The Southern Historical Association and the Quest for Racial Justice, 1954-1963

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER 1955, IN A NATION GRAPPLING WITH THE SUPREME COURT'S Brown v. Board of Education decision of the previous year, the Southern Historical Association (SHA) met in Memphis, not far from where a Mississippi jury had just exonerated the white killers of the black youth Emmett Till. The Association's 1955 convention generated its share of controversy and elicited an angry response from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Hardly a friend of civil fights reform, the newspaper nonetheless chafed at restrictions on media coverage of the integrated banquet on the evening of November 10. Its angry editor published an open "[m]emo to historians of 2000 A.D." lamenting that those who will "plunge into research on the segregation issue of 1955" will "find pictures missing from newspaper accounts of the racially mixed session at which William Faulkner shared platform honors with [the black scholar] Dr. Benjamin Mays.... " Believing that future academicians would search in vain for images of the event, the editorialist admonished them "that the 1955 historians were subjected to intolerable pressure from other sources to prevent photographs in the meeting hall." As a result, the historians of 2000 A.D. and "[t]heir research heirs ... are the losers...." (1)

Cognizant of the emerging crusade for civil fights reform, the Memphis newspaper and its editors focused on the larger events of their day. They placed the Southern Historical Association's integrated banquet--the first of its kind at the Peabody Hotel--in the broader context of school desegregation and racial violence, (2) Correct in understanding that future historians would find the era fascinating, the editors seemed less aware of the banquet's importance to historians of their own era. The convention and the banquet associated with it launched a decade-long struggle in which scholars of conscience challenged scholars of traditional conviction for the mind and soul of the Southern Historical Association. The 1955 convention marked also a generational transition as younger historians not only questioned the historiographic themes fashioned by their elders, but also confronted the racial ethos of southern society in general and their Association in particular.

The drama that played out in Memphis grew naturally from the peculiar dynamics that mark the discipline of southern history. Given that American historiography has characteristically been oriented toward thesis-driven analysis, professional practitioners studying the past regularly tread a delicate line separating those who employ the art of interpretation as an act of dedicated scholarship from others who use it for polemical purposes. During the first half of the twentieth century, students of the American South especially inclined toward the latter. They consciously produced a corpus of apologetic literature that defended the actions of their antebellum and Confederate ancestors even as it also justified the perpetuation of a racist and undemocratic culture premised upon the virtues of class and race stratification. (3)

Broadly speaking, the academic generation that created the Southern Historical Association in 1934 was composed of individuals who had developed their historical consciousness and their perception of social order in the context of a South that worshipped its aristocratic past. As youths, they sat at the feet of hoary Confederate veterans, absorbing their distaste for the "damnyankees"; they read short stories and novels that glorified the Old South and vilified the antebellum North; and, of even greater importance, they ingested crucial social values from school curricula carefully structured by Confederate patriotic associations rather than academic organizations. Enveloped by a collage of flawed memories of grand plantations, docile slaves, and Civil War heroes, these historians in their professional lives not only repeated themes learned in their childhoods but also castigated those northern academicians whose interpretations of the past they judged overly critical of both the old and the modern Souths. …