Commentary Magazine

The Course of the South:
Descent into Barbarism?

The average American is inclined to believe that the separation of the races in the United States goes all the way back to the beginning of things—indeed, that segregation is “natural” and rooted in human instinct. The chief reason for thinking so is the “eternal” character which existing social arrangements seem to have for most people. A particularly American reason, perhaps, derives from the pervasive biological determinism of our culture: we assume that everything we do is grounded in our biological nature—”human nature,” as we generally call it. I like to think that the corrective for this fallacy is a close reading of modern history, but I must admit that students can get an “A” for what they set down in blue-books and yet have no understanding of how the facts they memorize relate directly to their own lives. If I were to exaggerate this into a sociological law, I would say that there is a tendency for people to assume that contemporary times began roughly about the year of their own birth, and that between them and the rest of history stretches a wide gulf of time. “Old times” for me, I would hope, embrace Plato, Maimonides, and Theodore Roosevelt. For others they stop with Grant or Coolidge. Yet the fact is that history has “a present meaning,” especially the history of that immediate past out of which our current institutions have risen.

The shocking fact that emerges from a series of recent books on racial segregation1 is that one-third of our nation descended into a kind of barbarism from 1875 to 1915, and has not fully emerged yet. After establishing a public school system in the period of Reconstruction, the Southern states then proceeded to stifle it, so that many Southerners growing up before 1915 had little more education than a Russian peasant under the Czar. With exceptions, slaves were treated impersonally and on the whole not too badly before 1820. But after 1875 Negroes were the targets of violence, theft, and other forms of depredation. Before 1861 the South had taken steps, even if small ones, toward developing a literature, a political philosophy, a style of manners—in short, a civilization. But after 1875 all that was dropped—for its culture heroes it now chose such brutes as Cole Blease, James K. Vardaman, Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, Hoke Smith, and a score of others, latter-day examples of which are Theodore Bilbo and Eugene Talmadge.

In this rapid, almost deliberate descent into barbarism, many individuals seemed still bravely to maintain the high aspirations of the ante-bellum South: conservative gentlemen of the old school like C. Harrison Parker, editor of the New Orleans Picayune, and Senator Wade Hampton of South Carolina, as well as educated prophets of the new industrialism like Henry Grady. But when it came to making a determined stand for decency, fair play, and civilization, they succumbed. Virtually the sole exception was the novelist George W. Cable, and his life story has something of the horror of a sane man more and more beset on every side by lunatics. The mental disease that dragged the South down was, of course, racism. As Booker T. Washington, in one of his franker moments, put it: if the white South wanted to keep the Negro in the gutter, it had to get down there with him.

A fanatically loyal Southerner himself, a veteran of the “War between the States,” a novelist who achieved almost unparalleled popular acclaim in the South, Cable yet managed to retain his decency and civilized intelligence. In speeches, letters to the editor, published essays, and stories, he tried to warn his fellow Southerners against what was happening. They ignored him, misunderstood him, laughed at him, berated him, and eventually he moved to the North. Arlin Turner, his editor, lists Cable’s themes, partly in the novelist’s own words, as follows:

“The safety of society lies in the elevation of the masses.” “The Negro must be educated as the South is reconstructed.” “. . . if they could realize what millions of solid public wealth it is costing to suppress the self-regard and aspirations of one-third of their whole population.” There is no such thing as social equality; private social affairs will remain within the choice of individuals. “The public school relation is not a private social relation.” “I have never yet spoken first in this matter, save under the conviction that silence was treason to the South. It is treason.” The best minds must study the problem; there must be free, open discussion without any kind of real or implied threat. Restrictions aimed at the Negro fall only slightly less heavily on the poor white, especially in public education. The Negro must never himself draw the color line. All questions must be referred to the will of the majority, not of any minority. No two races have ever amalgamated except when one was the oppressor.



In many ways Cable was not what we would call a “racial liberal” today. He believed that Negroes were inferior (though not all of them), and that, in accordance with biological determinism, the inferiority was inherited. He thought that racial antipathy was instinctive. He stressed his own Southernness, although he hoped the term “The South” would disappear. But he wanted white Southerners to behave like gentlemen toward the “helpless race.” He believed the white South could extend civil rights to the Negro—even maintain the unsegregated schools established under Reconstruction—without having “social relations” with Negroes. At first he thought he was speaking for many gentlemanly whites who had been bullied into silence by noisy agitators; at first he considered himself the spokesman of “the silent South,” as he entitled one of his books. Gradually he realized that he was alone. “When the whole intellectual energy of the Southern states flew to the defense of that one institution which made us the South, we broke with human progress. We broke with the world’s thought.”2 He showed how all the institutions of the South—economic, political, legal, familial, educational, artistic—were distorted, and debased to maintain the caste system.

Look at the South. What say the world’s employment-bunting capital and labor, when we ask them why they turn aside from her? They reply, not in reproach; only in kindliest explanation. But what say they? That she has legislatures a hundred years old, but often no adequate popular reverence for law; that she has judges and courts, but often no patience to wait for their decrees or honor their mandates; that her frightful prisons defend neither the criminal’s rights nor those of society; that her provisions for public education will not bear comparison with that of any region bidding successfully for immigration; that her agricultural system is characterized by an ignorance and waste that keeps the husbandman degraded and poor on a soil that ought to make him rich; that her factories and furnaces are short of skilled labor and her millers and ironmasters wedded to the delusion of low pay and long hours; that the curricula of her colleges are antiquated and almost completely innocent of civics and economics; that in whole states the laws so one-sidedly protect the landlord, creditor, and mortgagee that they work intensely toward the perpetuation of the landlessness, penury, unthrift, supineness, and vice of the laboring masses. A greedy expansion of the mortgage system to movable property, standing crops, and even crops unplanted—nay, to the very household larder—has strangled in its birth the personal credit of the liberated slave, and persists in the ruinous effort to dispense with the necessity of his being honest.3

It still comes as a shock to realize that one-third of our country has been emerging from near-barbarism only in the past thirty years—and not only in matters of race. Thus the South clung stubbornly to its agricultural economy, resisting efforts at industrialization despite its great natural resources and the offer of capital from the North. It often placed bullies and brutes in the highest political office. It disfranchised its poorer whites by such measures as the poll tax, so that only 5 per cent of the adult whites voted in Mississippi as late as 1940. And there was no secret ballot in most of the Southern states. Lynching and vigilantism found many white as well as Negro victims. Courts paid little attention to the strict requirements of the law, and the police even less. The convict-lease system operated throughout the South until the murder of an innocent North Dakota white boy shocked the nation.4 The chain gang is still to be found, despite unfavorable national publicity in the 1930’s. Public welfare standards in the South are much below those of the rest of the nation. Forest fires are started by backward rural folk, apparently for no other reason than frustration and boredom.

Perhaps the most significant indication of the South’s backwardness was the virtual absence of a compulsory free public school system until about 1915. This is documented in scholarly detail, state by state, in Louis R. Harlan’s Separate and Unequal. When gradually (1901-1915) the Southern states adopted laws providing for compulsory, four-month-term public schools, the stimulation and some of the funds came from Northern philanthropists. The state laws made no mention of race, since the Constitution prohibited it, but the local school boards diverted most of the sums they received for Negro schools to the white schools. The gulf between what white children and Negro children got in the way of education increased steadily until 1930, since which time it has diminished somewhat, mainly due to Federal court pressure. As late as 1920 a Federal census monograph could report that “Evidence is plentiful that the compulsory attendance laws fox this region are largely inoperative as concerns Negro children.”



The south began gradually moving forward after 1920. Factories have gone up in many areas and farming is now being done by less primitive methods. The quality of many of the top political leaders has risen markedly. The barriers to voting were lowered for whites when the Federal courts rendered illegal the more formal limitations on Negro voting. The courts began, in some areas, to provide a minimum legal protection for Negroes, and simultaneously the state legislatures passed laws which gave more protection to both whites and Negroes against mobs and vigilantes. Public welfare standards were raised somewhat, largely because of the Federal New Deal, which also began a measure of slum clearance. Peonage, the convict-lease system, and other institutions unknown to civilized societies were abolished. The eight-month school year has become universal, and compulsory education up to the age of twelve or fourteen (enforced at least for white children) has been adopted by all states. Three or four of the state instiutions of higher learning now deserve the name of university. This list of changes could be considerably lengthened. In most respects, the South can now be considered to have caught up with the rest of America.

But will it last? The same force that dragged the South down in the 19th century—racism—is again active. It is more than Northerners can believe that the South would tolerate the abolition of public schools, but many Southern parents have themselves never had the advantage of public schools so that a school-less society is quite within their experience. Governor Faubus obtained the defeat of Congressman Brooks Hays, who was no integrationist but a civilized man—will Faubus use a similar tactic against Senator Fulbright when the latter is up for reelection in 1962? Industry has been developing in Arkansas, but a recent report shows a sharp decline in new investment since the beginning of the school troubles. Do Arkansans care, or will they just as soon see their surplus laborers go back to scratching a living from the soil, or migrate out of the state? Mississippi and a few other Deep Southern states have devised new techniques to prevent even educated Negroes from voting, and shortly these techniques will be turned against poor whites too. Organizations pledged to violence have sprung up to put Negroes “in their place”; soon enough they will want to put everybody in their place, as already evidenced by the bombing of Jewish temples. Will the South again retrogress to barbarism? The evidence shows that since 1955 it has taken some steps in that direction.

The problem was never simply a Negro problem, and it is less so today than ever. A little more than half the Negroes of the country remain in the South, as compared to 95 per cent as late as 1914, and Negroes continue to move out rapidly. The problem is one of racist ideology. As we learned from the German experience of 1933-1945, it is not necessary to have large numbers of a minority group around to keep racism at a vigorous pitch. Racism was never basically weakened in the South, and now it is again active. A set of demonstrably false beliefs about biological inheritance, it can probably only be eliminated by changing the social institutions which sustain and reinforce it. The key racist institution is, of course, public segregation in its various forms. The border states (Delaware, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Virginia), once having abandoned public segregation, show no signs of retrogression. Even if the Deep South reverts, the Supreme Court decision of 1954—by removing segregation’s legal foundation—will have to its credit the saving of the border states and probably Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida as well.



There are numerous forces working to preserve Southern civilization. First, there are the South’s new institutions: industrial capitalism, national unions, the extended franchise and democratically elected political leaders, the public school system, a number of real universities, some strong courts and modern police systems, some nationally oriented newspapers and radio-TV stations with national hook-ups. Secondly, there are some Southerners who—while not “liking Negroes”—have some understanding of the damage done by racism and segregation. A study of a group of these people in one North Carolina county has been reported by Melvin Tumin in Desegregation: Resistance and Readiness. The group is composed mostly of professionals and other white collar workers, the better educated, the ones most exposed to the mass media, the ones who feel most a part of the general society. At present, few of these people are doing anything but standing by and thinking about the problem, but it is possible that they can make their presence felt on the Southern scene. Thirdly, the North and West seem less willing today than they were in 1875 to let the South backslide. The countervailing force in the North is not love or even sympathy for the Negro, but recognition of damage to the whole nation if the South remains economically and educationally backward. Finally, there are a goodly number of G. W. Cables today among Southerners who are trying to talk sense to their fellow regionalists. I do not mean the professional “Southern liberals” who bend with the winds of local opinion and who use an educated charm to fool Northerners into believing that the South is really no different from the rest of the country. I am referring to those who see the realities of Southern history and the South today.

One such is James McBride Dabbs, president of the Southern Regional Council. He starts his revealing book, The Southern Heritage, by confessing to a good deal of confusion, and demonstrating same in the opening chapters (perhaps confusion is the reason why many other civilized Southerners have not yet become active in defense of their civilization). But he realizes the basic fact that the South “hesitates now between the past and the future,” and that all Southerners must make their choice or the choice will be made for them. It is impossible to maintain “a changeless social order in a changing world.”

Dabbs loves the South: “If only she could have avoided giving status to race, I can’t imagine how happy her history might have been.” He explains the present psychology of the South as, in part, a fear of losing the old agrarian values and amenities because of industrialization. “Our vague realization of this makes us uneasy; we are afraid, and properly, that we are losing something. Finding segregation under attack, we defend it as our life. Is it really? Might we possibly win this battle and lose the war?” He lists the reasons why “an increasing number of white Southerners” wish to abandon segregation: they grow tired of carrying two sets of manners (one for the whites, the other for the Negroes); they grow tired of the segregation pattern itself and of the superior-inferior philosophy of life which it expresses; they are aware that the world is moving ahead at rapid speed and the South cannot participate in progress and still maintain the pre-modern institution of segregation. He believes that even race relations have gotten better since 1954; they seem to have “grown worse only in the sense that they have been diminished; some communication has been lost; but this diminishing is the necessary preliminary to the substitution of other and better relations. Better because truer to the facts. The old interracial manners are rapidly breaking down; the new are being slowly instituted.”

Is this thoughtful Southerner a prophet? Or is he a contemporary George W. Cable, who also thought he was speaking for the civilized South but lived to see it decline, his warnings utterly ignored.




1 The Negro Question, a Selection of Writings on Civil Rights in the South, by George W. Cable, edited by Arlin Turner (Doubleday); Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States 1901-1915, by Louis R. Harlan (University of North Carolina Press); The Southern Heritage, by James McBride Dabbs (Knopf); Desegregation: Resistance and Readiness, by Melvin Tumin (Princeton University Press).

2 Cable, “Literature in the Southern States” (1882), an essay in the volume previously cited.

3 Cable, “What the Negro Must Learn” (1891), volume cited. This was just about the last honest evaluation of the South to come out of the region until the relatively recent writings (1930's) of W. J. Cash and Howard Odum.

4 “In January 1922, a young North Dakota farm boy was beaten to death by the half-drunk overseer of a lumber camp in Florida. Off for his first look at the world, 22-year-old Martin Tabert had been arrested by the sheriff of Leon County, Florida, shortly before Christmas for riding a freight train. He was charged with vagrancy and convicted. Money sent from home to pay his fine was returned with the note ‘party gone.’ Tabert was shipped off to serve his 90 days working for a private lumber company in the pine forests in Dixie county. For supplying this labor, it was later shown, the company paid the sheriff $20 per head. The system of leasing convict labor to private concerns was—despite its abuses—well established in the South. But the Tabert case made it a national scandal.” (Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, November 30, 1958.)

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