I'm interested in the things not told. You can line them up, and build a gallery of inconvenient facts, and it will irritate the hell out of anyone with a psychological commitment to the accepted way of seeing.
It's as true of cosmology as it is of Civil War history. The difference is, science usually works diligently to bring its paradigms in line with its observations, while history tends to shovel the inconveniencies under the rug, especially when politics play a part, as they always seem to do.
To collect outcast facts is not to say that omitted facts are the true history and ought to replace what is taught. But you get a real education from noticing the omissions. And more than once the stones the builders have discarded become foundations of new edifices.
May 17, 1954, is supposed to be the day everything changed in the South. That's when Earl Warren delivered the unanimous opinion in Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, and destroyed all the legal foundations of segregation.
In fact, it changed nothing. The court took its time in writing the decree of implementation, which did not come until May 31, 1955. And that decree set no deadlines for compliance, was sympathetic to local issues, placed responsibility on local school authorities, and put federal district courts in charge of assuring "good faith implementation."
Segregationists rejoiced, because those district court judges were in many cases home-grown men who might easily decide a "reasonable time" for desegregation was 200 years.
But they didn't. By January 1956, in 19 decisions, the lower courts upheld the end of segregation and stressed the need for a "prompt and reasonable" beginning to the process. In Louisiana, for example, J. Skelly Wright, New Orleans born and bred, shot down the state legislature's plan to circumvent Brown and save segregation. And the work of desegregation began in ernest in school districts in many place.
That's when the mass segregationist backlash began: After the white Southern courts and white Southern school boards began to work (without a National Guardsman in sight and Ike all but publicly saying he wouldn't use them), not after the Brown decision itself. All that's left out, along with the fact that more than 1,000 black students were admitted to formerly all-white colleges and universities in the South without a hint of violence before the University of Alabama riot of Feb. 6, 1956.
Yet as the story is told now, the entire white South was dragged into the Civil Rights movement by the Freedom Riders, the Supreme Court, the NAACP, and federal bayonets.
Recently I had the honor to work with the family of one of the central, if relatively unsung, heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Frances Freeborn Pauley, whose lifework was mostly done in Georgia, happened to die up here in Lancaster, Pa., where her daughter lives. I helped them put together the obituary notice for the local newspaper. I confess, I had not heard of her before.
Her daughter gave me a copy of Pauley's autobiography, and it's delightful reading: direct, positive, determined. Pauley grew up in segregated Georgia and became a champion of civil rights. Friend of Martin Luther King Jr., consummate political organizer and activist. She had already been at it for more than a decade by the time Julian Bond, former NAACP head, got to know her. Bond was the source of the quip that became the title of her autobiography: "Everybody's Grandmother & Nobody's Fool."
Among the things that impressed me about Pauley: after desegregation was achieved, she didn't go to work dragging down Confederate symbols wherever she found them; she devoted the last decades of her life to battling poverty, AIDS, and the other real scourges of the families of poor Southerners.
I picked a passage from her book, literally at random, to show you the Civil Rights movement through her eyes. It is in the chapter where the struggle to integrate schools has moved from Georgia to Mississippi.
I always used to say they had three Mississippis. They had one Mississippi in the Delta, and they had another Mississippi on the coast, and another Mississippi around Jackson. You can't summarize something as being typically Mississippi, and I had cases throughout the state. There were various kinds of superintendents and various kinds of school boards.
The coast was always the easiest place. They were the most tolerant of each other, and you'd find real desegregation. You'd find some places where blacks and whites would really be living on the same street. It seemed to me that the southern part of the state was much less rigid and much less prejudiced than the Delta. The Jackson area was a lot more like Georgia; it was pretty much the same as integration in Georgia -- some powerfully mean segregationists, and also some other people that were trying really hard to have the situation smooth and that weren't really prejudiced.
I found Mississippi better than Georgia, by the way. Usually they didn't want conflict; they wanted everything to be smooth. It wasn't that they weren't dedicated to integration or segregation; they just wanted a good school system and they wanted it to move smoothly. In Mississippi I found fewer of what I call the armchair liberals. Very liberal in their talk, but they weren't going to get out of their chair and do anything. In Mississippi it seems to me that more people, if they felt that way, were apt to try to put it into motion. It was easier to work with white people in Mississippi, because you knew what side they were on.
I remember one man who was on a school board who helped us work out a plan for his district. He had sent his children to some kind of integrated summer program with black and white teachers. His son had some words, got into some trouble, and came back. This man took his son back to find out what happened. He found out his son had been rude to a black teacher. He went back home, and he said, "We're teaching our children to lie, and we're not teaching our children the truth. My child is going to apologize to that teacher and my child is going to the integrated school." This man's whole sense of values was good and honest. Lots of people were like that, and some of them were brave enough to stand up, like he did, and work for it. And his community desegregated schools smoothly.
You see, everyone had been brought up under "separate but equal," and that was the law. If you were a law-abiding citizen, you'd been taught that the blacks eat here, and sit there, and drink out of this fountain. You didn't think about it in any moral, or immoral, way. At least I didn't as I came up. You just hunt for the restroom that says, "White Women," just like you hunt for something that says, "Restroom." It doesn't have any moral effect on you until you begin to think about it and work on it. And then you see how crushing it was. The man who was just a good citizen obeying the law, going along, and then all of a sudden he saw, with a flash maybe, that segregation was wrong. A lot of them helped to change it.
Now, this woman is no apologist for anything. She went toe-to-toe with Herman Talmage and the hardest of the hard-core racists, and she didn't flinch. But so much of this book is stories just like those told above. Native-born Southern white woman working with native-born Southerners, black and white, reasoning together with a shared sense of decency to accomplishing the work of desegregation. Not a Freedom Rider in sight. Not a bullhorn or a German shepherd or a firehose water cannon in the chapter.
Where is this side of the story in the textbooks? Where is it told in the museums or the PBS specials? How many times did it happen like that, for every time it exploded in bombs and blood?
This is the same Mississippi, mind you, that was dragged back and forth through the mud a few months ago over its popular vote to keep the Battle Flag element in its state flag.
In the interest of historical truth, I'm for telling Pauley's stories of thousands of decent, average white folks in the South who did they part in the transition from segregation to integration. Just like I'm for telling more about the role of blacks in the Underground Railroad, which has been historically over-weighted on the side of the white folks of the North (including at least one of my ancestors) who took a hand in it.
Bond says this in his introduction to the book: "She will indignantly deny it, but she is the best of Southern Ladyhood -- that combination of sweetness and steel, magnolias and muscle that melts opposition with a smile and reasoned argument -- not a crinolined Scarlett O'Hara facsimile, but an iron-willed amazon in pantsuit and sneakers. If we'd had more Frances Pauleys, who can dream of where we would all be now?"
Whitman got it backwards, in part. The real history mostly does get into the books -- and it stays there. The people get their histories from their hearts, and the fact is Ken Burns and "Gettysburg" still ring true to most Americans, even though those works make the politically correct froth and foam because of their "Lost Causer" qualities.
We love stories that put unity above conflict. No unity, no America. You'll never sell this picture of American history that paints millions of Southern whites as either dupes of scoundrels, or racist pissants. It's an even worse sell than the old patronizing history that left out the blacks (and the Indians, and the women, and the children, and the fruitbats). For one, it's worse-written; for another, it has no heroes; and worst of all, it doesn't just ignore, it demonizes. It might work in the teacher's lounges and in the seminars, but it won't play in Peoria.
If the first synthesis/reconciliation built from Civil War history -- the "Lost Cause" that forged common ground for northern whites and southern whites and excluded blacks -- was wrong and evil, why is the current synthesis/reconciliation -- the "Martyr President/Wicked Rebellion" that aligns northern whites and southern blacks to the exclusion of southern whites -- such a noble, true and helpful idea?
And why the determination to stamp out the mere suggestion of a third synthesis -- the "we're all Southerners on this bus" view that finds southern blacks and southern whites recognizing commonality in their heritage?
Maybe it's because of who gets excluded in that one.