Southern whites who fought against American segregation


A Pentecostal Revival in a Tent on Nelson Street, Historically Black Street, Greenville, Mississippi, 1969Copyright of the image
D. Gorton


Seeing whites and blacks together at this Pentecostal meeting had a monumental effect on photographer Doy Gorton

His racist past still weighs heavy on the white south. But as with everything, it's rarely as simple as anything bad – one of the reasons why photographer Doy Gorton wanted to illustrate White South, his home, in a more nuanced way, writes James Jeffrey.

The dark neighborhood of Greenville, Mississippi, had never seen anything like it. Mr. Gorton did not have it either when he met whites praying alongside their black brothers during an impromptu waking of the street in the street.

When a sturdy white young man inside the awakening tent spontaneously grabbed a small black boy sitting with his family and squeezed it against his chest amidst glowing vocals, Mr. Gorton captured with his camera the kind of moment that is rarely discussed about the racist South White.

Growing up in Mississippi, Mr. Gorton reacted to legalized white supremacy by joining the civil rights movement. But while abhorring the institutional racism that shaped every aspect of the lives of the countries of the South, he has remained compassionate and patient for the white-collar workers left behind by mechanization and foreign trade since the end of the Second World War. .

He also shone in the traditional representations of the South-White, which, in his opinion, did not allow to effectively examine the reality and nuances, such as the way in which class divisions fueled racism and who is really to blame.

As a result, he embarked on an 18-month tour through the Mississippi Delta, documenting "the most southernmost place on the planet", including encounters with more progressive whites, such as those of the rebirth, and activists fighting for desegregation and civil rights. , often at great risk for themselves.

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D. Gorton


An image of a working-class district of Atlanta where white and black children were playing together, 1970

"It's amazing to me that 50 years later, the enormous sacrifices, the enormous courage and the courage of the ordinary whites of the Great South to deal with racial issues are not recognized," said Mr. Gorton. "So many people have suffered but they have been forgotten by history."

Mr. Gorton remembers the tension that prevailed at the time in the region and in the country. There had been talk of an impending racial war and the way everything was going to explode, with thousands of deaths. That a huge conflagration was avoided, it relies in large part on local and ordinary whites who helped keep the peace.

Of course, whites who are more active in civil rights generally face economic reprisals, often job losses or physical violence, or even the ultimate price.

James Reeb, a native of Kansas, a pastor who participated in Selma's civil rights parades in Montgomery, died in early 1965 from head injuries two days after being severely beaten by white segregationists.

Shortly after, Vilola Liuzzo, an activist who grew up in Tennessee, was murdered in Selma by members of the Ku Klux Klan (later in the year, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian from New Hampshire, died after having protected a black teenager shot in Hayneville, Alabama).

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Jonathan Daniels was killed at the age of 26 when he stepped in to protect a black teenager against a construction worker brandishing a shotgun.

"Regarding who was honored for the civil rights movement, very few whites were mentioned," said Mr. Gorton.

But the subject alone is problematic for white people, says Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Other factors are probably at stake.

"Many of the Southern white activists I met downplayed their importance, claiming that they were only the leader of an organization or Christian activist," said M Ownby. "And they point out that they were not as important or sacrificed as much as the African Americans involved who could not return to a safe place."

There is also Atticus Finch – the hero of Harper Lee's film To Kill a Mockingbird, who defends a black man in Alabama accused of rape.

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Atticus Finch (left) was played by Gregory Peck in the famous film version of the novel

"It's dangerous to have a white savior figure," Ownby said, adding that Finch, while fictitious, was probably the best-known representation of white resistance to racism.

"To create a hero worship for people whose heroism was the result of their work within the system as it existed.After all, the civil rights movement was about to change the system."

After being fired from the University of Mississippi for organizing demonstrations and protests against segregation, Mr. Gorton joined the Non-Violent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the "Marine Corps of the Movement Rights" civic "done".

But he says it was discovering the work of American photojournalist Walker Evans, known to have documented the effects of the Great Depression, which presented people with "in a very respectful, very thoughtful and very direct way" which motivated him to try. something similar for the people with whom he had grown up surrounded.

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Media legendWalker Evans changed the way Americans saw their country

He admits that putting a different perspective on the racist narrative of Southwestern is controversial, but explains that it parallels the tastes of the British Empire, which, despite its obvious flaws, was on the whole extremely nuanced and included " many people do decent things. "

The negatives and prints of Mr. Gorton's trip through the Mississippi Delta in 1968, along with cassette tapes and other documents, moved between trunks and attics for almost 50 years until that Gorton retired to southern Illinois, where he cast a new look.

In 2018, the Dolph Briscoe American History Center in Austin, Texas, acquired his "White South" collection. Since then, this collection is the focus of national and international attention.

More about the civil rights movement

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Media captionThe divided visions of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King

David Doggett was long-haired and had just graduated from college in Jackson, Mississippi, when he was involved in the clandestine newspaper movement that spawned across the United States in the 1960s. He says that he started with Kudzu to tackle political and racial problems by mixing them with more appealing documents in the newspaper about "sex, drugs and rock and roll" .

"The idea was that people are basically good, even if they are racist, so I wanted to better inform them," said Mr. Doggett.

"Racism was mainly due to misinformation: If you live in the 1950s in the South, the only Blacks that most whites meet are field aids and maids, so most people can not. to conceive that blacks could be intellectually equal, the coverage of civil rights was full of unusually intelligent and educated blacks. "

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D. Gorton


David Doggett (second from right) with the staff of Kudzu, a progressive underground newspaper in Jackson

He was jailed four times during protests – though never more than three days, he explained, knowing that he knew of "good lawyers" who supported the civil rights movement – and that he was "in the dark". he was physically assaulted.

He says that he often felt that he was not getting much. In 1967, he organized a protest following a police shootout at a nearby black college. It started with two other protesters and ended with 20 white students. Three years later, 200 protesters came forward after another incident at the same college.

"It showed how quickly things could change," said Mr. Doggett. "Maybe I can take the credit of being there early."

Mr. Doggett says that he understands people who have a stereotypical view of South White as being racist, because such a vision is "justified". He agreed with Mr. Gorton that the problem of racism in the region had been aggravated by the machinations of the wealthy elite of South-White.

"There is a long history of wealthy whites manipulating poor whites to blame blacks," said Mr. Doggett. "People became so full of racial hatred that they could not see that blacks were actually their allies."

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D. Gorton


An all-white barber run by barbers all black in downtown Atlanta in 1970

It is not possible to say with precision what percentage of Southwestern was racist, Ownby said. Most likely, the majority was neither left, supporting civil rights advocates, nor on the far right, supporting the language and tactics of massive resistance, he thought. he.

Even though they did not want integration, many whites were uncomfortable with some of the White's resistance to it, and he did not want to be associated with those who vigorously defended segregation.

"There were certainly Southern whites defending the civil rights of black Americans, but many others did not," says Ansley Quiros, historian and author of "God with us: lived theology and the struggle for black freedom in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976. "

"In a way, it is easier, at least for Americans, to tell these heroic stories rather than fight the majority position."

Mr. Gorton remembers photographing a time when "everything was changing", but it was not clear what was going to happen. The Supreme Court had ordered the immediate integration of schools. in the South, the Vietnam War was raging and Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. For many, everything seemed to happen, which was not reassuring.

"Gorton's images are as solid and meaningful as texts to understand the tensions and anxieties of Southerners of all stripes who have found themselves in a society turned upside down by the cultural, political and economic revolution," says Ben Wright, a historian at the time. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which houses Gorton's photographic archive.

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D. Gorton


Members of a gang of cyclists who heckled a rally of young liberal white Mississippi at a "Youth Jubilee" retreat in 1970

Mr. Gorton especially remembers photographing white students attending a Youth Jubilee in Edwards, Mississippi in 1970 to discuss race and religion. The meeting drew the attention of a group of white bikers, decorated with iron crosses and swastikas.

"You can literally look in between these two groups and see how a group projects themselves, realizing the direction the world was going to take and the other one had no idea," Gorton said, adding that White supremacy was for crutch, a distraction. "

He notes the current parallels with the upheavals in society, as some jobs are threatened by technological breakthroughs and growing economic inequality, and, he adds, a ruling elite manipulating working-class whites again, racism returning to public discourse.

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D. Gorton


A Pentecostal Awakening in Mississippi in 1969

"There has been progress," said Mr. Doggett. "Sometimes young people sometimes seem desperate about the situation, but they have no idea how serious the situation is. The police would flirt the river for a black person who had been lynched and had come across other bodies that no one knew.

"We have come a long way – yes, there is always a road to go, but it's better."

Mr. Doggett has spent decades living elsewhere in the United States. He now often thinks of his return to the South and is encouraged by the fact that Jackson now has a human rights museum and a strong progressive newspaper.

But at the same time, he notes how a visitor to the museum – especially a white man – can leave after having the impression that all whites were bad all the time, which has a "depressing effect".

This in turn, he explains, does not encourage white southerners – nor Americans – to think more broadly about the racial tensions with which the South and the country are still struggling.

"I would like there to be more information on those whites who have progressed in the South," he said. "And we always do it."