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Back Road Travels Reveal Civil Rights Issues

Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

By Tom Dent

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William Morrow & Co.

381 pp., $25

As in countless other places across the South, a monument to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy - and to keep slavery - commands the town square in Tuskegee, Ala. Today, however, a new sign stands nearby that reads "Welcome to Tuskegee. Johnny Ford, Mayor."

Mayor Ford is an African-American.

While clinging to its past, the South today is also greatly changed. And never since the end of the Civil War did that change flow faster than during the great struggle for black civil rights in the early 1960s. The movement sprouted with lunch counter sit-ins and boycotts, then bloomed into the memorable marches that brought down segregation and brought in voting rights for African-Americans.

More than 30 years later, the racial picture in the South is more complex, says Tom Dent in "Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement." While blacks are still at the bottom of the economic ladder, a huge number of them have never been better off. While schools are no longer officially segregated, in many places so many whites have fled to suburbs or private academies that they might as well be. The glass is either half-empty or half-full, depending on your point of view.

To collect impressions of what has changed, and what hasn't since the 1960s, Dent traveled the back roads of a half-dozen Southern states for nearly a year, talking with 140 Southerners, black and white. Starting in Greensboro, N.C., and finishing up in rural Mississippi, he avoided the big cities because he felt "smaller towns would be more interesting, more resistant to change, more reflective of the South as a region."

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Dent, an African-American poet and a former journalist, had always enjoyed travel, trying to soak up "whatever might be of interest - architecture, neighborhoods, landmarks, parks, the shape of streets, particular smells and noises." This time, he arranged a few key interviews in each town and then let what he found as he drove dictate his next move.

The result is that readers meet Southerners, especially black Southerners, in a series of candid conversations, some heartwarming, some filled with bitterness.

"I think the present period ... is as bad as any we have known since slavery. I really do," remarks a former civil rights leader in Greensboro, N.C. "On the bottom there is a community of black folk who have nothing, not even hope that their condition will get better. On the other hand, there are black folk who are doing well, if not better than ever ... [and this] economic widening within the race is occurring without a sense of alarm."

The divisions within the black community, Dent finds, are more than just economic. Blacks speaking openly of black-on-black discrimination based on social status and even skin color. (An African-American church in Charleston, S.C., didn't want members who were darker than a brown paper bag.)

Dent is more interested in revealing the view from the black side of the tracks than in pulling together tightly drawn conclusions. The issues are too complex to point fingers or assign blame, he says.

The segregation that barred blacks from white-only lunch counters, rest rooms, and drinking fountains, and forced them to the back of the bus, had to go. But "this maze of restrictions [also] created a certain psychological racial solidarity; for no matter how well off we were, or how poor, each of us was proscribed by the same rules." That solidarity, he finds, is largely gone today.

The same is true of school desegregation. The old "separate but equal" system was anything but equal and resulted in a black world so ingrown that "the appearance of whites, unless they worked at one of the educational institutions, was akin to that of visitors from a foreign nation."

But the goal was always a better education for blacks, not just to sit next to whites in a class. Today "many Southern black leaders privately [lament] the demise of the old black schools, complaining that even under segregation their children had been better prepared and more carefully guided toward a promising future...."

Broad coalitions like the NAACP are outmoded today, Dent says. New black institutions may be needed, such as political think tanks and political-action committees. Specialized organizations could deal with the issues of education, unemployment, drug abuse, and crime, and monitor the performance of political officials.

Whatever their current troubles, many of Dent's interviewees still have an overriding feeling that something irreversible has happened.

* Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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