My picturesque small Southern town draws lots of visitors, even in the miserably hot and humid summer months. Folks come to see the gorgeous antebellum plantation houses, vestiges of the glory days of the Old South.
I like to think that modern enlightened travelers enjoy the aesthetic beauty and historical importance of these places while remaining sensitive to the great evil – slavery – upon which they were built. No doubt many tourists choose to romanticize the Gone With The Wind era, and that is morally wrong. But the opposite reaction, demonizing everything about that time and place, fails to do justice to the complications of history and the human character.
Three travelers who found their way into my town last month brought it all home in a startling way.
Fifty years ago, Ronnie Moore, Mimi Feingold Real, and Michael Lesser worked in this area to register black people to vote. The Civil Rights movement dubbed it “Freedom Summer.” Moore was a Louisiana man, but the other two were Jewish kids from up north. As workers for the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), all of them risked their lives fighting white supremacy in West Feliciana Parish, my home, and all over southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
That hot June afternoon, I stood with the trio – much grayer and more wrinkled than they were during the flush of youthful idealism – outside the courthouse, under a statue of a Confederate soldier, and listened as they recalled the day in 1963 an enraged white mob there tried unsuccessfully to keep the Rev. Joe Carter from registering to vote. In those days, blacks outnumbered whites in West Feliciana Parish by two-to-one, but Carter was the first black resident in 61 years to be allowed to register.
“Over there,” said Lesser, pointing down Ferdinand Street. “That’s where they shot at our car.” That night, the Klan paid hostile visits to the homes of Carter and other black citizens who had tried to register in town.
Between cups of coffee with the visitors, three of us white locals marveled over how such despicable events ever could have happened in our peaceful little town and countryside. Two of us, both women older than I, explained that white supremacy was so culturally engrained in the Jim Crow era that any other way of living was, to whites, unthinkable.
But after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the sustained application of federal power broke the back of white supremacy, the recent past became unspeakable. That is, whites of my generation (I was born in 1967) never learned about the struggle for civil rights in our own town. Our parents and grandparents never talked about it.
I told the three visiting activists that there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between blacks and whites in the community not to discuss events of that time, for the sake of keeping the peace and moving forward.
Unlike many other rural Louisiana parishes, West Feliciana integrated its public schools successfully, and the school system is today a source of pride and unity. In retrospect, it was an extraordinary achievement by visionary local leaders. Yet I can’t help thinking that it came at the cost of a full moral reckoning with injustice and grievance.
As a Christian, this is profoundly troubling. Christianity teaches that real healing requires confession of sin. However, as a practical matter, could it be that reconciliation requires official forgetting? When I asked an older black friend in town why she thought nobody here talked publicly about those days, she said, “Black people worry about losing their jobs, and white people don’t want their kids knowing what they did back then.”
She may have a point. The peace has held, and though we have a long way to go, the fact that segregation is inconceivable to local whites born after its passing is a powerful testimony to what those activists accomplished. Still, it is regrettably the case that the entire generation that fought the Civil Rights struggle is going to have to pass away before most of us, black and white, feel safe enough to talk about what happened.
It’s easy for me to stand in judgment of the whites of the generation that supplied the courthouse mob. Truth is, had I lived back then, I wouldn’t have been so different from them. It’s not so much that I would have been too cowardly to oppose the mob (though I would have been exactly that), but rather that it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I had a choice.
Remember, if you were a white adult during the civil rights struggle, you were born in the 1940s or earlier. In the South that meant that everything in your culture would have instructed you that white supremacy was unquestionable. There simply was no meaningful voice questioning that narrative; in most cases, not even the white churches. The idea that things could be or should be any other way was alien.