The Hopeful Southerner 

Essays that turn an old-style liberal lens on the peculiarities of the South

The last white Southern liberals to come of age in the pre-civil rights era are now in their 60s, so it won’t be many decades before they go the way of the dodo.

The last white Southern liberals to come of age in the pre-civil rights era are now in their 60s, so it won’t be many decades before they go the way of the dodo. That’s a shame, because they’re an appealing, fascinating American type. Guilt-ridden beneficiaries of a brutal apartheid system, and yet deeply attached to the gentler customs of their caste, they view the world with a thoughtful ambivalence that’s not usually a feature of the U.S. psyche. When cultural historians are puzzling over this long-lost bird in 50 or a hundred years, they’d do well to examine Frye Gaillard’s With Music and Justice for All, a collection of essays and articles shaped by the classic attitudes and ideals of the breed.

Mobile, Ala., native Gaillard is a journalist with a literary bent who has received wide acclaim for his writing on the civil rights movement. A 1968 Vandy grad, he was happy to see Jim Crow crumble during his adolescence, though he had been born into a traditional Southern family who were equally devoted to their black servants and to segregation. With Music and Justice for All brings together his work dating back to the 1970s, centered on three Southern obsessions: race, religion and music. The particular subjects range from a what-might-have-been lament on the Robert Kennedy assassination to an account of the rise of redneck rock, but most of the stories touch on Gaillard’s belief that the South remains a distinct, morally ambiguous cultural entity—shaped by its violent history, but with a fundamental spiritual strength that can be redeemed by coming to terms with that history.

That idea is central to one of the best pieces in the book, “The Gospel According to Will,” one of six articles with a religious focus. It’s a profile of Nashville preacher/activist Will Campbell, a true eccentric who Gaillard describes as “a Socratic Southern gadfly, a thorn in the flesh of the conventional wisdom.” Campbell started out as a teen preacher in a rural south Mississippi Baptist church, made his way to Yale Divinity School and eventually joined the civil rights movement in the 1950s. But Gaillard writes that the young minister found the movement’s vision of reform lacking: “Campbell was awed by the bravery of it all, and yet he couldn’t shake a feeling in the back of his mind—a troublesome sense that however right and righteous it was, however important that the South be confronted with the sins of its past, there was something incomplete about the whole crusade, some failure to understand, as he would put it later, ‘that Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well.’ ” Campbell would go on to minister to Klansmen and death row inmates, as well as continue to crusade for civil rights.

For Gaillard, Campbell’s ministry, which embraces both sides of the racial divide, flows from the unique insight of the enlightened white Southerner, who knows firsthand that the oppressor is as spiritually damaged as his victim. It’s that immediate, personal knowledge, rather than ideology or abstract principle, that spurs the Southern liberal to act for social change. Gaillard makes the same observation in his discussion of the firestorm caused by Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He describes Carter as a “white Southerner of conscience” who can “identify with the oppressors as well as the oppressed, and that instinctive, double-edged understanding had made his indignation even stronger.”

That tendency to see the past, however dark, as a source of moral strength reappears in the book’s half-dozen accounts of the civil rights movement. “Deliverance: The Greensboro Four” tells the story of the young men who led the first successful sit-in at a North Carolina lunch counter. Gaillard acknowledges that their actions were motivated by rage at the injustice of segregation, as well as resentment at their parents’ persistent belief in the traditional promises of the American system. Yet he also locates their courage in the older generation’s seemingly misplaced faith. He notes one student’s observation, years later, that his parents “were trying to give him hope, which was a heroic notion for people who lived in a segregated world, and without hope there would have been no movement....”

Gaillard’s music writing doesn’t confront the same moral questions as his work on race and religion, but his habit of looking on the sunny side is just as evident. He’s no breathless fan, but he does tend to deliver his observations with reverence that sometimes seems over the top. Charlie Daniels can be “one of the gentlest and least pretentious people you would ever want to meet.” The Squirrel Nut Zippers’ music began “as art for the sake of itself.” These articles are more celebrity profiles than music criticism, but they’re thoughtful and—like everything in the collection—gracefully written. The article on Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” is especially well crafted.

A handful of personality profiles that don’t readily fit into the race, religion or music themes are brought together in a fourth section, “Characters.” They include a worshipful account of Gaillard’s grandfather, a study of writer Robert Howard Allen, and a fawning portrait of Tipper Gore that is easily the worst thing in the book.

The tone of earnestness running through this book gets a little wearying. Twenty-first century sensibilities are accustomed to an occasional sarcastic aside, a little distancing irony, and Gaillard simply doesn’t provide them. He does, however, offer wonderful prose, and the kind of unshakeable faith in humanity that grows rarer by the day.

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