Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: There Goes My Everything

Jason Sokol. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. New York: Knopf, 2006.

The civil rights movement is more than just the story of the black freedom struggle. It is also the story of how southern whites variously resisted, accommodated, or embraced the world that was shifting under their feet. As Jason Sokol argues, while blacks drove change during the era, ordinary whites in thousands of locales and in a multitude of varied responses played a crucial role in determining the extent of that change. Yet until recent years little scholarship was focused on white reaction. Moreover, much of what was written focused on white elites and extremists, the Ross Barnett’s and Bull Connor’s of the South. In these accounts the quiet struggle of millions of ordinary white southerners to come to terms with the changes sweeping their life are often lost from view. Sokol aims to recover their voices and gain insight into what the civil rights movement was like for average white southerners.

Using letters to newspapers and letters constituents sent to their representatives, Sokol shows that the set-piece events that define traditional civil rights narratives – Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma – were not necessarily representative of ordinary white southerners’ experience. Rather, for many white southerners the civil rights movement was an intensely localized and personal experience. Bloody Sunday might have been a distant and impersonal event filtered through media, while the first time addressing a black man as “Mr.” could linger in memory as a major shift. Likewise, white southerners who gave little thought to legislation passed in far-off Washington D.C. could not forget the year the first blacks were elected to the local school board. Though the movement is generally seen as reaching a peak in 1964 and 1965, for many white southerners it was was defined by when it arrived in their town.

For some southern whites the most wrenching changes happened deep into the 1970s, long after the cameras had gone away and the history of the movement was already being written. Historians would try to fit the responses of white political leaders into various categories of resistance or moderation, but most white southerners were not radical in either direction. They were happy with southern customs and they wanted life to get back to normal. After learning about the civil rights movement a little boy asked one white southerner, “Which were you in – the Klan or the FBI?” The man replied, “I was just in Georgia” (13). For these southerners, the movement was an unwelcome and confusing intrusion, but it was not something to violently resist, much less join. Sokol shows that many white southerners disliked violence and upheaval far more than they sympathized with black goals. Acquiescing to the changes the civil rights movement had wrought was sometimes the quickest way to restore stability and move on in the hope that life could continue as before.

There Goes My Everything is an equivocal book. At a glance this may seem to be a weakness, but it is the necessary result of Sokol’s main argument. The responses of ordinary white southerners were localized, varied, and defiant of simple generalizations. It is an equivocal book because the legacy of the civil rights movement is itself ambiguous, and the voices of ordinary white southerners are so difficult to recover. Many whites, having deeply drunk of a paternalistic ethos, were shocked that “our good Negroes” were participating in the movement at all. Smaller numbers rapidly embraced the changes or else bitterly resisted long after the movement was over. Collectively, their responses helped to determine the boundaries of the second reconstruction.

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