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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dabney defines southern liberalism over time

Dabney explains his political orientation as a southern liberal. His work with the Southern Regional Council (SRC) embodied a gradualist approach to race relations. He argues that the <cite>Brown</cite> ruling signaled a break from the older brand of moderate southern liberalism. Despite his liberal stance, Dabney contends that he was not ostracized, but was branded an idealist.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. 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

WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Did you have any type of arrangement with John Stewart Bryan, who was your publisher at that time?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, I didn't. You see, I was just a reporter on the News-Leader, and I left in '28 and went to the Times-Dispatch.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
O.K., the publisher there was . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Was Charles P. Hasbrook.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Did you have any type of arrangement of what he expected of you as an editor, what your rights and responsibilities were, what your duties would be, the extent of your determination of what the editorial page should be, after 1936?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
After 1936, Hasbrook left and was succeeded by Mark Ethridge, who was well known. He had been editor in Macon, Georgia and made a big impression there and was then brought here from the Washington Post. I don't know exactly what he was on the Washington Post, something very special, but I don't know what. They got him to come down to Richmond as publisher of the Times-Dispatch. He didn't stay very long because Barry Bingham on the Louisville Courrier-Journal lured him there and put him in charge. We didn't have any particular understanding about my position on issues. He was quite liberal and I was tending in that direction— probably more than I am now. Yet I sometimes wonder whether my position now is much less liberal than it was then; at that time, the issues were so different, and what seemed liberal in that era would be much less so today. Anyway, at that time, I was regarded as decidedly liberal. I was involved in the Southern Regional Council, which was trying to stir things up in the South generally on labor, race, sharecroppers, and things like that.
DANIEL JORDAN:
I wonder if you might comment on your sort of overall philosophy of what the editor should be and what the role of the editor is and then we might move into the topic of liberalism, which is of course, important.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
My feeling is that the editor ought to try to lead public opinion. Some people say that you shouldn't expect to have any influence as an editor, but it doesn't seem to me that that is a sound viewpoint. I may not have had any influence, but I hoped to have some. When I was writing signed articles every Sunday, I tried to, for example, influence public opinion in behalf of Al Smith and against Herbert Hoover. I wrote on the strikes in North Carolina textile mills and how the employers were beating up and even shooting union organizers, which seemed to me to be pretty outrageous. I wrote on prohibition a lot and the indefensible things that were happening there. Prohibition agents were shooting people for carrying whiskey in their cars. I didn't believe in prohibition anyway. My father was a director of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and that didn't go over well with some of the dry legislators in the Virginia General Assembly, one of whom tried to get him fired from the U. Va. faculty for being a director of the Association Against the 18th Amendment. I think that an editor ought to take a position and not just reflect what is happening. He should try to be ahead of the public and mold the public opinion in a certain direction, as he sees it.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Now, we mentioned souther liberalism and you wrote an important book on liberalism in the South and were regarded as a southern liberal. I wonder if we might move into that general topic and perhaps begin with a sort of working definition of what liberalism in the South would be in the 1930s and '40s.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I think that a southern liberal at that time was in favor of doing something about the rural South, getting some kind of better deal for the sharecroppers, white or black, also try to change race relations gradually. Everybody knew that it couldn't be done quickly, but we wanted to move toward a better relationship between the races and a better deal for the blacks. We felt that segregation was here to stay, at least for the present. You couldn't even talk about abolishing segregation at that time. I was not in favor of it and very few people were, The Southern Regional Council was trying to bring about progress for the Negroes within the "separate but equal" formula. It became more and more obvious that there wasn't any equality. As a practical matter, the schools, overall, were not equal, housing conditions were not, the manner in which the streets were maintained in the cities was altogether unequal. We tried for some years to see if we could bring about changes so as to move substantially in the direction of equality, but we just couldn't get many people to go along. Most business people thought that we were stirring things up unnecessarily. "Why don't you just shut up and let it go away." was the attitude. We didn't think anything would ever happen to improve matters substantially if we did shut up. There were some Negro leaders who were very aware of the difficulties. In Richmond there was Dr. Gordon B. Hancock, who was a Negro minister and a graduate of Colgate and Harvard who had studied at Oxford. He was a very sane, moderate man. He knew the difficulties that existed and realized that you couldn't go headlong just trying to tear into everybody with a meatax, as Mencken was doing— trying to force people to change. You had to persuade them and show them the reasonableness of what you were trying to do. The Southern Regional Council got just a handful of white business and professional men and women who would cooperate. One bank official and one lawyer worked with us, but by and large, you just couldn't get most leading whites to go along. Colgate Warder joined up and then a few ministers and newspaper editors. We made little headway. Dr. Hancock made a quite significant speech at one point in which he said, "It is important that the leadership on the race issue and the leadership of the Negro race be in Atlanta rather than in New York." He felt that if we kept it in Atlanta, we could control the situation and move on gradually. But we couldn't get enough people to see that' with the result that the NAACP in New York began moving very much faster than we thought was wise and pushed aggressively for the Supreme Court decision that came in '54. We were hoping that we could bring the South along more rapidly and delay that decision until we were more ready for it.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Is it possible to "type" a southern liberal in the '30s and '40s? We are dealing with a small number of people, of course, but what kind of person would have been in the southern liberal movement?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
You mean the type of individual . . .
DANIEL JORDAN:
Or the names . . . well, both. I think that you covered some of the principles, but I am interested in the types of individuals. There was a handful of newspaper editors perhaps, or academic types?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well yes, those were two of the principal categories. Howard Odum was one. Ralph McGill was one, Mark Ethridge . . . I'm trying to think of some other individuals.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Louis Jaffe. Didn't he win a Pulit zer Prize?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, he was one. I don't think that he was at that first conference in Atlanta in '44. The Durham conference of blacks occurred in the fall of '43 and they had issued a statement or manifesto asking for progress in certain areas, but they didn't ask for integration. They specifically stayed away from that. They wanted to work within the separate but equal framework at that time.
DANIEL JORDAN:
I think that we will pick up the Southern Regional Council shortly, but could you comment on the evolution of your own views. I think that you said your father was on the conservative side. The Depression apparently made an impression on you, Mencken made an impression on you, but how do you account for your own liberal views at the time?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I've been puzzling over that, Dan, and I am a little bewildered to know myself. It seems to have been a gradual process. The textile strikes in the South awakened me to the injustices in that area. Seeing the conditions under which Negroes in Richmond lived and over the South, the unbelieveable squalor and the conditions in the schools. The fact that these black children were going to school in totally unsatisfactory buildings with teachers who weren't really well trained, and the children were having to by-pass white schools to go miles to colored schools. The wage scales that were paid to domestics . . . when I was young, I just never thought about that at all and even when I was in college. But later on, it just seemed that they couldn't possibly lead a decent life on these really ridiculous rates of pay. There was no minimum wage, and they were simply paid what people were accustomed to paying and had been paying for generations. hat situation combined to gradually awaken me to the fact that something ought to be done. The conditions in industry were weighted heavily on the side of management. I joined the newspaper guild before it affiliated with the CIO. It was just an organization of newspaper reporters and newspaper people in the early '30s. We were conscious of the fact that the pay of newspapermen was absolutely preposterous. I remember that we got a star reporter from Birmingham, one of the top men down there on the Birmingham News, and paid him $28 a week. That was the sort of thing that was going on. There was a two-week vacation if you didn't get sick. If you got sick, you got no vacation. I got the measles one year and the pink eye on top of it and I got no vacation at all.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Well, Mr. Dabney, any one of these points that you are talking about that you supported or opposed are things that are pretty traditionally accepted in Virginia. Pretty traditionally accepted by the newspapers of Virginia, the business community of Virginia. I'm talking about the lower wages, the anti-labor thing, the anti-guild thing for example. How could you support these things and work for what has to be considered an establishment newspaper, the Times-Dispatch? How could you support these things or fight against these things that you have mentioned, when obviously they were supported by the Richmond community to a great extent, the business community and the newspapers?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I was very much criticized for it. People thought that I was some kind of wild-eyed idealist, a balmy individual who was not aware of the realities and "why did I keep stirring things up?" I may be getting ahead of the story, but I first began working on segregation on streetcars in '43. Is that too far ahead?
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, we'll be picking it up again, but it might serve as an illustration.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, it does illustrate the point. Many of my friends were against that, feeling that I was trying to change something that had been going on for generations and that if I just wouldn't talk about it, there wouldn't be any trouble. A friend of mine now, who is a prominent surgeon and retired, he's in his eighties now and has now completely changed on the race issue. At that time, he was a good friend of mine but he didn't know what in the world had gotten into me to be stirring this thing up. He came to see me and said, "What do you want to do this for? You are just making things worse. If you don't write about it, it will subside. The Negroes are perfectly content." Well, he told me the other day, "I have changed completely my views on this whole question."
DANIEL JORDAN:
Were you ever socially ostracized or threatened?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Not really, no. I wasn't persona grata with some people, but they didn't say anything much, they just sort of shook their heads.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
How about your publisher? Any reaction from him?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, he was remarkably nice about it. What happened was that when the papers merged, Mr. Bryan became publisher of both papers in 1940 and the agreement was that he was not to interfere with the editorial policy of the Times-Dispatch. You see, he had published the News Leader over a long period. He acquiesced in that because he thought it was desirable to have two conflicting points of view. Nobody wanted to cook up opposing viewpoints arbitrarily, but if the two editors were in sincere disagreement, there would be no objection—at least within limits. Even when I broke loose on the streetcar thing, he didn't raise any fuss. Actually, Mr. Bryan was a liberal on the race issue.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You mentioned your surgeon friend changing his mind. I know that you were quoted at the time of your retirement as having felt that you had become more conservative on some questions through the years. Looking back at the 1930's, have you changed your mind about any stands that you took then, or if you could do it over so to speak?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, I don't think I have changed my mind in any substantial way. The reason that I suppose I am regarded as conservative is that I really am conservative in relation to say, Ted Kennedy, or McGovern, or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. These are what we call "liberal" today. I consider myself conservative by comparison with each of them. And I certainly vastly prefer Governor Mills Godwin to Henry Howell. I believe that if Henry Howell were elected governor, he would do a lot of things that are contrary to what I think is good for Virginia. He seems to me to be demagogic and intellectually dishonest. But as for the race problem, I am in favor of everything that I favored in 1934.