Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

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.

In that race, though, Gilmore and all other black candidates were defeated—in a count hectically compiled by white townsmen in the probate judge’s office in the courthouse through a long nightwatch behind closed shutters, and amid a plentiful splashing of scotch. Four years later, Gilmore tried again—and this time not only did he win, but virtually all white officials in the county were dislodged by blacks. Gilmore has remained sheriff since then, and was found one afternoon recently in his office on the town square of Eutaw, wearing a black vest over a white shirt and thin tie that lent him something of the look of Doc Holliday. Languid, soft-spoken, Gilmore has never carried a gun on his rounds—“I’m a nonviolent sheriff,” he grins—and lying open on his battered metal desk that afternoon was a paperback copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

“Maybe it hasn’t turned out exactly like we were dreaming once,” he said, “but, aside from the white probate judge leaving town right after he was defeated, things have gone along remarkably ordinary—despite all that uproar back then. The thing is, we all feel free, black and white, just to talk to each other now—just don’t think anything about it anymore. And that’s the tremendous change.” The real sensation in Greene County, as in many other communities over the South, is that the prospect of blacks in authority has passed from a matter of phantasmagoria to a matter of course. “I’m thinking before long about looking into running for Congress,” Gilmore added. “And I’d kind of like in my old age to visit my son in the White House.”

It has become commonplace, actually, to celebrate the almost hallucinatory contrasts between those gothic days in the South during the movement and the nature of things now some fifteen years later—coming upon, on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama, a huge freeway sign announcing “The Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway.” But the black vote has probably brought to pass no greater wonder than that to be beheld in the legislature of the once most grimly and implacably segregationist of all deep Dixie states—Mississippi. Its house and senate now hold more blacks, proportionately, than those of any other state in the Union. On a recent spring day, the house, having temporarily removed itself during a renovation of the capital into a converted high school auditorium in Jackson with oyster-white walls and thin-slatted Venetian blinds, succeeded in occupying itself for the better part of an afternoon—one white legislator in country-cavalier sideburns strolling about in a green jacket, Crayola-blue slacks, red tie, and white loafers—in a strenuous and feverish debate over whether to require color photographs on citizens’ driver’s licenses. At one point, a proponent of the measure was asked just how many other states in the nation had a similar law, and he reported somewhat plaintively, “About forty-six, I believe…. We’d like not to be the last in this too, at least.” Sitting along the front row during the long course of this forensic exercise, wearing faintly glum expressions, were six black legislators—including the chairman of the legislature’s black caucus, Robert Clark, from the outback county of Holmes, site itself of many brutal melees during the movement, who now had his small son nestled in his lap.

Clark arrived in the Mississippi legislature in 1967 as the first black there since Reconstruction, and was alone in that body until 1977. A large, slow, quiet man, he recalls that, at first, “it was terribly, terribly hard to get recognition on the floor to speak. And whenever I did manage to get recognition, when I started to talk everybody would just get up and take them a little walk, go out and have a smoke, you know. And they were all the time having these secret committee meetings on me, and I mean even those committees I was a member of, including the education committee—of which I’m now chairman.”

But like Sheriff Gilmore, Clark attests that there has evolved a genuine mellowing of white dispositions, an expansiveness of spirit—this final revolution of attitude in whites probably the most uncanny and meaningful to follow from all those marches against the old political and legal edifices of oppression.

“Has it all brought a change in the actual feelings of white folks?—Oh Lord, yes,” Clark said. “Every time I run again, I get a little more and a little more white votes. I can remember my first campaign up there in my district, I’d walk down the street trying to shake hands and whites would actually turn their backs on me. Now, I walk down the street and I can’t get away so many white people come up to shake hands—it’ll take me a good hour just to go a block.”

Also sitting along that front row of the house with Clark is Aaron Henry, the Clarksdale, Mississippi, druggist who was one of the principals in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the regular-guard state delegation at the Democratic Convention in 1966—an appeal whose rebuff by the convention marked the movement’s passage from what could be called its age of faith to its age of fury and disillusionment. Now serving his first term in the Mississippi house, somewhat wearier and more baggy of face, Henry reports with a chortle that, when a recent state magazine appeared with his picture on the cover, “I suppose fifty white legislators came up and asked me to autograph their copy for them. Yessir. It’s another world. Like a thousand years have passed since that time in ’66.”

If anything, in fact, there is more sullenness and rancor now, says Clark, among the fire-breathing younger generation of black legislators who have followed him into the chambers of the capital than among any whites there. “They just find it hard to believe you can work in good faith with this same bunch that did that back at the Democratic Convention in ’66 and then broke the state up into these rearranged districts after the Voting Rights Act to try and ensure no blacks would ever get elected. They just can’t trust ’em yet. They still interpret about everything that happens here in the old racial terms. They want me, as chairman of the black caucus, to jump up and make a racial case out of every little thing. They just don’t understand yet that you can’t throw away what you’ve got—and we’ve got a lot in this body to still be only a minority—just to make a big impressive racial fuss. Why, if I were to get up there and start making these racial attacks on the white members, what they gonna do? Clip our wings, that’s what. If there comes a truly vital issue where I’d have to give up my dignity and my manhood to get along, that’s a different thing. But you can’t make everything into a racial confrontation—I tell you, these younger ones, they ’bout drive me crazy sometimes. But there’s a time to agitate and a time not to agitate.”

Still, for all the arresting transformation in the look and manner of Southern political commerce, for all the recent nuances of political co-existence, the economic and social dispossession of blacks not only in the South but in America has resisted politics. “Our problem,” Sheriff Gilmore said, “is that we raised a lot of hopes in coming into the power around here. And we haven’t been able to get around to everything yet. Not that much has happened, actually, in how folks are trying to manage to live. And if we get those hard financial times everybody’s talking about, it’s gonna bring a lot of ugly changes, like it always does—whites gonna get meaner, blacks gonna get meaner.”

For that matter, Clark confesses to some disappointment about how the black vote, as bloodily and dangerously as it was won, has actually translated itself into local elections. “In the beginning, blacks tended to be very skeptical about any black person they were asked to vote for. They wanted to be sure that a black candidate could still talk to the white man, you know—the white economic power structure in their little town or county. That rigidity, that caution has begun to loosen a little. But still, any black running has got to be almost super-qualified—and I mean, to the black electorate. And any white liberal making a move into a black district and then running for office, blacks will almost automatically vote for him over a black candidate.” So do three centuries of paternalistic conditioning endure still in the average black. It remains a peculiarity, Aaron Henry said, that “we still got a situation where it’s almost impossible to get whites to vote for blacks, but those blacks will sho vote for those whites. I have yet to see the first white man campaigning for blacks, but you’ll see the blacks handing out cards for whites, going up and knocking on doors for white candidates.”

Indeed, as a white, neo-Populist South Carolina state senator named Alex Sanders put it, “What’s happened to the black vote is that it’s become just like the white vote—they vote for all kinds of different people now, which has utterly astonished whites.” More, in some communities where blacks have inherited city hall and the courthouse, they have pitched into an unseemly fractiousness, which has encouraged noisy gloating from whatever leftover segregationists are around. But a Southern journalist remarked, “It’s really a kind of left-handed compliment—it’s like everybody’s astounded and scandalized to find that, after all the saintliness of the movement, now that blacks have moved out some of those old courthouse gangs and taken over, dawggone if they aren’t acting exactly like the white folks did when they were there. Black politicians are turning out to be just as ambitious, just as contentious, just as human as everybody else.”

Still, no single cohesive black political establishment has yet emerged anywhere in the South. The closest approximation would probably be the Alabama Democratic Conference, a coalition that nevertheless proved largely irrelevant in its failed efforts for the Alabama gubernatorial contender Bill Baxley. But Tuskegee’s black mayor, Johnny Ford, who was first elected in 1972, regards that circumstance as a benign one. “It’s because the black electorate is becoming more diverse and sophisticated in its responses, and I think that’s all to the good. Sure, blacks have to continue with some basic commitments, like other ethnic groups, the Italians, the Jews. But I don’t think it’s good for all blacks to be Democrats, for instance. We need to get into a two-party situation, where we have a caucus in both parties—even while we must reserve the possibility of transcending parties now and then. Our level of understanding is increasing about that. Politics is finally just a tool, a means of getting things—a game—and shouldn’t be taken too seriously in itself.”

But such a gamesmanship of deploying blacks in different parties and factions in order to play advantages would seem more likely to bode a diffusion of the black vote that would, in the end, only tend to neutralize its effect. Precisely such a calculation, as Sheriff Gilmore sees it, has produced the bizarre result that, from his own district, which he describes as “black as a crow,” the entire state legislative delegation is white—because of arrangements being struck by some black political brokers with “white people they figured we could all work with.”

On the whole, the long, turbulent, anguished laboring for the vote in the South during the Sixties has since articulated itself inconclusively, distractedly, into the politics there. Most perversely of all, Aaron Henry lamented, the promise that was posed by that labor’s triumph “is simply not being used as zealously as we sought it. The struggle we had to go through to get it suggests we ought to do a little better than average in turn-outs—but we haven’t.”

But if blacks’ exercise of the vote has generally been nowhere near so spirited as their striving to claim it, this desultoriness could alter dramatically in the presidential election come November.

It is one indication of how deep and formidable is the enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan among the Southern white electorate, and how dour the speculations of Democratic officials about the mayhem Reagan’s candidacy could visit on Democrats everywhere, that Mississippi’s Democratic Governor Winter has lately been gently contriving to revise his state party’s dual bi-racial chairmanship, installed just four years ago, into that of a single white chairman. Winter himself is one of the new generation of scrupulously sensible and decent Southern political executives who have replaced the uproarious rogue boars of the South’s past—the Vardamans, the Ross Barnetts, the Pitchfork Tillmans, the ‘Gene Talmadges. “Now, the last thing in the world I would advocate in Mississippi is trying to put blacks back on the political back burner,” Winter contended one recent April afternoon, sitting with a faintly harried air in his mansion office, “but what I’m trying to do is put together a Democratic party here in this state that’s gonna hold—a party that embraces both blacks and the middle-class white vote. Sure, there’s some difference of opinion about this single white chairman thing,” he delicately conceded, “but the Democrats just can’t afford to lose that middle-class white vote….”

In many respects, what seems to be developing in the South is a replay of the Goldwater and Johnson contest of 1964. But Johnson in that campaign was politically hale enough throughout the rest of the country to be able to accommodate the South’s defection—and indeed, it went as wallopingly for Goldwater as it seems likely, for much the same psychologies, that the black vote aside it would now go for Reagan. Unlike Johnson, though, Carter’s estate is hardly so sturdy in the rest of the nation beyond the South. Those very dramas and urgencies that by abruptly diverting the country’s dread have rescued and so far sustained Carter presidentially—Iran and Afghanistan—also happen to be the sort of crises on which Reagan could leap-frog him, especially in the South. For such popular angers, such a large mood of outrage in the country, Reagan has styled himself more than anything else.

It was a national temper, actually, already there before Iran and Afghanistan, a general sullenness among the electorate that greatly accounted for the early, albeit illusory, boom of expectations for John Connally’s candidacy—a sense that pervasive in the land there was a combustible impatience with accommodation and the nuances of restraint, a lust for authority and assertiveness again, and that Connally was exactly the sort of bluff, assured, commanding figure to answer this new disposition of the country. No powerful republic is so dangerous, perhaps, as when it has recently been frustrated and humiliated. There were many reasons why Connally was ambushed in his campaign—chief among them being that he never succeeded, with his Great Gildersleeve manner, in dispelling the gaminess of his association with the Nixon scandals—but not among them was that this mood has waned. It remains.

Accordingly, as Tuskegee mayor Johnny Ford said, “I don’t think I’m saying anything that they don’t realize up there in the White House, but without the South, the outlook for Carter is awfully uncertain. He just isn’t likely to win without it. And with the feeling for Reagan down here among the white voters, he’ll never win the South without the black vote.”

It may have been a tidal support from blacks that provided the last buoyancy to carry Carter on into the presidency in 1976, but not very long after his inauguration, disenchantments began to gather, complaints from the congressional black caucus, from other figures like Vernon Jordan of the Urban League, over Carter’s parsimonies in social programs, his apparent metamorphosis, once in office, from Baptist social worker to a corporate-management version of Calvin Coolidge. Then in Richmond, Virginia, last winter, there gathered a conference of black leaders ranging from the civil rights patriarchs to sharp young legislators. From that meeting emerged disaffections toward Carter that seemed virtually terminal, especially over his economic flintiness and his fixation on armament programs. The conference could hardly have been more ominous for Carter’s already much embattled and faltering prospects for a second term.

Southern black leaders generally agree that, as Mississippi’s Bob Clark reports it, “there’s an edge of disgruntlement, disappointment with Carter, sure.” But even so, Clark told me, the distemper in Richmond was “more an urban, Northern thing, if it’s even that really when you get down to the precinct level in those places. Down here, though, whatever other dissatisfactions there may be, the majority of blacks still just trust Carter somehow.” An independent candidacy by John Anderson would not be likely to impinge noticeably on the black vote in the South. “Blacks are going to vote ninety-nine percent Democratic almost regardless of issues or personalities,” Clark said. “Blacks now go back in their feelings identifying with the Kennedy-Johnson era. For them, history didn’t start until then.” Nevertheless, there is also common agreement that if Carter were facing any other candidate, Ford or Bush or Anderson, the response of blacks on election day would be only indifferent, perfunctory. “There isn’t that much enthusiasm for him,” said one South Carolina black party official, “nothing at all like there was the first time.”

But the unanimous testimonial of black leaders over the South is, as Aaron Henry declared, “Reagan is the difference. It it were anybody else but Reagan, Carter wouldn’t get much of a show among blacks—but that man’s gonna bring ’em out, you can believe it. With him, any black that can crawl will be finding a polling place somewhere to vote against him.” The antipathy seems curiously monolithic and implacable, almost approaching the mystic, and one cannot help wondering if Reagan’s strategists yet have any suspicion of it. Asked to explain it, blacks offer their impressions that there is something starchily imperious and autocratic about Reagan, something curt and chillingly metallic, and particularly that there seems in him “no kindness…no love.”

Reagan seems somehow to evoke the kind of white society of prosecutors, credit managers, storekeepers, power company officials, the very mentality and authority which they had to bear for so long in the South. “I’ve never seen anything like this feeling about Reagan,” says one black politician, “since Goldwater.” Of course, the difference then was that blacks had not yet come into the vote. “You wait and see,” the politician added, “if it’s Carter or anybody against Reagan, there’s gonna be the hugest turn-out of black voters yet in this nation’s history. It’ll be phenomenal.”

It is a part of that unaccountable, abiding rainbow of good luck through which Carter has moved for most of his unusual political career, then, that circumstances should have so tumbled out that he would be confronting the very political adversary who can make it possible for him to win the South, and so a continuation of his presidency. Thus once again, Carter’s hopes are held in the palm of the black voter. And once again, it could fall to America’s blacks—still stranded in a dim half-zone of citizenship, still trapped in the nether reaches of American life and the American promise, and after having passed through four years of virtual political invisibility—ironically to determine now the destiny of the Carter presidency and with that the next turn in the nation’s history.

This Issue

May 29, 1980