Author Commentary: Segregation and Southern Tradition
It was good to be white then.
American soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed in Europe had recently come home from crushing the German regime that had threatened to end free civilization and usher in a thousand-year oligarchy. Two American atomic bombs had landed on populous Japanese cities, erupting in a fury that shocked even their designers. Weeks earlier, the strutting Italian puppet had been captured, beaten, hung upside down, and urinated upon by his own people in a public square.
White faces came home with a swaggering triumph that belied the utter relief of simply surviving mankind’s most savage and destructive conflict ever. They took a deep breath and a long, much-appreciated shower, shaved, and reconnected with their women and left-behind families. Bands played for them, parades honored them, and a grateful nation could not stop grinning and laughing with them. Single white men found themselves in great demand as marriage mates, and they too began to create large families. As a result of massive wartime expenditures of public funds on industrial infrastructure, the Great Depression was gradually eased and a new age of booming economic growth was born. FDR’s legacy of prolonging the Depression by massive, unconstitutional, wrong-headed, and ultimately prosperity-killing social programs was rewritten by the new economic surge so that he could become a savior of sorts in the pages of history. White faces found mates, jobs, God, and money. Life was good.
Black faces, which had faced the same dangers, had fought the same battles, had cheered, screamed, bled, died, and sacrificed just as much as their fellow American fighters with white faces, came back to a very different welcome. Yes, there were women waiting, all of them black, and the loving was as sweet as they had imagined when they were dreaming all the grueling months away. Families rejoiced at their coming. Single girls winked at eager single men and took them for husbands. There were jobs, true, especially in the North, where factories cried out for able-bodied men who could turn gears and pour steel. Black faces found some of those jobs.
But black faces came back to a devil just as evil as Hitler, just as inscrutable as Hirohito, and just as arrogant as Mussolini. His name was Segregation, and he ruled with an iron hand.
He was especially powerful in the South.
An enigmatic god was this Segregation. He had many proponents—all white—many detractors—mainly black with a few courageous whites—many causes, many effects. He was pervasive. He was ubiquitous. He was powerful, stronger than the law, stronger than the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, stronger even than Jesus Christ in the hearts and minds of those who genuflected to him. He lay like a volcano under the South and into parts of the North, always there, always in danger of erupting. Sometimes he burst out with a plume of hatred and domination, such as a lynching or a cross burning. Most of the time he was content to show himself with a modest hiss of venomous steam, perhaps in the form of a black woman who was severely chastised, maybe even struck with the back of a hand, if she passed a white man on the sidewalk and failed to dip her eyes and move out of his way.
White children in the South who were old enough to navigate on their own two feet began to know of the god Segregation. No one had to tell them, although Segregation had doctrine that was deeply imbedded and repeated often enough to drive home his power: the nigger is a jumped-up ape only three centuries out of the jungle; they’re not fully human; they’ll invade your home and rape your women if’n you don’t keep ‘em down; never call one “mister”; don’t let ‘em in the union or they’ll take your job; would you want your sister to marry one? White Southern children knew the dual persona that Segregation demanded. The white mother who taught a Southern daughter love, tenderness, and gentility also taught her the harsh, soul-killing rituals of keeping Negroes in their place. The white mother who handed her infant or toddler son to the family’s black mammy, that warm and unquestioning nurse who took the lad to her generous black breast and rocked and cooed and soothed and loved him to boyhood, also taught him that the mammy was not to be loved but was to be regarded with an affection one might display toward a familiar and well-regarded dog. The Southern preacher who sermonized that God is love, that His Son came to give mankind eternal life, that all men have a common Father, also either taught or allowed his congregation to hold to the conviction that every white person is better than any black person, that all blacks have a place that is far inferior to the vistas open to whites and must be kept in that place, that it is biblical if regrettably no longer lawful to own another human being.
White Southern boys, girls, and teens learned it is possible to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ and a worshiper of Segregation simultaneously; Southern Tradition eased their consciences. White Southern women learned how to be a gentlewoman with impeccable manners one moment and an arrogant, callous, even cruel creature toward uppity blacks the next with complete peace of mind. White Southern men learned that their highest calling was to protect the sacred honor of white Southern women and the Southern way of life from all threats and detractors. All white Southerners learned that the most detestable, unkempt, and drunken white man was to be allowed in the front door—albeit immediately then to a bath and a shave—while the most brilliant, accomplished, and notable black college president was to come in the back door, if at all.
The high priest Southern Tradition did not need a legal or standing army to keep himself alive and well. He relied upon visual symbols, facial expressions, barriers, and the threat of the sleeping volcano to erupt and take lives. In every Southern town when black faces came home from serving their country, there were signs posted over the doors of railroad and bus stations, toilets, drinking fountains, and theaters: White…Colored. There were signs without words: big white church shaded by graceful trees on Elm Street, small unpainted church for coloreds on a bare lane on the edge of town; big, well-kept brick school for white children, small falling-down wooden school for coloreds; big white houses with colonnades and sweeping lawns for whites, tiny gray-wood shacks in a neighborhood of earthen paths for coloreds; extensive, well-laid-out graveyards for whites with elaborate marble headstones and statuary, colored graveyard with mounds of dirt and an occasional home-made wooden cross. There were parts of town in which coloreds were allowed and parts where they were whipped if they dared show. There were wide, welcoming front doors for whites and narrow gates in the back for coloreds. There were places a colored could be, like the back of a bus, and places he could not, like the front. Whites learned to hold their heads high; colored people learned to bend, hat in hand. Southern Tradition did his work well: hour by hour, day by day, whites learned the intricacies of their role and blacks learned the necessities of theirs. Soon the dance was so indwelling in every heart and mind that it became reflexive.
Segregation ruled in the South by captivating every facet of society. Politicians paid tribute to him in order to become elected and stay in office; newspapermen echoed the mantras he required so as to sell advertising and reinforce the status quo; authors reinforced his power and legitimacy in essays and novels. Some of what was spoken in public and written upon a page for public dissemination was revelatory:
Alabama’s Redemption is the story of one black soldier’s incredible grace, as he returns home to the segregated south of the post-WWII era.
“…But we will resist to the bitter end, whatever the consequences, any measure or movement which would…bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.”
Alabama Senator Richard Russell, in Congress, 1946
“I would say to the Negro: before demanding to be a white man socially and politically, learn to be a white man morally and intellectually. I would say to the white man: the black is our brother, never adult, but a younger brother, not disciplined but tragic, pitiable, and lovable. Act as his older brother and be patient with his failings.”
Author William Percy, 1941
“Only a fool would say the Southern pattern of separation of the races can ever be overthrown, or should be.”
‘Atlanta Constitution’ editorial, 1948
“The black is mentally unfit to be directors in our form of government. You cannot change these natural and God-ordained mental processes. The day our voters list contains a large percentage other than Caucasian stock is the day our constitutional form of government becomes impossible and unworkable.”
Tom Linder, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, Letter to the ‘Atlanta Journal’, 1948
“Whenever the Constitution of the United States comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution!”
Author Cole Blease, 1943
“The notion of political equality is absurd. Political equality of the races would mean social equality, and social equality would lead to intermarriage. That would be the mongrelizing of the American race. I cannot and will not be a party to recognition of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (to the Constitution of the United States).”
Mississippi Senator Ellison D. Smith, In Congress, 1932
“The way to control the nigger is to whip him when he does not obey. Another is to never pay him more than is actually necessary to buy food and clothing.”
Author W.J. Cash, 1942
Northerners disdainfully asked: how can one idea, one perspective, one mindset become so hypnotic that it binds forty million white Southern faces together in lockstep? How can such a wide variety of people, a few rich and most sharecropper poor, a few educated and most averaging a sixth-grade education, a few in the pulpit and the rest paying lip service to the church, be so mesmerized that their minds are incapable of seeing the injustice of Segregation?
“Blindness,” answered the most perceptive of the northerners. “There is such a love of their white skin that it blinds their eyes.” They were right, but it was deeper than that. The god Segregation had a high priest named Southern Tradition. The followers of Segregation were many and varied, but all agreed with the irresistible demands of his high priest and would stand shoulder to shoulder and dig the butt end of their spears into the ground to repel anyone who would challenge their right to worship their god.
And who was responsible? How did the god Segregation gain life in the first place? How did his high priest Southern Tradition gain dominance? One might well ask how a gang forms, pledges allegiance to one another and the goals which drive them, and creates enforced rituals to keep each one in line. Everyone was responsible.
Economics was a player. Though the tradition of human ownership of other humans is as old as civilization, early settlers in the South generally did not own slaves, tending instead to hack out a small holding on a Southern creek to plant vegetables while they raised pigs and chickens to feed their families. Every penny went toward seed and cloth and tools and animal feed. Though the average settler in the South would gladly have taken a slave or two to help him with the backbreaking labor if he could, the thought of affording such a luxury was ludicrous. But then in the seventeenth century, England began to demand cotton to feed its insatiable mills, and it was discovered that land in the Southern colonies was ideal for raising this precious commodity. All that was missing was labor. Realizing that one white man could raise and pick only a small crop of cotton, even with sons and daughters to help, the English began to subsidize the importation of stolen human beings from West Africa for selected Southern cotton farmers. Those who agreed to use slaves to hack out a considerably larger plot of Southern forest, delta, or upland for the purpose of planting and harvesting cotton were given slaves on a pay-back basis, with the discounted purchase price coming from the delivery of cotton to the English mill owners. Similarly, the north began to demand ‘Carolina Gold’ rice, a labor-dependent commodity which grew well in southern coastal states. Slaves led to productivity, which led to plantations and the industry of breeding Negroes for sale. Politicians and preachers who stormed and railed against the mongrelization of the races looked the other way when light brown faces with Negro features began to show up in the slave quarters. Such faces were not allowed inside the plantation houses and were bought and sold just like other slaves.
The availability of wood in the South was another economic driver. Southern pine is fast-growing, rich in turpentine-producing sap, and easy to log and transport. Hardwood trees grow straight, tall, and fast in the humid Southern climate. Some white southerners with a monetary stake were able to build mills to process felled trees into lumber and turpentine. Soon they employed dozens and then hundreds of white workers and purchased hundreds of unpaid black slaves. The whites worked in one part of the factory or tree farm and the slaves, with white supervisors, in another. Savvy mill owners paid the whites the prevailing low wages, worked them the prevailing long hours, built spare but adequate houses for each group—with wooden floors for the whites and dirt floors for the blacks–built churches for each group, saw to it that a white preacher and a black preacher were permanently on the payroll, and arranged for the construction and continual resupply of a commissary which supplied necessary commodities at a high price. They paid their slaves nothing but food and shelter and the obligatory church to salve their Christian consciences. This was called good business in the South. Whites who worked in these facilities knew they were better than the slaves, and still better than black men after President Lincoln freed the slaves and the War Between the States enforced the detestable new arrangement. To a man, the white workers supported the mill system because there was always that remote chance that they too might become A Rich Man like the mill owner. Besides, they had jobs, full bellies, and the satisfaction of knowing that they were inherently better than niggers.
Religion was a player in creating Segregation and his high priest. Early preachers, some entrenched in small towns or developing cities and some traveling the region as revivalists, soon faced a life-defining choice: is Christianity knowing and following the teachings of Jehovah and His Son Jesus Christ and seeking the touch of the Holy Ghost upon one’s heart, all the while fighting the horrible injustice of slavery, or is it merely the singing of hymns, reading the Bible from the pulpit (never in the home), and meandering after the traditions of Catholicism or Protestantism while one ignores the most atrocious sin one could possibly commit, i.e. the ownership, beating, buying and selling, and occasionally killing of other human beings created by God in His image and likeness? Early preachers read the words of the Book of John, where Jesus said He came to lay His life down as a sacrifice for whoever would believe on Him and accept the free gift of grace, and they decided that the acquisition of loyal parishioners was critical and the teachings of Jesus were really only for white people. The Christian church in the South, which with moral courage could have been a beacon of strength and consistency in the bleak period of slavery and post-slavery, had made so grave a compromise with Segregation that it lost all legitimacy and became merely an institution, gently coddled and patiently tolerated by Southern Tradition. The ownership of even one human being put a Southerner’s mind, heart, and soul in such bondage to the prevailing god that a weak and lifeless Christian church was powerless to rescue the slaveowner from the pit of hell.
Southern parents were players in the scheme of Segregation. With prideful Southern mannerliness, they taught their children that one must say daily prayers while simultaneously keeping the nigger down. They taught their children that the Jim Crow system, which was the blood-drenched code of law that Southern Tradition used to pay honor to the god Segregation, was wrought by God Almighty and quite acceptable to Him. They taught their children that freedom was a high ideal, and that the word democracy was sacred, all the while practicing slavery and/or segregation from the break of dawn until the onset of sleep at night. Little by little, they shut doors of conscience in young trusting minds until there remained only a small room of conscience in which Segregation ruled and Southern Tradition was unbreakable. Like their parents before them, parents did a thorough job of dishonoring honest curiosity and moral inquiry, of making innocent questions about Southern Tradition sound like treason, of teaching their children an unquenchable need to feel superior to Negroes, and to value power, money, and Segregation far more than the natural human need for decency and love.
Finally, the hypocritical North was a player as well. In the early years of this nation’s history, while Southern plantations were being built and Southern fortunes were being made on the backs of slave labor, pious Northerners had to satisfy themselves with warm clothing in long winters and the satisfaction of knowing that at least they hadn’t committed the sin of owning slaves. Yet an envy for Southern wealth and decadence seethed in their hearts. When machines were invented, and clever Northerners began to erect factories with mechanical devices that performed great service without the costly encumbrances of food and shelter, the balance shifted. While fortunes were being made up north, the South was beginning to feel the pinch of lowered commodity prices, over-farmed land due to ignorance of soil management principles, and the tension of moral indignation by Northerners regarding the introduction of new states into the union: should they be slave or free? The Southerner, increasingly vexed by his waning standard of income and what he perceived as undue criticism from his Northern brother, declared that the North can have itself and he is withdrawing from the union. The North responded with force. In the end, they fought each other mercilessly, with more than six hundred thousand American sons dying in support of their region’s preferred system. The truth is, the War Between the States was an issue of ideology and economics. With the clear exception of abolitionists who knew slavery to be the ultimate destroyer of democracy and the Christian church, the plight of Negroes had very little to do with the conflict. Had the South won, it is quite likely that the North would have accepted the institution of slavery with only a token objection.
So the guilty were named: everyone, and white faces all. All had a moneyed stake in the game. No blacks favored slavery, just as no fetus favors abortion.
Southern Tradition did not rely solely on the power of largely unspoken symbols to keep the Negro enslaved. The volcano that lay uneasily beneath Southern soil spewed its lava of death when the high priest deemed it necessary. The demon that Southern Tradition unleashed to keep the Negro in his place was the Klu Klux Klan.
The Klan was founded in the immediate aftermath of the War Between the States by six former Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee. The six, four of whom were aspiring attorneys, saw themselves as like-minded compatriots and took their name after kuklos, the Greek word for “circle.” In the early days, their activities were mere sophomoric pranks, such as riding horses through the countryside while dressed in white sheets and pillowcases with eye holes and hollering “The South will rise again!” But others saw the grim potential of such an organization, especially with the anonymity of a disguise, for keeping the Negro in his place despite Reconstruction. Five former Confederate generals took over the leadership of the Klan and made it a multi-state terrorist organization. In 1872, not seven years after the cessation of the war, General Ulysses S. Grant was moved to describe the true motives of the Klan to the United States Congress:
“By force and terror, to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and of the right of a free ballot, to suppress the schools in which colored children are taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely allied to that of slavery.”
To which the average Southerner said “Damn right! Whad’y’all think? You damyankees whupped us in the War, burned our plantations and towns, and set the nigger free as if he was a human being. Arrogant pigs! Well, this here’s the way we’re gonna get back at you moralist sonsabitches!”
The early Klan did its work through distributing pamphlets, shooting, lynching, pistol-whipping, castrating, and lynching men, almost all of whom were black. A few meddling Jews and Northern rabblerousers met their fate at the hands of white-sheeted gangs as well. After a decade of terror, the establishment of Jim Crow laws made the work of the Klan largely unnecessary. That and the threat of federal law enforcement descending upon them convinced them to go dormant. However, in 1915, the Klan was revived by D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, and an oft-repeated quote by the President of Princeton University—none other than Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who would later ascend to the Presidency of the United States of America—which said “At last there has sprung forth a renewed great Klu Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern integrity.” This was the true face of the Democratic Party revealed.
The new Klan numbered eight million members by the mid-1920’s. Ranging throughout the country, it upgraded its attention from merely blacks to include Catholics, Jews, communists, unionists, atheists, immigrants, agitators, and other disrupters of Southern Tradition. Two months after V-J Day, in August of 1945, the Klan burned a 300-foot cross on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia. This extravagant display, according to one Klansman who bragged to the editor of the ‘Atlanta Journal,’ was intended “just to let the niggers know the war is over and the Klan is back in business.”
Altogether, more than 5,000 lynchings and other atrocities against black men were credited to the Klan from its origin until the return of black soldiers, sailors, and airmen from World War II. Yet no white man was ever convicted of such a crime. Even when it was obvious from observations of unique boots or some other unmistakable feature exactly who was among the perpetrators, the local chief of police—who was as likely as not to be wearing a white sheet and hood when the victim was hanged—refused to take action. White Southern judges rejected indictments against (fellow) Klansmen. Rich white men in the town nearest the hanging, men who had a great deal to lose by permitting Southern Tradition to be challenged, would visit the editor of the local paper and tell him “Better let this one go, Bubba. Write a piece about the glory of Southern Tradition. Tell the folks how good segregation is for everybody. That’ll keep any white traitors from thinking about going to the feds, and it’ll tell the niggers ain’t nothing gonna change. It’s here, nothing can change it, not even Godamighty! No, wait. Leave out that part about God. Just say segregation ain’t ever gonna change. And while you’re at it, write something about union leaders. Leave the rank and file out of it; they’re good white men. But give their leaders a kick in the ass. Say something about the AFL-CIO being nigger-lovers; that’ll keep ‘em outa the South. And write something about them uppity Harlem niggers, and about the NAACP. Keep saying that the South will handle its own race problem. No, call it a situation. Our race situation. Maybe finish it up with a bit about how folks need to go to church and get right and quit worrying about the Klan. The Klan’ll keep things good, never they mind.”
The black faces who came back from fighting for their country found that their country wasn’t ever theirs, not when their great-grandfathers were growing up as slaves and not when their grandfathers were young men and their wives were moaning “Lawd Jesus, when you gonna help us?” after news of another lynching and not when their fathers were bowing to the white man, hat in hand, and not when they themselves were growing into young manhood and making themselves available to go overseas and risk their lives for a country that was never theirs. Now, having survived the atrocities of a war that defied imagination due to the barbarity of the Aryans and the little yellow men they had conquered, those black faces were less likely to do as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done. Words such as “Yassuh, massah” their ancestors had reflexively mouthed were replaced by “Crackuhs! Huh! Don’t they think they sumpin’!” and “ Now I done fought to save yo’ white ass, how ‘bout ‘lowin’ me to vote?”
It was a new day. The volcano under the South seethed and bucked, the lava spewed with whippings and death on occasion, and the god Segregation writhed in mounting fury. Angrily he sent his high priest Southern Tradition on mission after mission to quell mounting insurrection from uppity niggers and interfering damyankees, but the priest’s power over the hearts and minds of the South was waning. 1963, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King were right around the corner.
Such was the state of the world in Louisiana when Alabama Denton arrived in New Orleans.