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(This is the third in a series. The author spent the summer working for the Southern Courier, a civil-rights newspaper based in Montgomery, Alabama.)
For reasons that are sometimes hard to understand, every year some Northern tourists decide to come to the South. They don't come like the droves that swamp America's glamour spots, perhaps, but they do come. Every year, in its own modest way, the trickle of Northerners makes its way down. These Yankees are coming for a special purpose. Instead of looking for the simple amusement they could find in one of the North's Fun Cities, these pioneers are following a dream. They are following one of the two Great Southern Myths that the rest of the nation has concocted for its lower regions, and nearly all of their reaction to the South is determined before they leave, by their choice of which dream to follow.
America is a charitable nation, and in its search to find something nice to say about the South, the North has cooked up the first Southern Myth, the dream of Southern Hospitality. This is a pleasant vision, made of equal parts of mint julep, placid plantations, charming belles, and singing darkies. Revelled in long enough, it can impart a kind of Mark Twain air to any town south of Minneapolis.
The second Myth imparts a little less rosy glow to the South. This is the myth of the Redneck South, the South of Klan rallies, midnight lynchings, and torchlight processions. This dream has George Wallace as its star, not Thomas Jefferson. The supporting cast is made up of illiterate brutes and lumbering semi-humans who blindly destroy any thinking creature.
The groups that follow the two dreams are as different as the dreams themselves. Paunchy suburban couples from Hartford and Los Angeles come to see Southern Hospitality. They are displeased with the increasing velocity of their modern life; and the sight of calm acres make them smile. They gladly plunk down their admission fees to see the remnants of the old days in Natchez and Richmond. They stay at hotels with names like The Plantation House, and go home convinced that heaven must be a little like the South.
See the Dirt
Those who come to see Rednecks are a different breed. They are mainly kids, kids like the ones that protest and yell in the rest of the country. When they reach the South, they are in for a surprise. While their friends at home are protesting racism or complicity by one of the North's universities, the kids in the South are seeing racism stripped of its Northern subtleties. They have come to see the South's dirt, and the South rubs the dirt into their eyes. They ignore places like The Plantation House, concentrate on truck stops and corner gas stations. They leave the South convinced that it must be hell.
In between, there is a middle state. But it is not a comfortable pose of objectivity, or even a neutral state of apathy. Instead, it is the agonizing limbo of double consciousness, or realizing that both Southern Myths are real. In itself, the recognition of both sides is not surprising. What is shattering is finding that one Southern town, one store, or one drawling person can fit into both schemes, and that by artful manipulation, an observer can extract the puree of both dreams from any given situation.
The two dreams have always had a regional distribution in the South: Virginia and Tennessee seem to fit the Hospitality pattern well, while Alabama and Mississippi have to be the natural haunts of the lurking Klansmen. Southerners, of course, are aware of this. And those in the Deep South respond with an even more aggressive Southern Hospitality than the kind Virginia dispenses with quiet confidence. And so it is in Alabama and Mississippi that the Southern schizophrenia--the simultaneous existence of the two myths--is most apparent.
Signs at the borders hint at the difference. Coming down on US 427 from Nashville, the traveller passes a small sign saying "Leaving State of Tennessee." On the other side of the road is a mammoth white billboard. WELCOME TO HISTORIC ALABAMA, it says. ALABAMA, CRADLE OF THE CONFEDERACY AND HEART OF DIXIE WELCOMES YOU. At the bottom, in capital letters just as large as the rest, is LURLEEN WALLACE, GOVERNOR OF ALABAMA. It's hard to read LURLEEN, because right underneath it is GEORGE. The Alabama Highway Department has always been embarrassingly short of money, and it didn't want to bother painting out George's name. Albert Brewer, who has been Governor since Lurleen died last spring, hasn't made the welcome signs yet. To the right of Lurleen's name is a Confederate flag; to the left, an American one. Separate but equal.
The same blaring tone pervades the rest of the state's hospitality. Guides at the state capitol in Montgomery pointedly ask visitors, 'How do y'll lahk our state?" Correct answers may win handshakes with Governer Brewer ("he ain't a Wallace, but he's a good man") or small "Wallace in 68" buttons. In gas stations and greasy cafes all over the state, the same ritual goes one. "You from out of state? What y'll doin' round here? How you lahk it here?" The ritual has an important purpose: about half the people who come to Alabama are Southern Hospitality-seekers; the other half are rotten no-good trouble-making kids. Each half will get what it's looking for; the Alabamian is ready to glad-hand the decent folks who like the South and to womp on the no-good kids. But first there has to be the interrogation.
I went through the interrogation a hundred times this summer. Sometimes I won, when I was a faceless white man, up to no ill. If I spiced my conversation with, "You sure know how to keep things in order down here" (translation: you ain't lettin' them niggers run around crazy like in the North), or if I chortled at the constant "nigger" jokes in the gas stations, I won. If I took pictures of "No Colored" signs, stirred up trouble in the wrong side of town, or stayed with black families, I lost.
* * * *
I came to the South naive and expecting the worst. Like many of the Northern students who trooped down to Dixie last summer, I knew little about the South and less about its black people. Nevertheless, I was sure of my mission and relieved to find an area where right and wrong were so easy to tell apart. Instead of bothering with the increasingly-complex questions of government morality, I could merely go somewhere else and oppose Evil.
When I arrived in Alabama, however, I was surprised. It looked just like the real world. Montgomery and Birmingham could have been in any other state; and even the legendary Selma looked like any Midwest commercial town. There were no border guards to weed out Northerners who had come to meddle; thick-necked police didn't roam the strets with electric cattle prods; Negroes walked on the sidewalks and not in the gutters. There were more Wallace posters, of course, and the bookstands seemed notably short of books like Black Power. But if Alabama wasn't Cambridge or Haight-Ashbury, neither was it the South Africa I had imagined.
Lessons in Selma
My first lesson in Southern life came two weeks into the summer, in Selma. I had come to Selma to see Ted Dibble, a friend of mine from California who was spending the summer working for a welfare rights project in the Black Belt. On my way through Selma, I stopped at the Silver Moon Cafe to get some coffee.
The Silver Moon is not one of the South's classier joints. Its clientele consists of truck drivers and farmers, and the conversation runs to items like "Ah dam near runned over a nigger on the way into Mobile last week." I had come there to soak up the seamy atmosphere and tuck it away into my group of Southern Observations. So the men sat and talked, I sat and tucked, and eventually I left with no overt threats hanging over my head.
I soon learned about another side of the Silver Moon. When I was in the cafe, I was a clean-cut white boy. When my friend was there, he was a "white nigger." The students working for the project had incurred Selma's hatred as "them boys livin' with the niggers over on First Street," and now they were instantly recognizable on the streets.
Those who deny the Southern intelligence have never considered the amazing ability of a Southern town to recognize Outsiders. Student-age people are instantly suspect, especially if they are wearing the standard-issue Civil Rights Worker uniform (blue jeans, t-shirt) and have "hippie communist" hair (i.e., long enough so the scalp doesn't show). When one of these creatures appears in town, locals gather quickly. If he speaks in strange and foreign tongues, he becomes the target of a public drive to oust him. And if he commits the ultimate heresy of talking to or LIVIN' WITH NIGGERS, he is in for trouble.
My friends and his workers already had all the strikes against them in Selma. They were surly looking, Northern-sounding students. They were living with militant blacks. They made weekly visits to the county welfare office and threatened to bring down the might of the Federal Government unless welfare officials stopped discriminating against Negroes. Selma, of course, had responded, doing everything it could to make the White Niggers--and the black ones too--uncomfortable when they came to town. "Your parents and your grandparents are gonna be so ashamed," they would hiss at the workers. "Someday they's gonna find out you been livin' with niggers and making' trouble." Others were more direct. "You goddam white niggers," they would say. "Why dontcha just get out of here and leave decent folk alone."
After one visit to Selma, I was branded by association with my white nigger friends. After walking with six of them down the street, I found that I had joined the list of 'The hippies livin' with the niggers." I didn't find out about that, however, until I stupidly went in for a haircut to the Selma Barber Shop. I sat down, feeling like an innocuous white boy; I didn't realize what had happened until the barber had strapped me in and begun his lecture on the evils of liberalism, the North, and--most of all--long hair. In a way, I had to be grateful. For the rest of the summer, my semi-U.S. Marine appearance helped me avoid trouble.
But the events at the Silver Moon were more frightening than any of the routine humiliations on the street. Evenings in Selma can get pretty tedious, and on the night that I drove into town Ted had left for a walk. He brought along his camera, and had slyly decided to take pictures of some of Selma's seamier scenes. After episodes of photographing alleys, dual entrances at theaters, and "Motel for Colored" signs, Ted headed to the Silver Moon. About ten minutes after I had finished my greasy coffee there, Ted strolled by. Ted was usually pretty circumspect in his anti-redneck sabotage, but at the Silver Moon he lost all self-control for a minute. Looking through the grimy window, he saw a row of thick-bodied workers, laughing with the surly waitress. On the window, forming a kind of frame for the people, were Wallace and More Power for Police stickers. All in all, it made a perfect picture. So Ted took it, and stepped off quickly.
A few steps later, he realized his mistake. He discovered he was being followed, and as he rounded a bend and turned onto Selma's main street, four of the truckdrivers-in-the-window stepped out to greet him.
"You the guy been taking the pictures?" they asked. It is often hard to find a good-sounding answer in these situations; Ted prudently said nothing. "What you think you taking a picture of? Why you always takin' pickturs?" No reply.
"We're fixin' to kill us a nigger-lover," the man said. "Do you want it should be you we kill?"
Sensing that the interrogation was going nowhere, the Silver Mooners tried more direct action. One of them grabbed the offending camera and threw it onto the ground. A black leather boot rose and rammed itself down into the camera. A chorus of guttural laughs went up.
It was quickly followed by a new refrain. "We's so sick and tired of you damn nigger-lovers." The two in the back row kept that up, while the two in the front had another line. "Why donctha just get outa here and leave us alone. Why dontcha go away. Cause we're a fixin' to kill us a nigger-lover."
Everyone perked up at this suggestion, and all four joined in. "We're a fixing to kill us a nigger-lover. Let's kill a nigger-lover." This on the main street of Selma, a town of 30,000, at 6 o'clock on a Saturday evening.
After ten minutes, the chanting ring in Selma broke up; no one was hurt. But the incident was valuable as an indication. After it was over, as we sat together in the "house with the niggers," it began to seem comic, but the laughs were strained.
After Ted's adventure in Selma, I felt a little left out. If a civil rights worker's credo was: I am harrassed, therefore I exist, what was I doing? Why didn't any rednecks resent my presence and want to threaten me?
Ironically, my brushes with Southern terrorism came at the times when I was threatening Southern life the least. Nothing happened when I was working on a news story, trying to expose some flagrant abuse or discrimination. Perhaps it is too much to demand logic from the terrorists; but it made it even more chilling to find that violence often had no relation to the potential danger I posed.
Two weeks after visiting the Silver Moon, I left for a short swing through Mississippi. My job was routine and harmless; I was simply trying to find places that would sell the Courier. In practice, that meant finding black communities on the back roads, convincing a grocery store or a small black boy to sell the paper, and leaving sample copies to jolly up the local readers. Then I drove on.
My problems started in Meridian. Meridian is a sprawling, ugly town. The major reason for its existence seems to be that it graphically proves that towns need neither culture nor beauty to exist. Meridian also provides a showcase for some of the raunchiest elements of Southern culture, and for that, perhaps, it is worth-while.
I had come to Meridian to sleep. Not to make trouble, to stir up the blacks, or to yell at whites. Just to go to sleep. But I made a big mistake, I chose to sleep at the BF Young Hotel, run by the city's richest Negro. After I had paid for the room, I went out to see the city's sights. On my way, I stopped at King Phillip's service station for some gas.
A glance at King Phillips should have convinced me to leave. His belly was large and flapping, his accent was grating, and his office was wallpapered with pictures of George Wallace. I went into the office to get a Coke while the car was getting filled, and King spoke.
"Y'all's not from round here, are ya?" A quiet no. Where you from boy?" I'm from California sir. "What choo doin' down here in our part of the country, boy?" Just travelling through sir. "How you like our niggers, boy? You ain't one of them nigger lovers, are ya now?" An inaudible reply. "Well ah'm sure relieved to hear that. We've got so sick of all these hippies and nigger lovers that come down here. Just makes you want to bash 'em and clean the town up--just like killin' the rats so's decent people can have a place to live."
As King filled me in on his philosophy of life, his Negro attendant put the cap on my gas tank and closed the hood. King saw the chance for a little show. "Now you watch that nigger over there. Watch what he does."
"Hey nigger," he yelled out the door. "C'mon in here a minute." The man came. "Now you just stand here nigger. Look at this poor nigger. And all these nigger-lover bastards come down here and they want to hug these niggers and put 'em into white houses. I hate them damn nigger lovers. The only thing worse than a damn nigger is a goddamn bastard nigger-lover. Ought to be shot."
I thought a quick return to the hotel would be the safest plan, but I hadn't reckoned with redneck wilyness. As I neared the black part of Meridian, I realized that a pick-up truck was following me. Not thinking too well, I decided that the best thing to do would be to get out of town--I hadn't left anything in the hotel, and maybe my renunciation of BF Young would convince potential rednecks I was harmless.
Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die
That also turned out to be a bad decision. The pickup was not being subtle now, and it repeatedly rammed the rear bumper of my car. I saw in the mirror that Confederate flags flew from each of two radio antennas. In a speedless Volkswagen, I could never run away. So I stopped.
By the side of a Mississippi road the truck pulled up behind me. Three men were riding in the front, three in the back. They all jumped out, and I saw to my horror that they were Klansmen. Uniformed ones. This all seemed a little absurd; what had I really done? At the time, though, the "absurdity" was nudged out by a more persistent thought: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die. I sat still in the car as they gathered around.
"Get out." I got out. "Who are you." My name. "You the guy been makin' all the trouble in town?" Mumbling. Fright. "We hear you been stayin' with the niggers and stirrin' up trouble." No, sir. Now some action; two of the men began looking through my car. That wasn't good, since I had 500 copies of the Courier sitting on the back seat. They didn't know what the paper was, but they could tell they didn't like it.
"You got a damn nigger paper here." Terrified silence. "We're gettin' so sick of you nigger lovers." This was beginning to sound familiar. "Why don't you get out of our town--why don't you go back where you belong. We hate you so much. We want you to stay away. We don't want you and your white nigger friends comin' here." Just one line was missing from the ritual, and it came in a minute. "We're gettin' just about ready to kill us one of you nigger lovers. You think we should kill you?" No thank you. Two of them who were holding my arms took up the refrain. "We're gonna kill one of you guys. We're gonna kill."
The ceremony continued, rising in intensity. I tried to think of minor consolations--I wouldn't have to take junior generals at college; all my worries about studying and the draft would be over. But after everyone
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