Can Civilities Co-Exist With Civil Rights Today?
Sunday, April 14, 1996
Voices from the past are calling out with questions Greensboro still has to face.
How has the black struggle for freedom fared in Greensboro?
The other day I received a letter from a committee called "Other Voices" of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce seeking my reminiscences on that subject over the last 45 years.
The committee had in mind bringing together "30 business and community leaders in a forum of learning and dialogue that enhances understanding in the dynamics of racism, sexism and other 'isms' in our community."
That's a mouthful. But the committee offered some interesting ideas. It had in mind a videotape focused on the central theme of Duke Professor William Chafe's fine book published in 1980, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro and the Black Struggle for Freedom.
Professor Chafe's theme is both complex and paradoxical. As the committee put it, "In studying Greensboro's response to the Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954 and its response to black demands for equality, Chafe identified a 'progressive myth' which he believed typified North Carolina and its major cities."
What was that myth?
Chafe thought that while the white leadership of these communities claimed to be progressive, they "failed to make substantive change in the face of clear evidence of racial injustice and demands for equality and inclusion."
He defined "civility" as "a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action."
This, of course, is an enormously complicated subject. So I went back to my dog-eared copy of Chafe's book to see if my ideas on this subject had changed much over the last four decades.
I guess I'd have to say: They have, and they haven't.
They have - because racial prejudice, despite progress, remains as great "an American dilemma" today as Gunnar Myrdal proclaimed it to be over half a century ago, among whites as well as blacks.
As a young newspaperman arriving in Greensboro shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decisions of 1954-55, I knew something needed to be changed.
In a practice common in those pre-Watergate days, I met with media and school officials both here and in Winston-Salem and Charlotte.We sought to determine how North Carolina, unlike most of the rest of the South, could avoid "massive resistance" to the high court's decisions. Initially, Greensboro's Board of Education courageously endorsed going along with the Brown decision. Gov. Luther Hodges worked diligently to defeat his 1956 gubernatorial opponent, the rabidly segregationist Wake Forest school master I. Beverly Lake Sr.
Hodges devised what became the "Pearsall Plan." That plan balanced two highly controversial ideas: It allowed school patrons at local levels to determine whether to initiate the gradual merging of white and black schools; but it also established so-called "safety valves" for regions unwilling to start the process.
In retrospect this might seem a meager response to the high court's order. But at the time the alternative was "massive resistance." It was exploding in such states as Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama - governors standing at the schoolhouse doors in defiance of U.S. marshals.
North Carolina's moderate conservative leadership thought it could find a better way. In truth, some leaders used the Pearsall Plan as a device for doing little or nothing. But others, including this newspaper, viewed it as a useful beginning toward compliance and change.
Maybe it wasn't enough, as author Chafe reminds us in hindsight. It took the Greensboro schools a long, drawn-out, sometimes stormy 17 years to complete the process of desegregation. In the end it was accomplished gracefully, but in the interim it tore apart the educational and political fabric of the community, leaving gaps still hard to mend.
So would it have been better to crack eggs? Would it have been better to seek immediate enforcement of the law and generate defiance and strife? As Gov. Hodges - and even the far more liberal Terry Sanford - recognized: With more massive desegregation policies, Professor Lake could have won the governorship and made the defiance even more protracted.
As it was, die-hard segregationists (including the Ku Klux Klan) made it hot for schools and newspapers. They burned crosses in front yards and smashed windows when one courageous young black girl broke the color line at Gillespie Park School in 1957.
Should there have been more hard-nosed integration orders and fewer civilities? Author Chafe says North Carolina's "progressive myth" made change harder to achieve.
I don't agree. I think the school board's efforts in 1954 to comply with the new law of the land reflected a healthy attitude of moderation among Greensboro's leadership. It helped reinforce the backbone of those four black students who boldly sat at the Woolworth lunch counter six years later.
The sanctuary of Greensboro's five college campuses played a valuable role in the unfolding struggle. I also believe the racial tolerance of leaders like Burlington Industries' J. Spencer Love and Cone Mills' Caesar Cone helped pave the way for more black freedom and better communication.
But Chafe had a point. Good manners can sometimes be an unsatisfactory substitute for substantial action toward correcting injustices. Today, however, when cynicism and rowdiness run rampant, I find it hard to criticize those who thought there could be civilities and civil rights.
William D. Snider is former editor of the News & Record.