Virginius Dabney, John Temple Graves, and what happened to Southern Liberalism.
For all the words they wrote, petitions they signed, organizations they launched, and studies they contributed to public discussion, this generation of Southern liberals has been rather easy to dismiss. As is the case with many of those who espouse gradual reform over revolutionary change, the results of their efforts were hard to measure. With time, some of the social tensions of the 1920s, which had triggered in them a measure of healthy alienation from the culture of the South, appeared to have been relieved; ardor for the New Deal weakened among many by the end of the 1930s. But it was the turbulence of World War II and the inexorable challenges to old Southern patterns of racial discrimination in the later 1940s that revealed the limits of the thinking of Southern liberals between the two world wars. Faced with the need to come to terms with the postwar transformation of their region, some of them actually made the transition to another sort of liberalism and came to espouse the dismantling of legalized racial discrimination. Others, however, retreated into reaction, renouncing their liberal stance and growing more defensive of Southern ways.
The careers of two men, Virginius Dabney and John Temple Graves II, who became increasingly conservative by midcentury, suggest much about the character of Southern liberalism. Both were journalists and writers, both had a readership and an influence far beyond the cities - Richmond and Birmingham - where they lived, and both in the early years of their careers were outspoken critics of some of the South's greatest failures. Close together in age - Graves was born in 1892 and Dabney in 1901 - and not so very far apart in their thinking, they reflect both the distinctiveness and the limitations of most of a generation of Southerners who reached maturity in the 1920s and lived long enough to grapple with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and later.
Dabney came from an old and prominent Virginia family and grew up in Charlottesville where his father, Richard Heath Dabney, taught history and economics at the University of Virginia. He graduated with both bachelor's and master's degrees in 1921 and the following year moved to Richmond to become a newspaper reporter, thereby launching a long career in journalism in the Virginia capital. In 1928 he went to work for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he remained for several decades. His upbringing included a particular appreciation of the history of his state, a deep regard for things Jeffersonian, and a public spiritedness instilled by his university training.(1)
John Temple Graves, a native Georgian, came from a family only a little less prominent than Dabney's. His father, a grandson of the brother of John C. Calhoun, was a journalist and orator of "progressive" views who had held editorial positions in Florida and Georgia and had longtime connections with the Hearst newspapers. The younger Graves graduated from Princeton University in 1915 (where he claimed to have helped organize a branch of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society), served in the U.S. Army in World War I, attended law school at George Washington University, and then for a few years was an economist with the Federal Trade Commission. Upon the death of his father in 1925, Graves took over his column in the Palm Beach Times, then moved to Jacksonville in 1927 and to Birmingham in 1929, where for many years he wrote a column for the Age-Herald that was syndicated to scores of papers around the United States, mostly in the South and West.
As they began their professional careers, both Graves and Dabney reflected their Southern upbringing and outlook but seemed to find somewhat different meanings in them. Much more likely to turn to the history of the region, Dabney sought and found there usable and sustainable traditions that he believed might guide the actions of right-thinking Southerners in the twentieth century. As he came to consider the South's problems after World War I he reminded his readers that the region already possessed the broad solutions to their regional dilemmas. By contrast, Graves's Southernness was less reflective. Long after he had reached his adult years, Graves came to write about his childhood in Georgia, recalling "the conservatism and formality of the South reacting to a world of appalling change in which the sin of breaking the rules to win is the sin of all mankind .... That Victorian Southern world of my childhood was a stable one for me, with affirmations and acceptances, plus signs, faith, law, things eternal."(2) At another time he tried to describe the heritage which he felt most Southerners shared: "The psychology is one of defense and living dangerously. So many things have been taken away from the South in the course of time (or lost to the South) that Southerners today, as a people, have a violent aversion of losing things by violence."(3) For both Graves and Dabney, their liberalism would always be undergirded by a deeper conservatism.
More to the point as an explanation for what pushed them in the direction of a critical and reformist stance was the alienation they both felt toward their section and some of its glaring deficiencies in the 1920s. Much more than Graves, Dabney wanted to do battle with the Philistines. He deplored the successes of the anti-evolutionists, while his criticism of Bishop James Cannon, a leader of prohibitionist forces, was little short of venomous. Like so many other young Southerners of his day, he grew exercised over the presidential election of 1928, which he saw as "a battle between the reactionary and materialistic program of Herbert Hoover, and the liberal, humanitarian policies of Alfred E. Smith," because it offered opportunity for influence by fundamentalist preachers.(4) The talk of prohibition, he felt, was merely a smokescreen for anti-Catholicism.
Likewise, Dabney complained about, even as he poked fun at, the Babbitts and go-getters who seemed bent on taking over his somnolent commonwealth in the mid-1920s. They bothered him partly because of their pretensions (he wrote complainingly of how outsiders with money bought up old Southern houses and then ruined them with their renovations) but even more because their plans might confuse Virginians about the consequences of unchecked progress. "Only the most frantic Rotarian will deny that the Commonwealth's present position is immeasurably below that of 100 years ago, although it has thus far been able to retain a small share of its former charm and to bring forth a limited number of civilized sons and daughters," he wrote in 1926. "But the boom now on threatens to despoil the ancient state of what remains of the glamor that was peculiarly its own."(5)
In other words, Dabney agreed with large parts of H. L. Mencken's famous indictment of the South in the 1920s, even if the Virginian did not make use of the Maryland editor's scathing vocabulary or sarcastic tone. Dabney, who contributed occasional pieces to the American Mercury, later concluded, "My thinking was considerably influenced by H. L. Mencken - to a greater extent, in fact, than by anyone except my father. Mencken's questioning of many accepted beliefs appealed to my youthful mind. His furious attacks on individuals and institutions generally regarded as sacrosanct intrigued me" (Across the Years, p. 120).
Mencken's indictment of the Soutlh evidently meant little to John Temple Graves. Yet in a different but no less potent way he too felt the cultural distance about which Dabney spoke. Graves seems to have been alienated from the jazz Age itself. "The Lids were off," he later said. "Moral laws, economic laws, psychological, artistic, literary laws were cast aside. Teapot Dome, the Florida real estate boom, the Flapper, the Bootleggers, the Stock Market Players, the Installment Buyers, the Jazz Artists, all of them in one direction or another subscribed to the No-Law-No-Limit doctrine which Hitler was developing oversea."(6)
Although alienation would not yield much of a foundation on which to build a program of social reform or cultural renovation, for both Graves and Dabney it appeared to have been a necessary stage on the way to an honest reckoning with the South's problems. Before the Great Depression and the New Deal forced them, along with most other Southerners, into just such a reckoning, however, they paused to think about their own public philosophies. In 1930 Graves expounded on his beliefs in the one man whose political values he was willing to embrace completely. It did not hurt that Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner, nor that Graves had once worked with the Federal Trade Commission, whose creation in 1914 was part of Wilson's New Freedom. But what Graves most admired about Wilson was his commitment to individualism and to competitive mechanisms in both social and economic life. The government, as Graves saw that Wilson saw it, was to be a regulator, an "impartial referee"; and the results of its activity, "organized and umpired competition."(7) It was in this very individualism, which the New Freedom so greatly respected, that Graves located the Southerner's most valuable qualities: "his resistance to external standards, his passion in competition, his jealous love of home and folks and ways and days ...." just as Wilson was led into the cause of Justice and progress," Graves believed, the South's stout individualism, enticed by promises of "physical wealth and worldly weight," might solve its problems and vindicate his life's philosophy. Prosperity is wooing the South away from the ugly concomitants of its individualism. If it can do so without destroying the individualism itself, Messrs. Mason and Dixon may have lived better than they knew" ("Wilson," p. 387).
Dabney's much more ambitious project, undertaken at about the same time, was nothing less than "a study of liberal tendencies in the Southern States since the American Revolution" that ran to more than four hundred pages and was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1932,(8) In writing Liberalism in the South Dabney had to define what he meant by the term; it came to include both libertarianism, the destruction of old restrictions on the individual, as well as humanitarianism, which involved positive social or economic reform. Dabney emphasized the former definition over the latter. The book began with the victories of the Virginia revolutionaries - Jefferson, Henry, Mason - over primogeniture, entail, and the established church, their support for public education, and their modest campaign against slavery.
As he worked his way through Southern history, Dabney found heartening occasions of improved schooling, expanding political democracy, the declining influence of preachers and religious fundamentalists. He cataloged the crusading newspapers and their bold editors and recognized the salutary program of critical scholarship and the unsentimental new school of Southern writing. He even surmised that some enlightened white people were prepared to dismantle Jim Crow and end the disfranchisement of black voters. "As reconstruction and its atrocities recede further and further into the background, more and more white Southerners are coming to feel that the cry of |white supremacy,' raised so often in the past, is in the twentieth century a mere rawhead and bloodybones without substance or meaning" (Liberalism, p. 254). His glance at the factory class, however, showed him the low wages and long hours of "industrial slaves," although he predicted that unionization would supplant mill-village paternalism. All in all, he concluded, Southern liberalism had to its credit "almost everything that has been done in the Southern states in building up a broader and more humane civilization, in developing the potentialities of the average man and in striking the shackles from the human spirit" (Liberalism, p. 428).
The sort of liberalism that Graves and Dabney had arrived at by the early 1930s, one built around civil liberties and laissez-faire individualism, would be tested by the economic collapse of the decade and the vast expansion of federal authority that accompanied the New Deal. For some time, both of them remained loyal supporters of Roosevelt and self-proclaimed New Dealers who endorsed the humanitarian social programs that the Depression made necessary. It may have taken some doing, but Graves believed he saw behind the activities of the early New Deal the guiding spirit of Wilson's competitive individualism; he approved the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, for example, because it provided for government regulation that ended wasteful competition, although he opposed any effort to eliminate the wage differentials that kept Southern labor cheaper than Northern. He approved of the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the principle of economic planning that it represented, he liked the agricultural and housing program, and he concluded that direct federal relief and public works were necessary if only temporary.(9) For a time, at least, he was prepared to move well beyond his Wilsonian ideology.
A few years later, when, as Graves was fond of putting it, the New Deal had been dealt and America had begun to get up from the card table, he offered a more considered, if ambivalent, assessment of the New Deal. It was a sobering corrective to the frivolity of the decade that preceded it, he said; it may well have worsened the conflict between social classes in the South, and it produced a vast conservative reaction, particularly on the part of industrial employers and large farmers. But its ultimate defense rested on necessity: "I believed that liberty and food could both be had. In that faith I looked upon the Roosevelt Revolution as a thing necessary to assure the food, even if a little of the liberty had to be lost. Without a new deal, I thought, the free enterprise system in America could not survive" (The Fighting South, p. 115). Furthermore, while Graves certainly never signed on as a dedicated reformer for the rest of his life, he had a powerful appreciation of what the New Deal achieved in the South: "There was no part of America from whose masses the New Deal lifted a heavier trouble and won a greater love. Generations of Democratic loyalty were rewarded with the economic help in awful need, in a time of five-cent cotton, 25-cent wages, and Negroes with nothing to do" (The Fighting South, p. 111).
By the later 1930s, however, Graves's disenchantment with the New Deal had grown clearer. Its sources are many but not hard to enumerate. He realized that he might have been wrong to see Franklin Roosevelt as quite so clearly the heir of Wilson; he was bothered by the gathering forces that had been unleashed in the South in this tumultuous decade, especially the advances of organized labor, the quickening scientific and technological changes, and the sense that the South's racial order might be coming under attack; and he realized that his home region had become the patient for the ministrations of what he labeled "uncomprehending liberals from other parts of the country." And he detected in the Southern forces of reaction something akin to a homegrown fascism, which he hated.(10)
Yet it was a short piece he wrote for the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1944 that may reveal what had happened to Graves's shaky definition of liberalism. He called the essay "The Magnificent American Proposition" and it was another of his by now familiar comparisons of Wilson and Roosevelt, this time very much to the detriment of the latter; "the New Deal was only a deal while the New Freedom was an American philosophy." Graves speculated that if Wilson had lived into the 1930s and 1940s he would have remained an antagonist of everything big in American life - government and business and labor. However, in a telling aside, he now acknowledged how tenuous his faith in Wilsonian philosophy had become: The New Freedom, never permitted to be practiced, was born in faith that if men are truly free under law they can be both prosperous and happy. It was - and remains - the Great American Proposition."(11) If the New Freedom had never truly been carried out in the early twentieth century, as Graves seems to have concluded, then it would appear hard to invoke it two or three decades later. While he was not direct on this point, what befell him early in the 1940s was that he lost a good part of his faith that individualism could be sheltered and preserved by a government playing the role of impartial umpire.
In much the same way as Graves had attempted to fit the New Deal into his already clearly established ideological predispositions, so too Dabney, as he wrote about Franklin Roosevelt, invoked the names of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, who as a presidential hopeful and visitor to Charlottesville in 1912 had stayed with the Dabneys and entertained the ten-year-old Virginius with funny stories. In Roosevelt he discerned a candidate "in the old-fashioned Jeffersonian tradition, a battler for human rights, a fighter for the welfare of the common man."(12) After the election of 1932 Dabney expected Roosevelt "to be determined to have a showdown with Wall Street and to be bent on making his party what Thomas Jefferson intended it to be, namely the party of the people as opposed to the party of privilege and wealth."(13) At bottom, Dabney's endorsement of the New Deal arose from its effort to safeguard the welfare of the average people of the country. And in the person of Roosevelt he found another incarnation of the noblesse oblige that the Virginia gentry also embodied.
Even more than was the case with Graves, Dabney's endorsement of the New Deal had the feeling of pragmatism about it; like Roosevelt he appreciated positive results, especially of the economic sort. Thus he praised the farm programs for improving rural income, weakening the stranglehold of sharecropping, reducing overproduction, and leading to crop diversification. He endorsed the TVA and the Rural Electrification Administration, Social Security, slum clearance, public works, the renewed attack on child labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Understanding the line of argument that the South had been made and kept an economic colony of the rest of the country, Dabney supported the legal attack on freight rate differentials and agreed with Roosevelt's famous statement that the South was the nation's number-one economic problem. There were Times-Dispatch editorials criticizing Virginia's conservative Senator Harry F. Byrd for his opposition to Roosevelt. In a final judgment he came to in 1942, Dabney wrote: "Federal intervention in, and concern for, the affairs of the individual citizen is destined to grow in future, rather than to diminish, for such is the mandate of the age. The era of laissez-faire seems gone forever, and the surest highway to liberty traverses terrain where the average man is protected from exploitation and given a decent chance for the good things of life."(14)
Dabney's reflections on the significance of the New Deal appeared in a book he published in 1942, Below the Potomac: A Book About the New South, which he intended to be a revisitation of Liberalism in the South after the passage of ten years. All in all, he found much to be encouraged about. He thought he detected the deliberate shift of the South more nearly into the national mainstream, a decline in political demagoguery, greater support for civil liberties and freedom of inquiry, the erosion of religious fundamentalism. Among the political changes he endorsed was the abolition of the poll tax and the strengthening of the Republican party as a way of ending one-party rule. As yet, with World War II underway, there was little hint here of a conservative shift in Dabney's thinking.
In fact, in bringing up the subject of the South's racial ills, Dabney appeared to be ready to take another very large step in the direction that Southern liberals would have to go in the 1940s. In part, he was surveying race relations and finding some of the same evidence of progress he saw in the area of civil liberties: a decline in lynching and in the support for it, a lowering of barriers to black suffrage, better schools, perhaps some brighter economic opportunities. He spoke to what Gunnar Myrdal would soon label the American dilemma: "Americans must admit candidly that the democratic ideal is at war with the thesis that American citizens can be placed in separate pigeonholes and given varying educational and social advantages, depending upon the color of their skins. Any discrimination among citizens of this country for reasons of race or religion, is undemocratic" (Below the Potomac, p. 224).
When it came to education, Dabney still believed in separate but equal, but by 1942 he was calling for an equalization of teacher salaries and the admission of black students to previously all-white graduate and professional schools in the South.(15) In the same year he praised the work of the Durham Conference, a gathering of blacks whose manifesto called for reforms in race relations short of the dismantling of Jim Crow, and he endorsed the all-white Atlanta Conterence that met in response in 1943. He attended the joint meetings of the black and white continuation committees that produced the Southern Regional Council in the summer of the same year (Nitschke, pp. 154-156). His most emphatic recommendation came in Times-Dispatch editorials of November 1943, in which he called for the repeal of segregation ordinances applying to streetcars and buses in Virginia. Again, his justification was a practical one; he felt that such a move would help reduce racial tensions which the world war had heiglitened.(16)
Dabney's cautious encouragement of racial reform was an indication both of how the war was generating broad social and economic changes across the South and of his success in adjusting his version of liberalism to the new circumstances. For him, and for a time, this adjustment was possible; but for others it was not, and within a short while even Dabney began to draw back from his earlier positions. The case of John Temple Graves is an even clearer study of the way in which Southerners who had embraced a position of moderate liberalism in the 1930s found that stance even more tenuous during and after World War II. Neither man explained fully just how he went about retreating in a conservative direction, but the destination at which each arrived spoke much about the route he had taken.
Like so many other Southerners, Graves found the 1940s to be a time of troubling changes and the unleashing of moorings. In the middle of it he wrote his most important book and made his most sustained attempt to understand the region and to predict its future. The book was titled The Fighting South because it began as an explanation of the South's willingness to join the war even before Pearl Harbor; it also was a reflection of the sharper self-consciousness that had arisen among Southerners in the 1930s. The reformer, the gentle critic, even the old New Dealer was still writing here, and his subject was the contradictory South - rich lands and eroded fields, listless and animated people, skillful politicians and demagogues who were "very good at politics and very bad in the uses they make of politics" (The Fighting South, p. 43). The book was by no means an uncritical celebration of the region: "Greed on top, bigotry at the bottom, social incomprehension all around, have accounted for as much trouble in the South as the Yankees have" (p. 64). But there was now a greater care in defining those things of value in the South that Graves hoped to see preserved, particularly because they seemed in danger: its cotton culture and agrarian traditions (I'll Take My Stand, which earlier he had dismissed, now took on new meaning as "a thing for the future out of the past"), chivalry and hospitality ("one of the spiritual equivalents for the socialism which has its good points but which most of us don't want"), good manners and sportsmanship, the virtues of aristocrats and the valued place of the Southern gentleman (pp. 176, 197). He harked back to his childhood in College Park, Georgia, and expressed the hope that the values of his now distant youth, its Victorian world of certainty and faith, might somehow be useful in the reconstruction of a newer world in the aftermath of the great war.
However, a new unease now appeared in Graves's writing. He was bothered by the changing role of Southern women that the war had led to and figured that at the end of the conflict these women might have to abandon the factories and return to their homes. He had reservations about the growing power of organized labor, believed that the New Deal should be declared finished, and deplored the use of the war as a pretext for agitation against the poll tax. There was a new recognition of the powerful forces of resentment and grievance in the South, reinvigorated by the war; and he might have had himself in mind when he spoke of "a centripetal force which through all history has been driving Southerners back upon the South, making professionals of them often against their will or plan ..." (pp. 55-57). He hoped that both the poll tax and lynching might be eliminated, but by the action of the states. While he endorsed Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 of 1941, which authorized using the power of the government to compel defense contractors to end discrimination in employment, Graves was nevertheless increasingly critical of the agitation of Northern black people to use the war as "an occasion for intensive campaigning against any and every differential, minor and major, between white men and black." He named A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Walter White and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP as outside agitators whose activities he deplored. He invoked the names of his fellow journalists Mark Ethridge and Virginius Dabney, whose "forthright stands against agitation for settlement of the Negro problem in the face of an enemy across the sea" he supported (pp. 120, 126).(17)
The Fighting South, it seems, was a sort of balancing act, revealing its author's now clearly divided mind; he acknowledged the South's ills and the need for reform, but he worried about the loss of Southern traditions, the power of outside forces, and the threats to the region's racial order. In the years after 1943 Graves identified himself as a Democrat but said he would welcome the development of a two-party South. He saw a need for a continuing federal role in the states, particularly in support of education, and favored the ending of cotton subsidies even if that meant great disruption in Southern agriculture.(18)
By 1948, however, his worries had blossomed and what had overtaken Graves was what he had once warned others about: his growing distrust of the national government and his opposition to racial protests, added to his alarm at President Truman's civil rights program, pushed the New Dealer into the arms of the Dixiecrats. Even his journalist friends, some of whom shared his misgivings, were dismayed at what had become of him. "At last report you were beating the drums for the States Rights party," Hodding Carter wrote from Mississippi in an unusually sharp letter complaining that Graves had mistakenly charged him with advocating an end to racial segregation. Virginius Dabney offered strong words of warning: "I do not know how you can get rid of the large group of Negrophobes and Ku Kluxers who have gravitated to your banner. I think the idea that States' Rights are supremely important is sound, but it does disturb me for so many people who pervert and distort States' Rights to be shouting for that cause." Harry Ashmore from Charlotte felt that Graves was playing "into the hands of that reactionary group of Southerners who, masquerading as Jeffersonians, really believe only in their own traditional freedom to exploit the region."(19)
Two years after the reelection of President Truman, Graves wrote a piece(20) in which he tried to place his support for Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the defeated Dixiecrat candidate for President, into a larger frame of reference. The South, he believed, had reached a pivotal point in its modern history. "The plot is revolution: two revolutions, moving to collision. One, the older, is organized labor on the march, the Negro on the march, the Fair Deal following the New Deal. The other is States Rights and Anti-statism. Leaders of the one say that they are bringing the South into line. Leaders of the other believe that they are putting the South at the head of a new line" (p. 191). More a thoughtful essay than a call to arms, Graves's article showed his unease about the centralizing trends launched by the New Deal and posed a dilemma: "Shall the New Deal be thrown away or shall there merely be an end to dealing?" (p. 198). In the end, however, he worried about something even larger: either a retreat backward to oppressive poverty or a move forward to unchecked industrialism. Each would lead to a nightmare of "totalitarian benevolence" and a stupefying leveling: in other words, the death of Wilsonian individualism. In its place, Graves held forth his own vision: "man against mass, quality over quantity, the uncommon over the common, and divine inequalities which spell life" (p. 203).
Soon after, Graves came to face a darkening world. He spoke with increasing urgency about Earl Warren and Martin Luther King, Jr., and against Eisenhower for sending troops to Little Rock; he blamed many troubles on "outside agitators," and words like "usurpation' and "interposition" found their way into his columns and the speeches he gave to the Citizens' Councils. Before death came to him in May 1961, he had found even more to worry about in the Kennedy brothers.
Dabney's transit from liberalism to conservatism never took him so far on the road to reaction as Graves ventured, but its sources seem to have been similar. In one measure it was Dabney's alarm about the building pressure for civil rights for black people that first appeared in a widely read 1943 article.(21) In it he warned, "A small group of Negro agitators and another small group of white rabble-rousers are pushing this country closer and closer to an interracial explosion which may make the race riots of the First World War and its aftermath seem mild by comparison. Unless saner counsels prevail, we may have the worst internal clashes since Reconstruction, with hundreds, if not thousands, killed and amicable race relations set back for decades" (p. 94). Among the black extremists he identified Randolph, Walter White, and the Pittsburgh Courier; among the white men were Eugene Talmadge of Georgia, Frank Dixon of Alabama, and John Rankin of Mississippi. As he warned of the dangers of a conservative reaction and of the undermining of white moderates in the South, there could be little doubt as to where he placed the source of the trouble.
In another way, however, Dabney betrayed a growing Southern defensiveness aroused by criticism from outsiders and their slanders on the region, at one point detecting "a deliberate conspiracy on the part of a small group of northern extremists to picture the entire South as the abode of lantern-jawed lynchers, tobacco-chewing hillbillies, and bigoted ignoramuses with no human instincts or decent sensibilities."(22) His apologies for the South's shortcomings blended honest analysis with special pleading. The postwar debate over the Committee on Fair Employment Practice alerted him to the dangers of the unwarranted extension of federal power; he wanted to eliminate the poll tax but only by the decision of individual states.(23) Likewise, he thought that the time for a federal anti-lynching statute had passed; once again he favored state action. Alarmed by the prospect of strikes in wartime, he grew more suspicious of organized labor and alarmed at the influence of John L. Lewis. He began to soften his earlier criticism of Virginia's Byrd machine.
Dabney could not support the States Rights ticket of 1948, but he labeled Truman's civil rights program as too radical, too sudden, and too much dependent on federal action; in the election the Times-Dispatch endorsed no candidate. Dabney took a symbolic last step of sorts in 1951 when, upon learning that the Southern Regional Council had passed a resolution proposing the end to racial segregation in the South, he resigned from an organization he had been a part of since its founding. In politics, by the 1950s the two-party South he had long favored appeared to be arriving at last. As the Times-Dispatch supported Eisenhower for president in 1952 and Nixon in 1960, Dabney settled into a Virginian conservatism and a moderate Republicanism where he has largely remained ever since.
Dabney engaged in a recurring correspondence with Graves through the 1940s, and some of the letters he wrote help reveal what was happening to their older liberalism. Even before Pearl Harbor, Dabney seemed aware of the slippery nature of the position he had once embraced with more certainty. "Liberalism is in disrepute, and it should be rehabilitated in the public consciousness," he wrote to Graves, agreeing with a recent column in the Age-Herald; "but it never did represent a fixed and immutable point of view toward political, economic, or governmental issues. As you say, liberalism is primarily a habit of mind, a way of looking at things."(24) Seven years later, when Southern reactionism was unmistakable, Dabney wrote to Graves more directly: "I agree with you that I have shifted my point of view considerably in the past fifteen years. I suppose nearly all of us have." He had recently read Liberalism in the South again, he reported, and was "pleasantly surprised to find that I agree with almost all of it today." The essence of liberalism, he felt, had been "States' rights," a doctrine he was "embarrassed" to say he had abandoned to support the New Deal. "Now, as I return to States' rights, I find that I am back in line with that particular thesis of my book."(25)
A modern reader might reach a different conclusion about Dabney's big book of 1932, finding that liberalism there was much more closely identified with civil liberties that with states' rights. And Dabney might have been more exact to say that there were other ways of thinking about Southern liberalism. Yet his observation reveals much about why people like Graves and Dabney were unable to sustain their liberal outlook by the middle of the twentieth century. Their position had been a peculiarly Southern one, owing little or nothing to Northern antecedents and influences, rooted in their understanding of the Southern past, arising from older sectional traditions which for Dabney were most closely associated with Jefferson and for Graves with Wilson. Their concern for limited government and civil liberties had made it hard for them to devise a philosophical justification for their support of the New Deai, which they endorsed nevertheless out of feelings of urgency and calculations of pragmatism.
After 1945 this variety of Southern liberalism would be commandeered by conservatives and eclipsed by other sorts, ones that looked toward the substantial social programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, a much greater degree of governmental collectivism at the federal level, and a more vigorous and far-reaching civil rights agenda than most Southerners were able to contemplate before World War II. Some Southern liberals of the same generation as Graves and Dabney - Jonathan Daniels of Raleigh, Guy B. Johnson of Chapel Hill, Ralph McGill of Atlanta - were able to make this transition into a new era of thinking about the South's problems and potential, while others obviously faltered. An older version of a Southern liberalism, like so much else in the region, was challenged, undermined, and transformed after the middle of the twentieth century.
(1) Information about Dabney's early. life may be found in the only scholarly biography of him: Marie Morris Nitschke, "Virginius Dabney of Virginia, Portrait of a Southern, Journalist in the Twentieth Century," Diss., Emory University, 1987, chapter 1. See also Viginius Dabney, across the Years: Memoirs of a Virginian (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978), chapters 1-4. (2) John Temple Graves, "Forever and Ever, Amen," Virginia Quarterly Review, 19 (January 1943), 48-49. (3) Graves, "The Fighting South," Virginia Quarterly Review, 18 January 1942), 69. (4) Richmond Times-Dispatch. November 11, 1928; see also Dabney's columns of June 24, July 22, 1928, and January 29, 1929. (5) Dabney, "Virginia," American Mercury, 9 (November 1926), 356. See also editorials in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 29, 1929, through January 12, 1930. (6) Graves, The Fighting South (New York: G. P. Putriam's Sons, 1943), p. 107. Graves, "Wilson and the South Today," Virginia Quarterly Review, 6 (July 1930), 386. (8) Dabney, Liberalism in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932), p. xi. (9) Margaret E. Armbrester, "John Temple Graves II: A Southern Liberal Views the New Deal," Alabama Review, 32 (July 1979), 203-209. (10) These points emerge in Graves's article "The South Still Loves Roosevelt," Nation, 149 (July 1, 1939), 11-13. The quotation is from p. 12. (11) Graves, "The Magnificent American Proposition," Virginia Quarterly Review, 20 July 1944), 404-412. The quotations are from p. 410. (12) Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 1930, as cited in Nitschke, p. 80. (13) Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 22, 1930, as cited in Nitschke, p. 80. (14) Dabney, Below the Potomac: A Book About the New South (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942), chapter 3. The quotation is on p. 105. (15) Dabney, "The Negro and His Schooling," Atlantic Monthly, 169 (April 1942), 459-468. (16) Morton Sosna, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), pp. 134-135. (17) Graves's points about race come out more clearly in "The Southern Negro and the War Crisis," Virginia Quarterly Review, 18 (October 1942), 500-517. (18) Graves, "The chance-Taking South," Virginia Quarterly Review. 21 (April 1945), 161-173. (19) Hodding Carter to Graves, February 6, 1950; Dabney to Graves, April 26, 1949; Harry S. Ashmore to Graves, August 7, 1946; all in John Temple Graves Papers, Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library. (20) Graves, "Revolution in the South," Virginia Quarterly Review, 26 (April 1950). (21) Dabney, "Nearer and Nearer the Precipice," Atlantic Monthly, 171 (January 1943). (22) Dabney, "The South Marches On," Survey Graphic, 32 (November 1943), 443. (23) Dabney, "Is the South That Bad?" Saturday Review of Literature, 29 (April 13, 1946), 9-10. (24) Dabney to Graves, September 29, 1941, Graves Papers. (25) Dabney to Graves, February 14, 1948, Graves Papers.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: The South in Transition|
|Author:||Matthews, John Michael|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1992|
|Previous Article:||Writing the history of Southern music: a review essay.|
|Next Article:||The segregated farm program in Poinsett County, Arkansas.|