• Email
  • Print

A Southern Conscience

A Southern Prophecy

by Lewis H. Blair, Introduction by C. Vann Woodward
Little, Brown, 210 pp., $1.95 (paper)

There is a saying among the Negroes in Harlem,” James Baldwin said recently, “to the effect that if you have a white Southerner for a friend you’ve got a friend for life. But if you’ve got a white Northerner for a friend, watch out. Because he just might be the kind of friend who decides to move out when you move in.” This is a sentiment which may be beguiling to a Southerner, yet the fact does remain that a Southern “liberal” and his Northern counterpart are two distinct species of cat. Certainly the Southerner of good will who lives in the North, as I do, is often confronted with some taxing circumstances. There was the phone call a number of years ago in the distant epoch before the present “Negro revolt,” and the cautious interrogation from my dinner hostess of the evening: a Negro was going to be present—as a Southerner, did I mind? If I wished to stay away she would surely understand. Or much later, when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools, the deafening and indignant lady, a television luminary, who demanded that “we” drop bombs on “those crackers down there.” (She got the state wrong, Virginians may be snobs but they are not crackers; nonetheless, she was proposing that “we” bomb my own kith and kin.) Or quite recently, a review in The New Yorker of Calder Willing-ham’s Eternal Fire, a remarkably fine novel about the South which the reviewer, Whitney Balliett, praised extravagantly without knowing exactly why he was doing so, charging that the book was the definitve satire on Southern writing (through the book is funny it is anything but satire, being too close to the bone of reality), and polishing off Faulkner, Welty, Warren, et al. with the assertion that Southern fiction in general, in which the Negroes had served so faithfully as “a resident Greek chorus,” had now terminated its usefulness. It is of course not important what this particular reviewer thinks, but the buried animus is characteristic and thus worth spelling out: white Southern writers, because they are white and Southern, cannot be expected to write about Negroes without condescension, or with understanding or fidelity or love. Unfortunately, this is a point of view which, by an extension of logic, tends to regard all white Southerners as bigots, and it is an attitude which one might find even more ugly than it is were it prompted by malice rather than ignorant self-righteousness, or a suffocating and provincial innocence. Nor is its corollary any less tiresome: to show that you really love Negroes, smoke pot, and dig the right kind of jazz.

A tradition of liberalism has of course existed honorably in the South and is as much a part of its history as is its right-wing fanaticism and violence. The South in the nineteenth century had produced liberals of staunch fiber—the Louisiana novelist George W. Cable is a notable example—but less well known than the thread of liberalism woven into the fabric of Southern history is the fact that the South has also produced its flaming radicals. Lewis Harvie Blair was one of these. Born in Richmond in 1834, Blair came from a distinguished family which numbered among its antecedents a host of well-known theologians, college presidents, editors, generals, and even a presidential aspirant or two. After serving as a cavalry officer in the Confederate army, Blair returned to Richmond, established a fortune through the manufacture of shoes and in real estate and then in 1889, at the contemplative age of fifty-five, and while comfortably installed in his mansion on East Grace Street, wrote a flabbergasting book called Prosperity in the South Dependent on the Elevation of the Negro. It received almost no attention in its time, but now, bearing the title A Southern Prophecy, it has been resurrected by Professor C. Vann Woodward, who has also provided an Introduction that is a model of clarity and insight. Certainly, in view of the time and place it was written, A Southern Prophecy is one of the most amazing and powerful exhortations ever written by an American.

The original title of the book is somewhat deceptive. As Woodward points out, it was perhaps inevitable that Blair should adopt a hard-boiled tone, appealing to Southerners to regard the plight of the Negro in terms of their own economic self-interest. Nevertheless, Blair was unable really to conceal his intense humanitarian concern and moral passion; the sense of an abiding indignation over injustice is on every page, and helps give the work its continuing vitality. It was the Rotarian-style boosterism of the famous editor, Henry Grady of Atlanta, whose gospel of the New South included white supremacy and the permanent degradation of the Negro masses, which provided the source of Blair’s initial wrath. The New South propaganda, as Blair saw it—the vision of great and glittering cities springing from the wreckage of the Civil War—was the sheerest humbug. Look rather to the “real South,” he insisted: this was a land of crushing poverty for “the six million Negroes who are in the depths of indigence…the hundreds of miles of poor country with its unpainted and dilapidated homesteads…” This was the reality behind the garish fantasy, and it would remain just that—a fantasy—until the entire South attained a single goal: total equality for the Negro, economic and social. Some of Blair’s chapter headings may convey a sense of the scope of the work, and also a touch of Blair’s own cranky intransigence:

If Highest Caste will not Elevate, Must Crush Lowest Caste to Powder—Race Prejudice must be Mollified and Obligated—Prejudice Mark of Inferiority—Courts of Justice must be Impartial to All Colors—Why Negroes do not Enjoy Such Impartiality

Negro not a Competent Voter; neither are Millions of White Voters; but Ballot Absolutely Essential to his Freedom—Ruin of the Commonwealth that Degrades its Citizens—Tyranny Destroys the State and Demoralizes the Citizens—Southerners cannot Escape the Demoralizing Effects of Tyranny

The Abandonment of Separate Schools—The Necessity Thereof and Why—It Doubles Basis for Schools—Separate Schools a Public Proclamation of Caste

Other Things we must Do—the Negroes should be Allowed Free Admission to All Hotels, Theatres, Churches, and Official Receptions—Why Negroes should not be restricted to Places for Negroes.

Let us put ourselves in the Negro’s place,” wrote Blair. “Let us feel when passing good hotels there is no admission here; we dare not go in lest we be kicked out; when entering a theater to be told to go up in the top gallery; when entering an imposing church to be told rudely: no place in God’s house for you…would not we have our pride cut to the quick? Can we expect the ignorant, degraded, poverty-ridden Negro to rise with such burdens resting upon him, and if he sees no prospect of the burden’s lifting?” Although it was the South that received the full force of Blair’s implacable anger, the North was not spared, and in a stern, avuncular epilogue he said:

For the North to clear its skirts of the charge of hypocrisy, it must change its own treatment of the Negro; for until it says, Follow my example instead of doing as I exhort, the seed it sows may be good, but it will fall upon hard and stony soil…Put your own Negroes in the way of supporting themselves with comfort, throw open all the avenues of life to them, encourage them to enter freely therein, relieve them of the dangers and the dread of being robbed, beaten, and imposed upon by ruthless white neighbors; in short, elevate them to the full stature of citizenship, and then you can appeal with hope of success to your white Southern brethren; but until you do these things, your purest, most unselfish efforts will be looked upon with suspension…

The year 1889 was, of course, too late for anyone—North or South—to heed Blair’s prophecy. Few people cared anyway. All the momentum of history had gathered its bleak and gigantic power, and within the decade the horrid night of Jim Crowism had settled in. There is a sad sequel to the story of Lewis Blair. Some years before his death in 1916 he suffered the occupational disease of radicals—recantation—and in his private papers disavowed almost everything he had expressed with such conviction years before. But it hardly seems to matter now, for the force and urgency still throb through these pages, reminding us that such passion is not bound by geography or time but remains, quite simply, the passion that binds us together as men. And the final words of certainty seem even more apocalyptic now than at the moment when this splendid Confederate wrote them, seventy-five years ago: “The battle will be long and obstinate, with many difficulties, delays, and dangers…We older ones will not see that day, but our grandchildren will, for the light of coming day already irradiates the eastern sky.”

  • Email
  • Print