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What Could Never Change, Changed

May 2024
1min read

My brush with history was growing up in the South at the time of the civil rights movement. It was history as a force that I experienced, not history as a person or an event. I had absolutely no contact with any of the public events of the movement. I wasn’t even aware at the time that there were sit-ins and marches, and the organized white resistance of the Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan was known in my world (the doctor-lawyer-businessman class in a big Southern city) only through vague rumors. I don’t know how I knew that some kind of sweeping change in race relations was under consideration, mostly by mysterious outsiders; I just knew it, and so did all my friends.

The issue of integration was more or less continually under discussion throughout my childhood. Almost everybody I knew was against it. The spectrum of whites that I was exposed to ran from hard men who stockpiled guns to protect themselves from the organized black revolt they knew was coming, to purveyors of learned historical and biblical proofs of black inferiority, to people who weren’t haters but simply found the idea of contact on equal ground between the races unimaginable, at once comic and horrifying, to genteel, burdened paternalists, to a handful of (usually Northern-born) outright integrationists, like my mother.

Then, quite suddenly, the prevailing white attitude changed. It happened later than you’d expect, around 1969 or 1970. All prejudice certainly did not disappear, but, in an instant it seemed, nobody believed in a legally enshrined racial caste system anymore. The lasting effect of this on me, and on other Southern white liberals, was to make us optimistic about human nature; it’s just the opposite of the way that people who grew up in Europe in the thirties look at the world. What could never change, because it was the rock on which a whole society rested, did change. I’ll always believe the same could happen with other deeply ingrained wrongs.

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