Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The "Golden" Era of Civil Rights: Consequences of the Carolina Israelite

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The "Golden" Era of Civil Rights: Consequences of the Carolina Israelite

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The year 1960 was an auspicious one in southern history. Four black students demanded service at a Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, thus inaugurating the sit-in movement; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the most militant of civil rights organizations, was founded in Raleigh; and that year also marked the deaths of two Mississippians. One was the novelist Richard Wright, who died an expatriate in Paris. The other, a Yale-educated lawyer and business leader from Greenville, David L. Cohn, had made himself into perhaps the most articulate defender of the social system of the Mississippi Delta. Cohn had famously defined its boundaries in 1935 as "begin[ning] in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and end[ing] on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." (1)

Five years later, in 1940, when Wright published Native Son, The Atlantic Monthly assigned it to Cohn to review. He called this sensational, best-selling novel % blinding and corrosive study in hate," a highly exaggerated and inflammatory description of the dilemma of race relations that proved only that the Negro problem was "insoluble." The monthly had presumably picked Cohn to review Native Son not only because he was a frequent contributor but also because he was a white Mississippian. He also read the novel as a Jew, however, and chose to contrast the animus that he believed was underlying Native Son with the historic ordeal of his own minority group, which had responded to two millennia of persecution with "an intense family and communal life and [which had] constructed inexhaustible wells of spiritual resource." So stone-cold unsympathetic a reading of this novel, so utterly uncomprehending a response compelled Wright to rebut Cohn's review and to wonder whether he was seriously "recommending his 'two thousand years of oppression' to the Negroes of America." They would--Wright assured him--instead "perish in the attempt to avoid it." The novelist could not fathom why the rights guaranteed to whites should not and could not extend fully to black Americans. The race problem was therefore easily rectified, as a glance at the U. S. Constitution might suggest. (2)

This exchange in The Atlantic Monthly was striking because Cohn undoubtedly defined himself not only as a spokesman of the South, but also as a Jew--perhaps the most articulate of the Jews choosing to live and die in Dixie. And no wonder. So hospitable had even the Deep South become to his co-religionists that in that same year, when Mississippi's Senator Theodore G. Bilbo ran for re-election, the campaign manager of this iconic race-baiter was Jewish. (3) But Cohn could not have foreseen that the southern way of life that he wanted to vindicate was doomed and that the future would belong to Richard Wright.

One explanation for the triumph of the egalitarian ideal perhaps originated a year after this literary exchange. In 1941, quite inauspiciously, an obscure ex-salesman stepped off a Greyhound bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, to write for a couple of local newspapers. A year later he founded his own monthly, a tabloid he called The Carolina Israelite. No one could have imagined that Harry Golden would replace Cohn as the most famous Jew living in the South. The differences could scarcely have been sharper. David L. Cohn prided himself on his status as an insider, as though he were fully at home in the Delta as a native son of "the most Southern place on earth." Golden died in Charlotte exactly four decades after moving there, and while the Bible Belt accepted him, he always smacked of the Borscht Belt, exuding the stereotypical characteristics of a Yiddish-speaking, sidewalks-of-New York, diamond-in-the-rough kibitzer whose political sentiments were liberal. Cohn had been forthright in his defense of white supremacy. He was dubious--or at least ambivalent--about social change, and welcomed an appreciation of the peculiarities of southern identity. …

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