Virginius Dabney, John Temple Graves, and What Happened to Southern Liberalism

By Matthews, John Michael | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Virginius Dabney, John Temple Graves, and What Happened to Southern Liberalism


Matthews, John Michael, The Mississippi Quarterly


Before the second world war there were a number of Southern men and women reputed to be liberals who intrigued outsiders who thought that a patently backward and hidebound region could not produce its own critics and reformers. These Southern liberals would never have been able to agree on a definition of their own liberalism or on a coherent program of reform for the South; both contemporary commentators and more recent historians have had some trouble in knowing what to make of them. Nevertheless, fuzzy and inadequate as were their solutions to the South's ills, Southern liberals found larger agreement on what needed to be changed. In the 1920s they stood on common ground denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, racial lynchings, religious bigotry, prohibition, and other social ills and cultural shortcomings. By the following decade the depression had diverted their attention to the South's overwhelming economic problems - sharecropping and the onecrop cotton economy, dire poverty, industrial backwardness, and sadly neglected public services. Many of them looked to the emergence of labor unions as one key to modernization; most, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, welcomed the New Deal. A few hoped for the creation of a two-party political system; a few cautiously conceded that the South's biracial order might have to be changed.

For all the words they wrote, petitions they signed, organizations they launched, and studies they contributed to public discussion, this generation of Southern liberals has been rather easy to dismiss. As is the case with many of those who espouse gradual reform over revolutionary change, the results of their efforts were hard to measure. With time, some of the social tensions of the 1920s, which had triggered in them a measure of healthy alienation from the culture of the South, appeared to have been relieved; ardor for the New Deal weakened among many by the end of the 1930s. But it was the turbulence of World War II and the inexorable challenges to old Southern patterns of racial discrimination in the later 1940s that revealed the limits of the thinking of Southern liberals between the two world wars. Faced with the need to come to terms with the postwar transformation of their region, some of them actually made the transition to another sort of liberalism and came to espouse the dismantling of legalized racial discrimination. Others, however, retreated into reaction, renouncing their liberal stance and growing more defensive of Southern ways.

The careers of two men, Virginius Dabney and John Temple Graves II, who became increasingly conservative by midcentury, suggest much about the character of Southern liberalism. Both were journalists and writers, both had a readership and an influence far beyond the cities - Richmond and Birmingham - where they lived, and both in the early years of their careers were outspoken critics of some of the South's greatest failures. Close together in age - Graves was born in 1892 and Dabney in 1901 - and not so very far apart in their thinking, they reflect both the distinctiveness and the limitations of most of a generation of Southerners who reached maturity in the 1920s and lived long enough to grapple with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and later.

Dabney came from an old and prominent Virginia family and grew up in Charlottesville where his father, Richard Heath Dabney, taught history and economics at the University of Virginia. He graduated with both bachelor's and master's degrees in 1921 and the following year moved to Richmond to become a newspaper reporter, thereby launching a long career in journalism in the Virginia capital. In 1928 he went to work for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he remained for several decades. His upbringing included a particular appreciation of the history of his state, a deep regard for things Jeffersonian, and a public spiritedness instilled by his university training.(1)

John Temple Graves, a native Georgian, came from a family only a little less prominent than Dabney's. …

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