Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South

By Story, Ronald | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2007 | Go to article overview
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Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South


Story, Ronald, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South. Edited by Glenn Feldman. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 430; $27.95, paper.)

Before Brown contains nine essays by different contributors, plus an epilogue by Glenn Feldman, the editor. Most of the contributors teach history at southern universities; most are relatively young. On the evidence of this collection, we should expect much fruitful labor on the modern South in the years to come.

Some of the volume's essays are narrowly focused, but suggestive. Raymond Arsenault recounts how a narrow Supreme Court decision prompted a futile 1947 effort to desegregate interstate bus service. (The effort failed partly because national attention was riveted on Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Pamela Tyler shows the venomous loathing of white southerners for Eleanor Roosevelt, who publicly interacted with African Americans. Andrew Manis unearths a degree of support for black rights among white Methodist women.

Other seemingly small-bore essays are in fact highly significant. Countering recent criticism of Brown v. Board for favoring integration over equal funding, David and Linda Beito trace the career of a black Mississippi entrepreneur, T. R. M. Howard, who became an "integrationist" only after years of unsuccessfully trying to get white school boards and legislatures to fund black (separate) schools equally. Sarah Hart Brown's article on anticommunism counters two arguments: that Reds were more effective in challenging segregation than, say, the liberal NAACP, and that the anticommunist crusade in the South was distinct from the white-supremacy crusade. The Reds had little mass support, she suggests, and actually made the rights activists easier to attack. Integration in white southern eyes seemed a "collectivist" plot engineered from Moscow, as the Birch Society would later contend. There was therefore little difference between fighting the Kremlin and fighting the NAACP. Scholarly efforts to differentiate them, at least in the South, are problematic.

What about Louisiana, where more black voters registered than elsewhere, black police served in some cities, state colleges were desegregated, and white violence decreased? Adam Fairclough argues that the unusual competition between the Long political machine and its enemies created unusual fissures in white opinion, as did the presence of two Christianities, a fundamentalist Protestantism that endorsed hard-line racial oppression and a Catholicism that did not. Longism and Catholicism permitted, even encouraged, a certain level of black voter registration. But true desegregation and enfranchisement did not flow from these early trends, which in some cases left the NAACP and Progressive forces unprepared to meet the onslaughts of Leander Perez and other rabid racists. They did, however, prevent a reversion to wholesale white supremacy. When the Citizens Councils tried to shatter the NAACP and purge black voters, the federal government finally stepped in.

Historians have also hypothesized that the failure of the CIO organizing drives of the 1940s and 1950s represented not only a labor failure, but given the CIO's integrationist views, a racial failure-a "lost opportunity." Jennifer Brooks's study of World War II veterans modifies that view. Black veterans, having fought for their country, opposed racism at home and joined the NAACP, registered to vote, and even ran for office to open up the system. A federal program, the G.I. Bill, and federal initiatives such as Roosevelt's FEPC and Truman's military desegregation, encouraged them.

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