White Southerners' Role in Civil Rights

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Cornell University professor Jason Sokol explores the lives of Southern whites during the Civil Rights era. "Some white Southerners recount literally trembling when they first shook hands with an African-American man," he says.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Unidentified Man: We just got to report on you on this end that the students are in.

(Soundbite of screaming)

CHIDEYA: This is footage from Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1957. It's the sound of an angry white mob standing against the integration of the city's public schools. It's a kind of image that comes to mind for many African-Americans when they think of white Southerners of the civil rights era.

Jason Sokol has written a book examining the lives of white Southerners in that troubled time. It's called, "There Goes My Everything." Jason says most southern whites were neither actively in protest of equality for black Americans, nor supportive of the cause. Jason, welcome.

Professor JASON SOKOL (Professor, Cornell University; Author, "There Goes My Everything"): Hi, Farai. Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So you talk about the need to capture the complexity of white southern life. Give us kind of a range of responses people had to the civil rights movement, the nascent civil rights movement.

Prof. SOKOL: Well, most of us know about clansmen, citizens, counsels, political pedagogues, like Orville Faubus, as you mentioned, in Little Rock and George Wallace. We know about these whites who resisted the civil rights movement strongly and often with violence. And I think we've all heard of a few stories of heroic whites who maybe joined SNCC or joined in the civil rights movement. But the vast majority of white southerners, 90 percent of them at least, were somewhere in the middle.

Most of them did not like the idea of black civil rights. They were opposed to the civil rights movement and to racial equality. But they weren't opposed enough to join the clan or to be violent about it. They were more grudging and reluctant and halting. And when they were finally forced to take a stand one way or another, or finally forced - confronted with the fact that their lives might change, then a lot of them reacted in ways that really span the whole gamut. Where some ended up supporting civil rights for a bunch of complicated reasons, not necessarily that they sympathized with the demands. But that they often didn't what their everyday lives to be overturned. In the end, would choose different degrees of support or resistance that were closely to the middle of the spectrum.

CHIDEYA: You talk about very small personal ways in which people thought that the color line was just normal. Having a handyman sit outdoors always using the same plate and Mason jar when he ate lunch. What were some of the other ways that people had to then go back and take a look at these small everyday things?

Prof. SOKOL: The small everyday things were the land in which whites would refer to African-Americans by their first names. Or they would call them Auntie or Uncle. They would never call blacks mister or missus. And when the civil rights movement came along, they had to start bestowing such courtesy titles upon black people. Sometimes, those tiny little changes were just as shattering to white people as the larger changes of blacks voting or blacks demonstrating in the streets. Along the same lines that white would never shake hand with a black or a person with a black man before the years of civil rights movement.

Some white southerners recount literally trembling in the first moments when they first shook hands with a black African-American man. And these are the smaller things or ways that the effects of the civil rights movement really sipped in and penetrated the very depths of everyday life.

CHIDEYA: You start out your book with the World War II era. And that, again, points out the complexity of responses to the African-American soldiers coming back. Some tragic violent incidents and some acts of transformation. Maybe you can read us a little bit about one of the people's reactions to that era.

Prof. SOKOL: Sure. One soldier I talk about is a guy named Seph Laurie(ph() who was stationed outside of Selma, Alabama. Only a very few number of soldiers fought in integrated regiments. But for those few, for that minority, a lot of them reported great - a great deal of change in their racial attitude and behavior. And here's what Seph Laurie says.

(Reading) That was my first really contact with negroes. I learned that a negro was a human being with blood in this brain and perspiration on his brow. With aches the same, ambitions the same, thought of home the same. I leaned later that he died the same as a white man dies, for the same cause, also, in combat. I learned that he has the same courage and daring as a white man. To the best of my knowledge, there is no resentment on the part of any white officer.

CHIDEYA: Where did things go from there in terms of the relations? What do you see as, perhaps, one of the subsequent pivots?

Prof. SOKOL: In World War II, this is where most blacks began to express real demands and desires for civil rights. And some of the leaders of the civil rights movement during the '60s, people like Medgar Evers and others, were veterans who had fought in the World War II. And that - those experiences in their '40s were really the origins and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

CHIDEYA: You also have a section on the Ninth Ward, which we all have come to know from the Katrina disaster, and the relationship between whites and blacks that soured, in a way, against the backdrop of economics and school desegregation. Tell us about that time.

Prof. SOKOL: I didn't know before I started this project that the Ninth Ward was the first neighborhood in the Deep South to integrate the schools. And that occurred in November of 1960. But in those years, it was not just a black neighborhood; it was poor neighborhood with all sorts of ethnicities. When the schools finally integrated, the day they integrated, thousands of whites boycott it. Whites formed mobs in the streets. But I also tell the story of those few white parents and white families who kept their children in school.

Actually, I know radicals. Not that they want it necessarily civil rights to come, but there were some parents who wanted to keep their children in school and continued sending them, and in turn, they attracted the wrath of the mob, the ire of the mob. And I found those to be some of the more fascinating and sort of stunning ways in which you could see the civil rights movement dividing the white community against itself and dividing somewhat people within - inside within themselves, sort of psychological wars going on.

CHIDEYA: When you think about this book that you wrote, what do you make of the attitudes of the white south today compared to the era that you write about?

Prof. SOKOL: Well, it seems that everything has changed and nothing has changed. Some people's attitudes really deeply changed through the civil rights movement, and I tried to show that, but some didn't. And I also show the younger generation grappling with its heritage, with its segregationist upbringing and heritage. And wrestling with the fact that this is their history on the one hand, and yet on the other, growing up in a new world, growing up in a world where they aren't forced to discriminate against blacks, where there is equality under the law. And so, I tried to show this real tangle that exists in this ambiguous way that we've experienced both stunning change over the years, along with sobering continuity. And it all depends upon where you look and what layer of society you look at.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jason, thank you.

Prof. SOKOL: Thank you, Farai. I appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: Jason Sokol joined from the campus of Cornell University, where he teaches history. His book is called "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975."

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