U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kneel In: Civil Rights, Sensibilities, and the Pastoral Work of Secular Historians (Part I)

Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 (NY: Vintage Books, 2007) is a study of white southerners’ shifting attitudes toward changes that the civil rights movement produced or portended in their everyday lives. Through an insightful, intellectually sympathetic (as opposed to ideologically sympathetic) reading of a variety of sources — contemporary newspapers, letters to the editor, long-form  journalistic reportage from the era, news interviews of whites during the civil rights movement, and oral histories, and the like — Sokol ably portrays the experience of white southerners whose once-stable and coherent “worldview,” their sense not just of what was right, but of what was true, began to lose coherence in the face of black civil rights activism.  “In times of relative quiescence,” he writes, “as well as in moments of drama, white southerners felt the ground shift beneath their feet” (10). Some of them fought to defend the old ground of shared assumptions and expectations that had undergirded the social system of racial hierarchy, while some of them welcomed the shift towards a different understanding of social relations.  Some whites resisted change at first and then more or less accepted it, some of them never adjusted.  All these responses, Sokol argues, collectively shaped the social and material conditions in which the civil rights movement by turns faltered and flourished. “The material and the mental permeated each other at every turn” (70), Sokol argues.  To some extent, then, this work might be described as a history of sensibilities.  For the varied responses of white southerners to the civil rights movement  — what they did, how they acted, the changes they wrought in response to changes around them — had everything to do with what whites thought, with what they believed.

In many ways, Sokol’s account reads — or rings — like a contrapuntal countermelody running beneath more recent discussions (including some on this blog) regarding civil rights and social norms.  These discussions have touched upon not only debates over marriage rights for lesbians and gays, but also the outcry (or lack thereof) from and surrounding the “Occupy” movement(s).  At least one goal of the “Occupy” activism could perhaps be summed up as a civil rights issue:  the demand for equal protection under the law for private citizens in a world of corporate personhood, whether those corporate persons are bailed out banks who turn around and put the squeeze on debtors, or for-profit firms creating and capitalizing upon the high-stakes standardized testing craze. So in this and the next few posts, I would like to suggest some ways that examining the shifting and enduring sensibilities of white southerners during the civil rights era might offer us some tools to better understand what is at stake in current debates, not for those who feel that they have much to gain, but for those who fear that they have much to lose.

After a “prelude” chapter setting up whites’ conceptual world in the paternalistic, punishing Jim Crow South during the decade after World War II, Sokol’s second chapter explores a jarring challenge to this set of assumptions and attitudes that white southerners shared about what was true about themselves and about blacks, about how well their system worked, about how it should be ordered.  He shows how the very fact that black activists were publicly demanding their civil rights — whether or not those demands met with success — forced whites to think about the world in new (though not necessarily improved) ways.  One crucial and pervasive assumption that black activism challenged was whites’ belief that they themselves truly “understood the Negro,” and that “their” blacks were content with “their place” in society and appreciative of their interactions with whites.  “That white southerners lacked adequate ‘social seismographs’ was little surprise,” Sokol writes — though I think he must mean that such a phenomenon should be “little surprise” to historians.  It was quite a surprise to white southerners themselves, as Sokol goes on to argue:  “Many of them were born into families, and reared in communities, that served up traditional southern beliefs about ‘their Negroes’ beside plates of fried chicken and Bible lessons. Beliefs about ‘excellent race relations’ were more than psychological needs; they seemed part of an unshakeable landscape….Few questioned whether their upbringing was right or wrong; the most important thing was that segregation (and the prejudices it encouraged) spelled reality” (61).

The interplay throughout Sokol’s book between terms like “belief” and “reality” gets confused, or at least confusing, from time to time.  That is partly due, I think, to a kind of mimetic reinstantiation within his text of the very tensions at play within his object of inquiry. Whites’ beliefs were reality, to them — they were an adequate and true explanation for the Way Things Are.  New experience — the experience of having those prejudices, and the structural inequalities constructed upon them, sharply challenged — forced whites to confront these conflicting “realities.”  It was not simply that whites had to adjust their public behavior to conform to (or seek to avoid) new mandates regarding public transportation, public accommodation, blacks’ rights to vote, their rights to equal access to the same educational institutions, and so forth.  Whites had to cope with the inability of those old beliefs to explain these new experiences.  They had to find a way to account for the inadequacy of their own epistemology.

“From the white side of the southern racial divide,” Sokol writes, “the civil rights movement created a massive conceptual gap. Many thought blacks were incapable of organizing, and were content in ‘their place.’ They could hardly divine, or even acknowledge, a sufficient motivation for black protest.  Communism helped to fill that interpretive void” (85).  Given a choice between recognizing that long-held views of black incompetence and contentment did not reflect “reality,” or constructing a new and more elaborate explanation for why their view of the world remained true in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary, many white southerners chose the latter option, attributing local black activism solely to outside agitation or Communist infiltration.

The stubborn refusal of southern whites to recognize that they were wrong — wrong in their understanding, wrong in their moral judgment — can be a source of frustration to undergrads studying the civil rights movement.  There was a right side and a wrong side, the undergraduates can see clearly.  Even if white southerners had started out in the wrong due to upbringing and tradition, the studied non-violence of the Freedom Riders, the stoic endurance of the Selma marchers, the tender innocence of Ruby Bridges walking past a screaming mob to get to school — any segregationist who witnessed these events should have had a change of heart and repented of the evils of racism.  Indeed, just as undergrads often cannot understand how anyone with a working moral compass could own a slave, so they have a hard time grasping how anyone with a conscience could oppose black civil rights.  They often view whites’ continued opposition to civil rights as a form of “unrepentance.”  As Wilfred M. McClay recently argued, the idea of redemption, “a new beginning, a fresh start, a transformation” is “one of the deepest moral and emotional foundations of American life.”  So for some students of history, the idea that an encounter with “the truth” should have resulted in a change of mind, a change of heart, is perfectly reasonable, and the failure of many whites to experience such a change can be chalked up to moral intransigence or unrepentant malice.

But intellectual historians too may also have an affinity for conceptual conversion narratives, especially in our post-Kuhnian metaphorical landscape. Ben Alpers’s post on “the rise of paradigm-talk” within popular culture and, perhaps, within the historical profession, raises an important issue.  Though Kuhn was insistent that the idea of a “paradigm shift” should “be applied only to science,” that cat’s out the bag, that horse is out of the barn, that ship has sailed. For ideas — especially metaphors — do have a way of transgressing boundaries. Thus, the supposed inappropriateness of its applicability to disciplines outside of science notwithstanding, the notion of incommensurable paradigms, or the notion of a paradigm collapse, may (appropriately? inappropriately?) stand behind some of our own explanatory schemes.  For historians looking at epistemic shifts, it might seem “natural” to situate conceptual and cultural change in historical moments of “revolution,” when inadequate paradigms lose out, we might whiggishly hope, to broader, better understandings — better because they can accommodate and include a greater multiplicity of social perspectives and experiences.  While the “old” paradigm may linger long enough for its adherents to put up a fight that turns into a Culture War, it will, one might suppose, lose out eventually.

Sokol’s account certainly portrays a decisive historical time, an era in which an explanatory scheme seems to come under the greatest possible pressure, until it seems to be on the point of collapse under the weight of “reality.” Indeed, many of Sokol’s subjects — and, implicitly, white southerners as a group — seem to teeter between two contradictory ways of viewing the world.  But one value of Sokol’s account lies, I think, in his demonstration of how inadequate the notion of a “paradigm shift” would be in characterizing that historical moment.  Indeed, Sokol shows the epistemic resilience of many of his subjects, their creativity in finding ways to conceptually contain seemingly insuperable contradictions, their astonishing “ability to marry two warring thoughts” (66) into one (un)remarkably tenacious vision of the world.

Next week:  William James and the will to not believe 

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. And, in fairness to Sokol, I should have added that demonstrating the inadequacy of notions of a “paradigm shift” is not what he set out to do. Indeed, at some moments in the text it seems that he has a Kuhnian explanatory model in mind. But, to his great credit, he does not try to shoehorn the model onto the moment.

  2. No, I don’t think you’re dense; I think I am being a little obscure. I tried to come up with a title that would fit the whole series of posts (which I am writing as I go). But that kind of title means gesturing towards things I have yet to address.

    However, on my general sense of what this “pastoral work” could entail, see these old posts:

    Matter’s Possibilities

    Why History Matters

    as well as this recent comment in response to Ray, which is a somewhat expanded version of an idea I have been mulling over since I left this comment from summer 2011 on the ethical obligations of historians.

  3. Great first post for what sounds like an excellent text. I love books that really help us inhabit the views of “the other” (whoever he/she/they are). And I really liked this memorable phrase from your introduction: “contrapuntal countermelody.”

    This book does indeed seem like a great example of Dan Wickberg’s “sensibilities” approach (even if Sokol doesn’t explicitly cite Wickberg?).

    Your last paragraph simply reinforces the notion that “paradigm shifts” are just another narrative, or intellectual, construction—a shorthand for historians. I’m sure we could say, with respect to any designated paradigm for any historical moment, that any “shift” was incomplete and partial. Indeed, we are living in times that—depending on one’s geographic, national, and religious framing—could be described in terms of multiple paradigms (post-postmodernism, modernism, Enlightenment, “War on terror,” post-industrialism, industrializing, globalization, localism, etc.). A given paradigm only works when the frame is artificially reduced, or limited. So did Sokol limit his frame enough, too much, or not enough? – TL

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