Time, social changes have softened lines between black/white history
By The Economist
March 19, 2007

Until recently, Edgar Ray Killen, a retired Baptist preacher, sat each day in a cafe in the center of Philadelphia, Miss. None of the young folk paid him much heed, but the older ones knew who he was. Back in 1964, as head of the local Ku Klux Klan, Killen orchestrated the murder of three young civil-rights workers.

The three – one black Mississippian and two Jews from New York – were on their way to investigate a church burning. They were stopped for speeding, then released. A mob of Klansmen followed them, forced them off the road and shot them dead. James Chaney, the only black, was beaten before he was murdered.

The crime provoked outrage and at least three movies. Seven men were found guilty of "civil-rights violations" in 1967, but none served more than a few years in jail. Killen was acquitted because one juror said she could not convict a preacher. But then, in 2005, he was re-arrested, returned to court and found guilty of manslaughter. He probably will die in jail.

"The trial showed the outside world we’ve changed," says Leroy Clemons, the head of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Race relations in Philadelphia, Miss., are "not perfect, but good," he says. "I coach softball. I watch black and white kids interact. You can see they don’t carry the baggage from the past."

In the workplace, Clemons believes skin color is no longer an issue. As the local NAACP chief, he often hears allegations of racism, but many turn out to be minor or groundless.

Local whites are equally upbeat. "The trial helped to clear the air," says David Vowell, the head of a group that promotes local business and tourism. Vowell says he doubts that Philadelphia will attract thousands of new investors overnight, but he expects people to view the town more favorably.

Already, tourists come for an "African-American Heritage Driving Tour" – i.e., to visit the scenes of the crime. Not as many as flock to a nearby gambling resort, but every visitor helps.

William Faulkner, a novelist from Mississippi, once wrote: "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." The South’s challenge since the end of segregation has been to prove him wrong. By and large, it has succeeded.

In 1942, 98 percent of Southern whites told pollsters that blacks and whites should attend separate schools, and 96 percent favored segregated buses. By 1963, when the civil-rights movement was in full voice, those numbers had fallen to 69 percent and 48 percent respectively. Today, open support for segregation is so rare that pollsters no longer bother to ask the question.

On a yet more sensitive subject – interracial romance – opinions have shifted nearly as dramatically. Before the Second World War, marriages between blacks and whites were outlawed not only in the South but also in nearly every non-Southern state with a sizeable black population. No pollster bothered to ask if people approved of such matches until 1958, when a mere 4 percent of white Americans said they did.

One of the paramount goals of segregation was to keep black men away from white women. If they dined or swam or danced together, Southern white men feared, they were on a slippery slope towards sleeping together. Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago who, unfamiliar with Southern taboos, wolf-whistled at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, was beaten to death for it.

And yet by 2003, 59 percent of white Southerners were telling pollsters that it was "all right for blacks and whites to date." That number has doubled since 1988, as the older generation has mellowed or died.

And though a large minority still disapproves, they are mostly too polite to say anything, says Susan Glisson, the (white) director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

In six and a half years of dating a black man, she says, she was shouted at twice, both times by white men. It is horrible to hear your boyfriend addressed as "nigger" or to be told you will have a "yellow" baby, but it did not destroy the relationship.

What people tell pollsters is an imperfect guide to what they think. Some lie. Until the 1960s Southern whites felt pressure to support segregation even if they did not wholeheartedly believe in it.

Now the pressure is the other way. That is significant. If it is socially unacceptable to express racist views, that is progress. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that racism really has diminished.

For a start, blacks themselves think so. Perhaps surprisingly, the Pew Research Center found in 2003 that Southern blacks were more likely than non-Southern ones (by 31 percent to 20 percent) to say that "discrimination against blacks today is rare." In the 1980s Southern blacks were no more optimistic on this score than Northerners.

Income is another yardstick. The median black household in the South earns 99 percent of the black American norm. Allowing for the lower cost of living, Southern blacks are better off materially.

In the South, as in the North, factors other than racism affect a black’s life chances far more. Clemons cites two: education and financial savvy. "I see boys who can’t read a simple sentence. They think it doesn’t matter; that they’ll be pro athletes. I say: ‘How can you make it if you can’t even read a contract?’ " He also frets that too many young people think a loan is free money, and spend years servicing debts incurred for frivolous purposes.

The best evidence that the South is a tolerable place to be black is that three times as many blacks move there each year as leave it.

Every other American region, in fact, is losing blacks to the South.

That does not mean that Southern racism is dead. Far from it.

Though blacks and whites rub along amicably enough in the workplace, they still mostly live, socialize and worship separately. If they have friends of another race, it is often because they have been thrown together, as in the Army, and have to get along.

College, alas, is a less effective melting pot. Fraternities with only black or only white members are common. Glisson laments that her black and white students sit separately in class unless specifically told not to.

Southern politics are far from color-blind, but more blacks hold elected office in the South than in any other region. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank, says the South was home to only a slim majority of American blacks but to two-thirds of the country’s 9,101 black elected officials in 2001. Mississippi alone had 54 black mayors.

Electoral maps in the South are now drawn to maximize the number of majority-black districts, so most black Southerners elected to Congress rely largely on black votes. But they struggle to capture enough white votes to win statewide office: the South currently boasts no black governors or U.S. senators. The most prominent Southern black politician, the Alabama-born secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was appointed.

Given the South’s history, its politicians have a clear duty not to stir up racial discord to court easy votes. They do not always resist the temptation. Spats over whether or not to honor the Confederate flag crop up with dreary regularity. And closely fought elections sometimes bring out the worst even in sober politicians.

For example, Shirley Franklin, Andrew Young and John Lewis, three respected black Georgia Democrats, went on radio just before last year’s midterm election saying things like: "You think fighting off dogs and water hoses in the ’60s was bad? Imagine if we sit idly by and let the right-wing Republicans take control of the Fulton County Commission." Given that Lewis really was beaten up during a civil-rights march in the 1960s, he might have shown more of a sense of proportion.

A Senate race in Tennessee last year exposed more complex racial currents. Harold Ford, a prodigiously talented black Democrat, looked as though he might capture a safe Republican seat. The national Republican Party ran an advertisement in which a pretty blonde gushed:

"I met Harold at the Playboy party!" and which ended with her cooing:

"Harold, call me."

Democrats saw this as a racist appeal to white men who hate black men dating white women. Republicans retorted that it was perfectly fair to poke fun at Ford’s bachelor lifestyle when he spent the campaign talking up his Christian faith.

Ford lost, but not before inadvertently illustrating that Southern politics are no longer black and white. He lambasted his white opponent, Bob Corker, for allegedly employing illegal aliens. His overt message was that people should obey the law. But he was also playing on the alarm that many Southerners, black and white, feel at the recent influx of Hispanics into their neighborhoods.

Texas and Florida have had large Hispanic populations for a long time. But for other Southern states the sudden arrival of Spanish-speaking migrants has come as a shock. Six Southern states – North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama – saw their Hispanic populations swell by more than 200 percent in the 1990s. In several counties the increase was more than 1,000 percent.

The newcomers are mostly young men, most of whom trek up from Mexico to work illegally as builders, waiters, fruit pickers, hog slaughterers or in any other occupation the locals deem too tough or ill-paid.

Illegal immigrants pay few taxes but place a strain on public services. In the six states mentioned above, the proportion of primary and secondary school pupils who are Hispanic is expected to hit 10 percent this year, up from next to nothing in 1990.

In some areas, schools have switched from all English-speaking to majority Spanish-speaking in only a few years, a change some parents find nearly as disconcerting as their parents found desegregation.

Ford was one of many Southern politicians to promise a firm stand against illegal immigration during the campaign. But such promises have usually been broken. Raids on employers who hire illegals are rare, and prosecutions even rarer.

Maritza Pichon, head of the Latin American Association in Atlanta, reckons there are a million Hispanics in Georgia, twice the official estimate and more than a tenth of the total population. They started coming during the construction boom that preceded the Olympics in 1996.

Many stayed. Pichon admits that their children place a burden on schools.

On the other hand, Hispanic workers provide Georgians with cheaper houses, affordable nursing and countless other services. Besides their work ethic, they are also devout Christians, she says, so they will assimilate well once they learn English, as immigrants always seem to do.

In the future, says Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the South "will be home to many people who do not share the burden of Southern history. What does the civil war mean to a Mexican?" Will there be new ethnic alliances? Or, he asks, will politics in the South become class-based?

© 2007 – Knoxville News Sentinel

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