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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Hodding Carter, April 1, 1974. Interview A-0100. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Despite opposition, Mississippians live with desegregation

Carter describes post-desegregation Mississippi, where desegregation was neither as complete nor as damaging as many predicted. Even as white parents, administrators, and others played games to keep their children out of integrated environments, these white Mississippians found themselves released from an oppressive racial ideology.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Hodding Carter, April 1, 1974. Interview A-0100. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

HODDING CARTER:
One, we're too poor. I mean for a lot of parents to be able to afford 4-5-600 dollars a year for their kids is part of it. The second thing is that the reality is that when you get outside of the mythology and you leave the Delta and about ten other counties, whites are in a sizeable majority. And tilt points don't happen to occur at 20 or 30%. So that people discovered that blacks weren't really taking over the schools. Third, the public schools in many places were integrated from portal to portal but not from class to class and there's an awful lot of games like that being played right now. So that in effect you were preserving your children in what were basically white classes anyway. The third thing is, the public schools are mighty hard for Mississippians to abandon as it turns out. Daddy always used to say the reason they wouldn't be integrated in many of these communities was that they were so vital as community centers, as the focus for so much of the life. Well, that was a good argument. But once there was no question that they had to be integrated, they still remained vital and in the consciousness of many of the people unknown they were still the center of the community and were not so easily abandoned as we had once thought they would be. Simply because they formed so much of the history and the vital uniting element of that community. It's hard to give up your old football team for a lot of people. And you know lots of things which I think had its effect. But you can't ignore just the simple effect of economics on this thing.
JACK BASS:
How much of a role did conscience play in that? You know, somewhere in there you had to make a decision.
HODDING CARTER:
I think a lot. But it sort of begs the basis of your question for me to say that. Which is, you know, a lot of conscience involved. How come it didn't express itself earlier? Or why would everybody have been so universal in their predictions that it wasn't there strong enough to prevent—And I don't have a handy-dandy answer for that. Just have to give you all these other—
WALTER DE VRIES:
This brings me back to a point you mentioned earlier. You thought there was a lot of moderation out there earlier and it was kind of released when unknown . . .
HODDING CARTER:
. . . a minority, which was released. Yes, I do.
WALTER DE VRIES:
I have a little trouble understanding that.
HODDING CARTER:
Oh well, it's not too hard.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Where was the power in this oppression?
HODDING CARTER:
The power of the oppression was in the conscious acts through history from Reconstruction on. And an entire rewriting of history and an absolute demand by those who reshaped society and the redemption. All built around one fundamental thing: that any white who didn't agree with the white majority was more than a dissenter, he was a traitor, and was to be treated as a traitor would be treated in wartime. Which is that economically he should be destroyed; physically intimidated. Those business council pamphlets back in 55 used to say it best. I mean, never said anybody ought to be killed, but said there were ways to deal with it which we in our Delta—where it started—had always known how to do. And there were just one hell of a lot of people who were just scared. I'll tell you the truth. I'll tell you who's really free in Mississippi for the first time. It's not the black man, who still is economically, you know, about as much in bondage as he ever was. By God, the white Mississippian is free. The civil rights announcement has, since 54, have freed up some people. You can't write Mississippi the closed society any more. And an awful lot of whites are never going to go back willingly. You talk about what would happen if the feds pull away. Well, more than what would happen to blacks, there are a hell of a lot of whites who aren't just going to lie down and let them roll over them again and let, you know, five guys sitting in a small room decide what's acceptable for the people to say publicly and what you're allowed to do in your home and what your children can do and who they're going to associate with. That's the hardest thing for me to remember now—how tiny a thing you could do ten years ago and be in desperate difficulty. You know, what few dissenting remarks could destroy you politically. Or make you fear for your job, or if you were a minister get you run the hell out of the state—as an awful lot of young ministers discovered in the early sixties. That just doesn't happen like that anymore.
JACK BASS:
But seriously, Hodding, in your opinion, how much was the question of having to make a moral judgment a factor in preserving the public school system on the part of whites who could afford to send their children to private schools?
HODDING CARTER:
It was, for many whites who could afford it, and is, a matter of most agonizing kind of moral choice. And one of the reasons why decisions among old friends on this subject has been so great, right here, is simply because it was perceived finally not as a, just a simple decision about where your children goes to school but a moral question. Which those who made on either side felt pretty damn strongly about. And an awful lot of people lost their battles with their consciences—and that's me talking, on my side of the line you understand. And I see it that way. And a lot of other people surprized themselves by standing and then discovering, much to their fury, that people who they had always respected as being moderates or people who cared about the community first had suddenly deserted them. Here they decided to stay in the public schools and they look around and this person who they had always understood to be brighter, or more of a moderate, or whatever, is off to the state academy. And a lot of friendships have been ruptured around here just because of that. An awful lot. It may not be true all over the Delta, because in some of the communities the capitulation was just total—hardly any whites left. But it sure as hell is here.