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  • Frank Porter Graham, Racial Gradualism, and the Dilemmas of Southern Liberalism
  • William A. Link (bio)

Seventy years ago, in November 1949, at the fifteenth annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (SHA) in Williamsburg, Virginia, H. Clarence Nixon did something that has never again occurred in the history of this organization: he reviewed the SHA's past presidential addresses since its first meeting at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1935. Trained by University of Chicago historian William E. Dodd, Nixon became more of a political scientist than a historian. Like the iconic C. Vann Woodward, Nixon saw southern academics as agents of change. He taught at Tulane University in the 1930s until he ran afoul of the locals because of his supposedly subversive views on race and labor. In 1938, he became one of the founding members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), briefly serving as one of its first executive secretaries and then moving on to teach at Vanderbilt University.1

In his SHA retrospective, Nixon was brutally honest, pointing out that many first-generation SHA historians saw themselves as defenders of southern traditions against Yankee invasion. Citing past addresses by the earliest SHA presidents, Nixon sarcastically declared that they had rung "clear bells of regional patriotism." E. Merton Coulter, longtime University of Georgia historian, told listeners during the first SHA presidential address that "the South must meet words with words" and that southern [End Page 7] historians "should march together no less surely than soldiers, and ammunition should be garnered, stored, and used with as much precision."2

Nixon's words were somewhat gentle but nonetheless biting. If all the Association's presidential addresses of the past decade and a half were assembled as a "composite," he wrote, "the general pattern of interpretation would be a far cry" from the conclusions that Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal had recently reached in An American Dilemma,a landmark study of race that appeared in 1944. Unlike Myrdal, Nixon's composite SHA president had concealed African Americans in "a woodpile of constitutional abstractions, ignoring [them] statistically and spiritually." The composite SHA president gave "little or no consideration" to the nation's ten million black people, writing "very profusely of the South as a minority and of sins against that minority." The composite SHA president reached the "wishful conclusion that the South must be left alone to solve its own problems and then not solve them." Nixon noted that, though it was not the historian's function "to rectify the defects of his society," it was his responsibility to "take pains not to personify these defects." Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, he concluded that southern historians "should support no regional iron curtain against the interchange of ideas."3

Nixon contributed another bit of advice about presidential addresses, perhaps offering wisdom for us tonight. Perhaps most important, he repeated U. B. Phillips's admonition that presidents of historical organizations should not "'take themselves too seriously.'" Nixon went on to describe the various types of presidential addresses that we often hear. Sometimes, he said, SHA presidents provided a digest of a recently written book, in "a sort of elongated autographed inscription." Sometimes they tried out a book that they planned to write. Other times they undertook to "sum up … teachings" or the "learning of a lifetime." Or, still other times presidents might "turn publicist for an hour" and provide a "view of the world to the world."4 [End Page 8]

Although my talk tonight combines these shortcomings, Nixon's words offer a useful warning for present and future SHA presidents. He might have also added that historians, products of context and history, are themselves sometimes actors in historical processes that they are not able to comprehend fully. During Nixon's generation, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the South experienced profound change, much of it resulting from the nationalizing forces of the New Deal and World War II, during which the federal government injected massive amounts of capital and intellectual energy into transforming the region. To say that all of these changes underlay the destabilization of white supremacy is...


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