CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS: A MEMOIR OF RACE AND POLITICS, 1944-1996 by Harry S. Ashmore. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Paper $19.95. ISBN 1-57003-187-8.
Reviewed by Stephen H. Wainscott, Department of Political Science, Clemson
Near the beginning of his 1944 seminal work on American race relations, Swedish author Gunnar Myrdal expressed hope that "huge institutional structures" would mitigate bigotry and renew faith in the American Creed. Among the structures with the potential to serve as "mighty organs" of racial justice and understanding were organized religion, the public education establishment (especially higher education), organized labor, and the business sector. If not champions of integration and racial equality, these institutions, Myrdal believed, were capable of tempering the excesses of white supremacy.
To his list of moderating forces Myrdal could have added the press. In the South during the period sometimes known as "massive resistance," most local newspapers reflected the prevailing (white) community sentiment and eagerly spread the gospel of segregation. But in several notable cases there were editors who dared to challenge the suffocating consensus on race. Harry Ashmore is one who dared.
A native of South Carolina recognized in 1989 as one of Clemson University’s "most distinguished alumni," Harry Ashmore has chronicled American race relations for more than half a century. From his youth as a cub reporter with the GREENVILLE (SC) PIEDMONT to his influential career as the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, few writers have probed for answers to Myrdal’s "American dilemma" with Ashmore’s courage and sensitivity.
His latest work, CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS, is actually several books in one. At first glance -- and as the subtitle would suggest -- it is a journalist’s personal odyssey through racially troubled times from the New Deal to the Contract with America. It is also an assessment of the civil rights advances, dodges and retreats of presidents from FDR to Clinton. At the same time, the book serves as a study of the evolution of the two-party South.
CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS begins, appropriately, at the beginning with an overview of the early struggle for leadership of the civil rights movement and the conflicting visions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. From there he begins his critical, and often harsh, examination of presidential agendas from Truman to Clinton. Except for Truman’s bold move to desegregate the military, Ashmore generally characterizes the "early" administrations as being for justice without equality, a position civil rights activists often chastised as a distinction without a difference.
It doesn’t take the reader long to realize that while Ashmore’s tax bill has increased during his long career, he has been able to keep enough to afford a yellow dog. An unrepentant Democrat, he treats Republican administrations with derision. With considerable justification, the author describes the Eisenhower years as a period of civil rights "default." Yet, he fails to mention that most of those courageous "fifty-eight lonely men" (Peltason 1961) -- federal judges who issued school desegregation orders, struck down racial discrimination in jury selection, and ordered police protection for the Freedom Riders and the Selma marchers -- were Eisenhower appointees. To be sure, these appointments reflected Republican freedom from the custom of senatorial courtesy, and therefore could hardly be said to reflect a commitment to civil rights. Nonetheless, in view of the range of judicial choices available to him, Eisenhower could have done far worse.
Ashmore reserves his harshest criticism for Richard Nixon, the "retrograde" architect of the racially polarizing "Southern Strategy," and for the counterrevolutionary Reagan administration’s civil rights "postmortem." Democrats do not escape scrutiny unscathed, but they consistently receive the benefit of Ashmore’s doubt. Johnson, the president once criticized as a "Lyndon come lately" on civil rights (the same president who did everything he could to avoid offending the political ego of George Wallace during the Selma crisis), comes across as moral crusader whose quest for justice was undercut by forces of reaction and sidetracked by Vietnam. Ashmore is able to muster a generally good report card for the protean Bill Clinton whose pro-civil rights instincts, Ashmore contends, are either subordinated to other concerns ("It’s the economy, stupid!"), or are sabotaged by a hostile Republican Congress.
The book concludes with a "prognosis" which is not so much a where-do-we-go-from-here forecast of the future of civil rights as it is an apologia for Bill Clinton’s centrist presidency.
In HEARTS AND MINDS: THE ANATOMY OF RACISM FROM ROOSEVELT TO REAGAN (Ashmore 1982), the author expresses a cautiously optimistic prediction that decades of civil rights progress could withstand the retrenchment of the Nixon years and the recasting of the Southern Strategy under Ronald Reagan. In CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS, the tone seems to shift. While Ashmore offers no prophetic vision, throughout the book he renders the cautiously pessimistic judgment that civil rights gains generally have resulted in progress for the black middle class without significantly alleviating the plight of the black underclass.
In his classic work, SOUTHERN POLITICS IN STATE AND NATION, V.O. Key unraveled the mystique of the South: "Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro." (Key 1949, 5). At the same time he offered this deceptively simple assessment, Key seemed puzzled that a region’s politics could be so dominated by a non-issue on which everyone -- white, that is -- was agreed. Passage of time and the sweep of modernizing forces have lessened the fixation on race, both in the South and in the nation. But Ashmore’s memoir serves to remind us that few aspects of our political discourse are untouched by our abiding racial divide. From desegregation of the military, to the Freedom Rides, to the exploitation of African Americans in college athletics, to current debates over affirmative action and welfare reform, Ashmore offers a sober reminder that the American dilemma remains far from solved.
Scholars hoping to discover in CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS new information may be disappointed. To a great degree the book is a presidential election campaign retrospective frequently seasoned with treatments of race-related issues and policies. At times, the civil rights theme virtually disappears, especially in the final chapters where Ashmore seems more concerned with the character issues surrounding the Clinton administration.
On the other hand, often the greatest value of a work is how well the story is told or, in this case, retold. In this respect, CIVIL RIGHTS AND WRONGS is a most compelling narrative told by one who was a personal witness to history. While Ashmore may not offer shocking revelations or new insights, he treats us to a lively, engaging, personal account of a half-century of political and racial turbulence. More important, he reawakens our sensibilities by reminding us of those defining moments of our times that, in the rush of modern life, are apt to fade from our collective memory.
Thank you, Harry Ashmore, for refusing to let us forget.
Ashmore, Harry S. 1982. HEARTS AND MINDS: THE ANATOMY OF RACISM FROM ROOSEVELT TO REAGAN. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Key. V.O., Jr. 1949. SOUTHERN POLITICS IN STATE AND NATION. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.
Peltason, Jack W. 1961. FIFTY-EIGHT LONELY MEN: SOUTHERN FEDERAL JUDGES AND SCHOOL DESEGREGATION. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.