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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Southern leaders have varying opinions on racial problems

Fleming compares the approaches of three well-known southern intellectuals to racial issues. Howard Odum wanted to subsume racial issues in a global perspective and Ralph McGill hoped to address specific racial problems without criticizing southern society. In contrast, Virginius Dabney only pretended to criticize segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. 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

JOHN EGERTON:
Odum wasn't out there in the . . .
HAROLD FLEMING:
Odum had a very interesting approach. In many ways he was the godfather of the southern regional idea stemming from his great work, Southern Regions. His idea was to bypass race entirely. He never envisioned a racial advocacy organization. He wanted to see a Southern Regional Council that was addressed to the whole broad development, 20th century development of the South, economically, socially, culturally, in which race would sort of get lost in the grand design, the euphoria of marching into the future. He wasn't really very happy about what happened to the Southern Regional Council when it turned out that. . . . It's funny that a man of his intellect couldn't have seen that there was no way you could stand in some broad ground. A lot of people wanted to do this. They wanted to be a Fulbright, take the high ground, the world view, the grand international role for this country and the South fulfilling its grand tradition in the nation on these broad issues of industrial development. Henry Grady was a perfect prototype for all this.
JOHN EGERTON:
You don't get any mud on your spats.
HAROLD FLEMING:
No, and it's beneath you to sit around and be screeching about water fountains and busses and bus stations and things like that. That's beneath you. Fulbright would never. Hell, he's a man of renown, a world leader.
JOHN EGERTON:
Odum sort of falls in that category.
HAROLD FLEMING:
Well, Odum was in a different line of country from Fulbright and Henry Grady. He wasn't a journalist, he wasn't an international figure, he wasn't a senator.
JOHN EGERTON:
He was a scholar.
HAROLD FLEMING:
He was a major scholar and I think, unlike the others, he was not really in this for his personal aggrandizement. That wasn't what he was about. He was living in his head and he had built the body of work and a vision of the South moving toward a grand destiny of developing and modernizing and leading in the nation. Drawing on all its good traits, so to speak, its good traditions, its insights, its intellectual leadership, its cultural resources. There's a lot to that. But, drawing on those things and in the process without ever having to look at it straight on and talk about it straight out, transcending the race thing, rising above it.
JOHN EGERTON:
In contrast to him, think of somebody like his boss, Frank Porter Graham, the head of the University. A man who by all rights should have been on a loftier plane, more remote, more aloof, more distanced and yet he was in the thick of everything that went on. How do you account for that, the differences? Is it just personality, the two of them? Or were they ideologically, philosophically separated?
HAROLD FLEMING:
Oh, I think it's to be viewed in the totality of the personal development of the people involved. That's the only way I know to account for it. You have to look at the person's whole formative history to figure that out as to why they react in a certain way. Dr. Frank was a remarkable guy. Another guy who was not nearly as saintly in some ways as Graham, but take this tortured, ambivalent creature, wonderful guy, Ralph McGill. McGill suffered over this stuff a lot and his ambivalence which most people today, particularily the younger people, just cannot yet fathom. I can't tell you how many of them I have talked too say, "why did he do this, why did he fink out on this ocassion, why did he say this at one time, why didn't he stand up consistently?" It's like saying, "why didn't that quarterback Montana throw the ball that way all the time?" The answer is that he was ambivalent, he didn't want to cut himself off from his society. He was devoted to his journalistic career and he was interested in a whole lot of things. He didn't want to be narrowly defined as a race mixing advocate as Rastus McGill, which is what they called him in Georgia, the segs. But, he couldn't help himself. He would see these naked examples of absolute cruelty and injustice and he would just respond spontaneously. He couldn't help it. Frank was like that too. He was less ambivalent than McGill and was much more willing and more readily accepted his moral imperatives. I think it was sort of a ‘with God helping me I can do no other, I've reached this stage of preception about it and I just can't duck it, I can't evade it.’
JOHN EGERTON:
When do you think McGill reached that point?
HAROLD FLEMING:
He reached it very incrementally, and gradually. I don't think he reached it fully until very late in his career, his life.
JOHN EGERTON:
Around Brown time or later?
HAROLD FLEMING:
Later. When you say fully he was like most of us, he was still reaching it. It's like saying, when have you fully matured? You don't ever fully mature. But he had gotten very confortable with the role by the bus, I would say. Confortable for him, anyway.
JOHN EGERTON:
Think of him in contrast to Dabney. They were moving almost in opposite directions. They kind of passed out there. If you look at Dabney's record he was liberal on paper. In the early 30s he wrote a book called, Liberalism In The South. He was a classic civil libertarian. He took a lot of positions in those early years that were in defense of individual liberties.
HAROLD FLEMING:
He didn't take any position against segregation, though.
JOHN EGERTON:
No, he never did, except for one time-and even this you have to qualify-in 1943, he took an editorial position in favor for eliminating the segregation laws in Richmond and in the state of Virginia having to do with segregated buses and streetcars and whatnot.
HAROLD FLEMING:
That was the area in which most moderates found it easiest to depart from the full shiboleth of segregation.
JOHN EGERTON:
In any case, he could find a way to speak in a moderate to progressive voice at least enough that he had a lot of people convinced in the early 40s that he was one of the people to look to for guidance, leadership and whatnot.