Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present. By
David R. Goldfield. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press,
1990. xviii, 321 pp. $24.95.
There are two different narratives here. As a whole, this book is an admirable account
of the turbulent course of race relations in the South since 1940. Like David R.
Goldfield's earlier Cotton Fields and Skyscrapers: Southern City and Region, 1607-1980
(1982), it takes the form of an extended essay, unfootnoted, but built upon mastery of
a broad body of relevant scholarship, journalism, and fiction (described in a lengthy
bibliographical essay at the book's close).
Late in the volume, Goldfield proposes a periodization for the civil rights movement
and its aftermath in the South: "Confrontation (the years prior to 1965); Consolidation
(1965-76); and Confusion (1976 to the present)" (p. 227). Indeed, this narrative
approaches our present without easy answers. Goldfield reports that solutions to black
poverty "are truly mystifying" (p. 248), that we have seen the "resegregation of public
education" (p. 257), and that even the South's hard-won improvements remain
vulnerable to economic recession (p. 250). This narrative emphasizes economic and
political developments: deepening rural poverty, the shift to a service-oriented economy,
the successful "southern strategy" of the Republican party, and the Reagan administration's
campaign against enforcement of federal civil rights laws. What hope, then,
may we have for the region's future?
Goldfield's answer to that question comes from his other narrative. He wrote this
book, his introduction explains, to tell those too young to have experienced it about the
South' "great moral drama" (p. xv) after World War II, when black southerners forced
upon whites the liberating revelation that "southernness -- religious faith, place, past,
and manners -- was not identified with white supremacy or at least with segregation" (p. 148).
His language in this narrative is not that of the sober scholar reporting his
research; this is "a book about redemption," he writes, about the "sin of white
supremacy" and its painful expiation, and about how "sinner and redeemer" continue to
wrestle "with the legacy of redemption" (p. xv).
Goldfield posits a distinctive southern culture, shared by blacks and whites. The
"construct" of white supremacy had "no logical support" in that culture but had become
so entwined within it that whites believed that preservation of the racial status quo was
the cardinal test of a southerner (p. xiv). The civil rights movement appealed to the
brightest, most liberating aspects of southern culture, in the terms of that culture, and
forced whites to reject the corruption of racism and become themselves: southerners.
Goldfield's emphasis on a southern culture presents some problems. It tends to
obscure differences -- the trinity of race, class, and gender, for example -- that do matter
in southern history. He also makes his case for southern culture's significance more by
assertion than by analysis, and sometimes culture explains too much. The Freedom
Summer of 1964 was a failure, he says, because its leaders did not "frame [the
voting-rights cause] in a rhetoric appropriate to the regional culture or for a national
policy initiative" (p. 160). That summer's toll -- thirty-five shootings, thirty buildings
bombed, eighty beatings, and six murders -- makes one wonder just what rhetoric would
have been appropriate.
Nonetheless, Goldfield is on to something. The Jim Crow system, he says, operated
as a code, an etiquette of race relations, to be acted out and read in public. For that
reason, protest by blacks, the public rejection of that code, challenged white southern-
ers in ways that litigation, legislation, and negotiation could not. Goldfield is also correct
about the permanence of the changes black protest caused. Who in their right mind
would want to return to that past?
What, however, does that have to do with the present? Goldfield is emphatic that we
must remember (and confront) our past to understand today's problems and to search for
their solutions. He predicts that southern whites and blacks together will find "a
solution within the framework of regional culture" (p. 255) and speculates that religious
faith offers the greatest possibilities for a creative response to our dilemmas (pp.
276-78). With that, Goldfield links his narrative of sin and redemption with his
narrative of sociopolitical conditions in the contemporary South. This is a fine and
impassioned book with a conclusion that, appropriately, requires a leap of faith.
John T. Kneebone, Virginia State Library and Archives
Reviewed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v.99 no.1 (January 1991)