James McBride Dabbs: Southern Liberal
In 1969, John Egerton, then a member of the Southern Education Reporting Service staff, interviewed James McBride Dabbs for the Southern Regional Council's magazine New South. He described Dabbs as a "farmer, writer, former professor, country gentleman . . . at 72, an elder statesman in that vague and amorphous category labeled 'Southern liberal.' He was 60 when the Civil Rights Movement began, and in his own style he devoted himself to it. In magazine articles and speeches, in three books, in the presidency of the Southern Regional Council . . . he has spoken with candor and conviction about the South." The following is excerpted from that interview and is reprinted with permission.
I came late to my concern about racial injustice, but when it first began to be an issue in the '40s, I was in a position of having decided the issue for myself almost 10 years before, without knowing I'd decided it. When I was 37 [the year his wife died], I became rather suddenly aware of the fact that I was a human being, fundamentally like any other human being. Life had pretty well stripped me of most of what I valued, and I saw that I didn't have much left but my basic humanity. I wasn't thinking about race then — it was no deep concern of mine — but when the race issue did arrive, I didn't have to solve it for myself. As far as I was concerned, Negroes were human beings just like everybody else, and should have the same rights. I had enough common sense to know that they didn't have the same rights, and that something had to be done. . . .
I've never been an activist, never been attracted to demonstrations — it's just not my style. I see a very full place for the activist, but it's not my cup of tea. And it's held for me, this idea of an abiding force rather than a passionate feeling for justice which can burn brightly and then wear you out and you quit.
I came into the Civil Rights Movement partly because I was tired already. Segregation seemed to me not so much an evil thing as a useless, foolish thing. Life is tragic enough, hard enough, and segregation is an unnecessary burden. Why make life any more difficult? I was trying to get out of the toils and shackles of segregation. . . .
Southern liberals are really conservatives. Even the Negroes who go north keep coming back to their old homes. Why, in the name of common sense, do they, if this is such a hell of a place, as all the liberals say it is? Well, the point is that it isn't that kind of place. The system has been wrong and unjust, but somehow there have been virtues — many small perhaps, maybe some great — woven into the system. The Southern emphasis on decency, kindness, manners and so on was built partly because the Southerner didn't have the courage and imagination to wipe out the injustice, so he just did what he could to make it a little more human. He should have wiped out the injustice — we're still trying to do that — but he didn't do bad when he tried to make it human. He only did bad when he thought he had corrected the whole thing. . . .
I sympathize with the white segregationist in the situation he's in. In some ways he is a more pitiful figure than the Negro. Power has corrupted us, and the average Southern white racist is in an identity crisis. In the last 100 years he's learned two things: you can't keep the Yankees out, and you can't keep the Negroes down. Faulkner says the Southerner is a man who resists. Well, if he can't keep the Yankees out or the Negroes down, then who is he? He doesn't know. There's nothing left for him to identify himself with. A man in this emotional world is trapped. The white segregationist is more bound by the whole racial complex than the Negro, he's more frightened. At least the Negro knows what's got him — the white man's got him. But when the white man gets trouble, he doesn't know what's got him, and he's got himself all tied up. . . .
America is violent compared to Europe, and the South is violent compared to the rest of the nation. We built our life upon slavery, we built upon violence, no matter how much the gloved hand tried to smooth it over. You arrested people, you captured people and you held people down, finally by force. This society was built upon violence, and therefore when violence erupts in man-to-man relationships, across racial lines or within the races, I don't think this is surprising.
We developed a militia early because of slavery, and we built a myth of feudalism, and feudalism meant an army — the plantations were the castles. It is in these beginnings that violence is rooted, the key factor being the oppression of the Negro.
So the society was built upon violence. But, ironically, in spite of all our sins and errors, we still have the potentially saving grace of community. . . .
At root, it isn't blacks against whites, it is blacks with whites. If we can have the courage and imagination to accept this, then at least we'll be on the way to solving our problems. Finally we've got to admit that we're really one culture — divided now by unfair practices and discrimination, but basically one culture.
John Egerton is a Nashville-based freelance writer. His fifth book, Generations: An American Family, will be published in 1983 by the University Press of Kentucky, after being turned down by more than a dozen commercial publishers.(1983)
John Egerton’s latest book is Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries. (1980)
Tennessee free-lance writer John Egerton is teaching magazine journalism at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg this year. (1978)