Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Still Distinctive after All These Years: Trends in Racial Attitudes in and out of the South

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Still Distinctive after All These Years: Trends in Racial Attitudes in and out of the South

Article excerpt

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The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s transformed the United States. After decades of struggle and sacrifice, it prodded the federal government to ban racial discrimination in public facilities, to pass fair housing laws after years of de facto and de jure exclusion, and to make every citizen's right to vote a reality. The Movement liberalized American political culture, birthed a protest movement by women, spawned antiwar and free-speech activism, triggered a flurry of protests by the deaf, trade unionists, and others, and profoundly influenced the content and trajectory of democratic ideals and practice. Indeed, the very language Americans use to understand our national identity and the country's history--what we now mean by such concepts as freedom, justice, and equality, and how and when we use those and similar words--has been shaped by the black freedom struggle. That the fight for civil rights did not accomplish all that some had hoped--de facto housing segregation, for example, is alive and well, and African Americans tend to be impoverished, as well as unemployed, at rates twice or more greater than those of whites--in no way diminishes the righteousness of its travails, the magnitude of its victories, or the potency of its continuing legacy.'

Nowhere in the nation was this transformation more sweeping or felt with more force than in the American South. Coupled with landmark legislation of the mid- and late-1960s, Movement successes spelled the demise of white supremacy in the region and the quick dismantlement of coercive state-mandated regimes of racial control and inequality. Simply put, after years of massive resistance, white southerners lost much of the privilege attached to their skin color that was theirs for more than three hundred years. Some, admittedly, were reluctant to give up the fight entirely, or to give up what they thought was their due. In what the political scientists Merle and Earl Black label the "great white switch," hundreds of thousands of Dixie's whites left the national Democratic Party during the 1970s and '80s for the Republican Party, where some, at least, could voice and vote their racial interests. The South, moreover, once home in the 1970s to the most desegregated public school systems in the country, rapidly re-segregated its schools, so that now school systems in the region reflect the racial segregation of those in the remainder of the nation. And even now we continue to bear witness to nasty Jena Six-like incidents (or things even uglier) throughout much of the region. (2)

All of this seems to give credence to the old shibboleth endlessly repeated by segregationists during the 1950s and '60s. "Stateways can't change folkways," they said, meaning that racial attitudes must lead, not follow, the law, and until white southerners had a genuine change of heart about race (and this of course was expected to take a long, long time), or so the argument went, it was useless--even dangerous, lest the ill-mannered amongst us react with hooliganism and violence--to try to alter the social fabric too dramatically or too rapidly. Of course, what actually happened was that legal, then, quite suddenly, behavioral, change came before most southern whites had their Road-to-Damascus epiphany. Just about all any southerner of a certain age in the region's black belt need do to grasp intuitively--viscerally--the depth of racial change over the last fifty years is to remember what life was like when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 or when Bull Connor unleashed his dogs on children in Birmingham in 1963, and then ponder the race of one's present mayor or the town's police chief and officers or the school system's superintendent and teachers, of the physician down the road, and the owners of the convenience stores and small motels. So even as some southern whites continued to resist racial justice, many, perhaps most, acquiesced and adapted to a new racial reality, a reality for which they might or might not have wished but one in which they most certainly had to live. …

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