August 13, 2010 § 2 Comments

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  — William Faulkner in REQUIEM FOR A NUN

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” — L.P. Hartley in THE GO-BETWEEN

No region of our nation has revered, understood, embraced, been bedevilled by and romanticized its past more than has the South.  Much of the South’s history since the Civil War has been the history of evolving race relations in a culture determined to preserve inviolate its notion of its past.  Beginning in the 1950’s, however, the irresistable force of change in the form of the civil rights movement collided head-on with the immovable object in the form of “massive resistance,” and the resulting explosion that destroyed the foundation of segregation began the transformation of southern culture that continues to this day.

Bill May called my attention to DIXIE, by Curtis Wilkie.  I had seen this book in various book stores (as I had seen its author, Mr. Wilkie, around Oxford), but had passed it over.  On Bill’s recommendation, I got a copy and read it. 

On its face, DIXIE is a history of the South’s agonizing journey through the watershed era of the civil rights movement and into the present, a chronicle of the events that shook and shattered our region and sent shock waves across the nation.  The events and figures parade across his pages in a comprehensive panorama:  The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith and the riot at Ole Miss, Ross Barnett, Jimmy Carter, Eudora Welty, Brown v. Board of Education, Freedom Summer, Aaron Henry, the Ku Klux Klan, the struggle for control of the Democratic Party in Mississippi, White Citizens Councils, sit-ins, John Bell Williams, William Winter, Willie Morris, Charles Evers, Byron de la Beckwith and Sam Bowers, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, William Waller, the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, and more.  As a history of the time and how the South tore itself out of the crippling grip of the past, the book is a success.

The great charm and charisma of this book, however, is in the way that Wilkie weaves his own, personal history through the larger events, revealing for the reader how it was to be a southerner in those days, both as an average bystander and as an active participant.

The author grew up in Mississippi, hopscotching around the state until his mother lighted in the town of Summit.  His recollection of life in the late 40’s and 50’s in small-town Mississippi echoes the experiences of many of us who were children in those years, and will enlighten those who came along much later. 

Wilkie was a freshman at Ole Miss when James Meredith enrolled there in 1962, sparking the riot that ironically spurred passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  On graduation Wilkie took a job with the Clarksdale newspaper and developed many contacts in Mississippi politics that eventually led him to be a delegate at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he was an eyewitness to the calamitous events there.

Through a succession of jobs, Wilkie wound up a national and middle-eastern corresondent for the BOSTON GLOBE, and even a White House Correspondent during the Carter years.  His observations and first-hand accounts of his personal dealings with many of the leading figures of history through the 60’s and 70’s are fascinating.

The author

When he had left the South, Wilkie believed he was leaving behind a tortured land where change could never take place, and where he could never feel at home with his anti-racism views and belief in racial reconciliation.  He saw himself as a romantic exile, a quasi-tragic figure who could never go home again, but over time he found the northeast lacking, and he found the South tugging at him whenever he returned on assignment.  

When his mother became ill, Wilkie persuaded his editor to allow him to return south, and he moved to New Orleans, from where he covered the de la Beckwith and Bowers Klan murder trials and renewed his acquaintanceship with many Mississippi political and cultural figures, including Willie Morris, Eudora Welty and William Winter.  He began to discover that the south had undergone a sea change in the years that he was away, and that the murderous, hard edge of racism and bigotry had been banished to the shadowy edges, replaced largely by people of good will trying their best to find a way to live together harmoniously.  He found a people no longer dominated by the ghosts of the ante-bellum South.       

In the final chapter of the book, Wilkie is called home for the funeral of Willie Morris, and the realization arises that he is where he needs to be — at home in the South.  His eloquent end-note answered a question Morris had posed to him some years before: “Curtis, can you tell us why you came home?”  Wilkie’s response:

Just as Vernon Dahmer, Jr. had said, I, too believe I came home to be with my people.  We are a different people, with our odd customs and manner of speaking and our stubborn, stubborn pride.  Perhaps we are no kinder than others, but it seems to me we are  …  We appreciate our history and recognize our flaws much better than our critics.  And like our great river, which overcomes impediments by creating fresh channels, we have been able in the span of Willie’s lifetime and my own to adjust our course.  Some think us benighted and accursed, but I like to believe the South is blessed with basic goodness.  Even though I was angry with the South and gone for years, I never forsook my heritage.  Eventually, I discovered that I had always loved the place.  Yes, Willie, I came home to be with my people.

Those of you who lived through the troubled years recounted here will find that Wilkie’s accounts bring back memories that are sometimes painful and sometimes sweet.  For readers who are too young to recall that era, this book is an excellent history as well as an eye-opening account of what it was like to grow up in that South.

Wilkie’s new book, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ZEUS, about the Scruggs judicial bribery scandal, is due out in October.

Wilkie and visiting Harvard students in the Circle at Ole Miss at the site of the 1962 riot

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  • bellesouth says:

    Thanks for this review. I am reading Dixie now and it really hits home; all I can say.!

  • bill may says:

    Excellent review of “Dixie”… an incredible read for those of us who grew up in those remarkable and turbulent times.

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