It's ironic that the United States devotes entire months, at least officially, to things like black history, Latin heritage or women's history. We Americans, after all, aren't known for giving a rip about our own history. Who hasn't heard of the surveys showing, for example, that nearly half of American high schoolers think the U.S. fought with the Nazis against Russia in World War II? True, that kind of ignorance is funny in a twisted way, but it's not so funny once you remember that it takes something better than a fifth-grade level citizenry to keep a democracy up and running.
What I find most startling, though, is the lack of knowledge of many — OK, most — Americans with respect to the civil rights movement, or, perhaps worse, to what the pre-civil rights South was like.
Historically speaking, the civil rights struggle was only a blink of an eye ago, but it has already been simplified, i.e., dumbed down, for our ADD Nation into a narrative that goes like this: African Americans were treated like crap, so they held a series of parades, some police dogs bit them, then Martin Luther King Jr. talked about his dream, and soon everything was all right, The End.
It's all been smoothed out, as if Americans aren't supposed to be able to deal with our messy political histories and power struggles, particularly the battles when common people won victories over the established order. The watering down of the civil rights movement's history gives many people a very diluted view of why that movement came about in the first place. A few years ago, I wrote about a couple of smug, young white guys I had overheard at Borders griping about black history month. One of them summed up their complaints with the mind-blowing observation that "Slavery was banned, people! What else have they had to gripe about?" The other guy then said he wanted a white history month.
Having grown up in a culture that thrives on historical amnesia, those two guys had no idea why black history month was started, how black Americans' millions of stories were once completely ignored by mainstream culture because every month was white history month.
So, hoping it bears repeating, let this Southern-bred baby boomer tell you what the South was like before King & Co. came along.
My hometown of Gaffney, S.C., was like thousands of other Southern burgs at the time: a slow-paced life, Friday night football, homemade ice cream, wisteria's scent wafting into the living room. But I also remember an old black man who confused me when he stepped off the sidewalk and into the street, just to get out of my way. I was 8.
And I remember the Ku Klux Klan, which had a mysterious but palpable presence in our town. The Klan's targets were often treated by Gaffney's white doctors, one of whom, Dr. James Sanders, was a favorite of Gaffney's black community. Many whites hated him for it.
In 1957, the year of nation-rocking, violence-plagued school integration in Little Rock, Ark., a group of South Carolina pastors published a small book of essays titled South Carolinians Speak: A Moderate Approach To Race Relations. One of the essays was by Sanders' wife, Claudia, who was from a venerable Charleston family and served as chair of the county library board. Not long after the pastors' book was published, Klan dynamite blew up one side of the Sanders' big two-story house. Luckily, no one was hurt. Three Klansmen were soon arrested. The proof was indisputable, but the charges were dismissed by a judge who basically told Mrs. Sanders she had brought her troubles on herself.
Decades later, in a used bookstore in the N.C. mountains, I ran across South Carolinians Speak, the only copy of the pastors' book I've ever seen. I eagerly flipped through the pages, assuming I would find a hotheaded, pro-civil rights tirade. It had to have been pretty inflammatory to bring on a Klan bombing, right?
Then I read the "inflammatory" essay, and the depressing realities of life in the "good old days" came rushing back. In her essay, Mrs. Sanders made a heartfelt, but very mild, case for a gradual integration of schools, argued from a Christian viewpoint that "all men are my brothers." That was all.
And there you have the pre-civil rights South in a nutshell:
So repressive, and so brutally orthodox, that even a respected, prosperous, Christian white woman in positions of community authority actually risked having her life taken, for merely saying in public that perhaps, just maybe, racial segregation in schools should be gradually phased out. Please feel free to cut this out and save it for white history month.
Parts of this essay were previously published in CL and in the collection Deliver Us From Weasels.