[This article was originally published in the July 6, 1956 issue of Commonweal.]
It is always hard to generalize about the South, harder perhaps for the Southerner, for whom the subject is living men, himself among them, than for the Northerner who, in proportion to his detachment, can the more easily deal with ideas. Yet I think it is possible to record at first hand a momentous change which has taken place in a single generation—and I do not mean the obvious changes, the New South of the magazines, the Negro emigration or the Supreme Court decision. The change is this: until a few years ago the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fairmindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner. He is their champion no longer. He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick up. What has happened to him? With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.
He will not deny the charge but will reply that it is not he who has changed but the Supreme Court, that he is still fighting to preserve the same way of life he defended when he opposed the Klan thirty years ago. Has not pressure from the North rendered the moderate position untenable? Is he not now fighting the same good fight as his fathers, who kicked out the scalawags and carpetbaggers and rescued the South from one of the most shameful occupations in history?
But it is not the same fight and he has changed. (Again let me say I only feel free to say this because no white Southerner can write a j’accuse without making a mea culpa; no more is the average Northerner, either by the accident of his historical position or by his present performance, entitled to a feeling of moral superiority.)
The fact is that neither the ethos nor the traditional world-view of the upper-class white Southerner is any longer adequate to the situation. No longer able to maintain a steadfast and temperate position, he finds himself caught up in violent and even contradictory cross-movements. There is nothing atypical about Faulkner’s crying the South’s guilt to the high heavens one moment and the next condoning street fighting to perpetuate it. The old alliance of Negro and white gentry has broken up. During the last gubernatorial primary in Louisiana an extraordinary thing happened, the significance of which has been largely missed. The considerable Negro vote went en bloc to its traditional enemy, the poor-white candidate.
What is the reason for this dissolution of the old alliance? Is it simply a result of the Decision, or does the cause lie much deeper? Does it not, in fact, reflect a profound cultural change which, as it has turned out, cannot be accommodated within the ethos of the upper-class white?