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Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

Sometime between Tuesday, November 8, 1932, and Monday, May 17, 1954, the author of this splendid book believes, "the South left Yesterday and entered Tomorrow." It did so reluctantly, its shameless political demagogues ranting "nigger" and "never"; its reactionary planter-banker-business elite dragging its feet; its "pillar institutions," its churches, press, its universities, too insular, too blinded by tradition to sense a stake in impending change; its tiny liberal minority too deeply divided against itself and too easily neutralized by red-baiting to provide effective leadership. When change did come, John Egerton observes, it came not through "voluntary acts of enlightened self-interest" but through litigation, protest, and bloodshed, after "long years of needless struggle." In the end, the Old South did give way to a New South, but not without a "virtual revolution in the courts and in the streets" that forced the region to do better by its own people, to behave in its own interests, to abandon the self-destructive myth of separate but equal. The process took time and is not yet fully complete, but Georgia-born, Kentucky-raised Egerton believes it began with World War II, "a rare and momentous turning point" that turned ever so slowly, a great "hinge of time" that gradually swung shut on "a constricted past" to open on "an expansive future."

Fundamentally, Speak Now Against the Day is about what might have been, about lost opportunity, about a moment in time when the region had its best chance since Reconstruction "to heal itself, to fix its own social wagon voluntarily." Egerton takes his title from a 1955 address by William Faulkner to a then-rare integrated gathering of Southern historians in Memphis. Joining black educator Benjamin Mays and other speakers in a forum on court-ordered school desegregation, the Nobel laureate likened living in the modern world and being against racial equality to "living in Alaska and being against snow." Seeing opportunity in crisis, yet fearing that his beloved region might "wreck and ruin itself twice in less than a hundred years," the Mississippi writer urged enlightened voices to "speak now against the day" lest tradition-bound Southerners, having lost yet another great struggle against "freedom, liberty, and equality," would say, "`Why didn't someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?'" Faulkner, as Egerton reminds us, spoke neither early nor unequivocally, but his words evoke a fragile tradition of progressive dissent in the South and they perfectly capture the central themes of this book.

The book opens with a graceful evocation of the impoverished South, "A Feudal Land" mired in depression, and moves through the region's experiences with the New Deal, the Second World War, and the Cold War, and concludes with the epochal Brown school desegregation decree. Along the way, in more than 600 occasionally repetitious pages, the author offers brilliant portraits of the region's home-grown black and white boatrockers, its ambivalent fence-sitters, and its lily-white fire-eaters. At one point, he calls his book a "collective biography of people like Will Alexander, Mary McLeod Bethune, Frank Porter Graham, James Weldon Johnson, and Lucy Randolph Mason" -- these "and all the other native sons and daughters," the "sage prophets of the Good South," who struggled against the tides of reaction during the 1930s and 1940s and who were identified with the Committee on Interracial Cooperation, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, Highlander Folk School, the YMCA, the Southern Regional Council, and the NAACP. But though the author's heart is with -- and much of his emphasis is on -- those who did then "speak now," some of his most telling and carefully nuanced descriptions are of the region's ultra-conservative political and economic leaders, its "Old Guard," its "feudal lords and barons." In fact, so deft is his treatment of the more notable Southern friends and enemies of civil rights that one might almost fail to note that he tells us too little about the unsung heroes and heroines of grassroots black protest. The kind of people who figure so importantly in the early chapters of the civil rights histories by John Dittmer and Charles Payne, for example, are not adequately represented here. In these pages, Egerton offers fair-minded but unvarnished analyses of the South's political leaders, particularly its Congressional delegations; of such "fire-breathing racist demagogues" as South Carolina's Cotton Ed Smith, Georgia's Herman Talmadge, and that odious Mississippi triumvirate of Bilbo, Eastland, and Rankin; of such "tight-button reactionaries" as Virginia's Carter Class; of such "clownish Texans" as "Pappy" O'Daniel; of assorted "statesmen and court jesters, prudes and leachers, teetotalers and sots."

They were not one undifferentiated mass, as Egerton carefully observes. But on the big issues, particularly on any racial issue, any issue that elevated human rights above state sovereignty, they were "true lodge brothers," they acted as one. In fact, so conservative were they that the few "stray sheep" in their midst -- such centrists as Florida's Claude Pepper, Texas's Maury Mavrick, Alabama's Lister Hill -- seemed positively pink. They were the beneficiaries of the nation's most truncated state electorates, of a political system characterized by one-party rule, poll taxes, racial disfranchisement, all-white primaries, malapportioned state legislatures, and perennially low voter participation. They easily shouted down the voices of reason and progress. They unfailingly defended the narrow interests -- low wages and low taxes, high profits and hierarchical control -- of "the tiny cliques" that kept them in power. But could they legitimately claim to speak for the people, the great mass of poor-to-middling Southerners, a silent and multi-racial majority of perhaps eighty percent of the population, who were not themselves opinion shapers and leaders but who might have followed had their ruling elites led them in the direction of Tomorrow. The question is, of course, unanswerable. But Egerton at least finds cause to wonder, whether if given half a chance, "the multitude of white, black, brown, and red Southerner's would have chosen to fight among themselves over a matter as irrelevant as skin color." He is more than a little inclined to blame myopic political and economic elites for what did and didn't happen during the "South's fading days of opportunity before the revolution." Perhaps he is so committed to what might have been that he also overstates the possibility of that moment.

Many of the particular charms of this book are traceable to its informal, intensely personal approach. By his own account, Egerton is a "middle-aged, middle-class, white Southern male with moderately liberal biases." Readers familiar with his many books on Southern culture and history will know that, while he can wear his opinions on his sleeve, he is a shrewd and clear-eyed observer of a region he deeply loves. Although this book is based on impressive research, Egerton has also judiciously mixed in snippets of his own remembrance of a deeply flawed yet more innocent, less cynical age than the present. In the process, he has crafted, in elegantly plain English, the most accessible and fullest account yet in print of the conflict between Southern reformers and reactionaries in the twilight years of Jim Crow. Some might wish for a book that was at once more economical, more tightly organized, and more inclusive of the story of emergent grassroots black protest. Yet Speak Now belongs at the top of the reading list of every scholar and lay person with a serious interest in the South.
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Author:McMillen, Neil R.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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