‘Our Negroes’ No More 

Author examines all the ways—both the hideous and the complex—that Southern whites

Until recently, the white experience during the civil rights movement was considered largely irrelevant, if not politically incorrect—a topic best left to KKK meetings, back-road bars, and the corner table at the country club.

by Clay Risen

Until recently, the white experience during the civil rights movement was considered largely irrelevant, if not politically incorrect—a topic best left to KKK meetings, back-road bars, and the corner table at the country club. But a growing number of scholars—Kevin Kruse, Matt Lassiter, James Cobb—have begun to take it up, not in order to vindicate whites but rather to expand our understanding of the era, and in doing so help us better understand race relations today. After all, real racial progress is not only about lowering legal barriers and raising the status of American blacks. It is also about changing attitudes—and so it is integral that we see just how racial attitudes have developed.

Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything is a welcome addition to this burgeoning scholarship. Sokol, who teaches history at Cornell, is less interested in civil rights milestones than in the vast distances of time and space between them, in the quotidian experiences that upended a way of life Southern whites had taken for granted. “The prominent events of the era,” he writes, “often had less meaning than the changes in the texture of day-to-day life.” The Supreme Court’s Brown decision had less of an immediate impact on individual whites than the first time they sat down at a restaurant next to a black family, or the first time they encountered a black man at the front of the bus: “Taken together, these changes amounted to a revolution in a way of life.” Sokol is an elegant, engaging writer, and he approaches his subjects with empathy, if not always sympathy. He does not dwell on the thousands of Klan members and massive resisters to Brown; he’s interested in the millions who passively accepted segregation, largely because they had been raised to believe that their way of life was morally correct, best for whites and blacks alike. Most whites believed that all involved, of both races, understood the importance of maintaining a system of white supremacy. They were less outraged than shocked over the emergence, seemingly overnight, of a homegrown civil rights movement because they had understood blacks’ “veneer of deference” as a sign of racial harmony. They could not comprehend why their maids and farmhands suddenly wanted life to be any different. Which is not to say that, once the sit-ins and marches began, the majority of whites realized the error of their ways. Instead, Sokol maps a constellation of different reactions, from violence to grudging acceptance to outright shame. The most fascinating section of the book is an examination of essays written by a college class at Georgia soon after the school was desegregated. Asked to give their reactions to the admission of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes to the university, the students expressed frustration with imposed and rapid change, but beyond that their responses ranged from hatred to a recognition that “Negroes are human just as we are.” Only a few said they would resist integration. Even the most crass racists wrote that “I want my education and I’ll get it if I have to go to school with the negro.” The student essays reflect what Sokol argues was the predominant white response to civil rights: faced with a reality that challenged their inherited beliefs, most accepted change even if they did not allow the new reality to change them. “For some, the law forced changes in practices, but it could not touch the recesses of hearts and minds,” he writes. “Others began to question deeply held views even though their lives looked much the same as before.” Sokol also does an admirable job of highlighting the tensions among whites in response to desegregation. The erosion of Jim Crow laws was in no place immediate nor absolute; rather, integration—whether it was in schools, on buses or at lunch counters—came slowly, hampered or facilitated by geography, class and demographics. In Atlanta, school integration happened quickly. In parts of Virginia, public schools were shuttered. Many communities were deeply divided, and white-on-white violence was not uncommon: parents who took their children to integrated schools, or soda shop owners who seated blacks, found their houses vandalized, their families harassed. Ironically, Sokol finds, such violence turned otherwise passive whites into anti-anti-segregationists: “Of those white Southerners who came to accept integration, more were repulsed by segregationist violence than attracted to civil rights demands.” Sokol marvels at the human capacity to accept change, and he lauds the wave of tolerance that swept the South in the generation after the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, he understands that even today, that era has not completely altered the region. By the 2000s, he writes, “One could witness a changed land, replete with legal equality for all,” but “just as easily, one might hear a stray epithet slipped into a sentence. More likely, one could glimpse a row of dilapidated all-black houses in the shadows of mansions inhabited by whites, or observe crumbling public schools that teemed with blacks while burgeoning private schools catered to privileged whites. Some embraced the advances of blacks; most preferred to forget a past that still dogged them.” Such is the burden the South faces in 2006. The work of Sokol and his colleagues is an important step toward easing it.

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