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Panic in the South

The Crucible of Race: Black–White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation

by Joel Williamson
Oxford University Press, 561 pp., $25.00

When Henry Ford made his famous pronouncement that “history is bunk,” he spoke for many Americans. Compared with the citizens of most other countries, Americans have been little inclined to dwell on the triumphs or tragedies of the past or to recognize that contemporary problems and concerns may have roots extending far backward in time. But Ford’s off-handedness about history has been less common among southerners than among others. A heavy legacy of slavery, secession, military defeat, racial violence, legalized segregation, and wide-spread poverty has set the South apart—or did so until recent historical trends narrowed the economic divisions between the sections and revealed that racial injustice and conflict were national, and not just southern, problems.

To a considerable extent the intellectual and literary history of the South in the twentieth century has taken the form of a confrontation with this complex and peculiar historical experience. In the writings of Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and William Styron, the past often functions as a palpable weight on the present—a kind of ancestral curse or collective trauma that must be probed to its depths if self-awareness or expiation is to be achieved. The notion that the intellectual is not a free spirit or detached observer but shares the fate of his “folk”and responsibility for their sins has given modern southern literature much of its agonized intensity.

The best nonfiction that white southerners have written about the South shares this tendency to view history in a direct and personal way. Wilbur J. Cash’s masterpiece of cultural intuition, The Mind of the South,1 is the most famous and influential of a vast number of books written by journalists and essayists on the general theme of how the contemporary South is rooted in its peculiar past. For these southerners in search of their identity, purely historical events and personages could take on the vividness and emotional power of personal recollections.

Professional historians are supposed to be more detached, objective, and restricted in scope and subject matter than novelists and social critics, but the best southern historical writing has gained more than it has lost from a deep moral and philosophical preoccupation with the meaning of the southern experience. The usual tendency, as in the work of C. Vann Woodward and David Potter, has been to save the boldest reflections on “southern identity” or “the nature of Southernism” for addresses and essays, while apparently concentrating on more limited, conventionally historical questions in their books.

Joel Williamson’s The Crucible of Race is a remarkable mixture of careful, empirically based historical work and free-wheeling cultural commentary in the vein of W.J. Cash and other imaginative writers on the southern psyche. Williamson, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a white southerner. More than most of his predecessors in the great tradition of southern self-examination, Williamson has a thoroughly biracial view of the region’s history and strongly empathizes with what has occurred on the black side. His work clearly bears the imprint of the 1960s, when liberal whites had to face calls for help from a nonviolent, blackled protest movement and then the shock of rejection by black militants who embraced separatism and cultural nationalism. In Williamson’s case, his own encounter with black nationalism and the “soul” movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies apparently provoked him to reexamine the meaning of “whiteness” in southern history.

His subtitle—“Black–White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation”—is somewhat misleading. Most of the book is actually devoted to a narrower subject—white racial thought and attitudes between the 1880s and 1915. While the book has penetrating discussions of black life and thought, its main value lies in its detailed interpretation of the extreme racism that came to dominate the white southern mentality around the turn of the century. Some might question also the extent to which Williamson actually covers “black-white relations,” even for the two or three decades on which he concentrates. The economics and sociology of race relations receive relatively little attention; his main concern is not with institutions and patterns of behavior but with the “mentalities” and ideologies that underlay them.

Williamson’s approach is idiosyncratic, but he would surely dispute any claim that it is narrow or limited. Against the current fashion of relying heavily on theories drawn from the social sciences to study race relations, he adopts what might be described as a thoroughly humanistic approach. He also rejects historical materialism, whether explicitly Marxist or not, and reverts to the idealist view that ideologies or states of mind not only matter but have the capacity to shape external reality. To the extent that he has a philosophy of history, its origins can be said to be Hegelian rather than Marxist.

Williamson describes his main theme as “the evolution and interplay of three Southern white ‘mentalities,”‘ which he labels “Liberal,” “Conservative,” and “Radical.” Racial conservatism was clearly the most persistent of these mentalities. Originating in the slaveholding regime of the Old South and the proslavery consciousness, it affirmed the rightness of a hierarchical society in which blacks had a definite “place.” So long as blacks played their designated roles as subordinates to whites, they allegedly benefited from the “protection” and condescending affection of the dominant race—in a word, from “paternalism.” At its best, the conservative ethos promoted Christian charity, noblesse oblige, and a quasi-parental form of guardianship over people who were thought of as inherently childlike.

Some historians, this one included, might be disposed to quarrel with Williamson’s assumption that this attitude clearly predominated in the Old South. Strong fears of black “savagery,” “bestiality,” and indiscriminate anti-white violence could emerge with great ferocity whenever there were cases or even rumors of slave insurrection. Williamson acknowledges this “hard” side of the proslavery consciousness, but he implies that the “soft” side—paternalism—became dominant in the late antebellum period. Although one could argue the reverse, there is really no need to do so; whatever its basis in prewar reality, the confidently hierarchical and paternalistic image of race relations that originated in proslavery propaganda became the guiding myth of postwar conservatism. Considered as an ideal or abstract standard, therefore, it had the effect that Williamson attributes to it.

The “Redeemers”—southern white leaders who presided over the toppling of “black-and-tan” Republican state governments in the 1870s—appealed to conservatism in order to reestablish white supremacy. According to Williamson, they inaugurated an era, lasting until the late 1880s, when the predominant white attitude was paternalistic rather than viciously hostile to blacks. During the 1880s, conservatism was briefly and inefficiently challenged by “Liberalism.” The Louisiana novelist George Washington Cable and a few others were bold enough to argue that blacks had no fixed place in a social and biological hierarchy but should be accorded the same public rights and opportunities as whites. Using “equity” and “brotherhood” as their watchwords, they appealed to liberal-democratic ideals previously applied only to whites and to the egalitarian implications of Christian ethics. But they made almost no dent in the walls of conservative orthodoxy, and Cable himself became a kind of pariah.

Up to this point, Williamson’s account follows fairly closely the view of southern racial ideologies in the 1880s set forth in C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow.2 In Woodward’s version, however, this was a period of flexibility in white racial thinking during which “forgotten alternatives” were freely expressed. Williamson stresses the dominance of conservative attitudes and the feebleness of any opposition to them.

Williamson sees another mentality—“Radicalism”—emerging at the end of the Eighties, and here he seems at first glance to be continuing the line of Woodward and other historians who previously described the South’s “capitulation to racism” around the turn of the century. It is no news that there was a surge of vicious anti-black propaganda and activity based on a claim that the ex-slaves were retrogressing toward savagery and ultimate extinction. (A strange belief central to “Radicalism” was that blacks were a doomed and dying race.) What Williamson most obviously contributes to the literature are fresh details and new insights into racial polemicists such as Thomas Dixon, the best-selling novelist and playwright who popularized the new image of the black as “beast–rapist.”

But the originality of Williamson’s work does not lie solely in filling in gaps and adding particulars. Previous historians of southern racism have not in fact found so deep and decisive a cleavage as Williamson does between the conservative racism of the Eighties and the radical racism of the Nineties. It has generally been assumed that both the benevolent-sounding paternalism of the “Redeemers” and the Negrophobic extremism of their successors—race-baiting politicians like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and J.K. Vardaman of Mississippi—expressed political opportunism more than genuine conviction. What changed, according to this view, was not the essential character and intensity of the underlying commitment to white supremacy but rather economic and political circumstances, which created new pressures conducive to that assertion of the “hard” side of the perennial duality of soft and hard racism in the white mind.

For Williamson, by contrast, the “radicals” were wholly sincere. He finds in their views evidence of more than a shift in the tone, rationalizations, and tactics of white supremacists. He argues that the white South, between 1889 and 1915, succumbed to a racial panic or hysteria that revolutionized popular attitudes toward blacks. Strong evidence for the fact that this was a grass-roots phenomenon and not just a shift in rhetorical strategy among elite groups comes from the statistics on lynching. Before 1889 most lynching occurred on the western frontier and most victims were white; in 1889 it suddenly became “a distinctly interracial happening in the South.” Williamson points out that in the 1890s an average of 138 people a year were lynched in the South, of whom about 75 percent were black. During the first decade of the twentieth century the total number of lynchings declined by half but now 90 percent of the victims were black. Astonishing as it may seem, “between 1885 and 1907 there were more persons lynched in the United States than were legally executed, and in the year 1892 twice as many.”

According to Williamson, the dramatic outbreak of racial lynching, as well as the series of pogrom-type race riots that broke out in southern cities between 1898 and 1907, expressed deep popular feelings. The orators and writers who fulminated during this period against “the Negro as beast” or “the Negro menace” did not create this mood of “Radical rage”; they simply responded to it and helped legitimize it. The conservative image of blacks as perpetual children who would be content to remain in their “place” as useful menials was thus displaced in the collective mind of the white South by the image of the beast—rapist, who needed to be held down by force as he degenerated toward extinction.

If it is indeed true that white attitudes suddenly shifted en masse from a mild, paternalistic racism to a virulent, quasi-genocidal variety, how can we explain the change? Unlike C. Vann Woodward, who argued that the South’s “capitulation to racism” in the Nineties was mainly the result of economic distress and political frustration, Williamson finds the causes in the interplay of economic circumstances with cultural predispositions toward gender and sexuality.

The collapsing cotton economy of the late Eighties and early Nineties, clearly the most dramatic and pervasive development in the South at this time, aroused two distinctive responses: agrarian political protest to deal directly with problems of low prices, tight credit, and loss of land; and the use of blacks as scapegoats for what had gone wrong in the white world. Using a fairly standard theory from social psychology, Williamson views racial violence, disfranchisement, and legalized segregation as devices by which whites achieved psychological relief when their real, practical problems proved insoluble.

For Williamson, this scapegoating was not, as some historians have argued, the product of deliberate, conspiratorial efforts by dominant groups to deflect attention from economic injustice and exploitation; rather it was an unconscious way of coping with cultural and psychological stress. The root of the matter, in his view, was the white South’s commitment to an exaggerated “Victorianism”—especially Victorian ideas about sexuality and sex-roles.

Williamson’s interpretation can be viewed as a more sophisticated version of W.J. Cash’s theory of a white “rape complex.” Putting white women on a pedestal meant that they must be adored and served but could not be desired sexually without strong guilt feelings. The recourse of frustrated white males to black women, which was easy under slavery, became much more difficult after emancipation. (I believe, however, that Williamson exaggerates somewhat when he says that “white men’s access to black women virtually ended.”) Given the prevailing myth of black hyper-sexuality and the reality of somewhat earthier and less inhibited sexual attitudes among many blacks, it was inevitable that repressed sexual envy would encourage conscious racial hostility and lay the foundation for fears that over-sexed blacks would assault white women and usurp the sexual prerogatives that white males could claim but not fully enjoy.

What Williamson adds to this familiar view of the white psyche is an explanation of how and why the rape complex acquired the force of panic at a particular moment. To summarize his complicated argument too briefly, he points out that toward the end of the 1880s disintegrating economic conditions led to a rise in the number of black vagrants or “strange Negroes” throughout the South. Probably an increase also occurred in black crime and in behavior that whites saw as threatening, especially to unprotected white women on isolated homesteads. Of much greater importance, however, was the fact that the same depressed economic conditions responsible for increasing the underclass of black drifters were preventing many white males from fulfilling their traditional responsibilities as good providers for their families. Unable to serve their women effectively as breadwinners, white males attempted to serve them in a different way—as protectors against the alleged threat of black rapists. This explosive combination of economic, sexual, and cultural frustration led to an acceptance of lynching as a legitimate way of protecting white womanhood and bolstering the male ego.

White women also contributed to the hysteria and egged on their menfolk to an extent that Williamson does not fully explain. In his case study of Rebecca Felton of Georgia, who managed to combine militant feminism with promotion of lynching, he shows how a particularly articulate and ambitious woman could use the radical cause to rebel against male domination and against being consigned to a separate domestic sphere. But what about the ordinary, bonnetted country women who brought their children to lynchings and cheered during the festivities—sometimes, as Williamson reports, taking home parts of the victim’s body as souvenirs? It would not be far-fetched, if one is willing to follow Williamson’s example and make plausible psychological speculations, to see female sexual frustration and repressed, guilt-ridden desires for the kind of physical satisfaction blacks could allegedly provide as another source of racial-sexual frenzy.

Williamson’s explanation is a powerful one, but it depends on our willingness to see radicalism as taking on a life of its own and extending its power after some of the specific circumstances that gave it birth had ceased to exist. During the late Nineties, prosperity returned to much of the white South but with it came a new phase of racial violence—the urban riots (really indiscriminate mob attacks on defenseless blacks) that occurred with particular ferocity in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 and in Atlanta in 1906. By arguing that the radical hysteria or “mentality” was “the effective ingredient” or “very heart” of these riots, Williamson may be giving too little weight to the immediate precipitating circumstances—for example the demagogic use of race-baiting in the elections that immediately preceded them. In other words, Williamson advances a complex explanation for the rise of radicalism and then adopts the less persuasive tactic of using this state of mind as the single, sufficient reason for subsequent developments in southern race relations.

Around 1915, according to Williamson, the radical rage against blacks went away almost as suddenly as it had arisen. Signs of the shift were a decline in the frequency of lynchings and riots, and the reviving popularity of the conservative myth that blacks were fixed and contented in their “place”—a separate and lower status that was now defined more precisely by the Jim Crow laws and disfranchisement left behind by the radical insurgency. Symptomatic of this transformation was the evolving race policy of the Wilson administration, the first headed by a southern native since the Civil War. In his brilliant reconsideration of Wilson’s efforts to further the segregation of federal employees, Williamson shows that the president backed off from plans to impose an official policy of separation because he got caught in the cross fire between northern liberal objections to segregation in any form and southern radical insistence that blacks not be allowed to attain high positions even in offices or departments where blacks would be concentrated. (Wilson’s original plan provided for such a vertical form of separatism.) That Wilson could resist carrying out the radical program for segregation in government service without losing southern support suggests that the extremists were losing their hold on the southern mentality.

Why did radicalism lose its force so suddenly? I think that Williamson is right about its dramatic eclipse and that he has made a major contribution in calling it to our attention. But his explanation for the shift is not very persuasive. “Radicalism,” he contends, “was defeated by the fact that its basic assumption was grossly in error. Black people were definitely not retrogressing, and they were most definitely not going to disappear.” But the racism of the radicals, if judged by objective, factual standards, had been absurd from the beginning. Furthermore, history in general does not, unfortunately, provide much basis for the notion that passionately held fallacies are destined to collapse simply because they are in conflict with empirical reality.

It would seem more reasonable to assume that the South had undergone some kind of broad, social transformation that diminished the appeal of radicalism. An interpretation along these lines might stress the success of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century in giving white southerners new confidence in the power of government and established institutions to meet social and economic problems.3 Since one problem liberal reformers had allegedly solved was the race question (strange to say, segregation and disfranchisement were often promoted and defended as means of ensuring social harmony, efficiency, and orderly progress), a new order had in fact been established that permitted a relaxation of white-supremacist vigilance and militancy. This new order did not necessarily change basic racial attitudes; it may have merely reduced the need to act on them in violent ways and to circulate propaganda justifying extra-legal behavior.

Whatever the causes of radicalism’s demise at the time of World War I, it was clearly succeeded by the ascendency of conservatism in a new form. The stereotype of the amiable Sambo once again displaced the nightmare image of the beast-rapist. But the paternalistic attitude toward blacks that had been integral to earlier conservatism was much attenuated. After 1915, blacks were more likely to be ignored or neglected than viewed as legitimate objects for white benevolence and guidance. They became, in short, the “invisible” men and women of Ralph Ellison’s novel.

Paternalistic values survived, however, as a new source of white solidarity. Williamson devotes much attention to a group of conservative thinkers who resisted radicalism during its heyday but eventually gave up efforts to help blacks directly and turned their philanthropic energies to uplifting the South’s enormous population of impoverished lower-class whites. Edgar Gardner Murphy of Alabama, an Episcopal clergyman and crusader for humanitarian reform, was the most prominent spokesman for what Williamson labels “Volksgeistian Conservatism.” Although he acknowledges that this ideology’s immediate effect was to provide a high-flown justification for racial segregation, Williamson is clearly intrigued by Murphy’s long-term, dialectical view that racial separateness would somehow evolve into a higher form of togetherness.

Here we encounter the most unconventional part of Williamson’s argument. He interprets the “Volksgeistian” branch of white conservatism as similar in some important respects to the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois, to whom he attributes the invention of black cultural nationalism and the concept of black “soul.” Beginning in the 1890s, Du Bois began to reject the aspiration for a direct assimilation of blacks into white American society and culture that had inspired black leaders during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Williamson argues persuasively that Du Bois derived his belief that “the Negro race” had a distinctive culture and aptitudes that should be nurtured rather than repudiated at least partly from Hegel’s theory that each nation or people contributes to the dialectic of world history by realizing its own special genius or Volksgeist. Ultimately, in Du Bois’s view, there would be a synthesis of black and white cultures in America, but only after blacks had fully developed their unique characteristics and learned to take pride in their racial achievements.

The “Volksgeistian” white conservatives of the South, Williamson argues, held a similar view of folk spirits evolving in dialectical opposition on the way to an ultimate reconciliation. Murphy and other Volksgeistians heralded the spiritual evolution of blacks along their own lines but took as their special mission the nurturing of a kind of “white soul”—a raising up of the white masses to full consciousness of the higher side of their own nature—as expressed, for the most part, in Christian and democratic idealism. Someday, when whites and blacks had both fully realized themselves as “folk,” there might be some kind of spiritual merger. (Personally, however, I find Murphy’s hints at an ultimate racial synthesis extremely vague and inconclusive.)

What remains unclear is the extent to which Williamson personally endorses a Hegelian theory of race relations. He is clearly sympathetic to Du Bois and black cultural separatism but he seems aware of the problems of endorsing its white counterpart. His skepticism about how much the civil rights movement of the 1960s really achieved and his doubts whether the South—or the nation as a whole—has made much progress toward racial equity and justice would suggest that he is not anticipating an early synthesis of black and white “soul.”

In my opinion, however, Williamson shows too much respect for mystical or romantic conceptions of racial identity. His identification with the “soul” theory of blackness and his tortuous effort to find a white equivalent are likely to create more confusion than enlightenment. Any attempt to transmute the socially determined and constantly changing images that ethnic groups have of themselves and others into abstract philosophy runs the risk of accentuating and making more rigid the sense of profound black-white differences that is at the psychological core of America’s race problem. Flirting with Hegel is dangerous; it would be better to repudiate such high-flown racialism in favor of a view emphasizing what all peoples have in common, and have coming to them, as a result of their shared humanity. W.E.B. Du Bois may have started as a Hegelian romantic racialist, but his Volksgeistian idealism was much tempered in his later years by doctrines that, in Williamson’s terms, drew on the “realist” tradition in philosophy. Philosophical idealism and race consciousness seem to me a potentially pernicious combination.

Nevertheless, Williamson compels admiration for his courageous willingness to go beyond the usual limits of historical writing to wrestle with philosophical and ethical issues. His agonized southernism may help to explain why his investigation of the past becomes a personal, moral quest and not merely an indulgence of intellectual or “scientific” curiosity.

  1. 1

    Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (Knopf, 1941). 

  2. 2

    C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford University Press, 1955). Three revised editions of this influential work have since appeared, the latest in 1974. 

  3. 3

    A recent book which has thoroughly described Progressive reform in the South and recorded its substantial impact is Dewey W. Grantham’s Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition (University of Tennessee Press, 1983).