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The mind of the (white) South

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975
By Jason Sokol
Knopf, 433 pp., illustrated, $27.95

The civil rights revolution that swept the American South in the 1950s and 1960s accomplished what many contemporaries, black and white, had believed inconceivable only a few years before: State laws and local practices that for decades had relegated African- Americans to a separate and unequal place in society and denied them the right to vote were swiftly overturned by federal legislation that was prompted by region wide protests. The non violent uprising by Southern blacks coalesced into an unprecedented social movement that toppled the "Jim Crow" social order that had once appeared impregnable and eternal.

The story of black protest is well known. Less familiar, argues Jason Sokol, are the responses of millions of white Southerners whose core beliefs about themselves, blacks, and American society were challenged by the civil rights movement that "tore through the southern landscape." With the spotlight fixed largely on African- Americans, he maintains that the "full power of the civil rights movement" is missed. Although Sokol's claim is an exaggerated one, given the richness of the literature on civil rights that has not ignored the white South, he is right to underscore the simple fact that the "black freedom struggle also reshaped the lives of white southerners."

Historians "have yet to capture" whites' narratives "in all their complexity," Sokol writes. He endorses the views of one Southern reformer who trenchantly observed in 1956 that most Southern whites "hold no simple, single-minded, coherent opinion" on the subject of race, instead maintaining "vague, shifting, often contradictory notions." To Sokol, white Southerners were "too diverse to admit of a single 'mind of the South.' " A heterogeneous lot, they responded to black protests in numerous ways: Many resisted violently, others passively, and still others futilely tried to keep "their eyes closed and their ears covered" or reluctantly acquiesced to changes they feared were inevitable. An even smaller number either came to embrace desegregation because of a revulsion against other whites' unseemly violence or because of the movement's "revelatory power."

The way of life that most white Southerners were determined to retain, Sokol effectively shows, was deeply ingrained. " B orn into families, and reared in communities, that served up traditional southern beliefs about 'their Negroes' beside plates of fried chicken and Bible lessons," many accepted the racial order "as a fact of life." Even as the movement heated up, Southern whites maintained the illusion that race relations in their communities were basically good. The protests that erupted had to be the work of outside agitators.

If they could deny any fundamental problem with their social order, Southern whites could not ignore the movement's growing challenge. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act rendered segregation illegal and prompted the steady growth of the black electorate. By the 1970s the changes were visible, substantive, and enduring.

Yet progress had its limits, Sokol reminds us. For all of blacks' new voting strength, whites remained disproportionately influential in the political and economic arenas and evaded school desegregation by moving to largely white suburbs or enrolling their children in private white academies. On the political front, many never forgave President Johnson or the Democratic Party for forcing change upon them. The Civil Rights Act, many felt, imposed "involuntary servitude" upon businesses forced to deal with black customers and represented the establishment of a "federal dictatorship." They repaid the Democrats at the voting booth, throwing electoral support first to the anti black and anti liberal campaigns of George Wallace before settling on the Republican Party. White Southerners "became bedrock Republicans by the mid-1970s," Sokol concludes. "As much as anything else, this was the legacy of the Civil Rights Act."

Following in the methodological footsteps of his mentor, historian Leon Litwack at the University of California, Berkeley, Sokol provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of Southern whites in the age of Jim Crow's collapse. Navigating through a vast number of mini stories occurring across time and region, his engaging if repetitive and sometimes clichéd narrative mixes long-familiar civil rights stories with new and revealing anecdotes about how whites resisted or came to live with desegregation. Although Sokol argues that identifying "whites as ' extremists,' ' segregationists,' or even 'moderates ' " and especially "racist[s]" doesn't help us to explain their beliefs or actions, many of the men and women featured in his pages are the embodiment of those labels. Despite an admirable commitment to probing "beyond the stories of black versus white, good versus evil" to get at "life's protean ambiguities," his story is often a straightforward and moralistic one that belies the complexities he claims to find.

Eric Arnesen is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is writing a biography of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph.

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