Former Charlotte Observer editor discusses new book on the enduring power of the South
WFAE's Jesse Steinmetz spoke with Frye Gaillard, Charlotte Observer reporter and editor from 1972-1990, about his new book of essays, “The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance”. Co-author Cynthia Tucker will be joining him live on Charlotte Talks on Monday, May 16.
Jesse Steinmetz, WFAE Charlotte Talks producer: Your latest book was inspired by John Egerton's 1974 work with a similar title, “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America.” Egerton wanted to believe that the country had learned from the upheaval of the civil rights movement and became stronger for it. But Egerton was also deeply skeptical, writing "The South and the nation are not exchanging strengths as much as they are exchanging sins. More often than not, they're sharing and spreading the word to each other while the best languishes and withers." What did he mean that the South and the nation were sharing the worst in each other?
Frye Gaillard: John Egerton was a really superb Southern journalist who deeply wanted to hope that the South would kind of lead the way in terms of a reckoning with racism and the anti-democratic inclinations that go along with that. The South had been the epicenter of racism since colonial times because it was the epicenter of slavery. But he hoped after the civil rights movement, that that dimension of the South, the Martin Luther King South, the John Lewis South, would inspire the nation to come to terms with its past. And by 1974, when he wrote “The Americanization of Dixie,” he was becoming skeptical that that was going to happen.
He did think, though, as the South became less isolated, that it was beginning to look more like the rest of the country in terms of urban sprawl and shopping malls and materialism and those kinds of things, that the South was maybe becoming a less neighborly place, that some of those traditional Southern hospitality values might have been fading or whatever. So, he thought that the South was going to continue to export its racism while picking up some of the less desirable qualities from the rest of the country. That's what he feared. Now, when he said that, when he wrote that in 1974, I thought he was too pessimistic because, you know, the civil rights movement had happened and there had been racial gains. The right to vote in the South for African American people seemed firmly established to me at that point. You had New South Southern governors like Linwood Holton, a Republican in Virginia, and Reubin Askew, a Democrat in Florida, and of course, Jimmy Carter, who said, "Let's put our racial prejudice behind us." All of them said that. So, I was more optimistic than John, who was a good friend of mine, I'm happy to say, kind of a mentor. I was more optimistic than he was then, but I'm not now. I think there is some reason for hope. But from the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon, up to our current political moment, I've started to fear for the loss of progress that I first thought could not be reversed.
Steinmetz: Let's talk about that. We're almost 50 years out from when Egerton's book was first published. What made you decide that now was a necessary time to revisit that theme?
Gaillard: Well, first of all, the idea for it came from our editor at NewSouth Books in Montgomery, a guy named Randall Williams, who's about my age, in his early 70s. He had watched the same trends that all of us had. And he called and said, "What do you think about doing an update on Egerton's book in our current political moment?" This was right after the 2020 election. It was right after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in 2021. And Randall thought it was time to take another look. I agreed. I thought we need to think about our current political moment and how high the stakes are, and that the South might be an interesting lens with which to do that — an informative lens with which to do that. And so, I asked what he would think about involving Cynthia Tucker in the project so we'd bring a multiracial perspective. Cynthia is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator. And, you know, of course, Randall was thrilled by that idea. Cynthia and I jumped on it. And the result is the book.
Steinmetz: In the early '70s, Charlotte was a national test case for busing, which essentially meant that Black students were taking school buses to majority-white schools in an effort to increase school integration. And in your book, you write that, “Mobs of white protestors regularly besieged the school system's headquarters. At one time or another during the first several years, racial fighting closed every high school in the system.” But by 1976, “peace had been restored. Test scores were rising, white flight was minor, and people seemed proud of what they had accomplished.”
You were a reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer for almost 20 years. How did Charlotte go from facing mobs of white protestors shutting down schools to becoming a national success story of integration?
Gaillard: Well, that was an inspirational story to cover for a young reporter. I think I was 25 years old when I got Charlotte to start covering that story, something like that. And I saw for those years in the middle 1970s a community working really hard to come to terms with its segregated past. Now, there were always problems with desegregation to some extent. I mean, it was always accomplished at the expense sometimes of the Black community. Black schools were closed more often than white schools. Black children rode buses longer than white children in most cases. But I also saw the community wrestle with that unfairness too, at least for a while.
I saw a Southern community really demonstrating to the country what was possible. Charlotte got good publicity because of its efforts to do the right thing. Even if it fell short, it was trying. And people were proud of their public schools. And so that became a national story in the news media, and it raised Charlotte's national profile. But then, ironically, you know, eventually that came undone. And by the end of the 20th century, in 1999, there was a new federal court ruling that said, essentially, you couldn't deliberately integrate schools. You couldn't use race consciously as a factor in desegregation or in segregation. It had to be racially neutral. And the result of that, ironically, was a lot of resegregation in the schools. So, the arc of history in Charlotte sort of parallels the arc of history that we're tracing more broadly in the book. Charlotte has always been a kind of bellwether city, a bellwether community in that regard. So, my experience in Charlotte really shaped my understanding of the South, and I think that I brought to this project.
Steinmetz: That court ruling you mentioned originated from a lawsuit filed by a white parent that argued his daughter was not admitted to a local magnet school because of her race. Fast forward to a 2014 study by Harvard researchers that showed Charlotte was ranked 50 out of 50 for economic mobility among the largest metro areas in the United States. The study has since been updated with better numbers, but there remains a lot of work to be done. Is Charlotte an example of America's high potential for success, but also for failure? Or how the South and the nation can spread the best in each other, but also the worst?
Gaillard: Yeah, I really think Charlotte is exactly what you just said. It does show what can be done, what a community can do. And, you know, Charlotte has had some good leaders off and on through the years, both political leaders, but also civic leaders, religious leaders, others who have tried to create a fair-minded sense of community. But Charlotte is so much bigger now, and it is harder, I think, to maintain that sense of community that back in the 1970s and even into the '80s almost had a kind of small town feel to it, even though Charlotte was growing rapidly. But I think I saw a number recently that since 1940, Charlotte's population has increased by 900%. I'm not sure of those numbers, but I do know the general trend is that Charlotte’s become a huge city with many of the upsides of that. But it's harder to do some of the things that Charlotte did, I think, back in the '70s and '80s. So, I continue to see Charlotte as a kind of microcosm. I don't know the details of Charlotte as well as I used to when I lived there. I've been gone since 2005, but I watch from a distance and sometimes I'm proud of Charlotte, and sometimes I wince.
Steinmetz: You and your co-author, Cynthia Tucker, both grew up in Alabama. But you had different experiences, I imagine, in large part because of race. Tucker is a Black woman and writes that she attended segregated schools until she got to high school. I wanted to ask about your experience, as a white man growing up in Alabama, how did that influence your work on this book?
Gaillard: Yeah. You know, I attended segregated schools, too, until I got to college, in fact, because I'm about 10 years older than Cynthia. I look back on it and wish that that had not been so. But I was a product of the segregated South, no doubt about it. I came from a privileged white family that, though they were kindhearted people who thought we should be decent to each other, they were fine with the status quo, the segregated status quo in the South.
I was raised with those assumptions and began to rethink them in high school and much more so in college. And so, coming of age in the 1960s, being a college student from 1964 to 1968, that was pivotal in shaping who I am, in shaping my understanding of the country and shaping my ideas of social justice. That became sort of the centerpiece of what I've always most wanted to write about as a journalist and as a writer. So, my own personal coming to grips with the South's checkered history, with the South's painful history, I think shaped me as a writer generally. And that’s something I brought to bear, as Cynthia did from the other side of the racial divide, into the writing of this book.
One of the things that we were trying to demonstrate and personify and embody in writing the book was that you have a Black writer and a white writer who have come to see things in much the same way. There wasn't any substantial disagreement between the two of us in terms of what this book ought to say or how it ought to say it. In fact, there was none, really. So, we embody a kind of common understanding that we hope can almost serve as a kind of metaphor for what's possible. We believe that this is inevitably a multiracial society. And so, we make the best of that. We embrace it. We try to understand each other. We try to communicate across these divides, or we live in a place that's not a very comfortable place to live, that will be unjust. That will cause even life-threatening problems for some groups of our fellow citizens. So, we either come to terms with this or we don't. And if we want this to be the country that it can be, we better try. That's kind of our sermon in the book.
Steinmetz: Some of the politics we're seeing today, from the rise of white nationalism to a bitterly divided Congress, you argue in the book can be traced in part to figures like George Wallace, the Alabama governor who infamously pledged his commitment in 1963 to ‘segregation forever.’ Why are those politics emerging again, not just in the South, but throughout the country?
Gaillard: You know, even when Wallace stepped onto the national stage, running for president for the first time, in several primaries in 1964, there was a startling resonance of his message for a lot of the country. He did really well in the Indiana and Maryland primaries in 1964. And it was kind of an alarm bell, a wake-up call for a lot of people, I think.
Whatever else you can say about Wallace, he was a talented politician. And what he figured out for the most part, starting when he began to run for president, was how the nation could think in code. How you didn't have to talk directly about race, you talked obliquely about race. And so, you talked about law and order, for example. Well, all of us are for law and order. But what Wallace meant was a kind of inflation of urban crime and urban riots and urban activism into one sort of terrifying reality for many white Americans. And he stoked those fears, and he did it deliberately. And he did it, I think, cynically. And he did it again in 1968. And he was doing it again in 1972 when he got shot on the campaign trail in Maryland.
And then there are people who say about Wallace that in the suffering that he experienced from his paralysis and the constant pain he was in, he began to rethink the cruelty of his politics and change politically. And he reached out to people like John Lewis and others to apologize for what he had done. So, the Wallace story is complicated, but he demonstrated in the 1960s how to exploit, how to practice the politics of grievance, and the politics of rage, as one of his biographers called it.
And so, we've seen that after the startling, to me, backlash against the election of our first Black president, Barack Obama. We have seen the politics of rage and the politics of grievance around the issue of race resurge in this country. And in my view, Donald Trump knew how to exploit that in the same way that George Wallace had done, in the same way that Richard Nixon hoped to. In the same way, more tentatively, that we had seen in the Southern strategies of Ronald Reagan and to some extent, even both (former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush). But it really came roaring back amid the backlash against President Obama.
And I'm not talking about disagreeing with Obama's policies. I mean, people do that in a democracy. That's what always happens. It's what should happen. We should debate public policy. I'm talking about birtherism and I'm talking about the insistence that the president and his family were Muslims. I'm talking about the refusal by lots of white Americans to even acknowledge what a beautiful first family this was. I mean, they were lovely parents to these two beautiful young daughters. And, you know, on the other side of the coin, I was always heartened by, on a personal level, for example, the kindness that existed between President Bush and his wife and the Obamas. And the Bush girls writing letters to the Obama girls, telling them what to expect as the First Children of the country. So, we saw both sides of it. But I think somehow, we were more ripe for the backlash and we were more ripe for the politics of grievance after the Obama presidency. I would argue not because of anything the Obamas did, but because of the inability of too much of white America to accept the fact that we had a Black president.
Steinmetz: In spite of the politics of rage and grievance, you and Cynthia both still hold out hope for a strong democracy in the South and throughout the country. Tell me about that.
Gaillard: You know, if you look at Georgia, if you look at North Carolina, if you look at Virginia, these are purple states where values are debated as well as policies in the political life of these states. I think it was particularly strong and dramatic in Georgia in the 2020 elections. Not only did Georgia vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a narrow margin, but it also elected its first African American senator and its first Jewish senator in Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The Jewish senator was a kind of protégé of John Lewis. You know, he got his start as an intern with John Lewis, and he took the oath of office for the Senate on a Bible that came from a temple in Atlanta that was bombed during the civil rights years because the rabbi supported the civil rights movement. And they were elected, narrowly, but they did win, thanks in part to the organizing efforts of Stacey Abrams, who's now running again for governor of Georgia.
And Raphael Warnock's maiden speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, to me, was sort of the essence of the hope that Cynthia and I try to point to. He said that he now holds the Senate seat of Herman Talmadge, an arch-segregationist. The Senate seat once held by Talmadge a generation or two ago. And he said, "That's why I love America.' He's a native son of Georgia and he was elected statewide, you know, despite the racial gap that has always existed in the South. But there were enough white voters of conscience who were willing to consider his candidacy on its merits, and he was heartened by that. And yet, he also looks around him and he talked about this to see efforts at voter suppression, not just in Georgia, but spreading from Georgia and Texas and Florida and other Southern states to states in other parts of the country. And so he wonders if there's going to be a backlash that imperils the very future of democracy in the country. That's why we have the subtitle, "A Story of Democracy in the Balance." And so, we see hope. And the book is part hope and part warning. Our attempt at that, one book, you know, only does what one book can do, but it's our pebble in the pond to say this is an important time and we all need to pay attention.
Frye Gaillard is a writer in residence at the University of South Alabama, former reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer and co-author of “The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance”
Cynthia Tucker is a journalist in residence at the University of South Alabama, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, former editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and co-author of “The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance”
Join Gaillard and Tucker live on Charlotte Talks on Monday, May 16, from 9-10 a.m. ET on WFAE.