James McBride Dabbs
James McBride Dabbs, South Carolinian, plantation owner, elder in the Presbyterian Church, president of the Southern Regional Council, and author of The Southern Heritage, talks to Wallace about the psychological burden of the Southerner, segregation, school integration, and the consequences of the Civil War.
Guest: James McBride Dabbs
WALLACE: This is James McBride Dabbs, President of the Southern Regional Council, which is a group of Southerners, both Negro and white, who are leading the fight against racial conflict in the South. A native of South Carolina, Mr. Dabbs says of the South: "The Negro is always with us as we are with him. There he is before our eyes, the symbol of our sin, the living reminder to our hearts that our words are wrong." We'll find out why he says that in a moment.
WALLACE: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. Tonight, we'll discuss race conflict in the United States as seen through the eyes of a Southerner, an unusual Southerner. He's James McBride Dabbs, a South Carolinian, a plantation owner, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and the President of the Southern Regional Council, as well as the author of a new book, The Southern Heritage, which is being hailed as one of the most penetrating books ever written about our race problem. Mr. Dabbs, you write in your book something very intriguing. You say, "We don't admit this, of course, but the fact remains that the Negro has been the dominant force in Southern life since 1865." And you say, "Though the problem has been out of sight, its shadow has remained, to darken our minds and dampen our spirits." What does that mean?
DABBS: That means, as I understand it, that we Southerners are democratic, along with the rest of the Americans, and when, following the Civil War and Reconstruction, we clamped segregation and disfranchisement down upon the Negro against his will -- we never asked him anything about it -- er... we had, and have, the sense of doing an undemocratic thing. We may have called it necessity or whatnot, but we know deep down this isn't the way Americans act, and therefore we have really a bad conscience about the matter. We have pressed this thing down. We don't take it into the open and face it. And therefore, it forever shapes and colors all of our opinions and actions.
WALLACE: The South does, what it does, and has a mass guilty conscience, in a sense, about it?
DABBS: Well, basically, I think that's true. I wouldn't emphasize "mass" too much in the guilty conscience.
WALLACE: What do you mean?
DABBS: Well, I mean to say, I don't know how much the average man, the man in the street, as we say, bothers about the right and wrong of social questions. He does what's done. But I do think that er... throughout its history, thoughtful Southerners in their quiet moments have unhesitatingly admitted that the slavery situation was wrong, and the segregation situation is wrong, but this is how we're doing the best we can.
WALLACE: What, as you understand it, is at the root of all of this racial conflict? Now, you hear various reasons given. Is... Are economic reasons basically at the root of racial conflict?
DABBS: Well, certainly economic reasons are part of the root. I don't think they are all of the root, but certainly they are a part of it. The er... Negro is discriminated against. The white man er... gets the better jobs, he gets the better positions, he gets advancement, while the Negro does not. He gets the training for the jobs. And Negroes in the South own very few white-collar jobs, for instance. Now, the whites are making, on the short term, something out of that. And they are afraid to lose this short-term gain. I think it's a long-term loss but probably it is, for some people a short-term gain. But that isn't the only reason. I think there's also a psychological or spiritual reason. I think that the South is handicapped seriously, because she's been on the defensive too long. She's done on the defensive, since 1830, with the first high tariff. She has lost her battles and therefore she faces everything with the feeling that deep down she is going to lose. Well, now, that means that she carries a chip on her shoulder, she becomes too aggressive, she wants to protect herself, unduly.
WALLACE: Uh-hum... As to the economic root of er... the racial conflict, though, you quote a Mississippi newspaper editor who said ironically that integration would be a grave threat. He said it this way: said, "We've lived for years off the labor of the Negro and now were just plain scared out of our wits. Some of us might have to go to work for a living. Some of us right now don't know where our next mint julep is coming from."
DABBS: Yes, that's P. D. East, and er... I would agree, in general, with that. As I say, I don't think that's the only cause, but certainly the economic factor is one of the chief factors.
WALLACE: Well, you say... you write yourself, you say "The middle and upper class whites, exploiting the poorer whites..." now, this is er... an interesting theory, "The middle and upper class whites, exploiting the poorer whites, have given them grounds for bitterness, and have exercised upon them, sufficient influence to turn that bitterness against the Negroes." Do you suggest that the wealthier whites have sometimes deliberately influenced the poorer whites to make the Negro a scapegoat for their own troubles?
DABBS: Well, how deliberately they have done it, I don't know, but I feel sure that er... much of the responsibility for the ills of the South rests with important Southern economic and political leaders. I can't, for a minute, go along with the theory that... which er... Southerners will tell you, ''Oh, we could advance. We could do this for the Negro. He could have this and that." But you've got to consider the poorer whites. They're bitter. You can't tell what they'll do. You'll have violence. Now, the theory that this lower strata can control society and tell the upper class what to do is nonsense to my mind. The lower class will do, by and large, what the people who own the mortgages and the land and the capital will tell them to do. You don't have to tell them outright.
WALLACE: And yet the threats of violence continually come from the so-called lower class whites, who are, in a sense, -- they're not 'egged on' that's not the form that it takes --but we are warned by the upper class whites that the lower class whites in the South might just be driven to violence if certain things happen.
DABBS: That's exactly the case. You don't have to egg them on if you've got people who, are dissatisfied, unhappy anyhow. -- Of course, the South is happier now than she ever was before. Economically, she's on a better fix than she was before. She's on the make. There isn't any question about that. -- Er... but there's still of plenty of people in the South who are on the lower edge, economically, and they're not satisfied the way things are and they're ready to be turned against somebody. And you just let the word go down to them "we need a little bit of rough talk here, we need a little bit of roughness here, but not too much." Well, you can get it.
WALLACE: In your book, “Southern Heritage,” you write that, "As far as Southern politicians are concerned, the race issue is central to their existence." Now, that's er... speaking of considerable cynicism on the part of Southern politicians, sir.
DABBS: Well, I am a little bit cynical about Southern politicians. I think far more of the average Southerner than I do of his politicians. In fact, I think one of the tragedies of the moment is, that er... there is much more good within the South than the politicians are making use of. They're making use of the ill, what it seems to me.
WALLACE: When Governor Almond of Virginia says there'll be no mixed schools in his state, when Governor Faubus resists integration. Are you suggesting that they don't really have a conviction about this, but that rather they are using this for pure political gain?
DABBS: A conviction, you mean that it's right or...?
DABBS: Oh, they may have some conviction it's right and they probably have some conviction it's wrong. But er... you consider, for instance, suppose there was no Negro question tomorrow morning. Suppose it had all been settled. What would the Southern politicians do? What would the Southern voters do? They'd line up then according to their interests, with the voters of Maine, some of them, with the voters of California, some of them, and the voters of Montana, others of them, and the Southern politicians would have to understand the national issues. As it is, all they have to do, if the going gets tough, is to drag in the race issue, and that solidifies all the white opinion.
WALLACE: In other words, what we call the "Solid South" is kept solid, you're saying, basically, because of the race issue?
DABBS: I surely think so. Because, now there was a time, of course, when the South was largely agrarian and the rest of the country was highly industrialistic. In that time, of course, the Southerner had more to defend. But the South now is becoming day by day more industrial, more and more like the rest of the country and er... I think the race issue is the basic thing that keeps the South solid.
WALLACE: Well, the fact that the South becomes more industrial, over a period of years now, will that not ameliorate the position of the Negro, because they're going to need Negro laborers' help?
DABBS: Well, it should, in the long run... in the long run, and Ashmore points that out, I believe it's Ashmore, that er... many Southerners working hard in the bring on industry into the South and fighting for segregation, are working at cross-purposes with themselves. This industry they bring in, in the long run, because machines have no use for racial differences, machines want trained men and that's all they want. And in the complicated industrial setup you can't afford to carry on all these distinctions, which you could carry on in the simple farm situation. And so, in the long run, undoubtedly, industrialization will be a body blow to segregation, but it may be a rather long run.
WALLACE: There's one other serious explanation advanced by Southerners against integration, besides the purely psychological and the purely economic. Arthur Krock, of The New York Times, said this, he said, "It goes to the heart of the controversy, this deep underlying issue." He says that Southern opposition to school integration, for instance, is based on the Southern fear that "interbreeding would be the result of propinquity in mixed schools of adolescents." What about that?
DABBS: Well, that's a question that always comes up, that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, which always enters the conversation. I think that many Southerners really are as sincere about their reaction there as they are sincere about many other things. The trouble is, of course, that they don't stop to analyze the matter at all. They probably are afraid of racial intermixture, but they don't consider the possibilities against any slightest chance. They really can't be too much against racial intermixture, because the history of the South and the presence of mulattos in the South prove that the Southerner is not deeply opposed to racial intermixture. It's a very, very complex question, but the best I can say is that the Southerner is defending mainly status - defending mainly status. He always asks, for instance, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?" He never says, "Would you want your son to marry a Negro?" The history behind that, of course, is that the child goes with the mother. And it doesn't make any difference how many white men mate with how many Negro women, because the white race remains pure white and according to definition, everybody else, goes with the Negro race, and the white maintains status. I think basically it's a defense of status but they probably think it's a defense of some divine law.
WALLACE: Why is status, as such, so important to Southerners?
DABBS: Well, er... I suppose it goes clear back through the whole history of slavery. Under slavery there were many very poor white people. There was a very poor class of white people in the South. There were many yeoman farmers who, of course, weren't poor. They were good honest farmers. But the one thing that all white men had was that they were not Negroes. That's the one thing that unites all white people in the South-- "I am not a Negro." Therefore, that has come to be, I think, a very important feeling in the white man of the South.
WALLACE: In your book, getting back to this intermixture possible, this intermarriage thing once again, you make an eloquent plea for Negroes and whites to regard themselves as "one," as human beings regardless of skin color. Now, if Negroes and whites do attend schools together, and eat and play together and learn that they are actually "one"- won't that inevitably break down the artificial barriers against interracial marriages?
DABBS: Oh, in the very, very long run it may.
WALLACE: Does that concern you, sir?
DABBS: It doesn't concern me. I've got enough troubles today. And I don't, I can't see the point of these people who are terribly concerned about what's going to happen to the race in five hundred years, when they can't do something about what's happening to them tomorrow. I think it's of course, sentimental, to say at least. But in the long run, well, of course the best scientific reading I can find is, that in the long run, as I say in my book, where races have met, they have mixed. You are up against a human fact and you and I can talk all we please about it, one way or the other, in the long run it won't make any difference. Personally, I think the run will be so long, the change will be so slow... it doesn't really matter.
WALLACE: Mr. Dabbs, you write, you speak here and you write in your book of a psychological burden, a weight on the soul so to speak, that all Southerners must bear because they realize the injustices heaped upon the Negro, in spite of their inability or unwillingness to deal with the problem. But at the same time, can an average Southerner, ever totally free himself from his emotional feelings about the Negro, simply by telling himself or having our Supreme Court telling him that segregation is wrong?
DABBS: No, you can't reason about the thing. Most Southerners won't reason about it at all. The only change, the only way I see for this fundamental psychological change to occur, is for the South to get new pictures and new images of what it wants, for instance a new picture of the Negro. The South carries in its mind now the Negro of 1865-76, the Reconstruction years, the person who had broken lose and who was running wild and who dominated legislatures and so forth and so on. That's the picture the South basically has in mind. That simply is not true. If we could see the Negro of 1958 and also as the reserved, resilient person he really is, he's got many fine characteristics. If we could see that, we would begin to appreciate him as a resource, not as a liability.
WALLACE: Well, you're an enlightened person by any standards, northern or southern, Mr. Dabbs. You've lived in your South most of your life. Are you yourself completely free from the age-old social patterns involving Negro and white in the South?
DABBS: Oh, personally I am, but if you ask me whether I invite anybody to my house and my meals anytime, no I don't. I've got a sense of what the community feels. And I'll unhesitatingly invite anybody there if I think it's worthwhile. But I'm perfectly aware of what I'm doing when I do it. Now, personally I've got no feeling about the thing. I mean, people are equal so far as I'm concerned.
WALLACE: How are you regarded in the South? Er... are you "the strange fellow who lives down at the end of the lane?"
DABBS: Well, I don't know myself, er... perhaps I belong to the aristocracy of the damn fools in the South. That's one way of putting it. Er... a Citizen' s Council... er... man of er... my native town said "Oh, why bother with Dabbs, everybody knows he's a damn fool", so if you rise to that rank, they quit bothering you. I don't, er... there are other stories which indicate they aren't quite sure whether I'm a damn fool or not, and so long as I can keep them guessing.. Why you see this... er... I mean, here we are radically different, if I'm not a damn fool, maybe he is.
WALLACE: In your writing, you're pretty optimistic. As a matter of fact, you seem to look at the South and the future of the races in the South... er... in an extraordinarily optimistic fashion. Because of what seems to be your faith in the eventual intelligence and good will of the majority of white Southerners, you speak of their dignity and their hospitality and understanding of how to live. Is that fairly accurate?
DABBS: That's right.
WALLACE: Do you have so much faith that you think that school integration would be, could be achieved without court orders and federal troops, without forcing them to accept it?
DABBS: Well, now, not without court orders. Federal troops is something else. The South likes to say "We do these things because of our good will." And a leading Southern, politician said some years ago: "We've got to provide for the Negro, "even if we provide equal but separate facilities, we've got to provide for the Negro because it's just" and then he said "because we have to". He made the same speech about six months ago, and he said, "We have provided for the Negro" --South Carolina put on a three percent sales tax-- "We have provided for the Negro, because it was just". And he'd forgotten all about the fact that he's said "we had to". So, that may be human nature -certainly Southern - we move when we're pressed and we say that's a fine thing to do. The truth of the matter is, our conscience -we're not different from anybody else, the conscience begins to work when you put enough pressure around it. Because is not going to work entirely by itself.
WALLACE: All right, we come to this immediate issue then... the use of federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court's idea of justice, and perhaps even your personal idea of justice, on millions of Southerners. As an American, do you find nothing at all repugnant, in seeing armed troops carry out policies against the will of so many millions of United States citizens?
DABBS: Well, now, against the will of so many millions, er... actually the troops in Little Rock were responding to a particular situation and who knows what the will of the millions, and they may be making all kinds of shouting statements - who knows what their basic will is?
WALLACE: Well, certainly they've returned Governor Faubus to er... office by an overwhelming majority, as the result of his actions in Little Rock just a year ago. So, there were millions involved there, either in actual voting or in sympathy I think you'll agree.
DABBS: There were millions involved there, yes, that's true. I don't feel as strongly as many Southerners do about the use of troops. I think that, the national government got itself maneuvered into a bad situation and then, reacted too violent on the spur of the moment.I think possibly they could have avoided using the troops. But, given the days of September, after Governor Faubus had called out his troops to prevent the execution of the laws, then er... the federal government's got to use some form of force, if necessary, troops, to ensure the passage of the laws. But the main trouble in the South here, is the South stood this thinking in the Constitutional Federation of Madison and the founders of this country. The South has never accepted the fact that we fought the Civil War and lost it. And the 14th Amendment was written. And I am a citizen not only of South Carolina but of the United States.
WALLACE: How do you account for that? You've said that before we went on the air to me, you said, "The South has really never been willing to face up to the fact that it had lost the Civil War."
DABBS: I don't know how to account for it. But I do think it's a fact. It's one of the deepest facts in Southern psychology, that we lost a war and we admitted that slavery was wrong, but we didn't admit that discrimination was wrong. We didn't admit that any Negro could become a citizen, don't you see? We simply dropped our lines back a little bit further and re... and instated segregation in place of slavery. Now, why we did it, whether if under more force we'd have done differently, I don't know, but I do feel sure of this: that er...we have... not only failed in the Civil War but have failed to understand what the Civil War meant. A great defeat like the Civil War is one of the greatest assets a people could have.
WALLACE: How so?
DABBS: Well, consider the edge I've got on you, if you're a Northerner. You're living in the same history you began in. Your life started here three or four hundred years ago in this area, and what you started to do then, you're still doing and succeeding in. The South started on another track, went a long way, built up some kind of a civilization -- I think great in many ways, and failed absolutely, and then we had to start over again. Now, I can become conscious of my history because a large part of it is different. I can look back and see "There was that and there is this". Now if I can put these two things together, if I can understand what happened and relate the present to the pre-Civil War period, the present civilization of the South to the past, there is a richness possible to my outlook on life that simply is not possible to yours. But until I do it --and the South usually hasn't done it-- there's a trauma there, a traumatic experience cutting right straight across the life of the South, and we don't know what to do with it.
WALLACE: Let's move to something that happened this week at er... President Eisenhower's press conference. He said, I believe that, he felt that school integration in the South should go slower than it has been going. Do you think that integration has been going too fast, as a Southerner?
DABBS: I don't think integration is going too fast. There is no integration in the so-called hard-core states of the South. I can't, I wouldn't take too strong a stand on that. I don't care particularly how fast or slow it goes, provided we're going somewhere. My basic criticism of the South there is that the South says she wants time. What does she want time for? The indications are she wants time to build up the defenses so she won't have to do anything at all. If she indicated any real desire to make a change, I should say certainly, she should have time. But if she's going to put off Little Rock for two and a half years, just getting Faubus out, is not going to solve the problem. The people are still there, and you're going to fight the same thing over.
WALLACE: Do you believe that, there are sincere, well-intentioned, intelligent people in the South who believe that they can actually stop the coming of integration and really feel they can roll back, reverse the Supreme Court decision?
DABBS: I think they're sincere, from my point of view, I can't see they're very intelligent. Because it seems to me that er... there too many world forces are moving. The South may be looking back to 1776.The federal troops withdrew from the South in 1776-77 and left the South to handle the racial problem as it saw fit and we know what happened. The South may still hope that the union, the nation, now will back down and leave the South to do what it wishes. The nation can't back down. What difference did the racial issue make to the world, to the nation in the world, in 1776? - None. What difference does it make now? It's the key issue, our relation to the colored peoples of the world. Fundamental... I think is, I mean really -- it's more fundamental than communism and democracy.
WALLACE: More fundamental than...?
DABBS: ...Than communism and democracy. This is a bigger issue. This issue will be disturbing the world longer than the Democratic-communistic issue. Now the nation cannot withdraw and let the South do what it wishes.
WALLACE: Well, then we come to President Eisenhower once again. He has said that he will enforce the Supreme Court's decision with troops if necessary. But he has consistently refused to commit himself about integration. He consistently refused to say, whether he personally approves of a law which permits Negro children to sit next to white children in classrooms. What is your reaction to the President's refusal to take a public stand on an issue of this importance?
DABBS: Well, in the first place, I'm very grateful that the President, about a week ago, made it clear, that the power of the nation was behind the Federal Courts. I'm very glad of that. I do regret the fact that the President doesn't see fit to take a moral lead in this matter. We have had Presidents who would have taken the lead on one side or the other. Franklin Roosevelt would have done it. Woodrow Wilson would have done it. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, too, had the theory that the President could make the office about what he pleased. He was elected, its true, by one party, but he becomes the leader of the nation. Who else is the leader except the President? And the President has tremendous moral influence which it seems to me should be used. Now, I don't er... and in this issue -- this is a democratic matter -- I don't see how he can see otherwise,-- this is a movement of democracy -- and personally, I wish the President would take a stand on the moral issue.
WALLACE: Mr. Dabbs, who are the men in the South, the leaders in the South? You've expressed yourself rather wryly about certain Southern politicians up to now, who are the men in the South who are the leaders whom you respect and who can lead the South to a better understanding of our racial problem?
DABBS: Well, the men I think of are the men I am more or less associated with in the Southern Regional Council. I think of both Negroes and whites. There's President Clement of Atlanta University and Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, there's Hodding Carter, Ashmore, both anathema, of course, in certain parts of the South now, there's John Wheeler, a banker, of North Carolina, Paul Green, dramatist, of North Carolina, nationally known.
WALLACE: Martin Luther King?
DABBS: Martin Luther King, of course, one of the outstanding figures of the South, the Montgomery episode is absolutely unprecedented.
WALLACE: Let me ask you one final question. What do you think about Orval Faubus?
DABBS: Well, I said in September, 1957, when this mess was developing for the first time... I said, er... "I think Faubus is playing by ear and he hasn't a very good ear." I know, of course, he figured out Arkansas correctly. But I still think he hasn't too good an ear for the whole business.
WALLACE: Time will tell. James McBride Dabbs, I surely thank you for coming here from Sumter, South Carolina, to spend this half hour with us.I think it may be fitting to quote here from James Dabbs' book The Southern Heritage, in which he, a Southerner, hurls a challenge to his fellows. He writes, "If Southerners could rise to the level of loving passionately not only their hills and valleys, but also the rich and varied configuration of people, black and white, who dwell therein, we should not only solve our greatest problem, but our age would become a challenge to generations as yet unborn." Next week, we will discuss the social and economic nature of the free society, with a distinguished philosopher who says that we in the United States are "advancing toward a Socialist State", who says that "never before has a society marched more joyously into an ambush." You see him here. He's Mortimer Adler, former Professor of Law Philosophy at the University of Chicago; now President of the Institute for Philosophical Research. If want to hear Dr. Adler's criticisms of the social philosophies of certain labor unions, big business and of both our political parties, and why he says that only a capitalist revolution can save America from collectivism," we'll go after that story next week. Till then, Mike Wallace. Good night.