A "moderate" was pretty bad in the South at the time of the James Meredith troubles -- it meant you were stoutly opposed to shooting down a black man on the highway, and you were thus regarded with some suspicion as a traitor to the southern way of life. But to be a "liberal" was worse -- it meant you approved of school integration and the Lord only knows what else. It was not all that different from being a pinko pig.
The historian C. Vann Woodward was early labeled a liberal on the valid grounds that he thought people should be treated fairly, and it is one of the subjects covered in his new book of reminiscences (and review of his past works), "Thinking Back." Over the years, he has annoyed many with his studies of the South, all tending to shatter the myth that southern history is an unbroken continuum of unchanging chivalry and high ideals.
Instead, he found evidence abounding of shrewd political deals, wild populist currents (far more complicated themselves than one would think from the remarks of the elite that demagogues are isolated aberrations not worth taking seriously) and frequent discontinuities.
He is now at 77 a retired Sterling professor at Yale, where he keeps an office, and shows up with white hair, tweed jacket, excellent southern accent and a good bit of magnanimity toward other historians, including his critics. He often reflects on what seem to him his own errors -- of emphasis, usually -- and he retains in speech and writing a kind of quiet irony that is both just and effective rather than hilarious.
Someone pointed out once that Woodward's somber views of history were not likely to appeal to the general run of liberals, to which Woodward responded that whether liberals, conservatives or radicals liked his views would depend largely on the use to which they thought his views could be put. And then -- a slight stab -- "They were not suggested for partisan use."
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called a Woodward book, "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," the "historical bible of the civil rights movement."
Leaning back in his chair in the neo-bastard-quasi-Gothic-proto-Tudor grandeur of his Yale office, Woodward said that to a sedentary fellow like him it is not all that much fun to be a celebrity.
"I knew perfectly well what the white people of Montgomery were thinking about this white southern professor at Yale, being quoted with approval by King," he says.
Liberals generally, and northern liberals in particular, sallied forth like knights to right the evils of the South. Woodward says they were pretty sure it was a "southern problem" and were unprepared for the riots in the North. Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year were passed, the missionaries to the South figured the great fight was won and were prepared to put down their arms.
"There was a good bit of self-congratulation on the part of those who were going to set everything straight," he said.
It disconcerted them, Woodward said, when black rebellion "exploded in their own back yards," with greater violence than they had seen in the South. (More than 150 major riots occurred in the years 1965-68, Woodward says, the worst one in Detroit leaving 43 dead, 1,000 injured and 2,700 businesses sacked.)
"Gloating?" Woodward asks rhetorically. "Did I gloat? Sure I did -- it was time those bastards up North had their time."
But in particular it was time, a historian would think, that they and we and everybody else stopped thinking in slogans and tried to understand how history comes about -- it is rarely susceptible to silken banners and golden lances.
Southerners, obviously, like everybody else seem to have frequently taken the path of least resistance, done what they could to assure (or restore, or acquire) their own advantage, and otherwise fallen short of the high dreams of romantics.
But Woodward says he sees in the South the potential for correcting much that he distrusts in the national psyche, so to speak.
"The South alone experienced military defeat," he reflects, "and more than any other region experienced real poverty."
The North, on the other hand, had emerged victorious and rich. Woodward saw again, after World War II, that Americans had won tremendous wars on opposite sides of the globe -- "wars in which they were sure their cause was righteous and their hearts were pure." Once more, he says, we had liberated the oppressed and punished the wicked, and behaved generously to our former enemies. And all with the American homeland quite unscathed by war, the economy rescued from a long depression. The mood was high optimism, and our national virtue led us to "develop" Asia and Africa here and there for the well-being of their people.
"I have something of a leaning against the myths of the nation," he says. Perhaps a sharp dose of reality would dispel some of them?
"Unparalleled power, unprecedented wealth, unbridled self-righteousness, and the illusion of national innocence -- it all struck me as an ominous combination full of potential dangers to the republic," he wrote in "Thinking Back."
Woodward was born and grew up in rural Arkansas, moved with his family to Georgia in 1928, and studied at Emory University and later at the University of North Carolina. He studied at Columbia University in New York for two years, leaving in 1932 to teach for two years at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
This was the period of the Great Depression. In 1935 he took a summer job with a relief agency studying rural poverty in Georgia, where he found people in conditions that made a mockery of his survey questions, and which embarrassed him for asking them. This was also a time of documentary works by James Agee, Walker Evans, Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, all of them registering strongly on young Woodward. And it was the time of the Southern Literary Renaissance, as well as strange new things like jazz (which Woodward says he was too much of a young cultural snob to appreciate, yet it was part of the scene).
In 1932 he had spent a month in Berlin, living with a Jewish family. On this eve of Hitler's accession to power he noticed substantial protest in Europe against the plight of the nine "Scottsboro boys," falsely accused of rape in Alabama. There was great concern in Europe for this celebrated injustice.
Returning to Georgia, he involved himself in the Herndon case. Angelo Herndon was a young black communist charged with inciting insurrection. The statute under which he was charged was one from Reconstruction days and it bore the death penalty. Herndon's crime was leading a protest demonstration against a cut in relief funds to the unemployed.
Woodward attended a meeting at the Labor Temple of people interested in raising defense money for Herndon, and Woodward found himself vice president. Soon afterward, the chairman resigned and Woodward was left "holding the bag." The chairman had quit when the Communist Party intervened in the case, so there Woodward was as chairman of a communist-supported crusade. Woodward was fired from his teaching job, not because of his work with the defense committee, he says, but because of a budget cut that affected many other young teachers as well.
The experience reminded him that well-meaning efforts at justice can have unpleasant side effects -- something you learn more effectively if you experience it yourself.
Woodward says his concern about his country's future became genuine alarm when he saw the hysteria of the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.
He thought then, and thinks now, the lessons learned by the South in the last century could be applied, somehow, to the dangerous myths (as he sees them) absorbing the nation since World War II.
If you observe that the southern defeat of 1865 has in no way destroyed a general southern enthusiasm for virtuous wars abroad (Tennessee is not called the Volunteer State for nothing) and seems an unreliable antidote to foreign adventurism and domestic jingoism, Woodward will concede this is obviously so.
"The South has seemed to be as much obsessed by national delusions and myths as any other region, if not more so," he says.
Still, he does not give up his idea that the South has potential unique in America for transmitting some lessons of our history -- such as perhaps giving up a bit of our near-unanimous sense of total innocence and general self-righteousness.
If you ask him if it's not a romantic notion, that the South might lead America away from folly, so to speak, he smiles at the implication he has retained some of the general southern romanticism toward the past. He is aware of the southern fondness for romanticizing almost anything, and has himself pointed out the ironies of southerners going on at length about the sufferings of the Civil War years.
Nobody there has forgotten that newspapers like The Commercial Appeal had to take to flatcars, publishing briefly in some town, then moving on to print in the next safe town, and on wallpaper at that. Or how the silver was stolen by Spoon Butler. And many other hardships, though a century later, and after Auschwitz and so great a general slaughter of innocents in the world, it is hard to make the world weep now for southern suffering.
All the same, the southern suffering was acutely real, and made the South different from richer parts of America. Woodward believes, along with virtually everybody else who ever really looked at the South, that there still is a difference.
"A difference worth preserving," he says. Not because it is picturesque, you are quite sure from talking with Woodward, but because the past might correct the present.