A fleeting moment of promise

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 08:57 AM

“In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal”
By H. Brandt Ayers (New South Books, 267 pages, $29.95)

One day in 1969, a letter arrived in Brandt Ayers’ newspaper office in small-town Alabama from a man he’d never heard of.  Dr. Tom Naylor, a Duke University economics professor, had an invitation for him.
After a decade and half of civil rights strife following the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, with the states of the old Confederacy in turmoil as they coped with and fought the new order, Naylor and a few others had a vision of a New South. Soon after, Ayers joined Naylor and other young, progressive Southerners in Chapel Hill at a UNC conference center.  There was born the Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar Society, named after a Mississippi secessionist who appealed for reconciliation after the Civil War.
This, in Ayers’ telling, was a key moment in the New South movement that included forward looking North Carolinians like Terry Sanford and Luther Hodges and aimed to transform the states of the Confederacy into states of modern economic development and harmony.,
To a large extent, in Ayers’ view, the effort failed; the deeply conservative, largely re-segregated Deep South of today was not what these people envisioned in their heyday of the 1970s. But Ayers’ memoir is less about these days than about those, the years when so much seemed possible after legal segregation had been beaten.
Ayers was – and is – publisher of the Anniston Star in Alabama. After college, he reported on politics from Raleigh and Washington, then returned to his home state, where the Ku Klux Klan worked openly and where Gov. George Wallace was still campaigning on blatant racism, in stark contrast to the culture of the progressive think tank.
His new friends pushed for ways to move past the strife and into a South that would be competitive with the rest of the country.
“What they said,” Ayers writes, “what they stood for, was nothing less than the death of one civilization and the birth of another,” with elected leaders “saying plainly that the South must turn away from racial rhetoric and begin the serious business of problem-solving.”
Ayers devotes considerable time enviously contrasting the accomplishments of North Carolinians (Sanford and the UNC System, Hodges and the Research Triangle) with what was happening in his Wallace-era Alabama. And as the civil rights movement took hold, Ayers writes, they were “bookends of statesmanship on either side of George Wallace’s energetic manipulation of popular anxiety and indignation.”
Overall, however, he paints a picture of a South that hasn’t reached the potential these people saw four decades ago.  He has several explanations:
-- The urgency of the civil rights days is gone, for both white community business leaders who saw moderation as a practical necessity and black leaders filled with the passion for the right to vote and for access to public accommodations.   
-- The appeal of today’s leave-us-alone southern politics is in part a result of the scorn shown the South by the rest of the country, a feeling that we’re the subject of “amused condescension,” the butt of redneck jokes. 
-- The failure to achieve an integrated society is the result of too much, too fast, in large part court-imposed remedies, which led to the reality of white flight.
Ayers struggles to explain the contradictions about the South and its people, including those in his own mind.  He writes that he loves the region, he pays tribute to its everyday working people, he defends such symbols as the Confederate flag as necessary pieces of an inerasable history.  But he sees  little of the social progress he and others envisioned, and deplores the dominant southern politics of today – a Republican Party he sees as a direct descendent of  Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat presidential campaign, the White Citizens Councils that sprung up to fight the civil rights movement, and Wallace.   
Ayers leaves no doubt about his political leanings, but this is not a book about the hot partisan issues of today – immigration and gay rights, health care and the Tea Party.  This is about the politics of another time, and their successes and failures.
It’s about the brief promise of a more united United States.
“But that would not last,” Ayers writes.  “In time we would return to our natural home, the parochial South, living in a kind of voluntary apartheid.”
Joe Distelheim was executive editor of the Anniston Star from 1990-1994.  He now lives on Hilton Head Island.