The More Things Change
This season marks the centennial of the birth of James McBride Dabbs (1896 1970), the farmer-writer from Sumter County who became one of his region's and the nation's most eloquent spokesmen for social justice and racial equity. He was the author of four major books on the identity, history and culture of the South: The Southern Heritage (1958), The Road Home (1960), Who Speaks for the South? (1964) and Haunted by God (1972).
In recognition of Dabbs and in conjunction with the Dabbs Centennial Symposium scheduled from April 10 to 12 at the University of South Carolina, POINT here features the republication of an item discovered in the Dabbs Collection at the South Caroliniana Library. Dabbs made the following remarks at the Southwide Student Human Relations Conference held at Pheiffer College, Misenheimer, N.C., in November 1958. They are reprinted from The College Student and the Changing South: Report of the Southwide Student Human Relations Conference.
The first issue I would put in this argument we are having in the South is an issue of belief. Do we really believe in equality of the races? To narrow it down, do we really believe here in the South that the white and Negro races are intrinsically equal?
Now, I'm not raising the question "Are they equal as of this moment?" I don't see any question about that. The whites have been privileged too long and the Negroes unprivileged too long for anybody to say they should now be equal as races.
In order to be a good citizen, you've got to consider these things and answer yes or no truthfully.
The great religions of the world don't speak in terms of race. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there aren't any Negroes and whites just people.
As of the present and by and large, I think there are no real exceptions; science has been unable to discover any differences between the races, except very slight and very insignificant ones. Science does not assert that the races are equal; it simply says it has not been able to prove that one race is any better equipped than any other.
So, my feeling would be that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition and yielding to the authority of science in things about which I know nothing, I would have to take my stand and decide that Negroes and whites are intrinsically and essentially equal and we ought to act accordingly.
I am raising this question because of several reasons. One is that there are other people in the South that we have to talk to in order to deal with and to get the consent of the majority of the people. Do the large mass of white people in the South think deep down the races are equal or do they think they are unequal? That's the question you have to face.
Now also there is the fact that, over a long period of history, the Negro has been disadvantaged and the whites have been advantaged. There has been, and is, an actual political, educational, social inequality in favor of the whites. I think the whites would be more than human if after several centuries of that kind of situation they hadn't pretty well soaked up the idea that they are better
Now, if white men are taught this is not only true, but just, then the white man can stand up and die for his justice which is rank injustice. He can say, "I should have twice what he has because I'm twice as good." And he really believes it.
Now I come to the second issue, the one that is primarily action. Do we in the South really want the material advantages of an industrialized economy? There's all the moral issue you want how to make a good living and be a wise man.
If we really want to do it, to gain the good things of this world, then we'll forget all about the first issue. If we are hardheaded enough businessmen, we aren't going to care about the color of the tractor driver, but whether he can drive a tractor.
The basic relations in this world are productive relations, the relation between fellowmen and the natural world in the making of a living. That is vital.
If we have spiritual values that are real spiritual values, they are rooted around these facts and relations. If we forget the race issue and handle the industrial issue wisely, we'd realize that our system of enforced inequality won't work.
We could make it work pretty well as long as we held to the old agrarian way. There's no place for segregation in an industrial society. We've got to realize that long-term industry won't come to Arkansas or Virginia with the school situation, because their highly paid skilled workers, the good citizens who raise the standard of living of the community, won't come.
One said to a friend of mine from South Carolina, who asked him to look over a job, "I don't want to waste your money to come down. I'm not bringing my children to a state where you people can't make up your mind if the children are going to school."
I imagine that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, most of us feel that it is our duty to face up to the question of equality. But a lot of us agree that before God all men are equal, and it's a sort of verbal, gray, cynical way everybody is equal. It isn't worth anything but, in this sense, everybody is equal.
I remind you that the great Jewish prophet Jesus never said anything about equality after death, but in this world. If you believe in equality, then you've got to face the thing now, to see that there's equality of opportunity in food, in medicine, in the necessities of life, in education.
I submit the proposition that, in general, the South is a good place to live because there are two races. You, the Negroes, have helped make you, the whites, what you are; and you, the whites, have helped make you, the Negroes, what you are.
If you put us together in the dark and talk, you can't tell the difference.