“Rural areas are shrinking, accents are becoming less distinct, and Southerners are being tamed,” writes Pete Daniels of the changes which have transformed the agrarian nation of Davis and Lee into the modern South. Daniels may have his feet planted firmly in earthy Southern history, but there has not been a concerted demand by creationists that six-day creation be presented as fact: The Moral Majority has not foreclosed debate in America; there has not been a “heavy-handed purge” by those Southern Baptists who seek to hold organizational representatives accountable to their sponsoring constituency; the Bible does not warn against either Jerry Falwell or Jesse Helms as “pitfalls along the road to righteousness”; and neither Falwell nor Oral Roberts established universities with purpose to “restrict curriculums and content.”
Doubtless, as Flannery O’Connor’s Haze Motes testifies, fundamentalist religion can warp and destroy. And it may be, as Daniels asserts, that a “surprising percentage of those who watch . . . evangelists . . . are the same people who watch wrestling and soap-operas, go to stock-car races, cockfights, and rock ‘n’ roll concerts,” but his claim that “many believers patronize only Christian owned businesses” (as sacrosanct a civil rights mobilization as that may be in the right hands) is a development of which few other than Daniels are aware. Daniels is doubtless as sincere as Baptist preachers (as generic types) who do not hold prevarication on religious and/or pecuniary matters as dishonest, but his claim that the “religious right” represents a “retrenchment from the modern world” which “leapfrogs from the present to biblical times,” along with his contention that fundamentalists seek “to build a heaven on earth,” leaves one wondering if Daniels is serious. It may be that the God of the Fundamentalists has not advanced commensurately with social science enlightenment or that Fundamentalists have “cut themselves off from the flow of history” by not networking or goose-stepping with New Age awareness; however, the Utopian quest is so alien to the dispensational eschatology generally endorsed by fundamentalist Christendom that such a claim as Daniels’ is as divorced from reality as a Robert McNamara pronouncement on Vietnam.
It is Ham’s shadow which defines Daniels’ vision—from the stompin’ and screamin’ over the presence of too many whites at Fisk University (a major training site for black physicians) in the 1920’s, to tantrums at not being able to mix with whites in classrooms and restrooms in the 1950’s and 60’s. Standing at the Crossroads is so doused with negrophobia that it exudes more grease than a hamburger from a drive-in movie. Even I’ll Take My Stand, an intransigent statement against the agribusiness preemption of the human dimension and the uncritical endorsement of alleged progress, is regarded as almost insignificant because it was restricted to primary questions.
Daniels is still livid that the North Carolina electorate rejected Frank Graham, who had been annointed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Purveyors of the liberal faith seem to live in fear of potential cleansing by the indigenous electorate. Representatives of original sin, such as Jesse Helms (who, from Daniels’ account, is the epitome of evil), still cast disreputable shadows. In the South of the new status quo. Citizen’s Council members are no longer welcomed speakers at civic club luncheons, but even so, evil survives in code words (like “cuts”) and political alignments with media evangelists. Daniels finds it convenient not to recognize the difference between state enfranchisement of religion and the refusal of persons with a biblically derived life-and-world view to disregard that consciousness in their evaluation of public issues.
Nevertheless, Standing at the Crossroads should not simply be dismissed. While Daniels offers unswerving orthodoxy, he does so with admirable literary skill, and often with telling insight. Standing at the Crossroads is in some ways a warm and sensitive account of the changes by which Southland has been defined in this century. The anecdotes often poignantly capture the oppression of blacks, sharecroppers, debtors, and mill hands who stood unprotected against the landlords, furnish merchants, and agents of civil authority.
The bibliographical essays accompanying each chapter are excellent, as are the text surveys of Southern literature. The account of liberalism in action via New Deal agricultural policy is an apologetic masterpiece. Daniels calls this episode of applied liberalism “The Conservative Revolution.” Even he is able to recognize that the artificial raising of agricultural prices and the driving of yeoman operators off the land was a method of diverting money, power, and privilege to overprivileged agri-businessmen, banks, and mortgage and life insurance companies.
Times, people, places, and land have changed. No longer is life so attuned to the rhythm of the seasons. It is a different time from the days when, as late as the early 1960’s, most of organized society in the South—politics, economics, education—held that a sizable component of the citizenry should sit in the back. The dynamics of the second deconstruction—the mass stupidities whereby Dr. King’s most faithful allies in the South were his avowed opponents and provided the civil rights movement with the violence its legislative policy required—are sympathetically depicted.
Norms of racial segregation have atrophied along with the system of government that harbored pluralism. Schools, restaurants, jobs are integrated. Blacks, sanctioned by public opinion and legal favor, are becoming increasingly racist. Even so, rural blacks and whites still know each other and mix at work and the crossroads stores. Daniels thinks it ironic that “it has been rural Southerners who have most easily adjusted to the changing way of life.” Perhaps he does not realize that, in the rural South, the communal identification which transcends race still exists in spite of change. Some things do remain as they ever were. But, as Daniels puts it, “Southerners are being tamed.” To that extent, the prospects for retention of this communal sympathy may not be good.
[Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century, by Pete Daniels (New York: Hill & Wang) $7.95]
Leave a Reply