[ bookreviews ]
Most of the works on the often earth-shattering events of the American civil rights struggle have been, understandably, from the viewpoint of American Blacks, who, after all, led the civil rights actions that ultimately resulted in changes of law and the economic and cultural conditions in the South and the USA in general, but also had, obviously, the most to gain from those changes. In Sokol's new study of that period, There Goes My Everything, the author takes us through those well-known historical events, while focusing on their effects from the viewpoint of Southern whites.
Sokol effectively argues that there was no one Southern white viewpoint on these issues, and that the changes won through the civil rights struggles effected white individuals and social-economic groupings differently. By book's end, readers may well appreciate, as I did, Sokol's numerous approaches and their resulting perspectives, but in his sensitive portrayal of white Southerners, he sometimes is also forced to tread a dangerous path where sympathetic explanations of the positions of the vast majority of white Southerners overlaps with the self-justifications and expedient myths created by white racists.
Despite Sokol's attempt to understand the white Southern mindset, moreover, the sensitive reader might also be shocked all over again by the bigotry and outright stupidity of the dominant Southern white views of their fellow man (views, one must recognize, shared by plenty of Northerners as well). Taking us from the subtle changes that occurred in the South after World War II, a time in which many white soldiers had been forced to experience some aspects of racial equality through their military service, Sokol traces the minute shifts of thought in the country of Jim Crow (for younger readers, it might have served Sokol simply to reiterate that the Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted in the Southern and border states of the US, in force between 1876 and 1967 that required racial segregation) up until the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down state-sponsored school segregation. Sokol goes out of his way to quote returning military men who had changed their perceptions of Blacks on account of their war-time experience; yet as one former air force major - a "reconstructed Southerner"- observed, although he had "learned that a Negro was a human being," his personal experiences "did not suggest a region-wide transformation." In fact, one is tempted - even after Sokol's numerous examples of personal reflection and transformation - to perceive that the failures of national leadership recounted in Nicholas Lemann's Redemption resulted in attitudes and laws that held the Southern whites in their thrall until the early 1960s and beyond.
Indeed, a great part of this book consists of a simple reiteration and explanation of the continuation of the post Civil War, white mindset. Ole Miss student Jan Robertson sums up hundreds of such statements: "There was little questioning of the way things were. It was an all-white world." In one sentence Sokol points up the fallacious logic that inevitably resulted from this lack of questioning: "Like the lakes or the trees, racial separation came to possess the feel of something natural." As journalist Fred Powledge described white Southerners' attitudes towards segregation: "If they did notice it, it was in the way they noticed water flowing from a tap or hot weather in summertime - it was unremarkable."
The paternalistic attitudes of most white Southerner's, their continual insistence that they related to and loved "their blacks," are reiterated time and again through Sokol's study. More than any other stumbling block to logic for the white Southerner, their belief somehow that their fellow countrymen accepted and even applauded the racial discrimination, and that their acceptance, in turn, proved the Black lack of initiative and, ultimately, their racial inferiority, made it nearly impossible for most Southern whites to understand African-Americans as human beings with needs and demands. The marches of the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s forced whites, beyond anything else, to comprehend that Blacks were no longer a group of beings not to be reckoned with, but were individuals whom they had never really come to know.
Sokol takes his reader through the many different battlegrounds of the civil rights struggle, from early attempts to sit in front of Southern buses to African-American visitations to white only eating establishments, from the battles fought at the door of school houses to the covert battles within company board rooms and on the floors of Southern industries, from the general marches such as the infamous trip from Selma to Montgomery to the local street skirmishes with authorities - events which, whether they admitted it or now, changed nearly every Southern, white and black. The author also brilliantly recaptures the various political attitudes - the Southern white confusion of Communism and civil rights, their self-destructive linking of conservative values with anti-unionism - that might remind some readers of the false connections asserted by George W Bush and members of his administration between terrorism and Iraq, between various different kinds of terrorist motivations, and between the need to protect US citizens from terrorism and - once more - the need to delimit of their (our) civil rights.
Despite the preponderance of notorious Southern white bigots, violent leaders, and even murderers - Sokol takes us again through the machinations of white Southerners such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor, Jim Clark, and shadowy KKK members - There Goes My Everything is also filled with heroic figures, not only great African-American leaders such as Martin Luther King, but white individuals who stood up in the South against what they perceived as wrong. Sokol's descriptions of the brave acts of the few parents, such as Daisy Gabrielle, who fought their way through the gangs of outraged and heckling women to take their children to school during the long New Orleans boycott, prominent figures such as Pauley, head of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, who braved white abuse for urging Southern whites to keep an open mind, and the brilliant journalists - the focus of Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's The Race Beat - like Newsweek's Joseph Cumming, individuals without whom the events in the South might have gone unrecorded and, accordingly, might have resulted in little response. Some of the most touching moments in a book with many dramatic episodes, come from statements of individuals who were gradually transformed from Black-hating segregationists to human beings forced to accept the changes occurring before them, individuals who in simple observations captured profound cultural statements.
Watching wave after of wave of Blacks marching through Montgomery in the famed 1965 event from the strange vantage point of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, an unnamed man observes to Assistant Attorney General John Doar, "The South is all gone. A whole way of life is going right into memory," even while nearby Alabama State Senator Roland Copper, according to reporter Jimmy Breslin, denied those same changes: "Don't mean nothin' at all. Jes' take a look at them. They jus' a pack of coons."
Many white Southerners made these transformations by witnessing Blacks making the demands for their rights, while others changed in response to the virulent actions of fellow whites. One of the most profound comments of the book comes from a North Carolina farmer, Hugh Wilson, formerly an active racist, who gradually began seeing things from a different perspective (as quoted in the Duke University Oral Program) who prophesies that some day perhaps, despite the views of many of his friends and neighbors, who "think about themselves as a white person rather than as a person, who happens to be white," "There will be people again" - people who, in their simple acceptance of themselves as human beings - just folks also likely to be just people - will believe in truth, reason, and fairness.
Indeed, Sokol's restatement of Gunnar Myrdal's prophetic 1944 argument - an argument which with the authors The Race Beat begin their study - that the issue of race is not an African-American problem but a white one, and his concomitant recognition that only the African-American can free the white from his blindness - the burden of the black being the white man's redemption, an issue substantiated by figures such as James Baldwin and even Martin Luther King - is perhaps the most important lesson of book. Subjugation of one people to another can only end in both being slaves, slaves not only of the body but of the mind and heart. If there is ever to be true social resolution in the battle for freedom, if there will be a world of "just people", we must all carry that lesson through our lives, our children's lives.