Report on Desegregation
Go South to Sorrow
By Carl T. Rowan
Random House. 246 pp. $3.75.
Mr. Rowan is not the first who has gone South to sorrow, nor is this his first lamentation. The South has long served as the Wailing Wall of the national conscience. The congestion has been heaviest, curiously enough, in periods when the country was on moral vacation, particularly postwar periods of laxity and prosperity such as the Grant era, the Harding era, and the Eisenhower era. Not long after Appomattox, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist, wrote sadly of “the probable excess of prosperity, and . . . the want of a good grievance.” He pitied those who were “likely to have no convictions for which they can honestly be mobbed.” He and his fellow countrymen, of course, soon found the compensatory answer in the South of the First Reconstruction, which served as a vicarious outlet for thwarted reform impulses of the Gilded Age.
One of the difficulties of this arrangement has been that the South has generally insisted upon taking its moral vacations at the same time as the rest of the country. That region also has its revolts of the moderates and along with them revolts of the immoderate reactionaries. On these occasions it has been no more in the mood for the ardors of moral regeneration and reform than other parts of the land. Embittered by the role thrust upon it, the South has unleashed its resentment and sometimes given rein to its bigots, its hate mongers, and its mobs.
In recent years of the Second Reconstruction, particularly in the three years since the Supreme Court’s decision against segregated public schools which Mr. Rowan reviews, there has been no lack of causes for indignation and alarm. One has only to recall the brutal murder of the Negro boy Emmett Till and the miscarriage of justice in Mississippi that followed, or the killing of Lamar Smith and George Lee, or the shooting of Gus Courts. Add to these crimes the mob scenes on the campus of the University of Alabama and in the town of Clinton, Tennessee, and the dynamiting of houses in the bus boycott at Montgomery, and one has a formidable enough list of atrocities. Mr. Rowan devotes far the larger part of his book to these sensational outrages. Grave and deplorable as they are, however, these flares of mob violence are not the most serious setbacks for the cause he defends. They are the work of a few and they are condemned and deplored by all but a very few in the South. It is probable that they do more damage than good to the cause of segregation by associating it with criminal methods and disreputable elements.
More serious are the methods used by the “respectable” classes, the “uptown Ku Klux Klan.” They include the refusal of credit and employment by bankers and businessmen and the resort to economic pressures of all sorts. They include the “massive resistance” for which Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia called and the defiance of the Supreme Court ruling on segregated schools by eight states. And they include also the 126 measures adopted since the court’s ruling by the legislatures of ten states, all designed to discourage, control, or prevent desegregation. Among these measures are twelve resolutions of interposition, nullification, or protest aimed at the Supreme Court, many aimed at the NAACP, and others at freedom of speech and freedom of teaching.
If anyone has just cause for indignation and anger over this situation, it is the Southern Negro. Mr. Rowan grew up in Tennessee, escaped the limitations of his heritage by service in the navy during the Second World War, and has since then become established as a newspaperman and writer. He illustrates in his own career the courage and pride of the new generation of Negroes about whom he has written in an earlier book. In this work he masters his feelings sufficiently at times to write with penetration and clarity of the predicament of both races in the South. He is capable of seeing the tragic damage the white leaders are doing to their own people and even of seeing some of the mistakes Negro leaders have made.
Too often, however, he allows his exasperation and resentment to get the upper hand. He describes a whole state as “a land of paranoia,” and speaks of “a paranoid frenzy” that afflicts “every white southerner.” He quotes with approval the opinion of one young white Southerner that “We are a miserable bunch of bastards.” He defines a “moderate” as “any white southerner who can prove that he hasn’t lynched any crippled old Negro grandmothers during prayer-meeting hour.” In several instances his rhetoric gets quite out of control, as when he describes his trip to the South as “a journey into that mortal and imperfect womb that gave birth to the lust, fear and greed, the basic weaknesses and meannesses, that have shadowed the paths of mankind from the Garden of Eden right down to the blood-splattered banks of the Tallahatchie River.”
The qualities in the new Negro leaders that have won the admiration of their friends and the respect of their opponents have not been the qualities for which Mr. Rowan calls: “a passion and a zeal that rules out even the dictionary version of moderation.” They have been the shrewdness and humor of Thurgood Marshall, the spiritual qualities of Martin Luther King, and the diplomacy of Ralph Bunche. Mr. Rowan admires these leaders, but he does not always follow their example.