The Old South may have lost the Civil War militarily, but it hardly surrendered psychologically. This year’s evisceration of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (over which many, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were martyred) has exacerbated the illusions of Americans who think skin color and economic station trump human rights.
There was a certain white intimacy that bowed to clinging traditions and polite understandings.
The firebombing of King’s house in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955–56 was but one of thousands and thousands of incendiary acts, terrors, murders, lynchings, rapes, assaults, intimidations, and criminalities committed by white citizens against black people, individuals and groups, from the formal end of the Confederacy in 1865 through the twentieth century.
The atmosphere in southern towns and cities, from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Valdosta, Georgia, to Jasper, Alabama, was fluid and perilous—for African Americans and their white sympathizers. People had lived in these places a certain way for generations; homes were maintained, businesses established, trade done, churches built—all on the foundation of the southern segregationist tyranny. It was as endemic as the boll weevil and the cotton fields.
There was a certain white intimacy that bowed to the great woodlands of Alabama, the red soils of Georgia, the verdant mountains of Tennessee, from porch to porch, dancing, like the fireflies of the old Confederacy, amid the mint juleps and under the twilight of long drawls, clinging traditions, and polite understandings.
In fact, the South had not only failed to be enlightened by the outcome of the Confederate insurgence, it had digressed and coiled over in its contempt for both the Negro people and for progress in general.
After World War II, after the brave exploits of the Tuskegee airmen and of black servicemen by and large; after the folding of, and the disillusionment with, leftist groups that were betrayed by Soviet treachery and brutality; the disavowal of both the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the tepid 1957 Civil Rights Act; southern blacks were left facing rabidly separatist governors like Lester Maddox of Georgia and George C. Wallace of Alabama.
Even Senator John F. Kennedy, the emerging Democratic nominee for president in 1960, had voted against the limp, boiled-down civil rights legislation of 1957—which had been stripped of any real social impact because of the powerful grip that Southern Democrats held in the Congress.
The civil rights movement, lifted by songs and marching feet and bloodied faces and too many corpses, was a brash, people’s uprising that—with funding by Northern radicals and Southern partisans, was the difference between a Dixie illumination and its steady submergence into communal turbulence.
Just when we all seemed to have arrived to the light at the same time, the Congress of the United States decided this year to eviscerate the legislation that guaranteed it. And then it shut down the government itself in order to block health care. Who and what is really sick?
Ben Kamin’s next book, ‘DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and The Kennedy Brothers,’ will be published in April by Michigan State University Press.