In 1954, when James (Big Jim) Folsom was running for a second term as governor of Alabama, he drove to Clayton, in Barbour County, to meet a powerful local probate judge. This was in the heart of the Deep South, at a time when Jim Crow was in full effect. In Barbour County, the races did not mix, and white men were expected to uphold the privileges of their gender and color. But when his car pulled up to the curb, where the judge was waiting, Folsom spotted two black men on the sidewalk. He jumped out, shook their hands heartily, and only then turned to the stunned judge. "All men are just alike," Folsom liked to say.Reading this essay is a good antidote to the soft racism of Rand Paul. This essay looks deeply into the history of racism in Alabama and specifically at the issues around the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Read Malcolm Gladwell's essay.
"Big Jim did not seek a fundamental shift of political power or a revolution in social mores," Sims says. Folsom operated out of a sense of noblesse oblige: privileged whites, he believed, ought to "adopt a more humanitarian attitude" toward blacks. When the black Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., came to Montgomery, on a voter-registration drive, Folsom invited him to the Governor's Mansion for a Scotch-and-soda. That was simply good manners. Whenever he was accused of being too friendly to black people, Folsom shrugged. His assumption was that Negroes were citizens, just like anyone else. "I just never did get all excited about our colored brothers," he once said. "We have had them here for three hundred years and we will have them for another three hundred years."
Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom's career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage. The historian Michael Klarman writes, "Virtually no southern politician could survive in this political environment without toeing the massive resistance line, and in most states politicians competed to occupy the most extreme position on the racial spectrum." Folsom lost his job to the segregationist John Patterson, who then gave way to the radical George Wallace. In Birmingham, which was quietly liberalizing through the early nineteen-fifties, Bull Connor (who notoriously set police dogs on civil-rights marchers in the nineteen-sixties) had been in political exile. It was the Brown decision that brought him back. Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.
On what side was Harper Lee's Atticus Finch? Finch defended Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of what in nineteen-thirties Alabama was the gravest of sins, the rape of a white woman. In the years since, he has become a role model for the legal profession. But he's much closer to Folsom's side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Racism in the Deep South
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting article on "the limits of Southern liberalism" for the New Yorker in 2009. Here are a few bits. This is a wonderful essay with a real education for those who have forgotten the past. Partly this article is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird: