Book Looks at Integration's Impact on White South Many whites in the post civil rights South had a nuanced reaction to a changing racial landscape. Historian Jason Sokol chronicles their lives in There Goes My Everything.
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Book Looks at Integration's Impact on White South

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Book Looks at Integration's Impact on White South

Book Looks at Integration's Impact on White South

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Former Governor GEORGE WALLACE (Republican, Alabama): I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

(Soundbite of cheering)


Former Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the most prominent faces of white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. But many Southern whites had more nuanced reactions to the changing world around them.

Historian Jason Sokol writes about the experience of ordinary white Southerners in his book “There Goes My Everything.” I asked him to tell us the story of a New Orleans mother, Margaret Connor(ph), and her struggle with court-ordered integration of schools there in 1960.

Professor JASON SOKOL (Author, “There Goes My Everything”): At first, Margaret Connor seems like a very traditional white Southerner. That is, she didn't have any love for integration and wasn't really happy that it was her children's school, which was picked to de-segregate. But she basically describes it as a reflex of convenience, that she'd rather send her children to school than to have them squawking at home all day. And she said…

ELLIOTT: Now, this was a mother of nine children. And I think she was pregnant at the time.

Prof. SOKOL: She was.

ELLIOTT: You called her an accidental radical.

Prof. SOKOL: That's right. The Civil Rights Movement came through town, then basically forced people to pick sides - one or the other. And if a mob formed on one side, you couldn't really be a moderate in the middle. You were forced over to become, yeah, a radical. But it was nothing - certainly in Margaret Connor's case, it was nothing purposeful, it was accidental.

And she sent her children to school, and she says she finally made the decision on a day when some mothers came to her house to scream at her to try to get her not to send her kids to school. And she says, well, that made her mind up for her. She was going to get them dressed and march them off. So in the end, she became more determined to take a stand for her children's education. And in so doing, she took a stand for integration and civil rights.

ELLIOTT: You know, many of us picture these mob scenes. You know, scenes from Little Rock or from Birmingham, Montgomery, Memphis, as the big galvanizing events in the Civil Rights Movement, either huge marches and violent reactions about whites. But what's interesting, that comes out in your book, is that some of the biggest political changes that were wrought by the Civil Rights Movement actually happened in quieter, more rural areas.

And I'm thinking about Green County, Alabama, here. This was one of the first places where black political power took hold after passage of the Voting Rights Act. Can you paint a picture for us of Green County, Alabama?

Prof. SOKOL: Well, Green County, Alabama is a small rural place in western Alabama in the Black Belt area…

ELLIOTT: Known for its black soil, not for the color of its people, we should note.

Prof. SOKOL: That's right.

ELLIOTT: It was cotton country.

Prof. SOKOL: That's right. It was the heart of cotton country. It also happened to be almost 80 percent black and 20 percent white. It was still plantation country, and it was a very poor county, and it had this black majority. And so, you can already see that after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, whites were going to have problems if they wanted retain power. And for a few years after the Voting Rights Act, they were able to stave off the black would-be leaders. But ultimately couldn't fight that off forever, as blacks became registered and realized that they could now vote some of their own into power.

ELLIOTT: So by 1970, you have complete black political control of this little county. And you tell this story of one prominent white family and how they dealt with this transformation. The Banks, can you tell us about them?

Prof. SOKOL: Yeah. The Banks family was one of the most powerful in Green County. Ralph Banks, Sr. was the head of this family and had been the head of Merchants and Farmers Bank. And he passed away in 1959. And his three sons, Jaime, Phil, and Ralph, Jr., basically headed in opposite directions since that time. Jaime and Phil assumed the old roles as head of the Bank and Banks and Company.

But Ralph, Jr. was ultimately changed by the Civil Rights Movement and by this move toward black power. And it's interesting, because that change didn't come at first. At first, Ralph Banks, Jr. realized which way the political winds were blowing and he tried to stop them. So he started this third party and, in effect, tried to keep white rule of Green County through them. But ultimately…

ELLIOTT: And he called it the Spotted Horse Party. It actually had a black and white horse as the logo…

Prof. SOKOL: That's right.

ELLIOTT: …thinking that this would reach out to black voters.

Prof. SOKOL: Basically, that was the idea but there was never any real reaching out. And most black voters, I think, saw through that and they voted blacks into power. And so, Thomas Gilmore became sheriff. Judge William McKinley Branch became the probate judge. And Branch realized that it might be difficult to govern if you had all blacks, and you're basically seen as running roughshod over the wishes of whites. So he extended an olive branch to Ralph Banks and said do you want to stay on as county attorney in this black government? And so Banks accepted the offer.

And in the end, Ralph Banks became friends with some of those African-Americans also in county government and he ended up becoming the campaign manager for Thomas Gilmore. And this caused a lot of polarization within the white community itself.

ELLIOTT: And this participation in the now-black power structure really cost Ralph Banks a relationship with his two brothers, right?

Mr. SOKOL: I'm not positive about how their, you know, in private, behind closed doors - how they interacted. But certainly in public, they were on different sides. Phil and Jamie Banks still went along to Jimmy's restaurant and sipped coffee with all the other whites in town while Ralph Banks started to have his morning coffee in the county office.

So in that little story you can see many things about the civil rights years, and you can see these transformations and how different brothers were sent on different arcs toward different ends.

ELLIOTT: Jason Sokol is the author of "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights." He teaches history at Cornell University. Thank you.

Mr. SOKOL: Thank you so much.

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