The Invisibility of White Southerners on the Civil Rights Tour

Photo by William Eggleston (1971)

Photo by William Eggleston (1971)

A Civil Rights tour of the South can be a transformative experience for students. I know it has been for a number of mine, who took part in last week’s trip. There is no better place to teach this material than at the very sites themselves. They allow for the kind of identification, empathy and understanding that is impossible to teach in the classroom. The experience is only heightened when in the presence of those people who took part in the struggle. On our trip those participants were almost all African American. They included folks on the front lines and those behind the scenes. They afforded an intimate look into the lives of African Americans and the black communities in which they lived at the time.

Unfortunately, what emerged all too clearly for me on this recent trip was the lack of any meaningful connection with white southerners from the Civil Rights generation. They remained largely a shadow only to be referenced as “the white South”, “segregationists”, etc. I am not suggesting that the counterpart to Joann Bland, Fred Ray, and Charles Person, are whites who carried Confederate flags in the streets, took part in beatings of marchers or were active on Citizens Councils. In fact, I think we have relatively little to learn from them specifically. As difficult as it might be to organize I would prefer if students were able to spend time with ordinary white southerners who neither resisted civil rights nor encouraged it. Jason Sokol explains why at the beginning of his excellent book, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975.

Most white southerners identified neither with the civil rights movement nor with its violent resisters. They were fearful, silent, and often inert. The age of civil rights looked different through their eyes. The prominent events of the era–the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1960 student sit-ins, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, the Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965, for example–often had less meaning than the changes in the texture of day-to-day life. Few white southerners ever forgot the day they first addressed a black person as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”; the time their maid showed up for work, suddenly shorn of her old deference, the day they dined in the same establishments as black people; the process by which their workplaces became integrated; the autumn a black man appeared on the ballot; or the morning white children attended school with black pupils. Taken together, these changes amounted to a revolution in a way of life. (pp. 4-5)

Again, I have no doubt that finding the right people might be difficult, but the payoff would be huge. As it stands students tend to walk away cheering for one side and assuming that most whites consciously resisted. But this misses the sense of uncertainty and fear that many whites likely feared as they tried to make sense of what was happening to communities, whose foundations had never been so challenged. The goal, of course, is not to judge but to better appreciate how race seeped into every crevice of the Jim Crow South and how its unraveling was experienced by many whites.

I don’t mean in any way to diminish the violent and hate-filled resistance that black civil rights advocates experienced during this period. Those walls of police, angry crowds, and defiant local and state governments constituted the front lines of the civil rights struggle, but the challenges of tearing down Jim Crow can only come when we peer into the lives of ordinary people to see how they lived with and managed these profound changes.

Their struggles offers important insights into how all of us live with and continue to struggle with issues of race.

14 comments… add one
  • Sinclair Barton Apr 2, 2014 @ 14:51

    Thanks Kevin, an excellent recommendation. And building on that, I would add Kevin Mumford’s “Newark A History of Race, Rights, and Race”. Includes some pretty detailed descriptions of the shocking race riots in Newark.

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Apr 2, 2014 @ 11:10

    Building on Margaret’s and Tom’s suggestions: Ann Braden, Lillian Smith, Richard Rives, J. Waties Waring, and Judge Horton (Alabama, Scottsboro case). A good resource is John Egerton’s “Speak Now Against the Day.”

  • Connie Chastain Apr 1, 2014 @ 19:30

    “The goal, of course, is not to judge…”

    Yes, it is. To judge, condemn and evilize white Southerners. That is certainly the goal.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2014 @ 0:58

      Well, you would certainly know something about judging other people as this idiotic comment so clearly reveals.

      • Rob Baker Apr 2, 2014 @ 4:04

        I feel like there is a Kevin Hart meme somewhere for this situation.

  • Sinclair Barton Apr 1, 2014 @ 17:29

    You will also find copious reading material which describes the harrowing danger that Northern whites confronted when they tried to support civil rights. Some very informative titles include “The Klan in Indiana”, “Notre Dame versus the Klan” and “Indiana Down”. The hatred exhibited by Northern whites is deeply disturbing, genuinely chilling, and truly frightening. And the extreme lengths Northern whites went to to maintain segregation is shocking. Of course the gruesome photograph of the grinning Northern whites as they point and gesture toward the dangling and mangled corpses of the young African-American men who have terrorized then lynched haunts one to the soul. Of course, there is also an abundance of literature on the Northern whites who bitterly and violently resisted integration with detailed account of the race riots in Boston, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Newark, for starters. Nevertheless one would have to say that Northern whites have progressed regarding their attitudes on race.

  • M.D. Blough Apr 1, 2014 @ 14:49

    Kevin-If there is one book on Southern whites who supported civil rights and the societal pressures that they faced, it’s “Unlikely Heroes” by Jack Bass. It focuses mostly on the judges of the Fifth Circuit as well as Judge Frank Johnson Jr. who implement post-Brown civil rights law in face of enormous social pressure (several ended up leaving churches they had gone to for decades). They were mostly Eisenhower Republicans but many were southern born and bred. One of the Fifth Circuit judges, John Minor Wisdom, came from a very old New Orleans family and, as the Times-Picayune bio of him says, “His father had fought for the White League against Reconstruction forces in the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 and had marched in the funeral procession for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2014 @ 14:58

      Thanks for the suggestion, Margaret. I am not familiar with this book. Just to be clear, I am not necessarily interested in white southerners who took an active part in the movement (although their perspective is no doubt important); rather, what I find interesting is the vast majority who likely struggled just to make sense of how events transformed their own local communities and personal lives.

  • Tom Ward Apr 1, 2014 @ 13:08

    Thee were certainly many significant white characters you could have included on your tour. In Montgomery, you could have discussed Virginia and Clifford Durr; in Jackson, Ed King, Mickey Scherwner, Andy Goodman (and a host of white Freedom Summer volunteers–many of who are still alive, including Bob Zellner, the uncle of one of our former students); in Selma, Victoria Liuzzo, James Reeb, and the many white marchers (Hollywood stars, Catholic nuns) who made the trip.

    I actually feel that the media representations of the Civil Rights Movement goes too far the other way at times–that it works so hard to find sympathetic whites, it often distorts their importance to the movement. Hollywood is especially bad here (“The Help,” the magical Brad Pitt character in “12 Years a Slave,” etc.).

    As for the ways that “ordinary” Southern whites experienced the movement, I fear you would have difficulty get really candid responses. Just as no one remembers voting for Nixon, those who supported segregation tend to wash much of that from their personal histories. The most common response I get from Southern whites when discussing that era (and I have asked lots of them about it over the years), is usually, “We knew it wasn’t right, but that just the way it was.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2014 @ 13:11

      Hi Tom,

      So nice to hear from you on this particular issue. I will definitely keep some of these names in mind for the next trip. No doubt, you are right about the challenges associated with engaging ordinary white southerners about the subtle shifts experienced decades ago.

    • Gregg Kimball Apr 2, 2014 @ 8:11

      I’ve seen several complaints about Pitt’s character appearing in the movie 12 Years a Slave, but I struggle to understand them. The character is directly from Northup’s narrative and fairly faithfully rendered. Some of the words he speaks are almost direct quotes from the book. Was the producer supposed to leave out this key element of the story for some higher moral purpose? Is it simply that it was Pitt? Also, calling it a “Hollywood” movie seems a bit odd.

  • M.D. Blough Apr 1, 2014 @ 13:04

    The fact is that it was very dangerous for a white person, even a Southern one, to actively support civil rights for Blacks. Mickey Schwerner, who was a perfect storm of things that the white supremacists hated: white, Jewish, Northern and a civil rights activist, was the target of the conspiracy that resulted in his murder as well as those of Goodman and Chaney. Judge Frank Johnson was the subject of death threats, cross burnings and his mother’s house was firebombed. He & his family were protected by US Marshals for over 20 years. Similar threats were made against judges of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 5th District who issued decisions upholding civil rights for all races. Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death (Other UU ministers were beaten and badly injured) and Viola Liuzzo was gunned down in events connected to the Selma March. Southern white juries acquitted those accused of murdering them, even though in Liuzzo’s case, an F.B.I. informant was in same car as the assassin.

    The terrorism, often sanctioned or even performed by state and local government, was principally designed to keep Blacks subjugated but also to keep whites from, at least openly, even questioning, much less challenging, the status quo. That really was a continuation of how things were before slavery ended with the addition of increased state and local government involvement in enforcement.

  • Brendan Bossard Apr 1, 2014 @ 12:15

    I remember a video that we watched about the Civil Rights era in our Cultural Diversity college course. It had an interview with a Southern farmer. When asked about how he felt, he said–and I’m paraphrasing–“I just wish that we would be left alone to change at our own pace.” He did not seem to have a particular beef against blacks in general. He also acknowledged that change needed to happen. He just felt the outside interference and did not like it. It was quite poignant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *