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During my Mississippi childhood and adolescence, the following justifications for segregation were expressed by teachers, preachers, at social gatherings, and in newspaper editorials. The state’s most influential newspaperman was Jimmy Ward, whose segregationist column “Covering the Crossroads with Jimmy Ward” appeared daily on the front page of Mississippi’s two largest newspapers—the Clarion Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. Although I mostly avoid use quotation marks in the following arguments, I reproduce them as I heard them, and I heard them a lot.
(1) If God had wanted the races to mix, He would not have separated them geographically. To support integration is to oppose God.
(2) Race mixing leads to the sin of interracial marriage, and interracial marriage leads to mongrel children.
(3) Black people are the children of Ham, and Ham’s father, Noah, cursed Ham’s descendants with eternal servitude after Ham displayed Noah’s nakedness when Noah was passed-out drunk. (Genesis 9: 20-27).
(4) The inferiority of the colored race is beyond question.
(5) Black people are subhuman, and therefore lack the legal rights of white people. (I bought a deceased black preacher’s library, and found in it a racist work entitled The Negro: a Beast or in the Image of God?)
(6) Before outside agitators stirred them up, Southern Negroes were happy with their lives.
(7) Those who support integration are knowingly or unknowingly acting at the behest of Soviet Communism, the goal of which is to destroy America.
(8) There are few black people in the North, and those few have been forced into ghettos. Northern whites are hypocrites who don’t understand black people or the necessity of Southern race relations.
(9) Negroes have the mentality of children, and must be kept under control for the good of themselves and others.
(10) America has fallen so deeply into sin that God would abandon our nation entirely if not for Southern piety and patriotism.
(11) To submit to integration would be to betray God, our ancestors, and the 258,000 Southerners who died in the Civil War.
Why did the South cling to such baseless arguments?
(a) They were all that most Southerners had ever known, and few people even thought to question them. Others were afraid to do so because it could be a life-wrecking experience.
(b) Friends, family, neighbors, and authority figures were all adamantly opposed to integration.
(c) Seemingly overnight, the white South went from being largely ignored in popular culture to being viciously criticized in political speeches, Northern newspapers, Northern news magazines, and the enormously popular Life Magazine. Its religion, values, and speech, were mocked, belittled, and condemned, by the rest of the nation and even the world. Incest jokes abounded. White Southerners were presented as ignorant buffoons, psychopathic rednecks, and toothless hillbillies. The white South felt besieged, and most people responded by clinging ever more tenaciously to traditional beliefs and values.
Northern companies canceled plans for Southern factories, and this caused the already impoverished region to sink even deeper. Thousands of Southerners canceled their subscriptions to Life. Klan membership increased, and there was talk of a second Civil War. Frequent church burnings, the assassination of Medgar Evers—the state’s NAACP director—and the brutal murders of Freedom Riders Micky Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were looked upon by many with approval.
(d) White Southerners who supported integration were seen as traitors to God and to their own people, and were therefore hated above all other integrationists. Their children were harassed at school, and they themselves were subject to job loss, hate mail, vandalism, social ostracism, physical assault, loss of friendship, credit cancellation, having their pets poisoned, obscene and threatening phone calls, bullets through their windows, cross burnings in their yards (I personally witnessed this). The well-liked and influential couple in Hodding Carter’s So the Hefners Left McComb (McComb is twenty miles from where I lived) were parents to that year’s Miss Mississippi when their harassment started, but they still fled the South in fear for their lives.
(e) I will end this segment with some personal examples of Southern white anger. Klan literature was sometimes deposited in my family’s driveway. One night while driving home, I came upon a cross burning in a neighbor’s yard—no one was in sight.
School was in progress when John Kennedy was killed, and most students cheered. When one girl (whose parents favored integration) asked to be excused on the day of his funeral, her request was denied, and when she stayed home anyway, she was given failing grades in every class. I remained publicly silent about his death, although I wrote a note of sympathy to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated after school hours, but I was attending play practice at a Methodist college when King died. As most of my fellow students cheered, I reflected upon how odd it was for those who were preparing for the ministry and the mission fields to celebrate a man’s murder.
My high school’s Spanish teacher took her class to Monterey, Mexico, each year. In 1966, an English class from Monterey visited my school. As they got off the bus, many students cursed them, flipped them the bird, called them niggers (because of their dark skin), and demanded that they get back on the bus and go home. The Mexicans clearly didn’t anticipate such behavior, and their ignorance of what some of the words meant surely left them even more confused.
Also in ’66, four black students (three girls and a boy) integrated my high school. To my knowledge, none were assaulted, although they were treated with unremitting contempt. Again, I remained silent. I suspect that a great many white students were like I in that they either secretly favored integration or were secretly appalled by what they witnessed.
When a rumor circulated that black people might visit our church en masse, my father was asked to stand at the door with several other men to keep them out. He said to the men who asked him: “This is God’s house, and if God doesn’t want them here, then let God keep them out.”
My father treated black people with respect, but my mother treated them coldly and with condescension. One day, she chastened me for addressing a black lady as “Ma’am,” and she repeatedly warned me to avoid getting near black people lest “their germs” land on me. The commonly held belief that black people were “unclean” hearkened back the ancient Jews’ attitude toward gentiles.
Thankfully, my father didn’t cancel his subscription to Life Magazine, and I well remember the 1967 issue that contained the photo at the top of this post. That photo did more than words to impress upon the rest of the nation the fact that, a hundred years after the Civil War, Southern whites still regarded the very lives of black people as disposable. Now, the white South is once again using racism as the basis for discriminatory laws.
Because moral advancement in the South is invariably contingent upon outside force, the advancement is lost when the force is withdrawn. So it is that when a conservative Supreme Court overturned the Voting Rights Act in 2013, white governors and legislators went back to denying the vote to black people. How can it do such a thing? In numerous ways. For example, Texas now requires that heavily populated black precincts have the same number of voting machines as sparsely populated white precincts. Meanwhile, over in Georgia, black voters aren’t only being made to stand in line for six hours (there being many more white precincts, white voters tend to be spared this indignity), anyone who offers them food or water is subject to a year in jail.
So it is that Red State officials who are charge of insuring election fairness first determine when, where, and how, black people—and other Democrats—vote, and then they do their utmost to make voting so odious that voters stop trying. In rare cases where this tactic fails, they look for an excuse, however lame, to declare votes invalid. Now that Trump has packed the Supreme Court with minority-hating religious conservatives, appeals to that court for fairness are doomed (according to the conservative justices, the federal government simply has no business telling states how to run their elections).
In 1861, the South’s insistence that it be allowed to enslave black people resulted a war that cost 620,000 lives, a war from which the South learned nothing except that it had to be sneaky in describing its abuse of black people (instead of calling them slaves, it referred to them as convict laborers or as people who were working off their just debts. Even today, the state of Mississippi (along with other Southern states) is such a moral and economic morass that many of its citizens would starve without federal assistance (Mississippi opposes federal aid simply because it can’t bear the thought of putting food on the tables of black people). By all measures of health, happiness, and prosperity, the states of the Deep South are in constant competition for last place in everything that is good and first place in everything that is bad. Despite this, Mississippi—the most religious state in the Union—regards itself as so beloved by God that the existence of the entire nation rests upon its singular status in divine eyes. As the Bible says, the ways of God are but foolishness in the eyes of men.