Commentary Magazine


Mississippi: The Closed Society, by James W. Silver; and A Time to Speak, by Charles Morgan, Jr.

Two Southern Liberals

Mississippi: The Closed Society.
by James W. Silver.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 243 pp. $4.75.

A time to Speak.
by Charles Morgan, Jr.
Harper & Row. 177 pp. $3.95.

A new kind of Southern gentleman has arisen within the last decade or so. He is no longer the region's beau ideal, but rather its renegade, and he is no longer defined by the old standards of lineage and wealth. Nonetheless, he is driven by the old ideals of courage, integrity, and honor. I am thinking of men like Harry Ash-more, Thomas D. Clark, James McBride Dabbs, Jonathan Daniels, Francis Pickens Miller, and Ralph McGill. Just as there were only a few of the old-style Southern gentlemen, so are there only a few of the new. Whenever, therefore, a name is added to the list, it is cause for celebration. Two relatively new such names are those of James W. Silver and Charles Morgan, Jr.

That Silver and Morgan are accounted troublesome and even dangerous radicals in their respective states of Mississippi and Alabama is an indication of how wildly out of touch with reality much of the South remains; for two less radical types are difficult to imagine. The first is a teacher and scholar, a man settled enough in his ways to have remained at the University of Mississippi for the past twenty-eight years. The second, a lawyer by profession, is by nature a joiner of organizations and even something of a booster. As for geographical credentials, Professor Silver's family moved to the South when he was twelve, and he was educated at Southern schools; while Mr. Morgan was born and has spent his entire life in the South. Both have an inordinate sense of community responsibility, and neither was able to restrain himself from speaking out as he watched his neighbors, lacking any real leadership, careen down a well-paved road to disaster. As a consequence of this lack of restraint, Mr. Morgan was forced to install floodlights around his house in Birmingham and Professor Silver to keep a shotgun in his front-hall closet.

In telling of their experiences both Silver and Morgan are utterly free of moral posturing. This is not only refreshing in itself but also makes all the more instructive their accounts of the background to two of the most hideous blots on recent American history: the student riot greeting the arrival of James H. Meredith on the Ole Miss campus, and the bomb-killing of four children in a Negro church in Birmingham. The strategy of their books is simply to relate how events acted upon them, and to suggest that, under similar circumstances, no one could have responded much differently—and still remain a decent man.

The greater part of Mississippi: The Closed Society is devoted to an analysis of the peculiar development of Mississippi's institutions—a development which culminated in the rifle fire and molotov cocktails that were aimed at the federal marshals in Oxford on September 30 and October 1, 1962. Professor Silver describes how, through both deliberate action and fear-inspired inaction, the professions, the clergy, business, and most especially the state's politicians have all helped to close the doors and shutters of Mississippi society. No breach, however minor, can be tolerated, since the slightest crack in the wall could bring down the entire structure, which is based on the systematic denial of their rights to the state's 900,000 Negroes (or 42.3 per cent of its population). This structure has brought with it a number of other dubious benefits, which Silver spells out in detail: a relative lack of industry, vastly inferior and censor-hounded schools, a politics of racist gibberish, a consistent loss of the state's brightest young people, and an atmosphere which can be likened to that of the Iberian Inquisition.

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It is something of a rarity these days to come upon a man who can understand and yet still despise. After citing the terror tactics used to keep down Negro voter registration, for example, Professor Silver writes: “It hardly softens the nature of such acts to understand that those who inspire or take part in them are frightened themselves.” Throughout, the emphasis is where it deserves to be: not on the psychology of the actors but on the acts. “One of today's recurring little sophistries,” Silver notes, “has it that equality must be earned and can never be achieved by force or law. The historic fact is that in Mississippi, between 1875 and 1890, inequality was effected by force and finally regularized by law, that is, by the constitution under which the state still operates.” He goes on to make the interesting point that in some ways the traditional claim of Mississipians, and of segregationists generally, that Negroes were better off under slavery is indeed true. As slaves, fewer Negroes were lynched or otherwise brutalized; after all, it would not have done to abuse another man's private property rights.

While Negroes in Mississippi are subjected to terrorism, whites who do not appreciate the glories of the official orthodoxy are subjected to ostracism. “Mississippi is the way it is,” according to Silver, “not because of its view of the Negro—here it is simply the South exaggerated—but because of its closed society, its refusal to allow freedom of inquiry or to tolerate ‘error of opinion.’” That early-night knock on the door in Jackson or Natchez signals not the arrival of the Gestapo or the GPU but the White Citizens Council—the “uptown klan”—taking, of all things, a poll. This is how those figures showing the unanimity of white opinion on segregation are arrived at.

“The question,” as Silver's friend, the late William Faulkner, put it, “is no longer of white against black. It is no longer whether or not white blood shall remain pure, it is whether or not white people shall remain free.” The likely answer to that question in Mississippi seems bleak—bleaker, certainly, with every passing month. To be sure, there are dissenters in the state: after the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, the efforts of Aaron Henry and the Freedom Democratic Party are well known. There are also white Mississippians like Hazel Brannon Smith, whose Lexington Advertiser prints what Mrs. Smith pleases; the twenty-eight ministers who issued a “Born of Conviction” statement condemning the actions and policies of the Barnett administration; and Rabbi Charles Mantinband of Hattiesburg, who instructed his congregation that “The time is past when a Jew dare remain neutral.” But Mrs. Smith's paper is constantly harassed and contains little advertising; the twenty-eight ministers have gradually departed the state; and as a counter to Rabbi Mantinband—who has since moved to Texas—there is Rabbi Benjamin Schultz of Clarksdale, who believes that “if Mississippi had its way, ‘red-baiter’ would not be a dirty word,” and who is currently president of the Coahoma County Ministerial Association.

In a letter to the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Silver intimates that had William Faulkner lived another year, he, too, would have left the state. This is perhaps not all that surprising, since almost everyone else seems to have given up on Mississippi, or at least on the possibility of its ever accepting the inevitable with any measure of reasonableness or dignity. Conversion, persuasion, even the old hard-headed appeal to the cash register—methods which have worked to some advantage in states like North Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia—have thus far been of no avail in Mississippi. Nothing less than what Mississippians most abhor—deliberate and decisive federal intervention—is likely to bring the state around. Professor Silver suggests as much in his conclusion: “It cannot be long before the country, seeing that persuasion alone must fail, and perhaps acting through the power and authority of the federal government, will, with whatever reluctance and sadness, put an end to the closed society in Mississippi.”

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Charles Morgan's A Time to Speak is only secondarily an analysis of Alabama politics; primarily it is an account of a young man's rough initiation into brutal realities. The lesson of Morgan's experience in Alabama is that in the South today the position called “moderate” is untenable if not impossible—at least so long as extremists see moderation as weakness and so long as the rest of the community is willing to accommodate the extremists.

Charles Morgan first achieved prominence with a speech delivered before Birmingham's Young Men's Business Club, of which he was a member, on September 16, 1963, the Monday following the bombing of the Negro Baptist church. The speech was a lacerating and impassioned philippic, spreading its contumely evenly on all of the city's whites for condoning, by commission or omission, a community heritage of racial intolerance. “What's it like living in Birmingham?” was the lead into its short peroration. “No one really has and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city. It is dead.”

But the speech was, as it were, Morgan's commencement address, marking the end of an education which had begun with his early decision to make his home in Birmingham and his career in politics. Although his parents wanted him to go to school in the East, he wisely chose the state university at Tuscaloosa, since all through the South it is the state universities which provide the best opportunity for vital contacts; moreover, at Tuscaloosa there is a long tradition of student politics. Morgan spent seven years there, from 1947 through 1954, taking a law degree and becoming a significant force in the Alabama Young Democrats as well as president of the student government.

In 1956, Miss Autherine Lucy's attempt to integrate the University of Alabama was met with ugly demonstrations edging over into riots, and she was finally dismissed. The lesson, as Morgan notes, “seemed clear enough and its message flashed across the South: Violence works.” Naïve as he then was, Morgan had earlier telephoned Miss Lucy to convey his wish that all would go smoothly. It was a handsome gesture, but in a state where merely to be photographed with a Negro is an unspeakable offense, such a phone call would eventually have cost Morgan his political life, had he not first thrown it away himself through his legal practice.

Morgan's first legal skirmish was rudimentary enough. Defending an illiterate Negro accused of murdering a Negro woman, he learned that the state of Alabama offered four varieties of justice: one for a white committing a crime against another white; a second for a Negro committing a crime against another Negro; a third for a white against a Negro; and a fourth for a Negro against a white. But this was only an exercise in awareness; involvement was not to come until 1960, a year Morgan says he began as a politician and ended as a lawyer. Thomas C. Reeves, a twenty-year-old pre-ministerial student at Birmingham Southern College had arranged meetings with students at two of the city's Negro schools, and these horrendous acts triggered the demand for his expulsion from school. The atmosphere in Birmingham was heating up and Reeves was an “agitator.” Morgan, as a regular Democrat, was at the time trying to stem a Dixiecrat revolt in Alabama and wanted not at all to get involved in a civil-rights battle. Nevertheless, when the Reeves case was referred to him, he accepted it. As it happened, the president of Birmingham Southern, Dr. Henry King Stanford, had determined not to let the Yahoos run over his school, and after several continuations Reeves graduated, returned to his home in Tennessee, and the case was dropped. Morgan, in his own words, had a “reprieve.”

Not for long. In April, Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times had visited Birmingham and returned to write of the city. “Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism. . . .” To get his story Salisbury must have talked with someone, and the powers in Birmingham wanted to know who. Reverend Robert E. Hughes, executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, seemed a likely prospect. Hughes was called in to testify in connection with a libel suit against Salisbury and the Times and, moreover, was asked to bring along certain Council records (there was ample reason to believe that the Council itself was also a target of the investigation). Hughes needed a lawyer and in Birmingham lawyers for controversial cases were not easy to come by. Finally—inevitably, one might say—a meeting was arranged with Morgan. “. . . I agreed to talk with Hughes: someone had to.” This has a characteristic ring: Morgan is forever calculating debits and credits, calibrating the effect of every move on his family, his career, his law partner—and then making the materially wrong, morally right, decision.

After much litigation and a weekend in jail, Hughes was allowed to appear before the grand jury without the Council records. Shortly thereafter, however (not without pressure from the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church), he applied for and received a transfer to do missionary work in Southern Rhodesia. And Morgan, in the process of having become involved, had also become a marked man. In the Birmingham mayoralty race of 1961, his efforts on behalf of Tom King, an avowed moderate running on a program of progress and economic growth, had to be confined to behind-the-scenes organizational work. King lost anyway, having made the silly error of winning the Negro vote in the primary—instead of the runoff, where it would have counted—in the year of the freedom rides and sit-ins. The going thing was “segmanship,” the politics in which the victor at the polls is the man who most convincingly bolsters the illusion that integration will never occur.

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Although he was to remain in Birmingham two more years, the rest of Morgan's story reads like an account of the tail-end of a military campaign: the part known as the “mop-up.” In 1961-62, against the advice of friends, he took part in a successful fight for reapportionment of the state legislature. In the summer of 1962, at a citizens' meeting on a court order to desegregate public facilities, he found himself rising from his seat, to answer a foul-mouthed segregationist. (Silver exhibits a similar kind of futile reflex action in writing letters to a racist press which he knows will either refuse to print them or will edit them heavily.) In the same summer, undertaking the defense of Boaz Melvin Sanders, “age 25, black, male,” charged with robbing and killing a white service-station attendant, Morgan had another opportunity to refine his views on justice in Alabama: “Directly and indirectly, consciously and unconsciously, by ways both harsh and subtle, our state's legal system reflected and provided the bulwark for a social system that treated Negroes as lower-caste citizens.” In a motion to quash the indictment against Sanders on the ground that no Negro could receive a fair trial in the state, he delivered himself of a critique of Alabama jurisprudence that, in the cold clarity of its legalistic language, seems, from the portions of it quoted in the book, much superior rhetorically to his speech before the Young Men's Business Club.

Later in 1962, he defended Reverend Norman C. Jimerson, Hughes's successor on the Council of Human Relations, against the scandalously trumped-up charge of conspiracy in organizing street demonstrations. Walking out of the courthouse after the case had been thrown out of court, he heard a man say: “Look! There goes that nigger-lovin' son of a bitch from Birmingham”; it was the sort of remark usually reserved for his clients. Early in 1963, he defended a twenty-three-year-old SNCC veteran named John Robert Zellner against similarly absurd charges. Next he helped smooth the way for the admission of Dave McGlathery, a Negro worker at NASA's Marshall Flight Center in Huntsville, to graduate studies at the University of Alabama's Huntsville Extension. The spring and summer of 1963 in Birmingham belonged to Bull Connor and his police dogs. On September 15 the bomb went off in the Negro church and on the following day Morgan delivered his famous speech. “You've destroyed your usefulness here,” Morgan's friends told him. And in the most practical sense, it was the truth.

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Not long afterward, Charles Morgan left Birmingham for Alexandria, Virginia, where he now lives. The question of why either Morgan or Silver—or for that matter anyone with even a modicum of talent and intelligence—chooses to stay on in the South is an intriguing one that neither of the two men deals with satisfactorily. Perhaps the obvious answer is the best and only one: to them, for better or worse, the South is home. But there may be another answer—one which lies partly in a dream and partly in a historical accident. The accident, which lends credibility to the dream, is that much of the industrial revolution in this country has by-passed the South. The dream itself is of no less than a new America. A journalist I know, a Northerner who has spent the past five years in the South, recently told me: “The South is America's last chance.” This may be a bit too eschatological for most tastes, but there is something to the idea that the South, uncluttered by much of the rubble of disorderly industrialization and unencumbered by the inhuman rhythms of the subway and monster skyscraper, could be the breeding ground for a more humane existence; a place where grace is at least conceivable. With less to tear down, it would be easier to build things up properly; and with the shoddy, shabby example of great stretches of the North to go on, it seems a task possible of achievement. Certainly it is a noble, even ennobling, vision. But in repudiating men like James Silver and Charles Morgan, in ignoring its own best instincts, and locating its tradition in the continued suppression of the Negro, the South, alas, repudiates that dream.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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