniels personal movement from being a Southern journalist who could and did accommodate his own questions about race to the culturally established patterns in the early 1930’s to one who underwent a moral conversion to the necessity for radical change by the end of that decade is a key counter conception to the central thesis of Southern Liberal Journalists. Kneebone cites both Ashmore and Eagles in Southern Liberal Journalists, but the sad irony is that he does so in ways that suggest that even Ashmore and Daniels said or did things that provide evidence in support of his central thesis. After all, even Myrdal provided an order of priorities for extending civil rights to blacks based on the degrees of intensity of resistance by white Southerners in each instance. Is gradualism always a fault or prudence no longer a virtue?


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