The changing face of southern race relations in the twentieth century has been the object of intense scrutiny. Many who have studied the subject have emphasized the significance of external forces brought to bear upon the region. National censure, which reached a fever pitch during the early days of the civil rights movement, and a federal government that became more sympathetic to the needs of blacks are frequently cited as the principal forces behind improved racial harmony in the South. David R. Goldfield certainly does not discount these influences, but in his important and fascinating new book he maintains that the South has changed as much from within as it has been altered by outside intervention.
Goldfield stresses the role that inherent ironies in southern culture and history played in shaping the region—a significant irony being the coexistence in time and place of two races, white and black, that shared the same land, religion, and history, and yet had no true understanding of each other. In Black, White, and Southern, he shows how the struggles of black southerners to lift the barriers that had historically separated them from their white counterparts not only brought about the demise of white supremacy but did so without destroying the South’s unique culture. Indeed, it is Goldfield’s contention that the civil rights crusade has strengthened the South’s cultural heritage, making it possible for black southerners to embrace their region unfettered by fear or frustration and for whites to leave behind decades of guilt and condemnation.
In support of his analysis Goldfield presents a sweeping examination of the evolution of southern race relations over the past fifty years. He shows that in the 1940s an “etiquette of race” perpetuated segregation even after legislation had precluded “legalized” racism. He also provides moving accounts of the major moments of the civil rights era—the Montgomery bus boycott, the march on Selma, the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And he looks at more recent efforts by blacks to achieve aconomic and class parity.
This compelling history of the crusade for black equality is in the end the story of the South itself and of the powerful forces of redemption that Goldfield attests are still working to shape the future of the region.
David Goldfield is Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the author and editor of sixteen books on the American South, most recently America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, and serves as editor of the LSU Press series Making the Modern South.
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