This book, somewhat expanded from an earlier version that recently appeared in The New Yorker, is the work of one of its staff writers who had spent a year in the South as a reporter for Time. Mr. Trillin is an excellent and conscientious reporter, who observed in detail the sequence of events he reported, and became closely acquainted with the principal figures involved. His writing is clear and incisive, and relieved occasionally by touches of low-keyed irony, which are the only departures from objective description and analysis be permits himself. His approach to the dynamics of exclusion in the University of Georgia is very similar to that Berton Roueché brings to his New Yorker accounts of dramatically loathsome diseases: not ethically neutral, for both authors are clearly opposed to the phenomena they describe, but detached.
This has both good and bad effects. It makes the reader feel like a phony Jules Feiffer liberal: but, them, who—if not New Yorker buffs—are Feiffer’s models? But it also keeps the book clear, despite the complexity of events it records; and permits the reader to perceive some interesting implications of Mr. Trillin’s account that a more passionate or ideological approach would certainly have obscured. The most important of these is the same as that which Hannah Arendt describes in Elchmann in Jerusalem. The shocking trail Eicher and Mr. Holmes share is the eagerness to serve a racist cause more from a sense of role than from any discernible personal feeling.
A man who would organize and arrange the murder, under torment, of six million people he did not especially dislike is, indeed, more appalling than a man motivated by hatred. Miss Arendt’s point, however, is that he is also, in his very “banality” and lack of feeling a more representative modern type: the small bourgeois careerist who responds only to the demands and expectations of those who might affect his success, and who cannot give a human response either to his victims or himself. I do not mean to suggest that segregation and extermination are comparable. But the similarity between Eichmann and the segregationists Trillin describes is not a matter of their having behaved with equal callousness and cruelty, but of their racism, whatever its degree, being so much a matter of social response and so little a matter of principle. This seems—and I think rightly—to trouble Trillin almost as much as segregation itself:
The University, of course, had been double-dealing for a year and a half; and it was instructive to see the double-dealing presented as a legal defense by a state that had vowed open resistance to integration. In the effort to correct the false notion that the South has a monopoly on bigotry, the equally false notion has been created that the North has a monopoly on hypocrisy, and I had often heard it said that “in the South at least everybody knows where he stands and people are honest about it”… But the university officials I listened to for a week in Athens, testifying about their overcrowded dormitories and their administrative problems, sounded less like Southerners fighting a holy crusade than like Long Island real-estate brokers trying to wriggle out of an anti-discrimination law.
Nor was this accommodating response to reality confined to officialdom. This is not a situation that can be explained by damning bureaucrats. The Dean of Men, William Tate, and his head freshman counselor, Dan Biggers, emerge from the stream of events not as heroes, but certainly as responsible human beings. “The attitude of Tate and Biggers seemed to the Negro students to be based on an honest interest in making the transition with as little disturbance is possible, which it was precisely their job to do,” Trillin writes. But Dean of Women Edith Stallings’s explanation of the segregated housing in which the Negro girl students were finally lodged somehow misses the true note of moral grandeur:
It’s not a matter of segregation. It’s more a matter of consideration. It’s a kindness more than anything else… We don’t like to put any student in a position where she’s not wanted. It’s not race….
It is not, however, clear that the Negro students actually were unwanted. Time after time Trillin describes the characteristic attitude of the white students as initially one of friendly curiosity and helpfulness, followed by rejection when the white student began to feel that any show of friendship would jeopardize his own social position.
The fraternities and sororities let it he known that anybody interested in his own position on campus would be wise not to talk to the two Negroes. Another group of students, most of them associated in one way or another with Westminster House, the campus Presbylerian organization, formed a group called students for constructive Action. They posted signs about the Golden Rule in the classroom buildings and arranged to take turns walking with Charlayne and Hamilton on their way to classes. The girls in Center Myers had all trouped down to visit Charlayne the first night she was in the dormitory…. But on the following night, during the riot, their behavior changed drastically…. A group of Center Myers coeds soon formed a circle, each screaming an insult as she got in the door.
I used to go to Canterbury [the Episcopal student organization] every Wednesday, but I stopped going in the fall of last year,” he [Hamilton] said. “We used to go for services from five to five thirty, and then we’d eat, and there would be a program from seven to eight, and after that we’d play cards and that kind of thing. Everything was fine. We all talked and joked about everything. But the next day I’d see the same people on the campus, and they’d turn their heads to keep from seeing me. It got so I couldn’t take it. I almost blew up. I’d walk in that place and everybody would be smiling. It was just disgusting. Finally, I just couldn’t take it any more and I left. I didn’t say any-think, I just never went back.
The personalities of Miss Hunter and Mr. Holmes—especially of Miss Hunter—are also of unusual interest. For these young people are in no sense ideologies, even of integration, as James Meredith or Dr. Martin Luther King more nearly are, An Education in Georgia therefore sheds a certain oblique and sardonic light on the offensiveness, to autonomous Negroes, of Liberal cant.
She seemed amazed and moved by the number of people who had written to her, but she found some of their letters slightly off the subject. “All these people say, ‘Charlayne, we just want you to know you’re not alone,’ ” she said, smiling. “But I look all around and I don’t see anybody else.”
Once, discussing a professor who had “made a big thing” out of his role in the integration crisis. Charlayne said, “I just don’t think it should be the biggest thing in his life. He’s sixty years old. If my experiences here were all I could talk about, I would get really worried. I’d be just a record player… It doesn’t take anything. It doesn’t take brains, or anything. It just can’t be the biggest thing in my life, When I go to these meetings, people try to make me feel that I’m representing the whole Negro race, and that’s not right. I’m not representing anybody.”
That Miss Hunter knew what she meant, and also knew whereof she spoke, became clear when, shortly after her graduation last June, she revealed that she had married Walter Stovall III a few months earlier. Even if the Black Muslims are right, the Devil can seldom have presented himself in a form more attractive than that of Walter Stovall III; and by June the young Stovalls had repaired to New York and were in a position to enjoy themselves and each other and await the birth of their child. This, surely, was a consummation devoutly to be wished; but not all of even the liberal comments expressed this view:
Many Negroes and white liberals discussed the marriage more or less as they would have discussed the marriage of the Duke of Windsor; they regretted that it had happened and wondered whether or not Charlayne should have given it up for the Cause. Pointing out the sacrifices that Charlayne had made previously, the [Negro] Atlanta Inquirer, her old paper, asked, “Did Charlayne, because of the key role she accepted from history, have a special obligation or responsibility to make additional personal sacrifices?”…Charlayne herself was interested to note how few of the people she had told of the marriage during the summer had bothered to wish her happiness before beginning an analysis of how the Cause would be affected. And the day after the marriage was revealed, her answer to the questions of television reporters on the subject reflected the attitude that had been building for two and a half years. “This is a personal thing.” Charlayne said, “and my personal life should not have anything to do with that which affects the masses of people. And so I can’t be too terribly concerned about that, because I have my own life to live.”
Mrs. Stovall’s statement is a greater contribution to human dignity and clarity than she could conceivably have made by political militancy. But it is rather misleading, too: for it is precisely the effect of her life on “the masses of people,” and particularly on the role of a university in a mass society that forms the core of her problem. American social institutions—particularly schools and their personnel—are simply notprepared to cope with dignity. Usually, they undermine it. The fraternity men and Big Men—and Women—on Campus at Georgia will probably learn how to behave among Negroes sooner, and with far less embarrassment, than they will learn how to act in the presence of a lady.
Since Negroes were brought into American society with the lowest possible status, and confined within it more successfully than the members of free and voluntary immigrant groups, It is generally assumed that the struggle for their rights is a struggle for equal opportunity for the poor and “culturally deprived.” But none of the Negroes seeking An Education in Georgia is culturally deprived. Their story, on the contrary, is that of a self-disciplined, aristocratic minority contending for the use of social institutions dominated by ambitious and insecure individuals less stable than themselves who are afraid the Negroes will keep them from making it. And, indeed, if integration means that the schools and universities of the South, in their present feeble state, are to be engulfed by students who have been denied adequate academic preparation even by local standards, they will become useless both as institutions of learning and as places in which some young people, at least, can develop real intimacies with one another and a genuine personal style. Whether Miss Hunter has jeopardized the Cause or’ not, il certainly seems evident that the progress of the Cause will jeopardize future individual Negroes of the quality of Miss Hunter. In a mass society, with all barriers down and everybody seeking opportunity, she and Mr. Stovall would have a lot of trouble finding and recognizing each other.
I would interpret the lesson of An Education in Georgia, therefore, to include an injunction to accept the realities of social class in place of the disgusting myth of race as a basis for structuring a more trustworthy society:
As for Negroes in Atlanta, when they talk about why Hamilton went to the University of Georgia they usually begin by mentioning his family and especially his grandfather father, Dr. Hamilton Mayo Holmes, who is an Atlanta physician and the family patriarch. Hamilton is not only a third-generation college graduate; he is also a third-generation integrationist. His grandfather, his father, and one of his uncles filed suit to desegregate the Atlanta public golf courses in 1955, and through a 1956 Supreme Court decision on their case, the courses became the first integrated public facility in Atlanta…When we arrived at Dr. Holmes’ office…it was half an hour before his office hours began, but six or eight patients were already sitting in the plain waiting room…Dr. Holmes’ office was a small room containing an old-fashioned desk, a refrigerator, a daybed, a floor safe with a filing cabinet on top of it, and two or three tables. Almost every flat surface was covered with golfing trophies, and the walls were covered with a staggering collection of plaques, pictures, and framed prayers. There were several religious pictures, some family pictures, and numerous plaques from golf organizations and fraternities. In one frame were three glossy prints of Hamilton and Charlayne…Dr. Holmes talked a bit about his own practice. “I’ve been practicing medicine here for fifty-three years,” he said, “and I’m busier now than I’ve ever been…Well, I treat them all like individuals, but I still see fifty or sixty patients a day. I work every day but Wednesday and Sunday. I play golf on Wednesdays, and on Sundays I go to church. Then I play golf.”
Trillin concludes his book with the statement that, five days after Hamilton Holmes was graduated, “Dr. Holmes, by that time seventy-nine years old, finished the course with a score of exactly seventy-nine—and finally, after twenty-nine years of trying, shot his age.” This seems less than just. Dr. Holmes, by Trillin’s account, has been shooting his age for a long time, and in recent years has hardly ever missed. It is an ugly, slinking sort of age with a very tough skin, not much disturbed by the guerilla efforts of isolated gallant elderly sportsmen. They would be more effective if they worked together. Racial prejudice is a vulgarity such men cannot afford and ought never to have been tempted into.
Much besides golf matches is decided on American club courses. It may not be exactly the American dream, but a future in which Dr. Holmes and his all-too-few peers could get together in the club house to make policy and wield power, genially suppressing unsatisfactory candidates regardless of their race or religion, and helping overstimulated Long Island real-estate brokers to discipline their conduct and limit their aspirations, seems to me to have much to commend it. One social device invented by segregationists backfired on them in such a way as to suggest that it might be a very useful weapon if properly handled by integrationists who were not also egalitarian. Trillin reports on the tuition-grant law passed, like the more famous one in Virginia, to permit white parents to by-pass integrated public schools:
The tuition-grant law…could not mention segregation without being thrown out by the courts; it therefore merely provided grants enabling any child to attend an approved private school. But, as it happened, not everybody in Georgia was willing to go along with the game. A number of citizens look the law at its word and claimed the grant it provided them, even though they did not live in an integrated school district and even though, in most cases, their children were in private school anyway…The [Atlanta] Constitution pointed out that 83 per cent of the people had had their children enrolled in private school before the law was passed. Among those listed were hundreds of people [out of a total of 1200] outside Atlanta, which had the only integrated schools in the state; a Negro educator in Atlanta, who was sending his children North to prep school; and, one suspects, dozens of smiling integrationists.
The outraged legistature thereupon amended the law permitting parents to apply only in districts that had certified that a “need” existed. But with the growing political power of integrationists, the law might instead have been amended to restrict approval to private schools that were demonstrably integrated, while still permitting parents and children to sort themselves out on bases other than racial if they wished. Schools do not have to be melting-pots; and melting-pots are not the ideal environment in which to make friends and work out the pattern of one’s life. Melting pots are to be commended for their willingness to accept black and white alike, but one reason that they can is that they take your skin off, anyway. The story of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilion Holmes, however, is a tale of triumphant individual self-assertion and self-control; and selves still function best within their own skin, whatever its color.
January 23, 1964