Jason Sokol, Jacquelyn Hall: Historians Interpreting Some Overlooked Stories From the South

Historians in the News

The gripping black-and-white photographs of civil rights protesters in the South reflect the black-and-white morality tale that generally accompanies them. Hateful, jeering white mobs and attack dogs versus peaceful marchers asking to vote and to walk in the front door.

That story line is true, but so are others. A new generation of historians is exploring some of the untold stories of the civil rights movement and its legacies: the experiences not of heroes or murderous villains, but of ordinary Southern whites. And their research is challenging some long-held beliefs about the nation’s political realignment and the origins of modern conservatism.

“You want to pry below these great narratives of good and evil and black and white,” said Jason Sokol, 29, who wrote “There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975” (Alfred A. Knopf). “For those of us who didn’t live through it, there’s more of an effort to not simply celebrate the civil rights movement and how extraordinary it was, but to place it within the broader arc of the 20th century.”

This new wave of historians, many of them young, believe that one cannot understand today’s housing, schooling, economic development or political patterns without understanding the mostly apolitical white Southerners of that era. None of these scholars play down the inbred racism of the region, but they argue that the focus on race can obscure broader economic and demographic changes, like the dizzying corporate growth, the migration of white Northerners to the South and the shifting emphasis on class interests after legal segregation ended.

The conventional wisdom, said Jacquelyn Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is that the general backlash to the civil rights movement “was exported out of the South to the rest of the country,” and that the Republican Party benefited from the shift. But she said a raft of new scholarship is showing “the strength of the Republican Party in the South is linked to the economic boom in the South.” ...

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