I only spent less than a year in the Bible Belts of Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi in the early fifties and seventies, alien places for non-southerners. I first went South with the US Army before heading overseas, then as a writer, and finally as a tourist. Each time I carried with me southern-born W.J. Cash's fascinating 1941 book Mind of the South. A paragraph he wrote still sticks with me.
"Proud, brave and honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its action--such was the South at its best. And such as its best remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and too narrow a concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism--these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain characteristic vices today."
Still, I remember remarkable southerners such as Stanley Dearman, who edited and owned the Neshoba Democrat, a Philadelphia, Mississippi weekly, who condemned the killers of the three civil rights volunteers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. I remember too Hodding Carter's Delta Democrat-Times, a fine newspaper whose major advertisers--especially the local Jewish merchants--refused to cancel their ads when the paper was assailed for their liberal position on racial matters. And it's hard for me to forget P.D. East, now ancient history, who ran The Petal Paper in Petal, Mississippi, from 1953-1971 and "who represented the small, and generally cautious, segment of white southern society" as someone wrote on his University of Southern Mississippi archive. East's Petal Paper lost its ads and local subscribers and had to move to another small town in Alabama because of his support for equal and fair treatment for African Americans. Confronted by a hostile white population, but far braver than the south's white newspapers and most of the national media, he survived as long as he did because of donations from other parts of the country.
There were of course, many others like the northern housewife Viola Liuzzo who volunteered as a driver; but for Gary May's incisive The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo and a memorial erected in her memory near Selma by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference she has been forgotten. Like so many others she was murdered while hate-filled newspapers and local TV stations excoriated her and other victims. One of the few outspoken whites, Ole Miss historian James Silver, damned the state as a "closed society -- totalitarian, monolithic and corrupt" and eventually left to teach at Notre Dame. It's easy to forget the state's repressiveness in the 1960s and how hard it was to dissent. Mississippi was then under the control of the most lawless racist elements. A police state, one Mississippian told me, looking back. Phones were tapped. Mail opened. Faculty fired. Clergy warned.
Confederate flags hung from modest homes even into the eighties. An Augusta, Georgia, middle school faculty voted overwhelmingly to quit their public school and join a private and segregated academy, a move opposed only by my Augusta teacher wife and one of her colleagues. Cities like Charleston, South Carolina, a city of 70,000 on the eve of secession and civil war, had 2,800 whites owning 37,000 slaves, its slave trade the largest in the country. "Slavery built this city and the culture that built slavery defined how people behaved," wrote Mark Smith, an historian at the University of South Carolina in The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. When I asked a tour guide in Charleston in the eighties why she had excluded Black Charleston, she immediately apologized, changed gears and reeled of a detailed history of segregation and the cruelty it fostered, while leading us into black neighborhoods. There were too the ubiquitous religious reminders to remember Jesus and attend church. Hard-shell Baptism and other fundamentalist creeds represent a thriving business in the state, as politically potent as it is religiously significant. Such aggressive, unquestioning and orthodox practices are anomalous in secular America. And given the apostolic basis upon which these practices are grounded, a foundation which science and rationalism have ridiculed but not undermined, local mores demand a degree of conformity.
Until Washington's pressures, LBJ, black and white activists, pacifists and the awakening of a long-quiescent media, those states were symbolized as Theodore Bilbo, Jesse Helms, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, George Wallace and Lester Maddox Country, a distant land of Black Codes and legalized lynching, when, since the end of the Civil War, thousands of African Americans were hung -- "public murders that were tolerated by state and federal officials" and whose killers, as Bryan Stevenson recently wrote in the NY Review of Books, were never punished. Moreover, hostility toward blacks were encouraged by politicians and voters, north, west and south, denouncing reforms as catering to welfare queens, busing and affirmative action.
Ronald Reagan famously opened his campaign for the presidency at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia and Barry Goldwater hid behind his States Rights beliefs while voting against Civil Rights bills. Northern and western towns and cities also carried on unremitting warfare against black Americans, practicing residential and school discrimination and disregarding police misconduct. When a northerner criticized southern racial practices a southerner asked him to write as well about Boston's angry protests against integrating their schools. And while the Deep South has in fact changed since W.J. Cash's 1941 version, far too many Americans, in the Deep South and elsewhere, still treat African American citizens as lesser beings.
Murray Polner is an HNN blogger and the author of "Rabbi: The American Experience," "Branch Rickey: A Biography" and co-author of "Disarmed & Dangerous," a dual bio of the Berrigan brothers.
This article was originally published at History News Network