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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Attack on the Moderates

It’s an honor to be here to discuss Anders Walker’s The Ghosts of Jim Crow, especially with Willoughby and Chris, two of the most exciting scholars of the post-Brown Civil Rights era.

Jim Crow and its end is one the most vibrant areas in legal history; we’ve had some really terrific books in this area in recent years.  Just scanning books on the twentieth century race and law section of my bookcase brings Risa Goluboff’s Lost Promise of Civil Rights, Mary Dudziak’s Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey, and Paul Frymer’s Black and Blue to mind immediately.  Even in that distinguished company, Anders’ book shines; it is one of the most original and most important books I’ve read in the legal history of twentieth-century civil rights.  Anders presents a bold thesis, which challenges how we think about our friends (or people I’ve thought of as my friends up until recently): the moderates in the post-Brown South.....

Often it’s the radicals who’re disliked by historians.  Take the 1940 movie Santa Fe Trail, which starred Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart and – get this – Ronald Reagan as George Custer.  They were young army officers who helped put down the John Brown Rebellion in 1859.  (I think the stuff about Custer is fiction; Stuart actually was part of putting down the rebellion.)  Don’t believe me about President Reagan?  Check out youtube at 2:25. In that movie, John Brown looked like a deranged nut (which maybe he was – but that’s somewhat aside from this story).  It was the moderate army officers who were the heroes of this movie; it was the abolitionist extremist who was the villain.  That fit with what historians thought at the time; they referred to the Civil War as the product of a blundering generation who allowed extremists on both sides to drag our country into a needless war.  The sober moderates were the people historians–and lots of other people–respected in the 1940s and 1950s.  And I suppose in part because our country is so moderate, we have a national affection for the moderates, who keep their eyes on long-term goals.  The sober, hard-working, well-meaning moderates usually aren’t “sexy”; they don’t "resort to violence"; they’re "quite, inoffensive people."  And they’re often successful in business and thus are "the heart of their community."

Moderates have a good reputation in the Civil Rights movement as well.  Think of that most famous of moderates, the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch.  (Malcom Gladwell had a nice discussion of southern moderate whites last summer in the New Yorker.)

But there’s a turn taking place in interpretation.  The extremists have become, in some odd ways, the heroes.  In the phrasing of Glenn Eskew’s brilliantly titled book, But for Birmingham, Birmingham extremists were catalysts for change.  Bull Conner was so outrageous that he drove moderates into the pro-Civil Rights camp.  There’s a lot to that – and the brilliance of one of the Civil Rights strategies was the realization that extremists were their own worst enemies.  Violence is so, so frequently counterproductive.  It certainly was in Birmingham.  Thus, extremists are – inadvertently, obviously – some of the most important catalysts for change.  This makes me think that somewhere in Birmingham, amidst the statues they've put up of late of heroes of the Civil Rights era, there ought to be a statute to old Bull, because he sure did a lot to promote the cause.  

For a long time, the daring radicals opposite old Bull, the Freedom riders and the sit-in stagers, and the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, have been our nation's heroes, of course.  One might add, too, the Tulsa, Oklahoma veterans of the "Great War," who went off in 1921 to fight to protect their community from the white mob with the strains of WEB DuBois' editorial "Returning Soldiers" echoing their head: "We return.  We return from fighting.  We return fighting."  The extreme conservatives and the radical reformers are staging a comeback among historians.

Now, put that picture together with Anders’ interpretation of moderates in The Ghosts of Jim Crow.  Anders revisits three “moderates”: Governors J.P. Coleman of Mississippi, Luther Hodges of North Carolina, and LeRoy Collins of Florida.  He shows that a lot of what they did had the effect of limiting opportunities for equality or for protest.  (And sometimes those effects were directly intended).  This is a really rich volume.  Let me steal a quick summary of several Anders’ key points from his introduction (5). First, that Brown was an important step in the emergence of civil rights.  Anders is certainly correct here; I prefer his interpretation to those who think of Brown as a “hollow hope,” or those who see Brown’s key function as creating a white backlash.  Second, the governors illustrate how state leaders react to Supreme Court decisions and develop law.  (This is an element of what we’re increasingly referring to as “popular constitutionalism.” Anders really pushes back the frontier of knowledge here – I think this is a model for how to link legal thought and considerations of political expediency with the action of executive branch officials, a topic that goes beyond the "popular constitutionalism" literature I've seen.) Third – and most directly related to my comments below – even as the governors limited violence against African Americans, they “discretely shifted the burden of constitutional change onto black shoulders.”  To take one example, Florida Governor Collins shut down bus service in Tallahassee when African Americans boycotted the segregated buses.  One can imagine Collins thinking: “You don’t like segregation?  Fine; there won’t be any buses at all.  How do you like that?”  So much for moderation.

Anders quite convincingly depicts the governors as people who dragged their feet and worse.  That poses, for me, two lines of questions.  First, were substantially all white moderate politicians trying to drag their feet on change ... or worse?  Do we no longer think that moderates might actually have believed that their methods were better-suited than confrontation with conservatives?  Isn’t it possible, indeed likely, that many moderates wanted change, they just wanted it to proceed in a slower and more orderly fashion than many others?  Ok.  Maybe moderates were just using the moderation as a cover for doing nothing.  You may recall that Martin Luther King thought that the counsel to “"wait" has almost always meant ‘never.’” Similarly, King spoke of the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” at the March on Washington.  Anders revives that insight and adds extraordinary detail to King’s interpretation.

Second line of questions, then: Is there no reasonable possibility that the moderates’ methods – even if they were often based on the desire to do nothing – really were effective in bringing about some positive change?  Was there nothing to Booker T. Washington’s counsel that African Americans seek gradual accommodation?  I don’t carry a lot of brief for Washington; I’m on WEB DuBois’ side on this.  But I think that as a strategy, Washington may have been onto something – maybe not much, but not nothing.

To recap, then, my questions about Anders’ book: are Civil Rights era southern moderate politicians generally as “bad” as those in this book?  And if they are, is moderation itself conservative and anti-reform.  (I suppose an important part of the answers to these questions turns on how we define a moderate.  Moderates are, after all, not liberals or radicals – they’re people who want to promote some more gradual goals.  But then again, how moderate is someone who proposes making it a misdemeanor for a single women to have more than one child? (81)  Hey, at least that was an improvement off the idea we’d sterilize unwed mothers.  Maybe what we need is to reframe our definition of people as moderate or conservative?  Anders raises a lot of questions, even as he brings a lot of precision and skepticism to the history of the south's response to Brown.  He's set a framework that we're going to be talking about for a very long time; and I suspect his insights will be exported from the post-Brown south to lots of other places and other times, like the antebellum south....

Now, two final questions.  First, how might we fit fictional southern moderate lawyer Atticus Finch into this picture?  And now that moderates are coming in for a tough time of it, how are the radicals going to come out?

Posted by Alfred Brophy on February 17, 2010 at 10:00 AM in Books | Permalink

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Comments

Al, this is simply fantastic! I learned a lot, and want to read the book now. Thank you!

Posted by: Vladimir | Feb 17, 2010 11:34:17 AM

I really have to question the characterization of these governors as "moderates." I think a better term is "respectable." They shared the central goals of the louder segregationists, but differed on tactics, largely, I believe, because of their closer ties to moneyed interests. As a political leader, JP coleman only looks like a moderate when standing next to Ross Barnett.

Posted by: John Tanner | Feb 17, 2010 12:02:37 PM

I wonder if we could still locate some possible friends in the moderate camp. I don’t read Anders’ book necessarily as a condemnation of moderation as a tactic of social reform. The focus of his critique seems to be a certain subset of moderates, which includes the three southern governors at the center of his book, who use moderate rhetoric as a cover for their underlying segregationist commitments—commitments Anders unearths through archival research. Moderation here is a tactic designed primarily to preserve the racial status quo. But there are other kinds of moderates, including those who share with the civil rights activists a vision of an integrated society but who break with the activists on questions of strategy. This group is not really the focus of Anders’ critique.

Whether those who held this version of civil rights moderation are worthy of being friended is another question. After all, it was this kind of moderate position that King so powerfully condemned in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (he called the Alabama clergymen to whom he addressed his letter “men of genuine good will”). But these moderates are certainly are more worthy of friendship than those who used moderate rhetoric as an insidiously effective cover for further entrenching racial inequalities. I’d put Atticus in the “men of genuine good will” category. He’s still my friend.

Posted by: Chris Schmidt | Feb 18, 2010 10:28:44 AM

One quibble: Risa's book is the Lost Promise of Civil Rights, not the Lost Promise of Jim Crow. The latter would really cast things in a totally different light.

Posted by: JB | Feb 18, 2010 12:23:36 PM

JB--of course, thanks. I obviously had Jim Crow on my mind. I've got that link fixed.

Posted by: Alfred | Feb 18, 2010 1:27:04 PM

Al raises two important questions. One goes to whether southern moderates were truly as bad as I portray them to be, and the other goes to whether they might have accomplished things that turned out to be good for the South.

Taking the second question first, the answer is yes. Moderates like Collins, Coleman, and Hodges all did things that present day liberals would say are good, among them the modernization of judicial administration (bringing justices of the peace under judicial supervision), and the centralization of state law enforcement. By expanding the size and scope of state police, all three moderates in my book developed an important tool for controlling local law enforcement, and ending the kind of localized police violence that had plagued the South since at least the end of the Civil War. Even lynching, I believe, is brought to an end as an informally accepted mode of popular justice in part because moderates rob local police of their autonomy, making local sheriffs much less interested in catering to local hysteria and much more interested in preventing state encroachment on their domains. I doubt anyone would argue that this was a bad thing.

This goes to the more fundamental, and perhaps more interesting question of whether moderates believed in some type of gradual change, and simply engaged in the subterfuges that they did out of political necessity. Perhaps surprisingly, I think not. Moderates like Collins, Coleman, and Hodges were, I argue in a forthcoming Santa Clara piece, pluralists. They genuinely believed that segregation was a mutually agreeable arrangement that helped preserve a type of binary multiculturalism, black institutions/white institutions, black traditions/white traditions, black cultural identity/white cultural identity. To give an example, LeRoy Collins often spoke nostalgically of how he and Mary Call, his wife, would be invited to Florida A&M homecoming games as guests, and be given their own special, segregated seats, where they could enjoy the wonderful, exciting, culturally unique, Rattlers marching band. Similarly, Luther Hodges referred openly to black and white cultures when he delivered his infamous address at Shaw University in North Carolina, indicating that black culture was in fact something that he was interested in preserving. To answer Al, in other words, they genuinely believed that segregation was good and, at the same time, they may genuinely have wanted to improve black life.

And, they did not think that they were alone. Collins took inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston's critique of Brown in the Orlando Sentinel, and from Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither, who was legitimately worried that if integration occurred, he would lose his football team to Gainesville. Indeed, Gaither ended up working for Collins, neutralizing civil rights protest in Florida.

While we may judge this brand of southern pluralism repugnant, opting instead for the utopian multiculturalism of Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen, Brown v. Board of Education remains an arguably anti-pluralist, anti-multiculturalist ruling. No where is this more obvious than in Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma, cited in footnote 11, which states outright that black cultural institutions, black churches and black fraternal organizations in particular, are pathological and should be abolished. Myrdal, a Swedish tourist, could not comprehend the fact that black culture, black institutions, and black traditions may have been worth preserving.

Enter Atticus Finch. Though Canadian tourists like Malcolm Gladwell blame Finch for not standing up to Jim Crow, if he was anything like Collins, Coleman, or Hodges (and I think he probably was), he probably believed that Jim Crow was a mutually agreeable arrangement that preserved interracial harmony and promoted racial diversity. My guess is that he would have found the idea of forced racial integration bizarre, or perhaps even "ridiculous" (to borrow one of LeRoy Collins's terms).

The short answer to Al's question is that moderates did good things and may well have been good people. But, their version of diversity is not our version. Or is it? As I plan to show in an upcoming book, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. is the one southern moderate who ends up having a lasting impact on American law, by killing reparations and inscribing southern pluralism, or "diversity" into our constitutional canon.

Posted by: Anders Walker | Feb 18, 2010 11:56:57 PM

black cultural institutions, black churches and black fraternal organizations in particular, are pathological and should be abolished.

Is this the underlying view of the book?

Posted by: Jackson Pollack | Feb 19, 2010 12:16:21 AM

That is Myrdal's view yes. For the exact citation, see GUNNAR MYRDAL, AN AMERICAN DILEMMA 928 (1944), cited in Brown, 347 U.S. at 494 n.11.

Posted by: Anders Walker | Feb 19, 2010 12:36:05 PM

I suppose I was wondering if it is your view.

Posted by: Jackson Pollack | Feb 19, 2010 3:12:41 PM

No. For my view, see "Diversity's Strange Career: Recovering the Racial Pluralism of Lewis F. Powell, Jr.," 50 Santa Clara Law Review (forthcoming 2010) Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1508581

Posted by: Anders Walker | Feb 20, 2010 10:38:15 AM

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