Check row planting of cotton. Mississippi Delta near Greenville, Mississippi, 1936. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Photo by Dorothea Lange

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A Loyal Son of the South

I grew up in a home in which guns were as familiar as Franklin Roosevelt—and considered by my father as indispensable as FDR to our welfare and security. I grew up in the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, hundreds of thousands of acres of unbroken flood plain stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg. It was protected from the Mississippi River’s annual rising tide by a fragile levee system that had given way in 1927 to a flood that covered the land for five months.

It was the South’s South, as the novelist Richard Ford has phrased it, and its white minority held passionately to the creed of white supremacy. Affecting the planter’s mantle, most of its white farmers had but recently wrestled the land from swamp and thick forest and yellow fever. Affluence for whites was rare; abject poverty for the blacks who toiled the land as serfs was endemic.

My father was as loyal a son of the South as the South ever produced, save for two qualities. He never stopped growing, and he would not march in lockstep in a white society that valued—no, demanded—conformity behind the segregationist creed.

Let me very clear here. My father was no liberal, as that term is and was understood on the upper West Side of Manhattan or in Harvard Yard. The title of a well-researched biography of his life was The Reconstruction of a Racist. It was a marketing ploy, that title, one that I resent to this day, but it embodied a home truth. The grandson of one of the founders of the post–Civil War Ku Klux Klan—or so family legend had it—he held to all the tenets of white supremacy throughout his high school and college years.

But he was afflicted with intelligence and nurtured in the democratic creed and the Christian faith, strictly Southern Presbyterian though it was. He could not square either one with the raw, brutal repression of the black man. No integrationist, he could not understand why the education and employment of black Mississippians was a threat to white civilization—or why those who were qualified to vote should not be allowed to vote.

Which is what he wrote, practically from the moment he founded his second daily newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1936, squarely nestled against the levee which had been ripped apart just nine years earlier. It is what he practiced in what chose to cover and how he covered it.

And it provoked rage and threats, advancing and retreating in response to what his tiny daily offered up to its readers from week to week. Thus the guns—an implicit bulwark against incessant midnight phone calls and direct encounters, frontier fashion, with men who loved to brawl and hated “nigger lovers”—that despicable label for the white nonconformist.

Dad went off to war, his National Guard unit called into service by Roosevelt thirteen months before Pearl Harbor. What he later experienced of the world’s nonwhite majority during the North African campaign and the conclusions he drew from the war against fascism focused his general unease into clearer distinctions about what was acceptable and unacceptable here at home. In a white-hot six months as he was leaving the service in 1945, he wrote a series of editorials that won him the Pulitzer Prize and earned the undying, unremitting enmity of the racist majority.

Which is where I came in. Back from a sprawling apartment complex built in suburban Maryland to house the huge wartime influx, I was reintroduced to my white grammar school peers as a boy with a Yankee accent, a weird name, and a communist, Jew-bought (Pulitzer was Jewish), “nigger lover” father.

It was an introduction I tried desperately to evade. Call me Will, I begged of my folks. Cool it with the editorials—please? Let me blend into the background. All to no avail. While most of my classmates eventually saw me in more complicated ways, there would always be the sneering bully boys who, learning at their parents’ knees and from their mouths, tried their best to drive me out of the schoolyard and then out of all the community haunts so dear to teenagers.

It didn’t work on Dad and, thanks to his example, it didn’t work on me. Not in the 1940s and not in the 1950s and 1960s, after the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and his editorial endorsement of its inevitability. Not ever during the sixteen-year segregationist boycott of the newspaper that only ended in 1969, when it had become inescapably clear that a lone newspaper editor in a smallish Delta town was not responsible for the black revolution and federal intervention.

Despite all those nights sitting outside with guns, waiting for the night riders to come, none ever did. A stray burning cross here, some smashed windows there, garbage on the lawn after my brother accidentally killed himself in 1964—these were the sum and substance of physical assault.

As for the attempt to destroy us economically, it failed. It did not succeed because Dad knew implicitly and I learned by osmosis that being out of step need not be fatal if you were simultaneously working and advocating for the common good. They couldn’t destroy him, they couldn’t destroy the paper, and they could not, later, destroy me because we always were of community, deeply involved in community, concerned about the community’s future. As the old joke went, we might be SOBs, but we were their SOBs, and we wrapped that town around us like a blanket against the storm. And they could not destroy his or, later, my will because of the other great lesson he taught and I learned. Unless you were a psychopath or a fool, being afraid in the face of unremitting threats and pressure was inevitable. But being afraid was not the end of the story. It was the beginning.

Bravery does not arise from ignorance of the consequences or reckless disregard of them. It is the definition of action taken in the wake of fear and in full awareness of the possible consequences. Seeking fearless heroes is a feckless enterprise. Mastering fear and soldiering on: That is bravery.

What of faith in all this? At core, it was and is everything. Dad was a fallen Presbyterian, grandson of a stern Calvinist who had presided over her huge brood’s table with rigorous rules and stern moral pronouncements. He was lured away to the spiritual lassitude (that’s a joke from a practicing Episcopalian) of the Episcopal Church by his young New Orleans bride. But whatever the sign on the church door, what he derived from faith was encapsulated in the two great commandments. For Dad, that was Christianity’s eternal guidance. The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.

But the organized church was and remained in cultural captivity for generations across the South. Preachers quoted scripture to defend segregation no less than they had defended slavery. Men stood at the church door not to welcome all to worship our common God but to repel those whose skin color was closer to that of the biblical Jesus than of theirs. The Social Gospel was reviled as Marxist. It was a shameful, sordid chapter in church history.

For those Christians, the sad joke applied. “But Daddy, you know what Jesus would say about segregation,” said the young woman home from college. “Yes,” Daddy replied, “but He would be wrong.”

The following will not be a long recital of war stories. I came back to our Delta newspaper from the Marines in 1959. I took over editorial control in 1962 and became editor in 1966. My father went through a long, tragic decline for the last ten years of his life, dying at age sixty-five in 1972. He never saw the total collapse of “our way of life,” of the braying jackasses of racist demagoguery. But he saw enough to know that while he had been out of step with his region for so long, it had finally been brought more nearly into step with the demands of America’s democratic creed and religious heritage. He may not have won, but his enemies—the enemies of human decency, of Christianity, of our democratic imperatives—had lost.

Thus my first enduring lesson as my father’s son and a Southerner of a certain time: If you really care about a place, a region, a nation, you refuse to accept its dark side or succumb to its conformist blandishments. At the same time, you never fall into the error of believing that it is somehow uniquely sinful in an otherwise sin-free land. To believe that is to ignore history.

Which leads to my second lesson as my father’s son. No political position or ideological game plan is entitled to unblinking acceptance. Truth is not the monopoly of any one people or person or region or nation. All of mankind being fallen, none can demand tribute as unassailable.

I have pretty much been an unblinking Democrat all my life—insofar as how I usually vote. But no Democratic president or Congress has deserved or received a free pass from Hodding Carter the journalist, younger or older, and in the early days of building a two-party system in the South, a number of Republican candidates received our editorial endorsement. Support for a two-party system arose from familiar roots. If the abuse of power in the name of revealed truth is unacceptable, it is equally true that political power unchecked by vigorous competition and regular defeat will be abused. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Always.

The magnificent political principles embodied in the founding documents and the moral imperatives embedded in the two great Testaments deserve our unblinking allegiance. But to march in lockstep behind any single person or faction, to confuse the nation with an individual or party, is to commit cardinal error. When we put on team jackets, we give up free will and individual conscience. Each of us has an inner drummer. Each of us must pay heed to its beat, even when it means marching counter to the great parades of the moment.

There were other derivative lessons I drew from my dad’s example—no matter how belatedly or reluctantly. Passionate belief is no guarantee of truth. Good intentions can mask vile behavior. There is more than one way to reach a desired objective.

Over the course of my career as a journalist, I wrote some 5,500 editorials. I wrote perhaps 500 columns, dozens of magazine articles of one kind or another, and a handful of books. When I wrote each of them, I thought I was right. When I wrote many of them, I was passionately certain that I was doing God’s work. I was no less passionately sure that those who disagreed were in fundamental error. I even thought that some of them represented, as the President George W. Bush once described our international enemy, nothing less than evil incarnate.

I have tried to apologize for that mindset repeatedly over the past decade or so. In retrospect and almost inevitably, many of those editorials were written in haste and published in error. Much of my moral fervor was so much hot air. Some of the positions against which I railed I later came to embrace—whether about the war in Vietnam or the war on poverty. And some of those I hailed as champions of the good and right were later revealed to be corrupt or weak or downright villainous. Error turned out to be a commodity that did not respect party labels.

It would have been far better for my readers and my sense of self if I had heeded my inner voice more closely, if in the grip of certainty I had not stampeded with a temporary majority or saluted a false banner.

Christian faith and democratic precept: Both are clear on this subject. No one has a monopoly on truth or virtue. Gott mit us is blasphemy. The point of democratic politics is to curb the inevitable reign of error that comes with fallible human judgment and power too long in the saddle, no matter whom it professes to serve.

It requires a different kind of bravery to acknowledge your own error and that of your ideological or political comrades in arms, and it is a bravery often no less difficult to muster than the physical kind. At end of day, after all, it means you are out of step—and being out of step is always painful.

That great chronicler of Southern politics and mores V. O. Key once wrote directly to the larger point: “Ruling groups have so inveterate a habit of being wrong that the health of a democratic order demands that they be challenged and constantly compelled to prove their case.” That is a precept that should hang in every newsroom, in every classroom, and in every home.

Talking about a seemingly distant past, about old preceptors and precepts, can be a way to avoid encountering the perplexing controversies of the present. Preachers in the pulpit and on the editorial page can thunder eloquently about sin, but miss the sinful realities of contemporary public life and of national policy. Old stories can substitute for hard choices in the here and now.

There are such choices aplenty for each of us to make today, but the glory of our current scene is that the fear that accompanied dissent in times gone by has itself gone with the wind. Editors in this country do not have to carry weapons as they go about their rounds, if anyone even bothers to notice what they are writing. I emptied the last pistol and put up the last rifle in my house in 1965.

There is no excuse today for any of us to turn away from speaking truth to power—or at least, we cannot legitimately claim to fear for our lives if we do so. That is a situation reserved for the incredibly brave men and women who continue to speak out in those dozens of countries where the state is God, where religious fascism calls down fatwahs against dissenters or corrupt, market-eager communist cadres silence freedom of speech wherever it shows above the Internet horizon.

There is no excuse in this land except the human one—I want to be accepted, to be loved, to be included, to be embraced by the many.

Which takes me back to Dad. I said he loved the South, and he did so, passionately. He loved this country, losing an eye in its service. He loved approbation.

But he put all at risk, repeatedly, because he loved something else even more. He loved what his country held out as its central promise and premise. He loved what his region could be if it would but pay heed to the core elements of the religion it embraced with such religiosity. And he taught his sons to try to feel the same way, and to try to act accordingly.

The fact of the matter is that our history, our common Father, demands no less. Ours is a living faith, or it is nothing. Ours must prove itself to be a democratic nation in the way it acts in the here and now, rather than through its monuments and little-noticed holidays, or it is a hollow husk.

To get it right almost invariably means breaking step with current fashion, current power, current certainties. It means marching to your own drummer. It means facing down the crowd.

And doing all that does not actually guarantee it will come right. Being sure you are right is not the same as being right. Bravery entails risking error in the pursuit of truth.

Nevertheless, the one guarantee that history offers and that I learned from Dad’s example is that if men and women give up on the effort, it will never come right. Never. Happily, we of the South in particular know that seemingly intractable situations can be redeemed. Saved by the grace and courage of the oppressed, we were given a chance to rise above our past and we have done so. We owe it to ourselves and them to confront our present age with the same prophetic judgment and the same fearful audacity. It takes bravery and faith, but it makes for a better world.

And that is what we were put on Earth to do.