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“Mr. Local Custom Must Die”: An Analysis of the Racial Situation in the South in 1960 as Civil Rights Activism Increased

In 1960, following student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South, George E. McMillan, a reporter from Knoxville, Tennessee, traveled the region and analyzed its “current raw, ugly temper.” Six years after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, and five years after the Court declared that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed,” only a small percentage of Southern schools had been affected. African Americans faced disenfranchisement, severely limited economic opportunities, prejudicial treatment in the criminal justice system, and attacks from mobs and police. McMillan contrasted black outrage at the philosophy of “gradual” change with white insistence on retaining the status quo, and also looked at the role of the military and business communities in fostering change. The Raleigh, North Carolina, meeting McMillan mentioned in passing marked the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a prominent activist group intent on achieving racial equality.

Sit-Downs: The South’s New Time Bomb

Almost any day now, the U.S. may have its own Sharpeville. All the makings of a major American racial catastrophe similar to that of South Africa’s are ready at hand in the South. The “sit-down” protests by young Southern Negroes may hold the fuse that ignites the explosion.

I have just made a trip through the region. Everywhere I went, I felt the current raw, ugly temper of the South. Although I live in a small Southern town myself, what astonished me most during my survey was how rigidly and inflexibly the “sides”have lined up. The mood of the South today is frequently compared with what it was 100 years ago—as the South stood at the threshold of a civil war.

The most frightening thing now is the air of resignation with which Southerners of both races view the inevitability of violence.

On my trip, I talked with many kinds of Southerners. I interviewed police chiefs, sheriffs, highway patrolmen, state and city safety directors, mayors and city managers. I also talked with Negro students, Negro school principals, Negro college teachers and administrators. And I talked with many white and Negro people who were not immediately involved in the demonstrations, but whose interest in and knowledge of Southern race relations is immediate and extensive.

It is not so much that anyone wants violence, I discovered, as it is that nobody sees any alternative to it.

The Negroes are infused with a new determination, and are ready to risk violence to get some of the gains they believe are due them.

A very near miss
The middle-class whites seem hopelessly committed to violence. They’ve said so long, “there’ll be trouble,” if the old balance between the races is disturbed, that they now find themselves almost counting on trouble as a solution to their problem.

Even the Southern “liberals,” an almost professionally hopeful group in the past, are today saying, as one of them did to me, “I don’t see how this thing can be settled without slugging it out right down the line.”

That gloomy prediction has come very close to happening several times recently. There was a very near miss at Chattanooga, Tenn., in February. An attempt by some Negro high-school students to sit at lunch counters there was followed by three days of increasingly bitter turbulence. Scuffling was followed by vandalism and rioting, before anybody quite realized how much momentum the situation had gathered. Honor students were joined on the line by young white and Negro hoodlums. Young hoodlums were followed by adult hoodlums.

On the last day, the situation almost exploded. “The country people from Sand Mountain and Soddy-Daisy came into town to bust a nigger’s head,” one local official said. It took water hoses to break up the clots of whites and Negroes who were moving against each other, through bystanders, along Chattanooga’s main street. Nobody knows how many people might have become involved and hurt by a false move.

Elsewhere throughout the South, violence has coursed through community after community, like a dirty creek through a Southern mill town. In Biloxi, Miss., whites used dog chains and, later, shotguns on Negroes who showed up at a segregated public beach; in Portsmouth, Va., they armed themselves with hammers; in Montgomery, Ala., they swung baseball bats.

The crisis of law and order is so real, so immediate, that it calls for a new look at what has been the nation’s approach to, and its responsibility in, the Southern racial problem.

That approach has been gradualism: slow and evolutionary change. But when looked at against today’s urgencies, gradualism shapes up as a failure, and for very good, but often misunderstood, ethnic and historic reasons.

When the evidence is weighed today, gradualism not only looks wrong, but also appears to have been mistaken in intent.

Gradualism is deeply ingrained in the American tradition, and Americans outside the South, recent surveys show, are reluctant to believe that gradual social change isn’t the best way to solve the South’s problems.

But the simple logic of the future of Southern race relations is that somebody outside the South is going to have to intervene. That intervention will almost certainly have to come from the Federal Government.

The question that remains is whether the Government will intervene after damage is done, including perhaps serious international damage to America’s prestige, or whether national public opinion will support positive and constructive steps of prevention.

The persistent American image of the South’s situation is that there are two extreme sides, with a happy middle ground between them and that this middle ground must be occupied in the South, as it is almost everywhere else in the U.S., by people who are essentially moral and law-abiding.

Almost exactly this view has been expressed by President Eisenhower.

“The South is full of people of good will,” he told a press conference in 1956, after the riots in Clinton, Tenn., “but they are not the ones we now hear. We hear the people who are adamant, and are so filled with prejudice that they can’t keep still—they even resort to violence; and the same way on the other side of the thing, the people who want to have the whole matter settled today. This is a question of leading and training and teaching people, and it takes some time, unfortunately.”

The President’s view seems to be similar to the present mood and temper of the country. In April, Newsweek conducted a poll to see “how other Americans feel” about the South and its problems. It concluded, “The prevailing view among opinion leaders is one of understanding and sympathy. From California to Maine, men recognize that decades of strict social custom in the South cannot be overturned quickly.”

“Mr. Local Custom Must Die.”

But the answer from the young Negro college students in the South is plain. “Mr. Local Custom Must Die,” read a placard carried by one of them in a recent demonstration.

If there is a lesson in the current racial crisis, it is that the Southern climate is not democratic, and that gradualism will not work there because the essentials of gradualism—a flexible society in which competing claims are freely heard and fairly adjusted—do not exist.

In the first place, the Negro’s claims for his legal and constitutional rights, not to mention economic opportunity and personal dignity, have run into a stone wall of denial and defiance from the white South.

In the decade and a half since World War II, the Southern Negro has pressed his claims through the courts, in the democratic tradition, only to win his suits and lose his case. Today, he is fed up with legalism.

“If you had spent as many thousands of hours in courts and administrative hearings, and in preparing briefs for them, as Negro leaders have, and for as little in return, you would be bitter too,” a Southern Negro attorney told me recently.

The crowning disappointment to the Negro, and the most disastrous failure of moderation, lies in the six-year history of enforcement, or lack of enforcement, of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the schools.

In the spring of 1960, six years after the Court handed down its ruling that racial segregation in schools is illegal, 94 per cent of the South’s Negro students were still attending segregated classes, according to the authoritative Southern Education Reporting Service.

Nor can the Negro take any hope from such “adjustment” methods as “token”integration. .. ..

The cruelty this works on the handful of Negro children who are “integrated” is difficult for a white adult to imagine.

Many of the South’s most conservative and silent Negro adults are bitterly disappointed about the school-desegregation deadlock. “Maybe they didn’t expect to go to an integrated school when they were children,” a Negro preacher said, “but after the Supreme Court decision, they began to believe their children had that right.”

It is not surprising that a group of Negro college students from eight Southern states met in Raleigh, N.C., this spring to give the sit-down movement direction. They resolved on “training a group of volunteers who would willingly go to jail . . . to awaken the dozing consciences of our white brothers.”

Later, in a full-page advertisement in the Atlanta Constitution, six top student leaders in Atlanta Negro universities said, “We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.” Most of their professors agree. “Words like gradualism and moderation are phantom words, meaningless,” says Dean Whitney Young of the Atlanta University School of Social Work, and one of the most influential Negro intellectuals in the South.

“You just haven’t got a chance down here,” says a middle-aged Negro college graduate. “Naturally, we’re behind our young people.”

The atmosphere is such in the Southern Negro community that the N.A.A.C.P., so long the target of Southern whites, has begun to be attacked by some young Southern Negroes. At the meeting of Negro college students in Raleigh, the participants were reported as feeling that the “legal approach of the N.A.A.C.P. was too slow.”

The Negro is losing ground
But the students 'statements seem linked more to their enthusiasm for change than to any fundamental difference with the N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that sponsored the Raleigh meeting. The Rev. Martin Luther King, head of the S.C.L.C. had met earlier with Roy Wilkins, N.A.A.C.P. executive secretary, in a harmonious conference. The N.A.A.C.P. has since issued an “Expanded Racial Defense Policy” endorsing the sit-downs.

Behind the question of tactics and speed lies another source of disillusionment for the Negro. In a society whose keynote is its chance for individual economic advancement, the Negro is not even standing still; he is losing ground. “At the rate we’re moving now, the faster we move the farther we fall behind,” Lester B. Granger, head of the National Urban League, said recently. In 1950, America’s Negro families earned about 54 per cent as much as whites, but in 1958, the ratio had dropped to 51 per cent. Negroes in the South fared even worse. In 1958, although family income for Southern whites was $4,656, family income for Southern Negroes was $2,014, or 44 per cent of the white income. Gradualism clearly has not helped at all in that area.

“You can’t argue,” said one Negro, “that there’s any question of time in giving a man a job. You either hire a man or you don’t. You can’t hire a leg today and an arm tomorrow.”

There is almost no hope for a Negro, no matter what his skills or training, to land professional employment in the South outside of rigidly segregated facilities—and very little there. In private industry, there is nothing but “the mop and the broom,” and little more in state and municipal governments.

“I ain’t thinkin ‘about thinkin ’about hiring a colored man,” a former official in the Georgia Revenue Department declared not long ago.

Federal employment opportunities are hardly better. Of the 16,000 Federal civil servants in the Atlanta area, for example, only two of the professional ratings are held by Negroes. And the Atlanta Post Office reportedly has more Negro college graduates among its employees than it has whites who have any college education.

“Every year, Negro colleges—and almost all of them are in the South—are turning out larger and larger numbers of highly trained young people with almost no hope of finding jobs in any of the skills they’ve learned—except school teaching,” says a Negro college teacher. “That’s had a lot to do with the sit-down movement.”

The deficiencies in Southern justice are another sore point. Negroes are bitter about the reluctance of Southern juries to convict whites of crimes against Negroes; and they also accuse Southern police of maltreating Negroes after making unwarranted arrests.

And although the Negro continues to make advances in his voting rights on paper (as in the new Civil Rights Bill of 1960), he is still effectively disenfranchised throughout much of the South except in certain cities like Atlanta, Durham and Jacksonville. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported in 1959 the case of a Federal grand jury in Louisiana. The jury, it said, was presented with evidence that 1,400 qualified Negro voters had been illegally purged from the voting lists, yet refused to hand up indictments. The same jury, the report added, refused even to hear all the evidence in a similar case involving 4,700 other qualified Negro voters.

If the Negro’s spectrum is dark almost everywhere he looks, the classic failure of legalism and gradualism seems to have been the Supreme Court decision. Gradualism, the democratic way, assumes that leadership groups will lead, and lead in the right direction, if they have the facts and the moment of opportunity. The school decision was designed to give moderation a fair chance to work.

Delay proved fatal
In allowing the South a year’s breathing spell after its initial decision, and in leaving implementation to Federal district judges, the Court showed that it believed the South deserved time, and would use the time well. But it didn’t work out that way.

A perceptive Southern newspaperman described what happened:

“Everybody was in shock for a few weeks immediately after the decision. Many people concerned with government or schools were convinced the time had come. They thought they were going to have to comply. Many school superintendents went right ahead with plans for integration. If the Court had ordered Southern school systems to submit plans within 12 months, all, or all but a few, would have done so.” Then, legislatures erected new legal barriers and delay followed delay.

Only the school board of Greensboro, N.C., in a move it may have regretted later, immediately passed a resolution endorsing the Court’s decision. This was more than the U.S. Senate itself was willing to do only last April—six years later. By then, enforcement of the decision and respect for it were in the same low state as respect for and enforcement of the Prohibition amendment.

Now, the notion that the South might ever have complied is spoken of contemptuously in the South. “Did they think that everybody was gonna rush up there with plans just out of respect for the Court?” a Southern attorney asked an interviewer the other day.

At a meeting held recently in Waynesboro, Ga., to plan a private school system, Roy Chalker, publisher of the Waynesboro True Citizen, said: “We are no longer cursing the Supreme Court. We’re now standing to one side and watching them butt their heads against a stone wall.”

The pertinent question today is not whether there are any white “people of good will” so much as it is: Under what conditions would the white people who normally play leadership roles in the South take positive and constructive leadership on the racial question?

Do they need time? Would they do more if they had more time?

One of the least understood facts about the South is that there is a wider atmosphere of professed acquiescence there than few people outside the region realize. In the country clubs, on the terraces, in the new ranch-house living rooms where middle- and upper-class Southerners gather, there is general agreement that “the Negro’s got to make some progress,” or “something has got to give” or “someday we’ve got to integrate the schools.” It has almost become a matter of class status to say: “As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t care if they integrated tomorrow.” Thus, the upper-class Southerner distinguishes himself from the lower-class white person—whose principal characteristic in the past has always been his overt hatred for the Negro.

Middle-class whites are trapped
Middle-class whites—ministers, teachers, professionals—say it is not prejudice that holds them back but practicality. “There’d be trouble,” they say. What they do not say, and would not admit, is that they are as much in bondage as the Negro himself. In the past, when members of this class have let their consciences guide them into attempts to change the status quo, reprisal has been visited on them just as effectively, if not as violently, as it has on the Negro himself.

Time has little to do with their attitudes or their behavior.

They are simply disenfranchised, caught in the grip of an archaic, rigid and oversimplified power structure welded long ago specifically to fight off all changes in the racial situation.

A Southern politician, whatever his national eminence, cannot afford to ignore the region’s hardening mood. I saw a striking example of this in the 1956 Democratic primary in Georgia, when former Gov. Herman Talmadge, a professed segregationist and isolationist, announced that he was going to oppose the late Sen. Walter F. George. At the time, George was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most influential political figures in Washington—in or out of the Congress.

I was assigned by a national magazine to do a story on the campaign, but I soon discovered there wasn’t going to be one. One of Senator George’s supporters explained the situation to me:

“We used to re-elect the Senator every six years by getting in touch with about 100 of the right people in Georgia. When we did it this time, we discovered that those people had swung to Herman. All that remains is for us to figure out who is going to give the bad news to Senator George.”

When George got the news from his supporters, he knew what it meant. Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee or not, he announced his withdrawal from the campaign before the primary, and Talmadge walked unopposed into the United States Senate. It was as simple as that.

The South is in the midst of a deep economic as well as social conflict. It is torn between the values of an almost feudalistic agricultural society and a modern industrial one. Much of its new industry has been attracted to the region by low taxes and no unions. But the bargain that the textile mills made with their workers years ago still seems to hold for the plant that came to town yesterday: “We’ll keep the niggers out if you’ll keep the unions out.”

Thus, despite all the signs of a “new” South, despite hundreds of new factories lining Southern highways, despite the prosperous suburbs that stretch around the big cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, the political energy of the region is still single-mindedly devoted to an anachronistic cause.

The banks, the large corporations, the utilities and the rural landowners—the people who hold economic and political power in the South—are not yet convinced that it is not best to let the traditional people handle the traditional problem in the traditional way.

Only economic disaster, not time, seems to make the people of power take interest. When Little Rock didn’t get a new factory in two years after its 1957 racial explosion, the business leaders of the town took things into their own hands and let the police department know how they stood. The difference in 1959 (when a riot was quelled before it got started) was not only due to the personal courage of a police chief, but to the green light he had been given by the powers-that-be. After industrial leaders saw what happened when public schools were closed in Virginia, they spearheaded the opposition to the state’s “massive resistance”program. But such impulses are negative ones; so far, they have often meant that action was taken on a community-by-community basis only after there had been some violence or disaster.

The military points the way
The question of how much time the South should be allowed in which to drop its “strict customs”is in some ways a very complicated problem; in others, a very simple one. It involves prejudice, taboos, culture, folklore and mores. But change can be made.

Ironically, every day throughout the deepest recesses of the Deep South, some Southern whites are peacefully working with, living with and eating with Negroes on an integrated basis. In military camps all over the South, Southern boys are serving uneventfully in completely integrated military units, and have been doing so for several years.

Civilian workers in military bases at towns like Charleston, S.C., and Augusta, Ga., work and eat with Negroes. One can see white male and female civil-service employees quietly eating with Negroes in the cafeteria of the Marine base at Parris Island, S.C., in the heart of the Black Belt, then go into nearby Beaufort and see the signs proclaiming segregation in the town’s eating places.

The rule seems to be that Southerners will abandon their customs more rapidly when it is a matter of economic necessity, but insist on them when they can get by with it.

The Negro is no stranger to the white Southerner. The two have lived in close, often affectionate and sometimes illicitly intimate association for more than 200 years. Much evidence suggests that they know each other better than they know anybody else. Therefore, it is not surprising that many sociologists and anthropologists tend to agree that the best way to handle integration is the quickest way, giving the South’s long-nurtured irrationalities the shortest possible shrift.

From my own observations on my recent trip, three realities must be faced: that racial discrimination is the number-one social problem of this decade in American life; that the situation is now in a deadly and dangerous stalemate and that the only agency that can do anything meaningful at this juncture is the Federal Government.

In the opinion of many Negro Southerners with whom I have recently talked, the most important step the Federal Government can take is to create new job opportunities for Negroes.

Ample authority exists now in its statutes and executive orders for the Government to start hiring Negroes immediately on an equal basis in all Federal installations and to insist that Negroes be hired by all companies holding Federal contracts.

How long can business stay neutral?
The Government is not enforcing these laws and orders now. In the view of Negro Southerners, it should start doing so at once. They say enforcement should not be left to the consciences of private contractors, many of whom show more respect for “local custom” than they do for the terms of the contracts into which they have entered with the U.S. Government—all of which require that they give equal opportunity. It is becoming increasingly difficult for private business to stay neutral. Many products and chain stores have already been boycotted. Four hundred of the top 500 American corporations have some kind of office or plant in Atlanta, Ga., according to the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. How many of them can escape damage to at least their corporate image if there is a knockdown, drag-out fight over integration of Atlanta’s schools in the coming months?

What especially angers Negroes is that Federal aid is often given to segregated facilities—where the Negro’s tax money is used for facilities that are closed to him. For instance, monies provided under the Hill-Burton Act for building rural hospitals, find their way into urban hospital construction. Yet, of the 4,000 hospital beds in Atlanta, only 430 are open to Negroes, exclusive of 250 beds in private Negro hospitals. Many other forms of Federal aid are put to as unfortunately disproportionate use in the South.

There are steps the Federal Government can take now to see that the purposes of Federal aid are not twisted, and these steps, it seems, should be taken at once.

It may seem ridiculous at this point to say that a new study should be made of the Supreme Court decision of 1954, but a show of good faith from the Executive Branch of the Government on this issue might bring surprising results. Unique in that it called for administrative action without creating any administrative machinery, the school decision was dropped into an administrative vacuum. It is not too late to look for such machinery.

Negroes are Americans, and are proudly dedicated to the American way. They will gladly accept true gradualism. “But,” as one Negro put it, "gradualism means gradually forward, not gradually backward."

Source: George E. McMillan, “Sit-Downs: The South’s New Time Bomb,” Look 5 July 1960, 21–25.