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 …
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