1946: Fighting Jim Crow

William Lovelace/Getty Images/77558656




Hodding Carter

After spending a formative year at the Journalism School, Hodding Carter left before graduating to begin a remarkable career in which he earned the moniker “Spokesman of the New South” for his eloquent opposition to Jim Crow laws. He won a Pulitzer Prize for writing against racial discrimination in his Mississippi newspaper, the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times.

The Saturday Evening Post – November 2, 1946
“Chip on Our Shoulder Down South”

By Hodding Carter

Greenville, Mississippi, where I publish an afternoon daily, has for a good many years possessed a sort of magnetic lure for itinerant sociologists, holders of research fellowships, and writers, good, bad and indifferent.

It is the small metropolis of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, an area of diverse problems and challenges. One of these, though of lessening intensity, has been the Mississippi River itself, which now can fairly be considered conquered. Another has been our cotton economy, with its tenant system. A third is the composition of our population, which is two thirds Negro.

For the ten years I have lived in Greenville, I have tried, editorially and otherwise, to interpret this area for my own satisfaction, for such of our subscribers as are interested and for the strangers in our midst. Senator Bilbo, in his recent and unfortunately successful campaign, disclosed almost nightly from the stump that I am a “nigger-loving, Yankeefied Communist.” Others have found me a damned Republican, a radical New Dealer, a moderate, a liberal and a standpatter. It adds up to what many editors have discovered—that if you think you have an enlightened viewpoint, you’re about the only one who does.

But this last year in Greenville has been different from any other. We had more Northern visitors than ever before, and most of them allotted a whole day and night to finding what they were looking for. These were new devotees of an old American sport—the hunting of the Southerner in his native habitat.

As native guides, our own duties were fairly simple. We had only to lead the hunter to the hunting ground, to act as decoy and beater, and to prod the sluggish prey into talking or posing for pictures.

By summer we had become perfect guides. We knew just where to take our visitors and just what hunted things we could produce. We even knew what to say ourselves. These things are important, otherwise even the best problem hunters can’t get enough material for a book in a day and a night. Not even when they know in advance what they want, as they all do.

Obviously, the preceding is exaggerated, but not much. Recalling last winter and spring, it seems to me that a writer a week beat a path to our town. Being gregarious, we liked it. But having some passing knowledge of the sport of Southerner hunting, we finally became alarmed at a historic parallel. The parallel is this: the intensity of the hunt, the predetermined conclusions and recommendations of so many of the hunters, and the crystallizing resentment of the hunted can be compared only to almost identical manifestations in the pre-Civil War period of abolitionist concern with the South.

The abolitionists had Right on their side. So do our visitors from the North today. They also have the Left on their side, which is rather important also. In the period 1830-60, a majority of the Southern slaveholders and politicians carried a chip on their shoulders. So do most Southerners today. The clamor of the abolitionists, the shrillness and ferocity of the attack and defense drowned out and nullified the more measured minority of Southern voices arguing for intersectional compromise and Negro emancipation. Against the impact of the violently antagonistic abolitionist prescription for the slave South, the South became angrily unified, the ferment for change finally boiled away in the emotional stew. The liberal spirit of change in the South today is in danger of being similarly dissipated.

Here the parallel ends. We won’t have another Civil War over it. But most Southerners today are again chanting, “To hell with the Yankees.” And most Northerners who are preoccupied with the South’s perversities are putting up-to-date words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

In this contrapuntal chorus, the South is at a distinct tonal disadvantage for the principal reason that the centers of publication of all major organs of fact, opinion and fiction are located outside of the South. But this very handicap is a great boon to Southern demagogues; they can scream of lopsided persecution. Others in the South besides political charlatans are also saying just that. It may be an unjustifiable complaint, but a sick man detects symptoms where none exists, and may imagine his doctor an unfeeling enemy instead of a friend. Though getting better, the South is still sick, socially, economically and politically, its condition aggravated by pride, a persecution complex and a traditional defensiveness. The danger of relapse is real.

Many literate Southerners believe the South a victim of a literary and journalistic conspiracy. They point to the predilection of book publishers for Southern novels emphasizing the degenerates of Faulkner and Caldwell, the miscegenation theme of Strange Fruit, and the derogation of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant-Christian background of the South. They point also to the newspaper PM, which trickles down into most unexpected hands and evokes about the same horror in the South as a volume by another Ingersoll would in a Franciscan monastery (“In the South the principal week-end amusements are lynching Negroes and drinking Coca-Colas”); the Negro press of the North; and the picture magazines, which many otherwise rational Southerners believe to be conducting a planned campaign in behalf of miscegenation because of the apparent regularity with which they inflate tendentious racial plays and give pictorial prominence to interracial social familiarity.

Southern resentment is not all honest by any means. Much of it is artificially expressed in politically calculated outbursts; much arises from the economic fears of industrial and agricultural conservatives; some of it stems from pure emotionalism and a nostalgic clinging to old ways. But some of the resentment is reasonable. And today the connecting threat of intensifying sectional unity is joining these resentments together.

Of these variously motivated reactions, the usually artificial anger of the Southern politician is the most despicable—and the most effective. Since Senator Bilbo is in this category, it should be sufficient to cite his technique. He is the mighty defender of the South against the evil forces, Yankee per se, of the FEPC, the CIO and the Communist Party, the shining champion of white supremacy. The more he is lampooned the more tenderly is he taken to the bosom of his people. He makes it plain he is persecuted by these forces. The South is persecuted likewise by these forces. He and the South are thus indivisible. In our election post-mortems in Mississippi, the most frequently heard comment from supporters as well as opponents of Bilbo was that if the Yankees had kept out of the election he could have been beaten. This is quite possible. It is difficult to describe the impact of this feeling, but its existence is a significant political asset throughout the South. The South’s demagogues know it, even though the South’s well-wishers elsewhere may not.

So much for the politically inspired reaction to invasion. On the score of honesty, it can be largely written off. But in its cumulative effect upon the Southern mind it is the most dangerous form of the reaction. The antidote is not, as so many Southerners say glibly, for the North to stop meddling in our politics. After all, a United States senator from Mississippi or Georgia or Virginia is important to Maine and California and New Mexico, for the simple reason that he represents one ninety-sixth of a Federal legislative body which is increasingly exercising control over the forty-eight states. Therefore, as I have pointed out in my paper, but without making many converts, whom we sent to Congress is the concern of all Americans—our Bilbos and Rankins are proper targets for magazines of national circulation. But honestly disturbed outsiders should re-examine the techniques of such “meddling,” which emphasis upon understanding and, possibly, results.

Just before the Mississippi primary, the National Negro Congress issued a resolution demanding that Federal troops be sent to Mississippi. If that organization had been 100 per cent behind Senator Bilbo, it could not have hit upon a more effective way to insure his re-election than to make such an appeal to the Government for action against a state where memories of Federal bayonets are long. A few weeks earlier, on May Day, New York Communists carried banners proclaiming, “Rankin and Bilbo Must Go.” These examples of stupid outside interference are, of course, extreme. But it is the extreme example that provides demagogues with the best ammunition for counter-fire. Until Northern critics realize this, they can expect only that most of their efforts will defeat their own purposes.

Akin to the political is the emotional resentment. It is more honest, if no less shallow. Each feeds the other. This emotional reaction represents sectional frustration, sectional fears and sectional provincialism at their worst. Historically speaking, the South has some good reasons to cherish a grudge even now. The grudge is, basically, that which any colonial, exploited people hold for the financial and political heart of empire. Self-pitying, self-stultifying, backward-glancing, it is expressed by suspicion of anything that comes from the North, except immigrating industries. The phrases that give them substance are familiar: The South has been the North’s financial victim since the Civil War. (True.) The North wants to let Negroes marry our daughters. (False.) The North doesn’t know how to handle the Negroes and we do. (False.) And so on.

Most of this emotional bias is born of stark fear. Whether expressed of implied, the fear of miscegenation forms the base of Southern antagonism to Federal—which means outside—interference with anything from education and public health to the question of Negro suffrage. The FEPC was thus interpreted and opposed. So also are congressional efforts to abolish the poll tax in Federal elections and to make a narrowly defined crime of lynching a Federal offense. Out of this emotional fear strides a revitalized Ku Klux Klan. Fear, too, motivates the tendency to shift blame for any interracial friction upon the outsider, as in the tragic Columbia, Tennessee, riots concerning which the governor of Tennessee commented that outside agitation was responsible.

To a lesser extent, another emotion—that of pride—is also expressed. Probably Southerners have a more intense sectional pride than do citizens of any other part of the country. Explain it any way you wish—as a substitute for reality, or in the deep-rootedness of an agricultural people, or because of an inverted envy, or as an honest expression of localized patriotism—this pride remains a stubborn factor.

There is a third and newer resentment, having little to do with politics or emotions save to make use of each. This antagonism is economic, the reaction of Southern management and the large Southern landowner to the announced CIO and AFL invasion of the South, which, pugnaciously, has been termed “Operation Dixie.” The South has fewer unionized workers than has any other section. Moreover, the South has fewer farm owners in relation to total farm population than any other section. The unorganized industrial worker and the farm tenant or farm day laborer offer the most fertile potential field for organization of any in the nation. The industrialist and the planter in the South know this as well as do the AFL and the CIO. By and large, Southern agriculture is primitive in comparison with that of the Middle West and Far West. Similarly, large-scale industry, comparatively new to the South, is handicapped by freight-rate differentials and relatively antiquated methods, particularly in the large lumber industry.

Thus wage differentials and non-union pay scales frequently spell the difference between profitable operation and bankruptcy—or so management believes. Big-time agriculture in the South is in a critical stage of transition from a man and mule operation to mechanized farming. Most Southern states are at the same time engaged in an organized effort to attract more industries south, with raw materials, cheap power, tax inducements and a plentiful labor supply as drawing cards. Southern businessmen are overwhelmingly in support of this objective of balancing agriculture with industry.

This triumvirate of industrial, agricultural and business management feels itself and Southern development endangered by the organizational attack of the CIO and, to less extent, of the AFL. Since the attack comes from outside, management has become increasingly hypersensitive to and critical of the Northern invader. Resultantly, the appeal of the Southern employers, like that of the Southern politician and the dweller in the past, is to sectional solidarity. They believe that widespread unionization of the industrial worker and the agricultural laborer of the South means economic disaster.

Moreover, many of them also believe that the CIO is communistic as well as Yankee. It follows that representatives of such deadly twin evils must be repelled at the border.

By the nature of its attack and the personalities and origins of its organizers, union leadership itself has often played into the hands of Southern management—though the CIO has adopted a policy of using Southern-born, white organizers only. As an example of unintelligent union tactics, Dan Tobin, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, recently wrote an article, How to Break the Cotton Bloc. Uncle Dan’s suggestion was a national boycott of cotton goods to punish Southern senators and representatives who have joined with “Republican reactionaries.”

Invasion again. Oscar Johnston, president of the National Cotton Council and director of the largest cotton plantation in the South, blasted the enemy out of the water with his reply. Nine million families, Mr. Johnston pointed out, are dependent, directly or indirectly, upon cotton for a livelihood. The average income of the cotton farmer, he emphasized, was considerably lower than the average income of the industrial worker inside and outside the South. A labor boycott of cotton was a punitive threat both against the South and against fellow workers, and could result only in an even lower income for millions of Southerners. It was a retort as shrewd as Dan Tobin’s threat was inept. Less rational are the usual reactions of the Southern political spokesmen, industrialists and planters. A nasty fight is shaping up. The cry of the anti-union majority of Southern employers will be, “Keep the communistic Yankees out.” It’s their surest weapon.

These three separate but related expressions of Southern animus may simply prove what has already been said—namely, that the South is sick politically, socially and economically. A Bilbo and a Talmadge are proof of political sickness, the racial nightmare of social sickness, and the almost universal Southern animosity to labor unions of economic sickness.

A logical question, then, is: “Why criticize the outsider for trying to do something about the sickness?” After all, 35,000,000 Southerners comprise one fourth of the nation. They elect twenty-six United States senators. The white majority habitually and openly denies some of the basic constitutional rights to the black minority. Certainly the submarginal thousands of Southern wage earners need the wage increases that unionization would probably secure for them. What is all the shouting for? This brings us to a fourth phase of resentment against outside pressure, though not against all outside pressure. It is expressed only by a Southern minority, yet a minority increasing in numbers and achievement. Its members combat the Bilbos and Talmadges. They work for interracial amelioration, for orderly economic change in the South. They are doing it the hard way—in the South itself, and not in New York.

They agree that the patient is sick. But they do not believe that the symptoms are local to the South or in a treatment posited upon that diagnosis—or, baldly, in most of the doctors who would minister to the patient. They stand between the practitioner who says that all treatment is good, especially when administered with the objectivity of the outside consultant and, on the other hand, the members of the family who want to draw the shades and stand off the doctors, denying vehemently that anything is wrong. For lack of a less misused definition, they might be described as the Southern liberals.

I am sure I cannot properly define the word “liberal,” either as applied to Southerners or to others. That I do not qualify personally was apparent to me from the observations of some of our winter visitors. I had been talking to one of them about successful efforts in my state to institute anti-venereal-disease campaigns, to build a new Negro teacher-training college and to raise Negro teachers’ pay. My enthusiasm was brushed off with a casual, “You have such limited objectives.” Another, who had read an article which I had written for The Saturday Evening Post about the work of a Negro doctor in a small all-Negro Mississippi town, said in severe reprimand, “You and that doctor are both wrong. You should be working for the abolition of segregation in Mississippi’s hospitals.”

Unless the Southerner measures up to the qualifications which the Northern liberals set for liberalism, he is considered no liberal at all. Instead, he is a little suspect. It does no good, for example, to counter that an Oswald Garrison Villard opposed the FEPC in principle; that the Constitution has something to say about states setting their voting qualification; that without Federal law lynching had been all but eradicated in the South—until the hideous Georgia massacre—that the panacea qualities of Federal legislation might be overestimated; that there is a pressing immediacy for the educational, health and economic advancement among both races in the South which should take precedence over any political or social considerations. Our friends on the outside just won’t listen. And this is both disheartening and provocative to the thousands of Southern men and women of good will who are doing their earnest best to combat those forces of national disaster of which Southern racial bigotry is but one facet.

In the South, poverty and its ugly twin, ignorance, conspire with a profound and traditional racial bias to perpetuate a traffic system of racial discrimination. But it liberal concern is directed principally at the South, the need for liberal effort is dangerously minimized. We in the South have no monopoly on brassy politicians who make capital of prejudices, and no exclusive predilection for keeping them in office. Offhand, one might cite Vito Marcantonio and Clayton Powell, of New York City, Frank Hague, of New Jersey, and Jim Curley, of Boston, as proof that racial, religious and economic maladjustments can produce elsewhere a type of leadership as mischievous as any which has come out of the South.

If you think that the South has a stranglehold on discrimination, look in on Harlem, or Chicago’s South Side, or Detroit, and the Southwest, and on to the Golden Gate. Speak to the Negro who has sought the promised land of the East and Middle West, to the Jews and Mexicans and Oriental Americans of the West Coast. Take a Negro nursemaid with your family on a motor trip through Ohio, as we did this summer, and count for yourself the number of hotels and restaurants which turn away that nurse from bed or board. In the deep South, that place of strange and delicate compromises, that wouldn’t happen to a Negro nurse accompanying a family.

To a Southerner who mentions these things, the answer is often made that his nose is out of joint, that he has a defensive delight in gibing at the weak spots of others, that two wrongs don’t make a right. And each answer is truth in whole or in part. But there are other and more basic truths. These truths are that Southern racial bigotry is only a limited manifestation of the bigotry that has dogged humanity since man became tribal; that bigotry has flourished in every decade and in every section and against every race and religion during the history of this land dedicated to tolerance and freedom; that such bigotry is not apparent when by weight of numbers the oppressed become an economic, social or political threat to the dominant. There is little Negro bias in New England. There is little anti-Semitism in the South.

But, repeats the persistent critic, we know these things, but we insist the South is the most compelling area for discussion and for counteractivity. Must we step aside for fear of antagonizing Southerners?

Decidedly, no. But, just as emphatically, the legislators, the individual and organized liberals and writes who are concerned about the South need to change their approach. They cannot successfully battle emotional concepts with emotional challenges. They cannot successfully rely upon punitive action, Federal legislation or Supreme Court rulings to eradicate with racial prejudice or social manifestations. They should not discard or deride those Southerners who, although refusing to go all the way with them, are still ahead of their fellow Southerners. They should try to think in terms of amelioration than of an immediate solution. Above all, they should approach the South with compassion, not with a savage badgering of a supposedly static, hopelessly damned and forever alien area. We Southerners just don’t take to that.

There is change in the South. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Columbia riots, the victories of Bilbo and race-baiting Eugene Talmadge infest the headlines. But other, more lasting chapters in the Southern textbook are also being written. Do you know of the Southern Regional Council? Are you acquainted with the career of Virginius Dabney, of Richmond, as a liberal, crusading Southern editor? Do you know what North Carolina, spurred by Dr. Frank Graham, of the University of North Carolina has accomplished in racial tolerance? Have you read of the fruitful effort for tolerance of the Southern Methodist Church in this field? Have you read letters, as I have read them by the hundreds upon hundreds, from young Southerners concerned with this new order in the South?

These are not the clanging notes that sound the clarion in the North. But they represent something far more important—the distance that the South has traveled from its ideological starting point.

It is no easy road. Tolerance has ever been a concern of only a minority. Only a minority of our nation is actively interested in it today.

It is not easy to dismiss the beliefs with which one has grown up. What a child hears from his first days of comprehension until his maturity is usually what he believes. The success of Hitler and of Communism, on the one hand, and of our earlier and more militant Christianity, on the other, is proof enough. The racial concepts and prejudices which the Southerner holds are those which he learned from his father, who, in turn, had them from his father and his father’s father. These concepts cannot be changed by law, by ridicule or by threat. Only reason and education, and an old concept of brotherhood and of responsibility for one’s brother can change them. Only these approaches can eradicate the basic fear that underlies these prejudices.

The folklore believe that the Negro desires to become white through racial admixture is deep-rooted. So is the belief that a Negro is inferior because he is a Negro. The majority of the South’s Negroes are illiterate or nearly so. A high percentage are socially diseased. Few have decent housing or opportunity to put into effect what they might know about personal care or sanitation. Because the average Negro has always been that way in the South, the Southerner believes he is that way because he is a Negro, and not because of what has been denied him because he is a Negro. Only reason and education can change this belief. Harking back to the days of Reconstruction, the Southerner believes that should the Negro be given the ballot, it would be entirely a racial ballot, and that all political divisions would thenceforth be those of color. Only reason and experiment, not bayonets at the polls, can change this belief. The presence of the Negro has for 300 years shaped the South’s thinking. Today there is ferment, but it can be stilled by anger and fear—the two emotions which the insistence for immediate, Federally imposed change arouses.

It is unwise to fall back entirely upon an economic explanation for social maladjustment. But certainly it is the most important one, and economic advancement must precede moral, social and psychological adjustments. The South’s failures have arisen principally from its economic position in the nation—a position for which the South itself can be blamed only in part. The South’s potentiality for change is also an economic potential. This hope is very real, as real as the fact that the South is still at the bottom in income, in health, in education, in legislative social responsibility, and at or near the top in the ratings of crimes of violence, and insanity, and mistreatment of minorities.

The big story in the South today is that we are driving toward a higher living standard. Against the impetus of the drive, the humanitarian impulses of some Easterners, may give way to the instinct of self-preservation. There is irony in a Governor Dewey, or New York, who is acclaimed for his espousal of a state fair-employment law, and who, on the other hand, is in the forefront of the Eastern struggle to prevent equalization of freight rates, so vital to the South. This is a new civil war—this struggle between the economically surging South and an entrenched North. Before the South can conquer its bigotry, its people must be better educated, better clothed, better fed and better paid. Before these things can come, the South must rid itself of the economic despotism imposed by the North’s financial hold upon capital, by patent monopolies, by tariff penalties and the rest of the enchaining restrictions. The South and the West contain half the nation’s population. This population still lives in economic subservience to a handful of Eastern states. But this is changing, and with it the South will change.

In the long run, this much is certain: A higher income level in the South will inevitably eliminate most of the frictional competition among the submarginal whites and Negroes of the South. This income will be translated also into sociological and political terms. It is a sure process but contingent first upon national prosperity and second upon more equal sectional division of national wealth.

In the interim, unless the South rids itself of the belief that outside pressure is mounting unendurably, an old terror may walk again at noon.

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