Commentary Magazine


These Are the Times: On Being A Southern Liberal

I've been an integrationist (if you want a label) as long as I have had social ideas, but in Texas in the 40's and 50's I was not called on to practice my ideas much, you understand. Growing up in San Antonio, I had no awareness of Negroes. They were not in the schools; I must have seen them in the backs of buses, but I don't remember thinking whether it was wrong; I just accepted my advantage. At the University of Texas in 1947, as part of an attempt to find moralities to replace my failing religious ones, I repudiated segregation verbally as a matter of course. The first Negro I remember as an identity was Heman Marion Sweatt, the “test case” who was admitted to the University of Texas law school the year I edited the university student paper. I was trying out law school for a few days, and sat beside him in a class. In walked a Life photographer I knew (I wonder now whether I had hoped he might), and Sweatt and I posed for him in front of the University Tower. I was pleased when the picture came out, I thought my public gestures (school paper editorials, speeches at student rallies, that picture) cleared me, you know; I thought I was great.

The truth is that I had adapted myself to a racist society in many more ways than I could then admit to anyone. As time went on, putting professions of equality to the tests of private life pitilessly illuminated for me the accommodations and compromises by which I had been apparently seeking to reform, yet continuing to adapt personally to, and benefit from, the social stratifications based on color. There, in fact, was my lack of real Negro friends. There, in fact, was the low-paid colored maid. There, in fact, was my inner cringing when I first ate in an integrated restaurant.

In subtle ways I began to punish myself for these things. I felt, and did not try to resist feeling, abasements with Negroes that would not occur in me with whites. I was going through that phase when a white understands that he personally has been wronging Negroes, that most people of his color have been also, and that somehow he has to make corrections in his attitudes. I understood that if I made Negroes aware of these feelings of abasement, they would think them funny or be affronted—and rightly on either score; I cannot say whether I kept them concealed or not, but I tried. I was not ashamed of them; although I did not will them and did not act on them, they were somehow meet, and they were only feelings.

And yet: “only feelings”! A person trying to break out of the racist forms ought to expect to feel confused. One day I got on a crowded airplane and looked for a seat. It was a jackleg Texas airline, with single seats on one side of the aisle and double seats on the other. Now, I prefer to sit alone; I always have. But I came right up beside a Negro sitting by the window on the double-seat side. I stood an instant, feeling alarmed. Then I remember deciding clearly as I looked up toward the front, “I shouldn't sit beside him just because he's a Negro; I prefer to sit alone.” Just at that moment, from up ahead of us the stewardess, damn her, indicated that there was a seat beside where she was standing. It was on the double-seat side, too. I said no, I preferred sitting on the single-seat side: was that seat at the back of the single-seat side taken? No, that was hers. I sat down beside the Negro, who turned out to be the president of a Negro college in Austin, my home town, and an intelligent man. Thinking about it later, I realized that I had done the logically right thing, but that the turmoil in my feelings meant that I was having to resist a tendency in me to conform, in this case to the racist customs.

We all have similar confusions, as a commonplace thing, when we are first talking to women we would like to make love to, or persons we are aware think they are better than we are, or very poor people whose humbleness embarrasses us. It is just something to be expected. Yet it is a part of the cruelty of the situation that, had there been an open seat on the single-seat side, and had I taken it, I would probably have hurt the Negro on that plane, I would at least have left open in his mind the possibility that I did not want to sit beside “a Negro”: him. And in this circumstance abides a case against acting ordinarily without concern for color when doing so results in a hurt. But I believe one should do the ordinary thing, even if at first it takes an unnatural effort to do it, because one man can believe that another man respects him only if he is honest with him.

_____________

From the first on the Texas Observer, the reformist journal I work on, I have sought to hold white liberals and their Texas organizations accountable for compromises they make with racism. I have editorialized for integration, demonstrations, repeal of the miscegenation laws—the whole bit. It is easy to be upright in print, with words, but eventually you notice that not much changes. I would say to Northern, Eastern, and Western white liberals that until I had personally fronted up to the Southern reality in my bailiwick, East Texas, my racial liberalism was as farcically theoretical as Flores Magon, the Mexican anarchist, crying out from California in his paper La Regeneratión, “Mexicans, to war!” and then failing to fight in his own revolution.

My first journalistic experience of white racism in East Texas was the Mayflower murder case of 1955. Mayflower is a rural all-Negro community near Longview. In the context of a school-bond election with racial undertones, two whites, nineteen and twenty, tanked up on beer one night and drove up and down the main stem of Mayflower, shooting into mailboxes, a school bus, the school itself, and homes, and narrowly missing a Negro woman as she was kneeling by her bed saying her prayers. On the open highway they shot into a café where some Negro teen-agers were dancing, and a sixteen-year-old boy fell dying, and two little Negro girls, aged thirteen and fifteen, were hit, both in the arm. There had been similar shootings in Mayflower before this, and nothing had been done—except some Negroes had been fined.

Acting on a tip from a subscriber (for the dailies gave no true idea of what had happened), I went out there to investigate. (I say “out there,” because the Longview area is several hundred miles from Austin, and very much different; Austin is a bland university town.) As I drove up and down the main stem interviewing residents of Mayflower, state highway police and local cops together accosted me, rifled my car compartment, and inspected my credentials. They kept me waiting while they radioed Austin to check me out; when they got their answer, they decided not to arrest me. What if I had come down from New York? Even so, their hostility was implacable. I think about that scene occasionally: it did not happen in the free country most of us live in.

Although some weeks had passed since the murder, the driver of a Negroes' school bus still could dig a slug out of the side of the bus for me, and spent shells from the night of the shooting still lay about on the ground by the road. I took one of these shells into my pocket. In my interviewing, I got a feeling from Negroes and a few whites that a certain white youth was a prime suspect, but I found no evidence. One hot afternoon I drove to the town of Tatum, near Mayflower, where he lived, and affecting a casualness that covered my fright, I went onto his porch and knocked. He came to the door, a relaxed, disingenuous fellow. Now, on a hunch you can't just up and ask a man, “Are you a murderer?” I asked him (my voice came out deeper than it usually is) if he knew anything about the killing and he said he did not; I thanked him and went off. Before I left the area, I asked one of the sheriff's men if all the suspects had been interviewed, and he said yes. I told him I had gathered the Tatum youth was one of them: had they interviewed him? No. I went back to Austin and wrote my story.

The case agitated some people in Washington; postal authorities and the FBI sent in investigators. I got a request from the highway patrol for the bullet I'd picked up, but it had been thrown away. Eventually the Tatum youth and a pal of his were indicted. At the same time, the grand jury subpoenaed me, and the district attorney accused me of suppressing evidence—that shell I hadn't come up with—and created the impression I might be indicted.

I went out a day early and revisited the school bus driver, who gladly gave me another of the wanton shells. I did not fail to remark that more of them were lying around if, the authorities wanted them, and that I had given them the name of the Tatum youth months before they indicted him, which was hardly suppressing evidence. Yet once again I felt the hostility; once again I felt that I was in enemy country, though I am a Texan, and this is my place.

The Tatum youth was tried and given five years, suspended—he went free—and the second youth was never tried. The Negro boy lay dead in his grave. Now comes into my mind the day I had gone to visit the boy's grandmother and guardian, the daughter of two former slaves who lived, worked, and died in the same East Texas area she'd known all her life. I wound in my car down a red-dirt road, shouldered each side by high, hot pines, and found her in a big unpainted shack in a clearing. A blue sign on the living room wall said, “God Bless Our Home and the People There-in.” She was an old, heavy woman, she lumbered from a life of labor and heat. She cried softly as she rocked on the front porch and talked about the boy. “I can't get myself reconciled. Just the one child she had. I thought a lot of him, I was partial to him.

“He dead. I wouldn't let them bury him with a bullet in his head even if it cost $100 to take it out. Lawda mercy, I don't think I'll ever get over it.

“We ain't got no sayso about nothin'. I ain't gonna say nothin' about nothin' 'cause I know I got to go to bed and go to sleep, an' I ain't gonna talk.”

_____________

Three months ago, returning from a trip to report on poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, by the Mexican border (but I had paused a day in Corpus Christi on the way down, and taken my ease)—returning, I say, from that trip, and quite down from what I had seen and heard, I came upon what I thought was at last a minimum statement from which I could salvage some hope for a cheerier daily feeling. “After,” I wrote in my journal, by the side of the road—“After I have done everything I can, it would be stupid to refuse to be happy.” That was a bracing thought!—until its flaw presented itself, that I can never do everything I can, and that even if I could, I do not.

I wonder if moral failure is not the given condition of man, against which he struggles, knowing that the only way he can answer this certain failure is by struggling against it, even though it is certain. The only comforting qualification I have been able to think of for Camus's principle that we are responsible not only for what we do, but for what we do not do, is that no one of us can possibly be held responsible for everything, that we are not gods. Yet the question, “Have you done everything for those in need that you can do?”—is a terrible question for any person to put to himself. I can think of just one person in my experience who might well be able to answer “yes” in total good faith, and he is regarded, by some of those he helps as well as by some of those who help him, as a fool.

Even doing as much of all we can do as we do, still we are trapped by some circumstances. Recently I took an interest in the case of an East Texas Negro youth who, when he was eighteen, had been convicted of raping a forty-seven-year-old white woman out there, and had been sentenced to be electrocuted by an East Texas jury. In his cell in Death Row in Huntsville, the Negro told me the woman had seduced him, warning him that if he did not take her, she would holler rape; he knew what this meant, and took her; and in a later encounter, perhaps because she feared they had been seen, she did holler rape, and a confession was beaten out of him. In the trial, his lawyers (to whom, I confirmed, he had told this same story) advised him not to take the stand so as not to antagonize the whites by calling her a liar, and he did not. The confession was read, there was other damaging testimony, she gave her testimony that she had been raped, and that was all she wrote. I drove on north into East Texas and interviewed people who had had to do with the trial. A prosecuting attorney and one of the other lawyers asked me what other inquiries I planned, and I said I was going out to see the woman, and they each told me, in warning, deliberate ways, to be careful.

I was frightened about going out there. The woman had brothers. I was messin' with Southern womanhood, and I knew it. But of course I felt silly, too: this was a melodrama. I drove out to the community where the woman lived and eased slowly past the houses alongside the road until I came to hers. I was simply going to ask her about the case, whether she believed the young man should be executed, whether she had anything to add to her testimony. With pounding heart I walked onto the porch and knocked. Clothes were hanging on the line, and a car was in the driveway, but no one answered. I knocked again. I looked inside the window on the porch; it seemed bare inside the room. I called twice, loud for my conscience, and knocked again. No one answered. I went on back to Austin.

I knew I would have to go back out there to ask her these questions, yet I knew also that I might be killed for doing so, and I did not care to die. I began to weigh whether I might not be too valuable to die just now. It was a long time coming, the realization I finally found, worded and waiting for me in my mind one day as I drove north to Dallas, that “this is a war I believe in.” I was in Arlington, again ready to set off to interview her, but it had occurred to me (such a simple idea, I was puzzled I hadn't thought of it) that I could telephone her. I could see no reason not. I did get her on the phone; her distant voice refused to discuss the case. I did not have to go back. Even so, for a time after my stories on the case came out, I approached callers at the front door with a little caution, and an abashed awareness of my ludicrousness.

I thought the stories, fully quoting the condemned man, made it clear there was doubt that he had had his day in court, but of course no new trial was ordered; there is something inexorable about executions, once they are decided on. He surprised me by complaining bitterly in his cell that I had quoted the mean things others had said about him. I shall never forget his execution. Never, never. He strides in and is in dignified command of himself. He will die manly. He looks at me, I feel that it is a bitter look; it is not a look of recognition, it goes through my head like a javelin. To him, I am part of the system that is killing him. They strap him in, gag him, drop a hood over his head, and kill him: the sound of breath sucked through teeth, he is lifted against the straps, his fists clench, his clothes balloon from his limbs; there is a distant sparking sound, his body is tensed against the straps for a very long time, a scene of terror. A heavy, sweetish, pungent smell seems to touch me.

When I got home early in the dark morning after driving all night from the prison, there was a letter for me he had written two days before he died. I read it, heavy with the memory of his death. About my stories he had written, “. . . the writer was real nice only if you could seperate the Lies from the truth, some peoples may think my story is all a Lie, but its not I am right. . . . I can't understand those peoples lie to get a man killed . . . . it will come out one day and I hope it is not too late, I can't explain things like I want to in this short note, but if you can come down here for a short time that will be just fine. . . . P.S. May God Bless and Keep us all in my prayers, hope to hear from you soon.”

Can you understand how personal his careful, curlicued printing was to me? It was a letter from my own faulted conscience. I could not think of anything more I could have done than what I had done: no, perhaps I should have plowed up the whole country for new evidence. I might have found it; yes, if I had had the courage, I might have. In capital punishment, anything less than everything leaves anyone touched with the case wholly guilty of the death. I was glad when the sun came up outside my bedroom window, and I somehow had to start all over again.

Finally, all these things together caused me to need an act of some kind that was meaningful and that was very difficult for me to go through with. Austin's swimming pools had not been integrated. For years Barton Springs, the most beautiful natural springs public pool I have ever seen, had been the domain of whites only. I checked with my family, they were agreeable, and telephoned some Negro friends. Two Negro secretaries agreed to come, and together one day (after some delay, some on my part, and some on the Negroes') we all went swimming at Barton's. The authorities stopped us at poolside and told us they'd call the police if we went in. I told them to go ahead and call the mayor while they were at it; he was a Democrat I knew, who'd never been heard from much on race. I remember that a white lady made it a point to swim across the pool to talk to us. We swam about an hour and a half and went on to our respective homes—in the different parts of town, you know. Another two years passed before Negroes really began using the pool. Now they do, a little.

_____________

II

It is a comment on the twists the racial situation has taken that one day, after some prolonged reading in James Baldwin, I was visited, while driving down a one-way street, with the angry thought, “It's not my fault I was born white. I was born to my place and color as helplessly as you were, Baldwin, and have come but slowly toward an objective seeing of my circumstances. That's the way it is for each of us.”

It is surprising that this thought was surprising. Yet the racial wrongs of American life have so sickened our consciences that some of us who are white have found ourselves gradually accepting the idea of our “racial guilt.” We must not. For exactly as the belief in the individuality of the human occurrence is the basis of our abhorrence of the oppression of any person because of color, so also is it the basis of every individual's innocence of all the wrong he has not personally done. No group, ethically, exists at all; guilt or innocence cannot physically occur, cannot be located, anywhere but in the person, the self, and the doings and the failures to do, of a one.

This is more burdensome than it is absolving, for it means that a person may never plead absolution from personal guilt on the ground that, realizing he was doing a wrong, he was going along with a group—the Stalinists, the Nazis, Hiroshima atom-bombers, Southern whites, Black Muslims. But neither may a man be accused of guilt, save on evidence that applies separately and personally to him. In what way is whites' despising of Negroes different from blacks' despising of white liberals? If I will not consent that a white class a Negro by color, I will not either permit a Negro to class me by my color; or my son, by his. Here are my confessions. I am guilty to an extent, and purged to an extent, not because I am white; I am, because I am I.

_____________

I think of three white women in East Texas. One told me that she resents my feeling the way I do about her section because I do not have a right to such feelings. She herself has left her little home town there, to work in the city; but listen to her:

None of the boys I thought would amount to anything went back. The only girls who are still there are the ones who married in high school and can't leave. That's the truth!—they all leave.

I can't talk calmly about it. When I go home, it's the same: I'm going to be grown up about it, and I break down and cry. When you're gone off to school—you don't go back.

It's not the lack of activity. When I was there I went to games in Dallas, and you drive to other towns for a movie—there's a lot of activity. Everybody has a car.

Why do they leave? She would not say. “You're not saying why out of loyalty,” I told her. “That's right,” she said. “When I read your pieces on East Texas, I feel, ‘He can't feel that way. He doesn't live there—he doesn't know.’

“Take my father. He's a fine, wonderful man, but he thinks like all the rest of them do on—the Negro. We've supported a Negro family since I can remember. We buy their false teeth, pay their bills—everything. We even went without Christmas presents one year to buy them a house. And we didn't even have a house. But they'd got in some trouble, signed some wrong papers to somebody taking advantage of them.

“The mother comes in to wash the dishes. But they stay in their place—period, you can't discuss it, that's all. And they come in to wash the dishes on Sunday. They
stay
in their
place.”

I told her that when I go into East Texas, I feel that I'm going where there's something rotten and that I'm going where it's very beautiful.

“I know. But you can't feel that way. I don't know, I haven't analyzed the way I feel. You either go off to college and don't come back, or you go back and are torn up for the rest of your life. I couldn't change a thing. Things may change, but I can't change them. About all I can do is endorse every crook and reactionary who runs and maybe Dad'll vote for him.”

I don't know exactly what she meant by that last; but I think I have since understood her resentment of me. I was traveling in East Texas on a bus and watched things from that high vantage point. What I saw was the apparent solidity of the culture. The way old men sit on the railings by the plate glass window of the general merchandise store, and walk slowly across the street, in the sun, in their khakis and suspenders, Saturday morning. The mass of the fields. The strawberry shed along the highway: the innumerable little accepted arrangements for prevailing, for profiting, or for sustaining oneself. The cultural envelope. The very fixedness of the streets, lawns, homes. The fact that everyone who is an accepting beneficiary of the social apparatus owes it, is of it, as in a family.

I think also of a young matron in a modern East Texas city. Prominent socially, she is a Southern girl, the kind you can be candid with, but with the Southern reserve. She says very seriously, “I am a just woman. What I mean is, if I owned those houses, they wouldn't leak, and they'd have plumbing, and . . .” Later she drove me through the rich sections; then to the slum quarters where her maid lives. “That house back there. You see it? There's not even a screen on the door!” Her indignation seemed very genuine. She blamed the landlord; she did not seem to connect her maid's plight with what she was paying her, and I felt that it would be simply too rude to tell her. She had let the thought sink out of sight, if she had ever had it. I told her instead that I would not let her get away with saying she is a just woman; that justice is not a condition, but a doing of things continuously.

Then I think of one of the cagiest woman politicians I have ever met: an East Texas Democrat who knows everything that makes her city tick and has keys, or wax impressions of them, to every skeleton closet of any interest at all. She told me on one occasion many things about her town I knew nothing at all about. We did not discuss race, but she let me sense her liberal views, and as I left she said something that caused me to think a good deal after her meaning: “If you want to last in politics in this county,” she said, “you walk in tennis shoes and tread with a light step, and you carry a good, sharp knife, and it may be a year or three before you get in close, but when you do you give 'em a good stiff blow. That may sound . . . but it's the way you do it.”

_____________

III

Granted, Then, the individuality of guilt and innocence, I nevertheless believe that the future of personal liberty in the South, and therefore to an extent also in the world, rests presently in the hands of Southern white people.

Today we know from our intuition, and also from a great deal of indirect evidence, that many Southern whites must have decided in the privacy of their consciences that the Negroes are morally right in their cause. Realism has impelled most Southern whites to see that the civil rights movement, backed by more and more whites and by the federal government, has taken on the aspect of something almost irresistible. All over the South, mostly behind the scenes, many whites of good faith have been turning their energies to the task of revising their own and their region's traditions.

But what is going to happen, as to the inner tranquillity of Southern towns, when a nearer approach is made to equal opportunities for Negroes, and the hostilities of die-hard whites toward whites who have helped make this approach come into active personal play? We could be in for a serious time. There have been robed, cross-burning Klan revivals in Alabama and Georgia. The New York Times reports (ominously, without elaboration) that one part of the fierce Danville, Va., resistance to any integration is “retaliation against those in responsible positions who waver toward moderation.” As Negroes begin to vote in better proportion to their numbers; as, better educated and better organized, they begin to compete more effectively with whites for the available jobs; as they begin to be able, economically, to break out of the housing ghettos in the cities; as they become full citizens, in other words—it will be logical for them to enter into political coalitions with moderate and liberal whites, with one of their conditions being public positions of honor for Negroes. This has already happened in Texas in what is called the Democratic Coalition. The Populist Movement collapsed in the South in the 1890's, as is well known, because Southern whites in that movement would not, or could not, accept the implications of a political liaison with Negro voters. The people W. J. Cash describes as the old Confederate captains—the mill-owners and the landowners—were all too willing to use the poor whites' need to believe in their racial superiority against those very whites' own economic and political interests. That willingness is evident among Southern conservatives again, in the Citizens' Council movement, for example, and in the Klan revival.

I think that many Southern whites of moderate or liberal bent on race (and of course I apply this to myself) are in a desperate condition: their consciences are. Inheritors of a segregated social and economic system evolved from the time of slavery, they find it now anathemized by national law and world opinion. Reexamining it, they find it wanting. It has been possible for many of them to effect some accommodations without becoming openly identified among the whites with the Negro cause.

But that cause is insistent on its full arrival, and presently Southern whites will not be able to do their good works in private, for it is of the essence, it goes to the tender core of racial humiliation, that a man cannot be acknowledged to be a man in private, and denied in public; equality cannot be clandestine. It is my thought that the deepest question abiding now in the racial matter is the courage of Southern whites of moderate or liberal views on race as the moments arrive, local scene by local scene and private conscience by private conscience, that call for courage.

I would say, subjectively, that heretofore the three great domestic crises of our national life have been these: our genesis, in revolution and constitutional government; the war that ended slavery; and the New Deal that made floors for poverty. Just when this, our fourth great domestic crisis, really began, no one seems able to say—perhaps with television; or Martin Luther King's bold and pioneering bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955-56; or the first sit-ins in 1960. As the New York Times, I think it was, remarked, it is expressive of the authenticity and intensity of the crisis that there was no great precipitating event, and that the unrest has persisted and proceeded from energies within the people, less a march than a moiling, less an explosion than a ceaseless turbulence. Once again, these are the times that try men's souls; but what is a man for if not to be tried? We are given now our chance to be a part of the historic American pursuit of an elusive dream. Just as Negroes these last few years have had to decide whether they will risk everything for their beliefs, and just as Negroes have been clubbed down in the streets, kicked before the altars of cafes, bitten by dogs, hosed down by police, and jailed by the thousands, so will Southern whites who wish to purge their consciences of discrimination have to decide whether they will risk everything for their beliefs, and tell the men they work beside, or practice law with, the bankers they borrow from, the wholesalers they buy from, the customers they sell to, the politicians they vote for or don't vote for, that Negroes are men and women and children, and have the same rights as us all, that it is not for us whites benignly to give them these rights, but that it is for us whites to stop withholding these rights from them. I know I have felt the call of this crisis as it has turned upon me, and I have felt within me, as I have told you, the alarm of it; and I guess men have all over East Texas, and all over the South, and all over the country. For these are the times. These are the times.

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