Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jason Morgan Ward's "Defending White Democracy"

Jason Morgan Ward is assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965, and reported the following:
My book, Defending White Democracy, traces the emergence of a self-consciously “segregationist” movement in the 1950s back to its roots in the racial struggles of the New Deal, World War II, and immediate postwar years. During the 1930s and 1940s, a growing chorus of southern racial conservatives concluded that white supremacy was under attack. Years before the landmark Brown decision and the rise of mass protest in the South, black political realignment and civil rights activism convinced many white southerners that they would have to fight to maintain their segregated status quo. In short, my book recasts segregationists as far-sighted and preemptive opponents of racial change rather than as kneejerk reactionaries goaded into open revolt.

Page 99 highlights a pivotal moment in the evolution of southern racial politics. A few pages into Chapter Four, “Nationalizing Race and Southernizing Freedom,” this passage shows how civil rights reforms in the immediate postwar months forced southern racial conservatives to reconcile their commitment to Jim Crow with their desire for regional prosperity and national credibility in the postwar world. Ironically, the victory over Hitler and his ilk had unleashed a wave of racist repression back home. Compelled to action by beatings, lynchings, and black protest, President Harry Truman made unprecedented postwar concessions on civil rights. In 1947, he became the first president to address the NAACP’s annual convention. He also created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR), whose landmark report, To Secure These Rights, catalogued rampant racial abuse and prescribed a number of reforms aimed at “the elimination of segregation…from American life.” As this Page 99 excerpt reveals, southern elites cried foul:
Many white southerners regarded the report as an insult rather than an outright attack. Keeping cool for the time being, Thurmond stressed modernization while mocking the PCCR’s misled idealism. “A little more practical help on economic lines, and a little less fallacious racial theory,” Thurmond declared, “would accomplish a great deal more for the improvement of the level of life and opportunity of all our people of whatever race.” SSIC columnist Thurman Sensing chided the committee, and particularly its two white southern members, for proposing reforms that were not only “impractical” but also “inimical to the American way of life.” Claiming that segregation was not discrimination but rather “a law of nature,” Sensing concluded: “Those who actually understand the relationship between the races know that nothing would be worse for the Negro race than enforced abolishment of segregation.”
In the excerpt, I point out that southern defenders of segregation responded to the PCCR’s report in derisive yet measured language. South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond, remembered as a symbol of segregationist defiance, was busy trying to tamp down racial tension and negative publicity in his home state so that he could focus on economic development. The Southern States Industrial Council (SSIC), a lobby for the region’s right-wing businessmen, shared Thurmond’s belief that prosperity could proceed apace with racial retrenchment. Faced with unprecedented pressure from the federal government and their own Democratic Party, southern racial conservatives realized that they had to convince the nation that a segregated society could be orderly, prosperous, and consistent with fundamental American values. They had fought the Axis, they argued, to preserve their “white democracy.” They would continue to fight—their President, their party, and even their neighbors—to save segregation.
Learn more about Defending White Democracy at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue