I went to the University of North Carolina to study history in graduate school because I was a liberal and I wanted to study with the liberals who defined the term for me in my South. I wanted to be a Chapel Hill Liberal. My friends and family in South Carolina found all of this amusing, but none of them disputed my assertion that southern liberalism got its start and was still flourishing on The Hill. Like most graduate students in history or any other discipline, I was often dissatisfied and frustrated with my program of studies, but I never doubted that I had come to the sectional center for liberalism--and at a time, the 1970s, when people everywhere but Massachusetts were beginning to be ashamed of liberalism.
For some decades thereafter I convinced myself that I knew exactly what a Chapel Hill Liberal was, because it was what I was trying to be. And I was most acutely aware of what a Chapel Hill Liberal was when I fell short of the courage that in my mind marked such people. When I was very young and very self-consciously conservative, I read Max Ascoli's magazine the Reporter because my mother and my grandmother, who styled themselves liberal on many issues, thought that I should read something other than writings by Edmund Burke, Douglas Southall Freeman, and Barry Goldwater, which were my preferred readings. Ascoli once said that a liberal was someone "always on special assignment," and this phrase stuck in my head even and especially when partying or playing or gossiping or taking a road trip, doing any of those activities when most people are pointedly not "on assignment."(1) For some years after, I adopted Max Ascoli's medium, but not his message.
As a kid at Wade Hampton High School who read all the time and argued all the time and was always on assignment--and as such a kid who was conservative during the period of real leftist reform between 1962 and 1966--I knew where the liberal opponents were. They were in Chapel Hill, and the Chapel Hill Liberal was for some time my foil, my defining Other. If I were feeling generous in spirit, they were the worthy opposition; more typically I regarded them as the over-privileged opposition. In 1968, when most people began to speak of "second thoughts" and dealt in other such language, I went over, whole hog, into the southern liberalism that earlier I could not cotton.
Thinking myself literary and admiring a certain quirky mysticism, I became a liberal because my only liberal friend, Frank Chandler, was murdered by African Americans who were trying to rob a convenience store in Campobello, South Carolina, that he managed in the summer. Nineteen sixty-eight, of course, was a year when there was a lot of senseless murder. In writing to his mother, Frontis Chandler, I looked for words to say, and I found myself writing, with no plan at all, that since Frank was the only liberal that I knew, and now he was gone, I would have to become liberal in his place. I still have her reply, in her own fine hand. (I wonder if she could even read my note, since I had not typed it and my handwriting is, as a close friend and sympathetic observer says, damnably execrable). I keep the reply in my Bible, the King James translation. It says: "Thank you for your sweet letter. We appreciate it more than I can tell you. Love, Frontis Chandler."(2) I had come to liberalism through an epiphany, and that meant that I was still an Episcopalian and still a southerner too. It also meant that I was bound for Chapel Hill, where the Episcopalians had even set the building that gave the place its name.
It was race relations that consumed me, and an article by Eugene D. Genovese compelled me to write a biography of U. B. Phillips, whom I admired because of his focus on race relations as a defining characteristic of the South, for his graceful writing, and for his thorough research. Only the message itself--his celebration of racism--was wrong in my eyes.(3)
Next came a biography of the late C. …