Out beyond the South’s glassy-towered Everycities of Atlanta and Columbia and Jackson, the piney flatlands cluttered with stale little towns still look much as they did during the storms of the civil rights movement in the Sixties, as if these reaches were suspended in another, static field of time. In early April, some fifteen years after covering the courthouse confrontations and scattered savageries of that theatrical period, and with a presidential battle impending between Ronald Reagan and this region’s own Jimmy Carter, I set out on a return passage through those landscapes, ranging from South Carolina to Mississippi, to visit with black community leaders in order to sound out their mood after the great political windfall their people provided Carter four years ago. What unfolded was a curious and unsettling manifestation of the caprices and ambivalences of American politics.
As early as Tocqueville, as early as Jefferson, really, the recognition was already gathering that the only intractable crisis this Republic inherently faced was the divide between its black and white inhabitants—that the American adventure, conceived in such innocence and energy and expansiveness of proposition, might have also conceived its undoing at its inception, when the first black man in chains set his foot on the continent’s shores. The crime has been with us, one way or another, ever since. And it’s turned out to be the South, through the Civil War and Reconstruction and then Martin Luther King’s classic Southern decade of the Black Awakening, that has served as the crucible for the nation’s conscience on the matter, as if appointed the bloody ceremonial ground for America’s intermittent struggle to purge itself of an aboriginal shame and guilt.
The most recent attempt to exorcise that lingering crime was, of course, the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties. Already those years of violence and of belief that took place in the deeps of the South before Vietnam are coming to be regarded, by both the black and white partisans who passed through them, with the wistful nostalgia of Lincoln Brigade veterans longing for the bright, gone days of 1938. It was a time of windy moral pageantry that they never expect to know again. Indeed, what was going on, for those few short summers of danger and travail, was a kind of high lyricism of the human spirit, played out in the unlikely stage-set of bleak little inland cities and musty outback towns with huddles of gas stations and tin-roofed grocery stores. If nothing else, those now half-forgotten summers—the demonstrations surging down drab little main streets with a vast clapping and dirge-like choiring, toward courthouse squares bristling with deputies and state troopers waiting with dogs and billy clubs, and the mass meetings at nightfall in flimsy brick tabernacles tucked off along dirt lanes—those were singularly swashbuckling times. There were exotic visitations of gentle young evangels from the North and from the Eden of California with a bespectacled, vegetarian air about them, brimstone-eyed young black circuit riders for SNCC and CORE with Caribbean plantation hats tilted low over their eyes, dusting from town to town in ramshackle station wagons and muddy coupes, always furiously talking. They were days delirious with belief.
In time, of course, this great folk drama taking place in the South was simply assimilated and consumed, without pause or intermission, by the more complex anguish of Vietnam, while the South itself gradually receded into its customary monotone sedateness, resuming its obsessive labor to mutate itself into something like Pasadena.
Over a decade has passed since then. And still there seems little question that, for all the spectacular triumphs of those years, and however subdued the moment now seems, a condition of racial schism remains the final, most elemental malaise imperiling the American community. The crisis has moved from a political to an economic terrain, where it has become far more intricate and more elusive to engage. The truth is, the relative material lot of blacks in America has actually become more desperate since the Sixties. While in absolute terms more blacks have arrived at a stage of financial well-being approaching the average of that for whites, in general for every black family that managed to attain a middle-class standard of living between 1970 and 1978, three more black households joined those masses already in the nation’s underclass. In short, blacks now make up an even larger proportion of the nation’s destitute than they did at the close of the Sixties. The degree to which this economic desolation continues to be a sheer circumstance of race—and who would dispute that it is?—would seem to dictate that blacks would make a concerted offensive for full social citizenship.
Instead, what has happened is that, having arrived at what would seem at least the political outskirts of the Promised Land, a curious distraction and dispersion has set into the black movement—or “what movement?” as one liberal white South Carolina legislator recently put it. It is manifest that “we simply have to address the economic ghetto that blacks are imprisoned in,” as one Southern black politician insisted last month, “and it has to be at the state and local level—things like practices in hiring and promotion, affirmative action. And we’ve got to be mature and patient enough to stick with it, even though it’s not as dramatic and emotional as everything used to be.” But that seems precisely what is so confounding now—the absence of that old passionately simple moral dramaturgy.
In its later struggles during the Sixties, the black movement came up against a shifting indefinite front of bureaucratic agencies and budget managers, all with considerable power over their hopes for jobs, income, and education, but lacking the immediate guttural reality of Bull Conner or George Wallace. The veterans of the marches now had to grapple with a fog. The result has been a lasting dissipation of the dynamism of the black community. “With what those preliminary gains did for our psychology,” said a Mississippi black leader I spoke to in April, “we aren’t ready to give an inch. Like Daddy King said when he spoke at a meeting up in my county the other Sunday, ‘Ain’t goin’ back, no, ain’t goin’ back, ain’t gonna plow no more mule!’ But still, these days, you keep bustin’ your head and it’s a hard thing to do, to keep the hope alive.” A black veteran of the Sixties in Alabama acknowledged, “There just isn’t that drive out there anymore to bring people together, ‘cause just ain’t nothing simple anymore. It’s all complexity now, and it’s all sideways. It’s like trying to get a hold on an oily jug without a handle.”
Since the Sixties, the passions and urgencies of the black condition in the country have kept slipping in and out of focus, scattered, tentative, fleeting. It’s largely for that reason, as an Alabama black mayor observed, that “the times are gone when you can have only one black spokesman.” Indeed, the situation with black leadership in America now has most often suggested Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author—or more exactly, twenty protagonists each in search of a script. The newly elected governor of Mississippi, William Winter, a thoughtful and temperate man, finds this dispersion not altogether uncheering. “Just like you can’t name those few black leaders anymore, so you don’t have any few white or Southern spokesmen anymore. And I see that as a very wholesome thing.” But it has also prompted some uneasiness. A black commentator complained recently in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “There is a complacency that has set in among blacks today like something we have not seen in modern times. Blacks have fallen victim to the lulling influence of individuality…. They do not see themselves and their future as tied that strongly to that of other blacks…. The lack of racial identity had led to a swarm of small black groups and leadership cliques trying desperately to move ahead on their own. We’ve got all kinds of civil rights groups, social purpose groups, self-appointed and publicly elected leaders….”
Of all the campaigns through those summers of lightning and tumult in the South during the Sixties, none seemed ultimately quite so portentous as the struggle to gain the vote—none seemed to hold such promise for fundamentally transforming the system of power and order of life there, and bringing in at last the Peaceable Kingdom. And as it turned out, that struggle did prove momentous to the national fortunes of Jimmy Carter in 1976.
It is one of the ironies of Carter’s ascension to the presidency that not only did he become a political legatee of Martin Luther King, Jr.—it being only out of the kind of redeemed and reborn South that King brought to pass that any Southern presidential candidate could seriously present himself—but Carter also consciously operated as the heir of King’s great counter-protagonist during the years of the movement, George Wallace. It was Wallace who had first set loose, with his stunning showings in his presidential primaries beyond Alabama, the possibilities of a new national Populist vitality outside all the customary mediators of power. Hardly less of a wildcatter than Wallace was Carter himself when he was emboldened to strike off on his seemingly fanciful enterprise. But at the same time, he came off as a warmly engaging figure to contrast with Wallace, for all the similar mosses in their voices and common weathers of their origins—as an earnest, generous-hearted, ingratiating soul. As a result, his candidacy enjoyed not only the blessing of having issued out of that South regenerated by King, but the good will and direct nurturing of those multitudes of the faithful King had left behind, including most strategically Andrew Young, King’s widow Coretta, and his father, “Daddy” King. In the end, if any one component of the electorate could be considered as having made the difference in Carter’s perilously close-nipped deliverance into the presidency, it would have to be the black vote.
The mass enfranchisement of blacks in the South eventually accomplished by the civil rights campaigns has worked yet more immediate and striking transfigurations there. In 1966, the white citizens of Greene County, in northern Alabama, found themselves confronted for the first time with a majority of black voters, and a slate of five black candidates for county office, including a lean and gangly twenty-six-year-old Baptist preacher named Thomas Gilmore, who was running for sheriff. In those malarial days, it would have been hard to exaggerate the traumatic implications for the rural white Southerner of the prospect of a black sheriff presiding over his county: the sheriff was a kind of totem-image of absolute authority and order out in the Southern countryside. But Gilmore proposed shortly before the voting, “This election’s actually gonna help the white man as much as us, because he’s gonna find out that Negroes don’t have that automatic fear of white folks like he’s been thinking for so long. And this discovery’s gonna be good for the white man’s soul, because he’s gonna realize a man is a man, black or white, and that’ll recreate and make stronger than ever before his own self-respect. When you start believing in the whole race of man, that’s when you can really start believing in yourself.” Such were the exhilarations of those brave visionary days.