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White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975

by Jason Sokol

Pub Date: Aug. 24th, 2006
ISBN: 0-307-26356-8
Publisher: Knopf

A well-conceived study of the changes in thought and being that swept the white South as its privileged position came under challenge in the Civil Rights era.

There is no single white southern culture, and in this debut book, historian Sokol notes that the simpleminded designation of white southerners simply as racist obscures the fact that their “racial attitudes and behavior frequently revealed a confused and conflicted people, at times divided within and against themselves.” They had much to be confused about, for many whites prided themselves on knowing what black people thought and, what is more, knowing what was best for them. They found out otherwise. The advent of WWII, racially mixed military units and integrated combat situations in which soldiers of whatever ethnic group were afraid and brave in equal measure, all helped alter the temper of the South; in particular, educated southerners began to publicly endorse the notion that vanquishing fascism abroad should be extended to vanquishing Jim Crow at home. Even so, change “was a partial and messy process” in which entrenched southerners such as Georgia restaurateur and politician Lester Maddox fought integration every step of the way, even as others accepted—some very reluctantly—the reality that the old way of life was gone forever. Sokol examines several agents of change, one of them old-fashioned peer pressure: In the case of Memphis restaurants, for instance, black protestors and the federal government faced less contempt than did “proprietors who stubbornly clung to white supremacy while others integrated.” White southerners, in other words, pushed white southerners along. But they have not yet arrived: drawing on wide-ranging interviews, Sokol shows that the process of integration and accommodation is ongoing, yet still “agonizingly slow . . . in deference to the rhythms and preferences of whites’ lives.”

A valuable complement to Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge (2006) and Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home (2001).