We Ain't What We Was: Civil Rights in the New South

We Ain't What We Was: Civil Rights in the New South


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We Ain't What We Was: Civil Rights in the New South by Frederick M. Wirt

When officials of the U.S. Department of Justice came in 1961 to Panola County in the Mississippi delta, they found a closed society in which race relations had not altered significantly since Reconstruction. Much has changed, however, in Mississippi in the past three decades, as Frederick Wirt demonstrates in "We Ain’t What We Was," a remarkable look inside the New South. In this follow-up to his highly praised 1970 study of Panola County, The Politics of Southern Equality, Wirt shows how the implementation of civil rights law over the past quarter-century has altered racial reality that in turn altered white perceptions, and thus behavior and attitudes in a section of the country where segregation and prejudice had been most thoroughly entrenched.
Wirt uses multiple indicators—interviews with leaders, attitude tests of children, content analysis of newspapers, school records, and voting and job data—to record what has changed in the Deep South as a result of the 60s revolution in civil rights. Although racism continues to exist in Panola, Wirt maintains that the current generation of southerners is sharply distinguished from its predecessors, and he effectively documents the transformations in individuals and institutions. In a time of increasing popular challenges to the use of law in support of civil liberties, or the place of the federal government to effect necessary social change, this book testifies to the great changes, both public and personal, that were brought about by the strong implementation of civil rights law over thirty years ago. "We Ain’t What We Was" shows that adaptation to change was not overnight, not final, but gradual and always persistent.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822319016
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/18/1997
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.13(d)

About the Author

Frederick M. Wirt is Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of numerous books, including Schools in Conflict: The Politics of Education and The Politics of Southern Equality.

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Setting the Community Scene

In 1865 the officers of the federal army finally left Panola County, Mississippi. The agents of Washington, seeking control, would not again walk its hot town roads and country lanes until 1961, when officials of the Department of Justice set foot there. Both federal appearances brought enormous upheaval to lives here and elsewhere in the South. They brought excoriation from whites who saw the federal agents as invaders, but they also brought hopes in blacks as their secular saviors. Both interventions changed cultural traditions so basically that in each century the "Old" South became a "New" South, with both black and white citizens having to adapt to new lives. But the first federal presence withdrew, leaving freed slaves on their own to find their mean fortunes. During the century that followed, the "dark journey" of Jim Crow brought blacks not slavery but feudalism.

In the second federal appearance, however, its agencies purposefully remained on the scene. Staying the course has created a significant difference for both races, which this book explores, especially in the civil rights laws that shaped new experiences and behaviors. At the core of the matter in both eras is the issue of race. The writings and actions of the earlier period shout to us across time of the fear and hate of whites and of the fear and hope of blacks. In the last third of this century, the mass media have portrayed just how intense feelings remained--and just how violent some whites were about it.

The intensity of these events demonstrate something more basic that lies outside this region, namely, a conflict in basic values at the heart of American political ideology. The pursuit of freedom once meant, among other things, the freedom of whites to use slaves and later to exploit them in numerous and familiar ways. But against that value, the pursuit of equality energized black efforts to gain respect and resources for achieving a better life. This clash between freedom and equality was first noted in the earliest of writings on our Constitution in the Federalist Papers, sixty years later in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and a century later in Gunnar Myrdal's The American Dilemma. The power of this conflict of values can be understood as driving men to megadeath in the Civil War and to later labor-management conflicts. In effect, that conflict is like a running skirmish that persists across our history.

Amid all this, the law can be an instrument, now supporting one value, now another, as political leaders seek to lead or moderate the passions of values in conflict. To complicate matters, of course, Americans have always been ambivalent about the role of law. Witness the folk wisdom "There oughta be a law!" versus "Government off our backs!"

Thinking about Theory and Method

To demonstrate the role of law in shaping this conflict over basic political values, this book employs the lens of one southern county. The laws are the civil rights acts from 1957 to 1965 that were successively stronger efforts to implement the goal of racial equality. Their implementation tells us much about law's influence on social change and on behavior and attitudes. That relationship, we propose, involves a theory of law's influence that encompasses several stages working over time, each of which requires the modifier, "under some conditions."

Presume that strong implementation of any new law does the following:

1. It can produce changes in the reality that confronts ordinary citizens, no matter how distasteful they may find it.

2. Such changes create new social interactions in community life.

3. Citizens' perception of those interactions lead them in time to accept, albeit grudgingly, the new behaviors newly touched by the law.

4. Such acceptance can bring attitudinal changes not only about the reality but about the law's objective.

5. Finally, this process can accelerate in new generations, for whom old values and attitudes are not sufficient to meet present needs.

A fuller elaboration of these points appears in the last chapter, where I draw together the sets of experiences involving new rights that came to be in politics, education, and jobs in Panola County. But the theme is the same:

Law when enforced can change reality, which can change perceptions, which can alter behavior, which, in time, can alter attitudes.

The book is an effort to specify the meaning of this theory.

To understand this theory of law and social change, we will explore major questions in evaluating civil rights law, although we will remain aware of other modernizing influences upon the traditional culture, noted later. Our particular questions remain: How did implementation affect the civil rights of blacks? What were these laws' impacts on all citizens' political, schooling, and economic behaviors? What were citizens' perceptions and judgments about the commands of new laws and about the resulting experiences? Answers to these questions are compared across time. Earlier and more recent events in this county are explained in the words of its people and in records of their deeds. But this analysis is about more than just one county, and so I will regularly relate events in the country to others in the state and region. In short, the effect of law on social change can be understood broadly by this narrow focus on one locale, which will then illuminate in turn the larger context.

The choice of Panola County may be conservative, as it is one of the hundreds in the most racist section of the South and nation, namely the "black belt" where for a long time the worst things have been done by whites to blacks. Here one would expect considerable resistance to any law changing that racial culture, here would be the greatest violence against federal implementation, here would be the least presence of local leaders to moderate resistance, and here would be the least modification of attitudes over time. Here would loom large the presence of white citizens we will later term the "recalcitrants." The choice of this county, then provides a valuable test of the influence of law designed to change an culture.

The approach of this study is primarily qualitative, with a heavy lashing of quantitative data and measures. This multiple approach seeks to avoid three errors that can occur in research: believing what is untrue not believing what is true, and asking the wrong question. The study thus seeks theoretical validity through use of different methods of revealing experiences, even though any particular method may have a characteristic weakness. When such different measures attest to the presence of the reality, there is greater validity than when only one method is used. This method for assuring validity arises from the limitation of the researcher, as one scholar has noted: "Typically the qualitative researcher arrives on the scene with considerable theoretical baggage but very little idea of what happen next. Using theory, common sense, and any resources at hand, the researcher attempts, to survive in the field situation, and second, to work [his or her] self into a position where both observation and interviewing of locals will be possible."

Different sources of information serve different purposes. Sources for this book include over one hundred interviews on common racial topics which are triangulated in order to obtain validity; content analysis of two newspapers in the county from 1960; digests of records on voting,' schooling, and jobs; and a lengthy attitudinal survey of public and private school students. In this fashion I hope it could be said of this study that "various errors were [avoided] by multiple exposures of differing kinds to the problem area."

If these are the theory and method requirements of this book, we need to explore what happened, which first requires understanding this county as a social reality--that is, as a community that existed before the outside force of modernization and law appeared.

Panola as a Social System

When the federal government entered Panola County for the second time in 1961, it found a closed society whose race relations and economy had not change much since Reconstruction days. In most respects this county was a microcosm of the South. Race dominated all its institutions in a set of complex taboos and behaviors that had generated separate ways of life for each race. Much of this pattern owed more to caste than to class, as scholars have long noted. As the classic analyst of the Old South, V.O. Key, noted, keeping blacks in their place had become the central motif shaping the region's "peculiar institutions" after the Civil War.

Geography and Demography

Panola's history shares many features with other parts of the South. There had been the removal of Native Americans in pioneer days, the rise of "King Cotton," the dreadful human losses in the Civil War, followed by decades of Reconstruction that locked in white supremacy and produced hard times for the poor, and, finally, the massive migrations of blacks after both world wars.

Like many other counties in the South, Panola had a rural and small population that was poor by any measure and clearly biracial. Located between Memphis and Jackson, the county lies at the intersection of two lines running fifty miles south of Memphis and east of the Mississippi River. As Figure 1.1 shows, the county is almost square, and it is bisected diagonally by the Tallahatchie River, which once bore steamboats carrying away cotton bales. The flat and fertile Mississippi Delta carves out a bow-shaped notch on the county's western edge, which rises abruptly up the Chocktaw Ridge to reach gentle hills and fields that roll beyond. Running north and south, Interstate 55 now parallels the historic State Route 51, down which came Yankee cavalry over 130 years ago. These routes are today crossed by State Route 6 that reaches from Oxford in the east to the west. Clarksdale and the Delta in the west.

Panola's demography is simple on the surface but complex underneath, like many small places in America. When federal civil rights officials first drove into Panola in 1961, its population was under 30,000 and its largest sites, Batesville and Sardis, had populations of about 3,300 and 2,100, respectively. But, while separated by only twelve miles, both were county seats that, because of historic hostilities, had produced two white cultures. This white cleavage is explored more fully in this book, because it affected how new laws were incorporated into their respective realities.

Racial demographics give a familiar account of the rural South, especially in the "black belt." Over half the county in 1960 was black (56.4%), a proportion larger than for the state. Black income--family and personal--was much lower than income among Panola's whites and three-quarters less than the average income of the state's blacks. A few blacks held some of the limited manufacturing jobs, but more worked in the cotton fields or in household service. These inadequate incomes and occupations for blacks were matched by their lesser education, housing, and health, mirroring the poorer conditions in the whole state. Thus:

--8.4 percent of Mississippi's blacks had no schooling at all compared to 1.2 Percent of whites;
--45 percent of black housing was "dilapidated," compared with 28 percent for whites; and
--62 percent of the blacks were on public assistance by 1964.

For many poor whites--those lacking land, occupation, or business--life was also a hard scrabble, though less hard than it was for blacks.

The hard times were causing changes for both races by 1960. Just over half the adults in this county had been farmers (54.7%), and another third were in rural nonfarm jobs (33 9%) But population was decreasing. In the 1950s, about one in six of both races was no longer living here, one in twelve households was gone, and one person in eleven had migrated. These raw figures of rural depopulation imply innumerable stories of frustration and deprivation that could be handled only by leaving home, with all the loss of community that such uprooting entails. That pattern, generated first by the introduction of the cotton-picking machine that overturned share-cropping, caused millions in the South to move north to the "Promised Land," with all its embittering qualities. Nor was the change purely local or even regional. As a close scholar of this transformation has noted, "Already several areas of the national life have changed completely because of the decoupling of race from cotton: popular culture, presidential politics, urban geography, education, justice, social welfare."

The Economic Order

But to return to the origins of the traditional culture, much of it rested in the economy. In 1960, two economies had coexisted for over 125 years in this county on the Tallahatchie River. Above it, to the north, plantationism had dominated, while below it, small farming and industries were central. Plantationism had always thrived on cheap and hard labor that blacks had traditionally provided here and throughout the South. An extended analysis of Mississippi showed that the system produced a "great mass of black agricultural workers [who] remained a dependent, propertyless peasantry, nominally free, but ensnared by poverty, ignorance, and the new servitude of tenantry." But the plantocrat of earlier times had to alter after World War II by using newer farming methods that relied heavily on machines and chemicals. Those changes stripped blacks from their meager jobs and incomes (and often living quarters], which in turn sent them north by Greyhound bus and Illinois Central's "City of New Orleans."

Farming changes also created other consequences. Agriculture had become very expensive, as equipment costs rose sharply, but cotton prices fell badly after World War II; cattle raising expanded as land was removed from crop production under federal control programs. But the commercial banks at the center of Panola's plantocracy--Sardis and Como--were still dominated by large landholders; they had been so strong that they had assisted Memphis banks in the Great Depression. Elsewhere in northern Panola, some small farms had remained, and blacks owned a few, although all were relatively small. Not surprisingly, then, the plantocrats dominated all the institutions of the rural society, not simply the economic, and their attitudes and behavior toward blacks was--at best--paternalistic.

Below the river, on the other hand, the economy rested on small farms and small industries, all focused on Batesville, which lay at the intersection of the county's major roads and the railroad. Economic development had been encouraged for decades under Mississippi's law to "Balance Agriculture with Industry." Local municipal bonds--tax free--had transformed farmland into industrial parks that in turn attracted firms whose rents paid off the bonds. While such small-scale industrialism had not been encouraged by the plantocrats of Sardis, it had thrived in Batesville, where the business community had pursued it energetically. By 1960, this town ranked first in industrialization in northern Mississippi after the larger towns of Tupelo and Corinth. By 1967, Batesville alone had eight small plants with the largest hiring over 400 persons. Not only had local businessmen liked this program, but voters also did; a bond issue to extend an existing industry was passed 623 to 3. Sardis pursued such development very slowly, and on a smaller scale.

Batesville, however, was in the throes of greater economic growth. Its merchants had half of all retail sales in the county. Besides industry, it had attracted electric services, federal grants for streets, new public buildings, a livestock show building, water improvements, a state highway office, a major sewer system extension, a new public library, and a gas distribution system--most of these before 1960. Also, the town's income had surpassed the income of the northern part of the county for the first time in history. Local merchant leadership in Batesville, especially the richest, had provided this stimulus. As a consequence, between 1960 and 1967 there emerged below the river more whites with higher incomes and fewer with the lowest incomes.

The Political Order

The essence of politics lies in the clash of private groups over access to public resources and symbols that can reinforce their special values and interests. The political system is the arena for this "authoritative allocation of values and resources." It is the struggle over such allocations that creates the political order, and Panola County and the state share the pattern.

Cultural Divisions. The politics of Mississippi was exclusively Democratic, the deepest rock in the Solid South, until recent decades. The Republican party had left the state in 1875 and would win nothing until Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964. This left control with a Democratic party that was rooted in the Delta elite of plantocrats, bankers, and railroad owners. At first they had recruited poor, white "hill" support by waving the flag of racism. Later, though, hard times for these small white farmers had mobilized them in a "revolt of the redneck." They expressed their frustrations through the demagoguery of leaders like, first, James Vardaman and, later, Theodore Bilbo, who controlled state politics for a half century after 1900.

The political system was simple to describe before civil rights laws appeared in the state and this county. Blacks had no role in any of it, nor any benefit from it. White political rule involved low citizen activity by white voters and limited publicity by local leaders who distributed resources to favored groups--always white and always Democrats. However, there was a traditional tension among the whites between the poor and the merchant-planters, reflected in Panola County, that had generated two cultures, "the Delta" versus "the hill people." These contrasts were rooted in differences in the economic order and in lifestyles. In all this, Panola was a clear mirror of the South, as it had been in 1960--and in 1890. V.O. Key's reference to "states of mind formed long ago" fully applied to this county's attitudes of white supremacy and Delta-Hill tensions.

Politics was about whites and their divisions, but those contestants fully agreed on white supremacy in matters of race. Delta people disapproved also of mass democracy, by which they meant those "rednecks" in the hills. The former pursued a code of honor that meant little to the latter, who sought an economic toehold for survival. Delta contempt is clearly captured on this characterization by planter, scholar, and poet William Percy: "They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They were undiluted Anglo-Saxon. They were the sovereign voter. It was so horrible it seemed unreal." This disgust was matched by that of poor whites from the hills and their leaders when they looked at the economic elite, and the animosities were pervasive and long-lasting in the state's political history.

But over this century the poor whites' leaders knew how to negotiate with Delta elites; of course, no negotiation over the conditions of blacks was ever considered. But deals could be cut to raise money for electing the champions of the poor whites. The appeal of this southern populism had diverse sources: hostility to industrialism, support of white supremacy, and taxing the big farmers for revenues to meet needs of small farmers, mostly white. Therefore, for decades before 1960, a running skirmish in politics had meant the dominance by Delta interests over those of small farmers, but within the Delta region itself there was great local power. "Rednecks" of the hills and "honorable gentlemen" of the Delta fought hard, often cruelly, in the field of politics, but they also united in keeping up a wall against the blacks standing outside and looking in.

Local Politics. Panola County over this period was more Delta than redneck, as can be seen from its votes for two leading populists in the early and middle century. Vardaman won here only three of seven times and never in later years, and five of seven times this county's vote for him fell behind the state average. Later, Bilbo's record was quite similar. As gubernatorial candidate, he got no more than so percent in Panola County in his best year (always below his state average), but even as a U.S. senator he lost here in his first run (though he won in the next two elections).

But the white Panolians always united against the possibility of black voters. When the national civil rights movement began in the 1948 presidential campaign with the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, Panola gave him 78 percent (among the ten highest counties in Mississippi, mostly clustering around Panola). Black voting was a rarity across these years, as the state had the lowest registered percentage of blacks of the old Confederacy states. As elsewhere in Mississippi, blacks had registered during the Reconstruction era (over 1,600 in Panola), but their numbers shrank later with Jim Crow laws (only 114 in 1890). By 1960, however, only a single black was eligible--a minister who had registered in 1892.

White party politics had taken somewhat different forms in counties in the Delta. Tunica County, to the west of Panola, had been run for some time by a millionaire planter and an elite faction, leaving the county the poorest in the state. In Panola, however, the Democratic party had served to bind the two white cultures to the north and south of the river. While the pendulum of voting strength had swung to the southern "hill" section by 1960, factions did not emerge within the party. There were no reports of any "boss" or "machine" for the county as a whole, although some persons did hold long elective careers. Locally, the mayor of Batesville after World War II, Daniel Ferguson, was quite powerful (as noted in chapter 7). He was loved by poor whites but ridiculed privately by merchants, yet still controlled political matters. There was also the county registrar, who flatly controlled black registration, as seen in chapter 4.

Local politics here, as elsewhere, was about the distribution of public services, even though there were few of them. This was a local politics of friends and neighbors and of face-to-face contact, a politics that was highly visible and vital for the quality of life in farm or town. These factors, not that of party, more likely shaped accountability and responsiveness than did elections. But as blacks lacked any influence in such matters, services for them were last to be noted and least to be provided.

Political power lay with county officers. The sheriff had been a powerful figure in Mississippi, and was often associated with graft from gamblers and bootleggers in a state that was dry until after 1970; gambling to raise state revenue was rejected as recently as 1991. However, it was the rural supervisors of the counties, in their respective "beats," or districts, who were of greatest importance. Their constituents in Panola County were surprisingly varied, being mostly rural but including some urban population in the small towns of Sardis and Batesville. Collectively, representatives of the beats formed the county's board of supervisors who handled more money than did any other public agency. Its spending for roads, bridges, hospitals, and public buildings meant vital services, jobs, and contracts for many white Panolians; blacks got whatever was left over, if anything. Competition for supervisor elections was fierce and often mean-spirited. Graft in distributing these services by supervisors was the norm in many beats in the state. In the 1980s, a state officer rose to the governorship by cleaning out much of this graft, and one or more supervisors in Panola were removed.

The Order of Community

On the farm and in the small towns, the people of Panola County had established two communities--black and white. Their intricacies, within and between them, have been well analyzed elsewhere, but here our focus is on what "community" meant for these citizens. Part of it was the social reality--people's interactions in belief and action--that helped shape one's role in that community. The physical factor was yet another part of the community that shaped it--farm and town, school and church, or home. Much writing by those from smaller towns in the South evokes images of how the social and physical interwove in their early lives and created a sense of place that did not leave them years later. In Mississippi, the writings of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Willie Morris are brilliant in their description and understanding of this sense of community. Later we will study the traumas of change that altered the social, economic, and political orders sketched above and that reshaped the meaning of community.

"Community" can mean either the "physical concentration" or the "social organization" of a group of people; the first is an empirical description and the second possesses a normative quality. Community is no concrete entity; rather, it lies immanent in people's minds. It is a subjective concept that is "indivisible from human actions, purposes, and values. It expresses our vague yearnings for a commonality of desire, a communion with those around us, an extension of the bonds of kin and friend to all those who share a common fate with us."

But community must also exist in a world of tensions that may threaten its once secure walls. Whether it is economic change, mass migration, war, nationalism, technological innovation, or other trauma imposed from the outside, the larger world threatens the community. The community thrives on isolation and intense interaction, but external forces break down isolation and interaction and distract both. Thus the internal stability of community always wavers, in tension with the instability of external changes. And the tension builds when external influences increase in number and in velocity; more things today seem happening much faster to upset the established order of community. Indeed, for some observers, Americans have lost any sense of community except maybe in the smallest places.

As a result, there comes a personal adaptation. Where once values were narrow--"parochialism" originally meant views within the church parish--now they are pushed toward universalism. The local community is forced to confront other values, brought in by these external forces, that may change traditional and stable perceptions. This is always an extremely painful process. "Broken habits are as painful and difficult as broken bones," as essayist Eric Hoffer once noted. That pain is aggravated by its speed. Change, and ever more change, not only challenge the comfortable and hence protective view of life that the community had built, but--worse--change threatens it.

This book is about the alteration of a community and its social reality, brought on by the external influence of law as one of a number of modernizing influences the South has known. We can capture that normative sense in what people say and do, and in the events that worked on these views. Earlier, there was a stable community, formed in farms and businesses that existed among both white and black races. Much of that stability is suggested in the following account of a Saturday afternoon in August of 1968 as observed by the author:

The main square of ... presents a scene which in many respects has remained unchanged for decades. The lung-draining heat hangs everywhere, a curtain through which everyone must struggle, hoping not to sweat--the heat is unbelievable. A weltering sun floods the somewhat run-down town square, bordered by its tiny shops and bisected neatly by the old Indian trail lines of the Illinois Central to which clings a small depot. A county courthouse, nearly as old as the town, with high corridors and rooms, broods over the scene on the north side....

Both races parade back and forth on the west side, which is more of a shopping center, while around the square the cars slowly move. Clustered between this side and the old depot are parked cars filled with Negroes watching the passing parade.... On this busy western side, people march to see and to be seen, much as in any hamlet anywhere in America, or, for that matter, in an Italian village. Stores range in quality from dilapidated to the town's best.... Whites and blacks pass one another, but neatly separated clusters of the races gather along the street, sometimes in the way of cars whose drivers wait patiently for the pedestrians. No one is in a hurry, no one rushes, but everyone sees everyone else. The heat abides....

The lines of people on the sidewalk counter march, a slow parade of autos counterpoints the marchers, and humans cluster around trucks and cars watch this village reel. Money is exchanged, acquaintances renewed, romance sensed and lust sparked, hostility begun and hate pumped--all on the streets of Batesville in the crushing heat of an August day.

Beneath this calm lay a tangle of feelings, a structure of status and race and a sense of an unchanging community that southern writers capture so well. White dominance was a central feature of this scene, rooted farther back in time than even the Civil War and implemented by daily contact. Nothing within the community could ever be perceived as changing very much. But outside forces were gathering. Arrowing through the county was a new superhighway, a symbol of the outside that had brought some economic changes by 1960. Down that road was to come the second federal encroachment on the community. As before in the Civil War, life would be changed.

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix

Foreword / Gary Orfield xi

Acknowledgments xv

Part I. The Context for Change 1

1. Setting the Community Scene 4

2. Regional Changes in the South, 1970–1990 16

3. Panola's Pre-1970 Response to Civil Rights 36

Part II. Institutional and Individual Changes in Panola 53

4. Local Politics and Black Empowerment 56

5. South Panola and Desegregation 84

6. Two Responses to Desegregation in North Panola 118

7. The Results for Students in Different Systems 142

8. The Local Economy and Political Regimes 157

Part III. Internal and External Concepts of Race and Law 193

9. Local Perspectives on Race and Law 194

10. The Theoretical Context of Race and Law 216


A. Student Sense-of-Self Questionnaire 243

B. Regression Tables of Student Reponses 251

Notes 259

Index 283

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