Sunday, May 06, 2007

Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything

Check out Jason Sokol’s There Goes my Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, which I put on the sidebar. The book can wander a bit at times, but provides some interesting insights into the contradictions, evolutions, and struggles within white communities during that era. I liked the fact that it made me view a widely debated topic in a slightly different light.

Take, for example, poor whites in New Orleans. Wealthier whites announced they would not accept integrated schools, and would pull their kids out and put them in private schools. There were some white families who crossed vicious picket lines to take their children to school because they did not have the luxury of paying private tuition (it should be noted that some—though not all--of them would have done so had they possessed the means). Doing so also took an enormous toll of them, even physically.

Of course, racial problems persist here in the South (though these days when you look especially at immigration issues, I don’t think they’re necessarily much worse than anywhere else) but another theme is how desegregation occurred much quicker than most people thought. Some whites barely changed their views, but many others quickly adjusted, even though a few years earlier most people thought Jim Crow would last forever because it was so embedded legally and culturally. They had been taught not to question it.

The book ends with a discussion, already raised by civil rights leaders 40+ years ago, that segregation is a fundamentally white problem. Achieving change required white southerners to internalize that it was simply unacceptable to claim that racial discrimination was consistent with democracy, and to argue that African Americans preferred the status quo (Sokol does a nice job of showing how whites would say “their” blacks were perfectly happy). Accepting these things also could even entail a certain catharsis: “The civil rights movement was about breaking down physical and legal barriers, but it also allowed white southerners to reimagine their lives and worlds” (p. 321).

Along those lines, I would’ve liked to see a more detailed discussion about how all this related to the white southerner president who did so much for the civil rights movement. I am waiting (and will have to keep waiting for years, I think) for Robert Caro’s new installment of his compelling biographies of Lyndon Johnson (I loved Master of the Senate).


Chris Lawrence 11:25 PM  

Sounds like an interesting book; since it turns out I'm teaching southern politics in the fall (instead of the spring, which is what I'd previously thought) I'll have to check it out ASAP.

Greg Weeks 5:49 AM  

I think it would be very accessible for undergrads.

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