Beyond Racism: Lessons from the South on Racial Discrimination and Prejudice

By Patrik Jonsson; photos Melanie Stetson Freeman | The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond Racism: Lessons from the South on Racial Discrimination and Prejudice


Patrik Jonsson; photos Melanie Stetson Freeman, The Christian Science Monitor


Seven lessons from the deep South on racism, racial discrimination, and prejudice.

How does a black man win the highest political office in this majority-white town, infamous for one of the vilest acts of racial violence in modern American history?

James Young knows precisely. The chatty, barrel-chested Pentecostal pastor and former town ambulance worker became the city's first black mayor last year, mainly by promising he wouldn't fix anybody's traffic tickets. But despite his well-known face and pro-business outlook, Mr. Young admits he still bears the burden of his race in the eyes of many townspeople.

So how did he overcome the racial odds? "My philosophy is that I refuse to stop the truck and get out to fight you," he says. "I'm going to keep moving forward."

IN PICTURES: Race in America

Young's slim, 47-vote victory in this town of 8,000 is hardly proof that racial prejudice is dead in the South, never mind here, where a gang of white supremacists led by a preacher killed three civil rights workers in 1964, inspiring the iconic movie "Mississippi Burning." But as the rest of America - under its first black president, Barack Obama - still finds itself clashing regularly over the use of the N-word or hurling accusations of racism in politics and the workplace, Philadelphia is seen as an example of racial redemption. It's the outcome of what historian Joseph Crespino at Emory University in Atlanta calls "a unique laboratory of racial interaction that is specific to the South."

By virtue of paradox and complexity, the South is an evasive teacher, often too genteel and judicious to ballyhoo its advances. But the old Confederacy's wrenching emergence from separate water fountains to an international melting pot reveals a region comfortable with its contradictions and even its past, a place where common interests trump overt prejudice, and where many people see race as an undeniable fact of life not to be subverted, but appreciated.

"I think the one thing the South could teach the country about race is that it's a deeper problem than anybody realizes; it touches more nerves than anyone wants to acknowledge, but at the same time that racism and the racist heritage of America can be overcome," says Massachusetts-born historian Jason Sokol, author of "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945- 1975."

"Every day, in every way, you can see that the South can teach the country about what it's been able to do in our very lifetime," adds Pat Caddell, a Democratic pollster who was part of President Jimmy Carter's inner circle.

Lesson 1: Recognize how far we've come

In the 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., gave America images of white police siccing German shepherds on black youths, shocking photos that galvanized the nation. The clashes were followed by federal laws guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights, and the eventual flight of many whites out of Birmingham and into the suburbs.

Today, many of the same children who faced water cannons grew up to take over key city positions, including at various times the mayor's office.

The black middle class mingles easily with whites at restaurants in the upscale Five Points area, and transitional neighborhoods like Roebuck are gradually integrating. There is a sense of racial peace that comes, local blacks say, from a recognition of the past and a view toward a mutual, but not necessarily integrated, future.

Hard, brutal ground was covered for Birmingham to emerge as a destination on a Southern civil rights tourist trail. Now, in Kelly Park, locals like Barbara Anderson, whose parents rallied there to protest Martin Luther King's imprisonment, can walk through a cast- iron sculpture of attack dogs gnashing in perpetuity at passersby.

To Ms. Anderson, the dog sculpture is visceral and deeply symbolic of the South's transformation: "Things have gotten a lot better [between the races]. …

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