The Southern Racial Conversion Narrative: Larry L King and Pat Watters
Hobson, Fred, The Virginia Quarterly Review
In that curious history of what I might call the white Southern racial conversion narrative-that literature of the mid and late 20th century in which white Southerners told of coming up from racism and embracing racial brotherhood and sisterhood-the decade of the 1960's would seem to occupy a particularly prominent place. Racial conversion narratives had been written before-most notably, in the late 1940's by Lillian Smith and Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin-but the 1960's transformed what had been random works of racial confession and conversion into a Southern literary subgenre. The times were right, and rather numerous Southerners, the better angels of their nature awakened by the Civil Rights Movement, their sensibilities shocked by the atrocities of Selma, Birmingham, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, looked inward to explore their own racial histories. Sarah Patton Boyle's The Desegregated Heart (1962), James McBride Dabbs' The Road Home (1960) and Who Speaks for the South? (1964), Lillian Smith's revised and expanded Killers of the Dream (1963), Willie Morris's North Toward Home (1967), and Wendell Berry's The Hidden Wound (1970) were all, among other things, racial conversion narratives. So, at least in part, were Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro (1965), in which the author repented for the defense of racial segregation he had written 35 years earlier for I'll Take My Stand, and William Styron's 1965 Harper's essay, "This Quiet Dust"-not to mention Styron's fictional The Confessions of Nat Turner ( 1967), which (despite its hostile reception from many black critics) was, in a deeper sense, the Confessions of William Styron, grandson of slaveholders and self-professed racial sinner.
All these works, and others, were written in the 1960's, but few were so compelling as hvo other books, not so well-known, also inspired by that decade and published in 1971. Larry L. King's Confessions of a White Racist had begun as an essay written for Willie Morris, editor of Harper's, at a time Morris was recruiting legions of Southerners, resident and expatriate, to tell about the South. Pat Watters Down to Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the most deeply felt of all the racial conversion narratives, was the product of a decade in which Watters had covered the Civil Rights Movement and reflected on Southern racial sins.
Larry King, whose Confessions had appeared a few month before Watters book, was just as fully a convert as Watters and others in the genre, but he came to racial conversion in a manner somewhat different from Watters, Smith, Dabbs, Boyle, and other racial converts of the period-not through religion (since, at least by his teens, he had little), nor through some extension of noblesse oblige (that, his family didn't have either), nor even through early residence in the traditional South. King was born in 1929 in Putnam, Texas-a land far more Western than Southern-and he grew up largely in west Texas, the son of a family of no great distinction, historical consciousness, or social or economic standing. In fact, the Kings, if not actually poor, were of very modest means. King's father farmed for a time, then held a series of jobs, including construction worker and night watchman for an oil company for about a dollar an hour. Nor did the young King himself have any driving ambition. He finished high school in Texas, joined the Army, went for a year of college at Texas Tech, and worked for a couple of Southwestern newspapers. Then, hitching his unpromising star to a Texas congressman, he went to Washington in 1954, and in the years that followed, just before and during the Johnson administration, he gained a certain cachet, as many country-smart and colorful Texans did during that era. If one were a poor boy from the provinces, it helped to be what was called a character-and King was adjudged to be precisely that. By the time Willie Morris met King in the mid-1960's he was already a "flamboyant and outspoken" figure with a "hardy and questing eye. …