Caroline Langston’s essay recalling her years attending Manchester, a segregation academy in her hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., is a perfect piece of writing about the South, and a real emotional touchstone for someone like me, of our generation (born in 1968, she is one year younger than I am). Manchester was a private, whites-only school built in 1969, when it became obvious that Mississippi schools were going to integrate. Langston’s family stuck with public schools, for reasons that had nothing to do with political liberalism. But after she was paddled by a (white) PE teacher, her mother decided that was enough, and sent her to Manchester.
After the yelling and the lining up and the drudgery of the public schools, it was fun to be at Manchester, with its jokes and parties and a perpetual atmosphere of festival. It was neither harder nor easier than the public schools had been, but at Manchester, at least, they would let me just go to the library and read when I got bored. I became a Christian, and started going to youth group.
I felt loved there. It saved my life, I believe even now.
And yet. All that celebration, the festival of identity, of being in the charmed circle at last, strikes me now as notable for what we were not discussing. Ninety percent of the time, daily life inside the walls of Manchester functioned as though black people simply. . . did not exist. Or if they were mentioned, we parroted the way we heard adults around us talk about them, not as independent souls with agency who might have their own needs and desires, but rather, as exasperating children who kept demanding things. Who might, if unconstrained, simply take over. And “taking over” was the thing, of all things, that must be prevented.
Boy, was that ever a jolt to me. “Taking over.” I hadn’t thought about those words, in this context, in decades. They were on the lips of lots of us white people in my town in those years too. I spent the first two years of my schooling at a private, all-white academy in a nearby parish. My parents sent me there because I was gifted, and they thought that I would get a better education there. At some point in the second half of my second-grade year, the school sent home a letter telling parents that our teacher had some sort of problems, and had not taught us much of anything. They had dismissed her, and hired a new teacher who, the school said, was going to have to assign extra work to get us all up to grade level. That infuriated my parents, who realized that the “better education” they were paying for was a sham, at least for me. They put me in my town’s integrated public school the next year.
But even though public school was integrated, and like the parish, just over half of each class was black, the worlds of black and white were functionally separate. Black kids and white kids did not play together on the playground. Nor did we sit together in the lunchroom. In the summertime, we retreated to our fully segregated worlds. I recall being in fourth grade when someone came into the classroom to hand out registration forms for the Dixie Youth boys’ summer baseball league. None of the black boys in my class got one. I recall being embarrassed by that, but I still would not have questioned it, not really.
There was a pool in town, called — surprise! — the Town Pool. It was a privately owned pool to which you could buy a membership, if you were white. It wasn’t a rich kids’ pool; there weren’t any rich kids in town. But it was a white pool. Every day in the summer, our moms would sit on the covered bleachers smoking and gossiping, while we white kids would splash around, shouting “Marco?” “POH-LOH!” to each other, diving for coins on the bottom of the pool, our pale skin turning strawberry in the scorching summer sun, while the black kids on the other side of the chain-link fence could only watch us. I remember what it felt like to climb out of the pool and walk over to the nearby Piggly Wiggly for a Coke, a wet beach towel draped around your shoulders. If you were me, you didn’t want to catch the eye of one of the town black kids, not because they would have done anything, but because you — well, I — knew that it wasn’t fair that those kids didn’t get to swim, because they were black.
Please don’t think that I was any sort of closet liberal. What would that have even meant? As a white kid in the 1970s small-town South, it never seriously occurred to you that the system was wrong. It just was. I hadn’t thought about it since forever, but when Caroline Langston mentions the fear of blacks “taking over,” well, yes, that was what white people were terrified of. I remember listening to older white people complaining at election time about local blacks “bloc-voting,” and how mindless and threatening that was to the right order of things. I knew what they meant by that, but it took years for me to grasp that they were blaming black people for doing exactly what they were doing: voting for a candidate solely on the basis of race. They were afraid that blacks — who constituted a raw majority in the parish, but who weren’t all registered to vote — were going to take over.
And, like Langston’s classmates, so were we white kids in our town. It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t there — people like my wife, who is eight years younger than I, and who grew up in the big city — but there was so much latent fear that the right order of the world depended on white people staying in control. Anybody who lived in our rural parish could see plainly how blacks lived: mostly in poverty and squalor. We were a fairly poor agricultural area; any black folks who earned an education got the hell out of town if they wanted a shot at a life doing anything other than working in the fields. The result was that a black middle class scarcely existed. As far as any of us white kids could see, being black meant being poor and ignorant. There were poor and ignorant white people around too, but imagine a place where almost all the black people lived that way, and aside from occasionally on television, you never saw anybody different?
Now, think of what it would be like to have grown up in that kind of social order. You would probably have thought like the rest of us 1970s white kids did: that this was the way of the world. (Similarly, had you grown up in that as a black kid, you might have assimilated the same poisonous vision.) But if you were white, you also would have known that there was a danger of all this being upended, if the blacks took over — the thing that was always possible, if we let down our vigilance. If that happened, maybe we would all be poor and living in shacks. Maybe there would even be black kids in the Town Pool. Caroline Langston writes about the time she questioned some dodgy strategy to get all the eligible voters from the Manchester student body to register to vote in the upcoming election. That seems like cheating, she remarked:
The moment I said it, though, one of the other kids who was standing on the stairs with me, a girl with a strawberry blonde ponytail, wheeled around. Her face was red as she stared at me with angry eyes and spat out, “What are you talking about? Do you want Yazoo City to end up like Tchula?”
Tchula was a little town up the road in the Delta, and it was indeed one of those places, adults said, where blacks had just taken over. They’d elected a black mayor, and now the stores were closing down, and it was some place “you just couldn’t go to any more.”
I stood back, stunned. There was so much I still did not understand, and some things I would not understand for decades—like when it finally occurred to me that the “good old days” adults always talked about were effectively made possible by a local police state, and when that had gone, all the infrastructure and sense of a public square had dissipated with it.
Oh man, that rings so true. Except for a couple of things. The neighboring parish with the segregation academy my parents sent me to for first and second grade? It continues to have a de facto segregated school system. The integrated school system in West Feliciana, my home parish, became one of the best in the entire state. People credit the strong public school system as one source of the parish’s relative prosperity. I went through a period of my life, in my late teens and twenties, when I could do nothing but make fun of the racial hypocrisies of the older townspeople. Look at them, thinking we were integrated, but the classes in our integrated school were mostly segregated by race! And look, we have white prom and black prom! Et cetera.
It wasn’t until I had gotten older, and seen more of the world, than I was able to appreciate the accomplishment of the white and black leaders of that generation. Given the legacy of slavery, and then of Jim Crow, integration of the schools could have gone very badly. There were so many flaws in the execution, but the thing is, it worked. Reading Langston’s essay brought back all the fear that white people of that era had of blacks. A few years back, when I was living for a few years in my hometown, I went to a series of meetings about changing the parish’s form of government. I was really surprised how, after all these years, many of the black residents who spoke out against the proposed form of government were so paranoid-sounding. They were sure that whites were conspiring to take away what gains blacks had made. I wrote on this blog about some of those meetings, and I still think the objections those black residents had were largely groundless, and based on irrational fear. But I had to recognize that within living memory, the older black members of the community had been born into segregation, and lived in terror of the KKK. And I came to understand that the fact that we never, ever talked in any serious way about the civil rights struggle in school — that what I now know was recent local history — was almost certainly the price we all paid for making school integration work in our parish. We kids (the white ones, anyway) really didn’t know what was happening. That was just the world as we found it.
I hope you will read all of Langston’s essay. She ended up in boarding school in the Washington DC area, and was both naturally ashamed of coming from Mississippi, and made to feel ashamed of it. The way she ends the piece rings powerfully true to many white Southerners who grew up like she and I did. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say that just as she resists the lie that the “good old days” of white domination were all that good, she also resists the progressive lie that would require her to denounce everything about the world of Manchester, which is the world that nurtured her and, as she puts it, saved her life and helped her endure ghastly suffering at home.
What our white ancestors did to black people was unspeakably cruel, and with Caroline Langston, I am glad those structures and ways of life are gone, or mostly gone. Note well, though, that the end of formal legal segregation did not produce a world of racial harmony and equality, a sad fact that tells us something about the profound legacy of white supremacy, but also probably tells us something too about the mysterious intersection of free will, human nature, and the way society both forms our character, and in which our character proves resistant to social pressure. The older I get, the more mystified I am by race, class, and culture. This past year, reading about Russia, serfdom, and the intractable problems of class and culture, which not even a totalitarian state could destroy, the more understanding I became of what America has struggled with. I say “understanding” not in the sense of approving of the world that was — again, I am grateful that it no longer exists — but rather to say that I have a greater appreciation for the fragility of civilization and its achievements. When I was younger, I used to be angry at the world for not being better (for not being perfect, if I’m honest); now I find myself more likely to be grateful for what our ancestors managed to hand on to us, despite their sins and failings. No kidding, reading about the viciousness of late imperial Russia, and the far worse viciousness that the Bolshevik revolutionaries imposed on the Russian people, shook me to the core. As awful as conditions might be, never, ever forget that they could get much worse.
Please don’t misunderstand me: God knows I am not defending the world that produced the Manchester Academies of the desegregating South. That was a world of cruelty and injustice. But that’s not all there was to that world, nor, as Langston writes, to Manchester. And I have to say that it is a different kind of cruelty, of inhumanity, that demands, as proof of your moral decency, that you renounce and declare your shame over the people who carried little bitty you safely through this crooked world, with hearts made crooked by the circumstances into which they were thrown. Caroline Langston understands that. Maybe only Southerners can. It takes extraordinary grace and humility to learn how to hate evil without hating the people possessed by its glamour. Martin Luther King managed to do it. The rest of us — even the righteous latter-day progressives among us — not so much.
Anyway, again, read the whole thing. It appears on a website called The Academy Stories — remembrances of men and women who attended Southern segregation academies, reflecting on the meaning of that experience. It’s really fascinating to read these essays. They’re not all equally good. There’s one by a writer who had a miserable experience at her segregation academy, and who can’t disentangle the destructiveness of that from the school’s racial ideology. (Note to that writer: I had a similarly miserable experience at my 100 percent integrated public school; high school is full of cliques and bullies and mean girls.) But all the ones I’ve read so far, even when I disagree with this or that conclusion the author makes, all feel very raw and honest to me, as a white Southerner of a certain generation. It’s hard to talk about this stuff honestly, even among ourselves, because nobody wants to defend the bad old days, but a lot of people understandably cannot stand the crusading white person who discharges his or her racial anxieties and latent feeling of guilt, and curry favor with outsiders, by damning everybody they grew up with as simply and irredeemably wicked. I confess that I get my back up about all this too, over white people not remembering in the “correct” way. I know that’s not right, but like I said, this stuff is all in the past, but it’s still raw.
Here’s the thing: when are you being honest about human frailty and sin, and one’s complicity with it … and when are you putting on moral airs and betraying your family and your people? How can you know? Can you ever know?