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The South in the Shadow of Nazism

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 57-75 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0024

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Could the evil of the Third Reich be entirely separated from consciousness of the evil of Jim Crow? Could the persecution of one minority provoke outrage, while official discrimination of another minority continued to induce indifference, silence, and rationalization? Adolf Hitler, Nuremberg, halftone photomechanical reproduction print from cigarette card, courtesy of the collections of the Library of Congress.

In 1944 the Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored the publication of a landmark study, with which historians of race relations in the United States are very familiar: An American Dilemma. Economist Gunnar Myrdal, a Swede, had been selected to direct the project and write the study because his nation had no heritage of slavery, colonialism, or imperialism; therefore his impartiality could be presumed.1 In mid-century America the Carnegie Corporation could not have conceived of assigning the project to an African American scholar—like W. E. B. Du Bois, who actually knew something about the subject, the fruit of a lifetime’s study and experience. But Myrdal’s comprehensive study—the book weighed in at over one thousand pages, with ten appendices and two-hundred and fifty pages of notes—set in motion the acute awareness of the disjunction between democratic ideals and Jim Crow. Exactly a decade later, the unanimous Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education would acknowledge a terrible historic injustice. Its footnote #11, in citing An American Dilemma, served as a justification for outlawing racial segregation in public schools, which violated what Myrdal called the American Creed of egalitarianism.

In 1944 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sponsored the publication of a consequential book by another European author. But Raphael Lemkin had come to the United States not as an invited and welcome visitor but as a refugee from Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the title he gave his 712-page scholarly tome. A Polish Jew, Lemkin could not pretend to neutrality on this subject. In the Final Solution he lost forty-nine of his relatives (including his parents), which made the fate of his family typical of Polish Jews, of whom only one in ten managed to survive the catastrophe. There were no exact precedents to the paranoiac fury with which an advanced nation was extinguishing with calculated efficiency two out of every three European Jews. What the German occupiers were doing in Eastern Europe, Winston Churchill asserted in 1941, was “a crime without a name.” The famously articulate prime minister was rarely if ever at a loss for words. But it was left to Lemkin, an attorney who had taught international law at Duke University upon his arrival in the United States, to supply a name for that crime. The key to its analysis was a neologism he coined to describe atrocities that were still unfolding: genocide. Since 1944 a huge scholarly literature has emerged that draws upon and amplifies Lemkin’s definition of that word, its applications, and implications.2

Though the political campaigns that have been waged under the rubric of human rights have extended what Lemkin was the first to name, the juxtaposition of the simultaneous publication of those two Carnegie volumes inaugurates an argument about historical change. In the course of the two decades after 1944, the momentum against bigotry and discrimination gained remarkable force. An ideal of democratic inclusion came noticeably closer to fulfillment, especially outside the region. The impossibility of reconciling the value of equality with the practice of Jim Crow doomed the South to the crisis that erupted in the 1960s, when the federal government demanded that the region live up more fully to the American Creed and conform more closely to the rest of the republic. Because segregation was once believed to be impregnable, and because southern white attitudes were held to be immutable, an explanation is therefore needed for the striking political and social change that punctuated the 1960s.

Historians have offered multiple explanations for the transformation, ranging from the moral authority and political effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement to the Northern effort to complete the liberal agenda of the New Deal to the increasing social stigma attached to intolerance. But awareness of the genocide that had been...

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