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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Smarter Southern Strategy

I am pleased to be a part of this discussion of Anders Walker’s important and thought-provoking The Ghost of Jim Crow.  Walker takes on two well-worn themes of civil rights history—the southern white moderate and the backlash to Brown—and in so doing reorients our understanding of resistance to desegregation. 

While police dogs, fire hoses and politicians like George Wallace loom large in the story of resistance, Walker places moderate southern governors back in their central, rightful place.  Even before the Brown decision came down, these leaders saw the writing on the wall and were strategizing how to maintain the racial separation they thought essential to the South.  The governors consulted with each other and legal experts, while mustering every weapon at their disposal, including informants, local leaders and the press.  They developed pupil placement laws by transforming assignment criteria from racial categories to group-specific standards like illegitimacy and poverty that disproportionately affected segregated black communities.  To reinforce the new race-neutral criteria, the leaders instituted state welfare and family law reforms designed to create disparate effects, while reigning in rogue local sheriffs to minimize violence.  Walker parses the moderates’ sincere belief in the benefit of Jim Crow to both black and white communities.  Yet the author also looks below the political posturing to the powerful mechanisms they established to reinforce race-based inequality.  Changing the face of southern resistance from the nullifiers and neo-confederates to these powerful, thoughtful leaders, Walker helps us better appreciate the powers aligned against substantive change.

One of Walker’s most interesting contributions is his insight that segregationists pursued their aims on multiple fronts.  The governors worked within the courts, but also with the media, through discussions with black leaders, via state law reforms, and eventually from influential positions in the federal government.  The “strategic constitutionalism” employed by the governors seems to have broad effects, even changing the very language used to discuss desegregation. And hasn’t this moderate framing of the debate won out–the rhetoric around civil rights has metamorphosized from the immorality of exclusion into the unfairness of inclusion.  I would be very interested to hear the author’s further thoughts on how in fifty years the southern resisters’ vision came to dominate civil rights jurisprudence.


Posted by Willoughby Anderson on February 17, 2010 at 09:14 AM in Books | Permalink


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Willoughby Anderson's question is a big one. Put bluntly, southern moderates provided a cultural frame that would become a central part of curtailing civil rights gains for the remainder of the Twentieth Century. Their emphasis on what they called black shortcomings - crime rates, venereal disease rates, illegitimacy rates, and so on - quickly caught hold at the national level, bedeviling attempts to widen the political opportunity structure for African Americans. Perhaps the earliest example of this emerged in reactions on the House and Senate floors by southern moderates to the Watts Riot in Los Angeles in 1965. Also, Lyndon Johnson's decision to borrow from the Moynihan Report at his Howard University Address in 1965 shows signs of this type of frame alignment, as does the political rhetoric of presidential candidates ranging from Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter, and from Ronald Reagan to George Bush. Even Bill Clinton made hay out of crime, welfare, and illegitimacy statistics during his administration, putting cops on the streets and ending welfare as we knew it. Of course, Clinton also paid resounding tribute to the symbolic achievements of the civil rights movement, but this only illustrates the effectiveness of moderate frame alignment, it survived and even absorbed the victories of the movement, meanwhile hobbling more ambitious reforms.

Posted by: Anders Walker | Feb 19, 2010 12:26:05 AM

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