Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ask an Author: Ed Williams Author of Liberating Dixie

On Monday, April 28 at 5:30 p.m., Ed Williams will discuss new book Liberating Dixie during our New South for the New Southerner series.  He'll join our staff historian Dr. Tom Hanchett for a wide-ranging conversation remembering notable Carolina characters, recalling Civil Rights history and contemplating the changing South.  Please meet Author and Journalist Ed Williams

Tell us about the book.

Liberating Dixie is a collection of writings from my 50 years as a Southern newspaperman. The characters range from Jesses Helms to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, with Bill Clinton, Ross Barnett and William Faulkner’s cow also making appearances.  The topics amount to a panorama of Southern life – politics, religion, race, gay rights, the arts, school  reform, college sports, the joys and challenges of family life, as well as Ed Williams’s rules for living. 

Tell about your experiences in the South.

I grew up in the border south, right on the Missouri-Arkansas line about 650 miles west of here. It's cotton country, flat and fertile from eons of flooding from nearby Mississippi River. When I went off to the University of Mississippi in 1960, I felt right at home in every way except one: I thought the Civil War had ended a century before. Many Mississippians didn't.

In the early 1960s Mississippi was celebrating the centennial of that war, and Gov. Ross Barnett was going to rallies clad in a Confederate officer's uniform and telling rapt audiences that their forefathers had fought for states' rights a century earlier and it was their turn to do it now. The state's right he had in mind was preservation of the Mississippi way of life, which included keeping the state segregated and its black residents subservient. Even at that early age it seemed to me unreasonable to think a state could exclude 40 percent of its population from the rights of citizenship, but to Gov. Barnett, and a lot of other Mississippians, it didn't.

That delusion was shattered when Mississippi native James Meredith won a court battle to become the first black student at Ole Miss. His admission sparked a riot on campus. Some students and a lot of angry outsiders attacked the U.S. marshals who had accompanied Meredith. Two men were killed before President John Kennedy sent in federal troops to restore order.

You said, "I believe hostility to dissent has been one of the most destructive burdens of Southern history. How so?

I was working for the student newspaper when Meredith was suing for admission to Ole Miss. The state's newspapers were almost unanimously favored resistance to ending segregation. It seemed to me the press in Mississippi had to bear some responsibility for the violence that broke out when Meredith was admitted.  The press had failed to acknowledge what was plain to see: That a system based on denying the vote and other basic rights of citizenship to 40 percent of its residents could not endure. Many Mississippians believed the demagogues because few voices were raised in disagreement – hardly any in state politics, and very few in the press. 

As a history major at Ole Miss, I became familiar with insights into Southern hostility toward dissent described in "The Mind of the South," the 1942 classic by Charlotte journalist W.J. Cash. The South’s enforcement of regional orthodoxy had  begun more than a century earlier to suppress criticism of slavery. Over time it broadened  to coerce conformity to virtually every  aspect of the Southern Way of Life, from racism to religion. Depending on the offense, the consequences for nonconformists might be mild or harsh, ranging from social disapproval to violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and its co-conspirators.

A Memphis newspaper I read growing up had this motto: "Give light and the people will find their own way." In too much of the South, the hostility  to dissent described by Cash kept people in the dark. 

How did working for The Charlotte Observer limit or  broaden your perspective? 

I came to The Observer as an editorial writer in 1973 because I thought it was the finest newspaper in the South. I still do. The Observer had no sacred cows. No topic was off limits. The newspaper's open and progressive philosophy freed me to write forthrightly about the most challenging and controversial issues of our time.

You have been a Southern journalist for half a century. What changes have you seen on those issues?

As suggested by the subtitle, "...from Ole Miss to Obama," one of the book's major themes is race. Racism is by no means dead, but our region's progress during my career is astounding. We're making progress on some other challenges, too. Look at the advances for women in politics and the workplace. Who would have imagined the rapid transition in society's attitude toward gays and lesbians? And yet some of the region's old problems still hold us back – poverty, poor health, failure to educate an alarming percentage of our children.

The Liberation of Dixie is not an achievement, it's a work in progress. Much remains to be done. But this is true, I think, about the South and about America: It will be better tomorrow than it is today. 

***

Share your story of the changing South with us below or on Facebook.

New South for the New Southerner: Ed Williams and Liberating Dixie
Monday, April 28, 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm
Free for Museum members, $12 for non-members. Includes program, wine and a Southern dinner from Mert's Heart and Soul! 
Reservations required: 704.333.1887 ext. 501 or rsvp@museumofthenewsouth.org
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