The Magazine

Sword and Pen

Literary culture after the Civil War

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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But the legacy of racial discrimination had appeared more incongruous than ever, given that the United States had recently fought what one of its military leaders designated a “crusade” for human rights. Cobb traces the ferment that began in the federal courts (and in Harry Truman’s executive order ending racial discrimination in the armed forces). Those initiatives challenged institutional barriers​​—​​segregation in education and public accommodations​​—​​and constituted the most immediate aspect of postwar change. The South, as the author shows, was otherwise moving toward national statistical norms: farms dwindling, cities burgeoning, and Southerners as interested as Yankees in the almighty dollar.

Cobb’s account of the tortured dismantling of racial discrimination in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s is a tale both heroic and disheartening, and even now gradually fading from historical consciousness. The author writes with an appropriate exasperation of the often violent and bizarre measures of obstruction and resistance​​—​​including the shameless subversion of law and order in parts of the Deep South, and determined passive resistance elsewhere. Cobb’s admiring readers may wish, at times, that he had burned a few note cards on industrialization, urbanization, and other social trends, and written with the intuitive flair he displays in his fond and infectious treatment of Southern music and Southern fiction. They are, in some ways, the best pages of the book, as they are the best products of the South since World War II.

Cobb is among the loving critics (as distinct from a surplus of uncritical lovers) of the South, as Southern in his own way as Vann Woodward was. In a final chapter, “Why the United States Needs the South,” he explores the familiar hypocrisies of American hubris and echoes Woodward’s memorable formulations regarding the truly distinctive Southern sensibility. What lingers over the Southern scene, even now, is an assertive strain of Southern-fried religiosity, too frequently invoked to justify inhumane attitudes on race and sexuality. Evidently, the Bible Belt still reads its Bible. The question, as ever, is whether it reads it well.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure


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