Thursday, March 10, 2011

Down at the Cross

As southern states began to build a cultural defense of segregation (bolstered by manipulations of marriage rates, illegitimacy rates, and so on), African Americans responded, none more pointedly than James Baldwin, who wrote in 1962 that "white people cannot, in the generality be taken as models of how to live." On the contrary, posited Baldwin, "the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being." An indictment of the white South, Baldwin's intervention prompted an immediate response from James Jackson Kilpatrick, one of the architects of massive resistance. "Maybe Baldwin is right," proclaimed Kilpatrick in a 1963 essay, "maybe the white race is so steeped in greed, rapacity, and bloody war that the Negro properly should reject any thought of emulating its historic record." Yet, continued Kilpatrick, white middle-class "values" prevailed, warranting the South's new cultural crusade. While Carol Polsgrove does a nice job documenting Baldwin's intervention in the civil rights debate in her book Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, she occludes the segregationist response (perhaps presuming that segregationists could not also be intellectual). Yet, it was precisely the engagement of segregationists like Kilpatrick with black activist/intellectuals like Baldwin that marked the significance of culture in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, a struggle that remained active long after the collapse of massive resistance and decline of direct action protest.

Photo credit: MDCarchives