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.
This is not to absolve whites of the time of guilt for their actions, or their passivity in the face of grave injustice. It’s to understand how human beings – not just whites, and not just Southerners, but all human beings – blind themselves to evil in their midst. It is devilishly difficult to see something if your entire sense of reality depends on not seeing it.
How could older whites, many now dead, I know or knew in my youth to have been good men and women, have failed so hideously on the racial issue? As with the Civil War era, to demonize them all is to fail to do justice to the complexity of history, and the mystery of iniquity. And in a way, it is to hide from ourselves our own capacity for evil and self-deception.
Shortly after I said goodbye and thank you to the activists, one of my readers, an apostate Muslim, wrote me as part of a religious discussion. He was trying to help me understand why so few Muslims speak out against the fanatical mob that seems to set policy for the Muslim world today.
“It takes incredible strength for someone reared Muslim to abandon every single thing of his life – every single thing, all his childhood memories, all his friends and family, his hometown – because that’s what it will cost him,” the reader wrote. “As a result, the Muslim world is full of pretenders: those who don’t believe, but who cannot bring themselves to pay the price of leaving.”
This I understand. As a small-town Southern white person in 1964, to have stood up against the white supremacist mob would have been this kind of cultural apostasy. It took extreme moral and physical courage for men and women like Moore, Feingold, and Lesser to confront the evil of white supremacy. Before the question of courage even arose, white Southerners had first to cross an immense psychological barrier that few, if any, could have recognized.
Given those stakes, if I wouldn’t have joined the courthouse mob that day, I can’t escape the bitter truth that I would likely have sympathized with them, denouncing the activists as “outside agitators;” just as I would have stood with the mob in Jerusalem that day screaming, “Crucify him!” and thinking of myself as bravely confronting a threat to the integrity of my community.
Be honest: you would have too. That is a lesson some Christian churches teach in services leading up to Easter, by having the congregation recite together, “Crucify him!” It is so easy, too easy, to imagine ourselves as utterly unlike those first-century Jews. It is, or ought to be, easier to imagine ourselves like our parents and grandparents. What will my grandchildren reproach me for one day, saying, “Grandpa, why didn’t you stand up and say something?”
Our causes and crusades change with the passage of time, but human nature does not. Our minds are never so captive as when we stand with a righteous mob, and we are rarely so blind as when we look at those not like us, and imagine that we are in a position to cast stones, confident of our own rectitude.
Rod Dreher is author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which was recently published in paperback. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.