Monday, March 7, 2011

The Old Illegitimacy

In his 1956 book Segregation: The Inner Conflict Robert Penn Warren engaged in a soul-searching look at the Deep South, concluding that integration would take time, and that whites could not simply be lumped into a single stereotypical category of "segregationist." The book gained generally positive reviews, save from activists who criticized it for conveying a typically moderate position, one that hinged not on enforcing Brown but gradualism, delay, and "mutual education." Yet, Warren picks up interesting details nonetheless, including glimpses of segregationist thinking that have so far been obscured by studies of massive resistance. For example, Warren interviewed a white segregationist who claimed that the region should "[a]bolish common law marriage" to make African Americans "learn morals." As if on cue, Mississippi did just that, hoping to artificially exaggerate black illegitimacy rates. The plan had at least two goals: 1) to aid in the assignment of students to schools based not on color but "poor moral background," a plan endorsed by Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman in 1955; and 2) to bolster a larger argument that emerged across the South in the 1950s, namely that the races possessed different cultures and could not be integrated until those cultures were equalized. This claim spurred a wave of bizarre moral regulations, ranging from adoption, to marriage, to character requirements, many of which tried to mask the recurrence of white out-of-wedlock births. While I cover some of this story in my book, I go into more depth in a new article, "A Horrible Fascination: Sex, Segregation, and the Lost Politics of Obscenity," showing how segregationists sought to use moral regulations generally, including restrictions on pornography, to build a national coalition against further Supreme Court intervention in state affairs. Yet, questions remain about the link between such discourses and current-day conditions, particularly in the context of same-sex couples who have children; a topic that promises to be the focus of an upcoming conference at American University's Washington College of Law entitled "The New Illegitimacy: Revisiting Why Parentage Should not Depend on Marriage." Scheduled for March 26, it promises to revivify the topic.

Photo credit: ephemera