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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Reflections on the likelihood of integration in the immediate post-WWII years

Gordon confronts the question of whether or not racial change would have occurred in the South, using the situation in Atlanta as a lens, during the immediate post-World War II years. At the time, Gordon recalls that he believed because of the interaction between educated whites and African Americans, segregation would fall on its own accord within a matter of months. Despite this optimism, however, Gordon believes in retrospect that good intentions were not enough to confront the deeply engrained racial prejudices.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. 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:
In that ten year period when you lived in Atlanta that spans the time when the South went from rigid, unyielding segregation by law and by common practice to the post-Brown time when it had to be clear by then to just about everybody that it was going to change. It was going to take some time apparently but it was going to change. As you think back on that now do you think you could see in 1948 or '49 or '50 that this was going to happen? Or did it seem kind of almost inconceivable that the white South was going to yield to that and change its practices?
WILLIAM GORDON:
I got a feeling that back in '48, '49 and the early '50s that there was something at work. Of course, Atlanta is unique in the terms of southern cities because of its location and all of that. Memphis was much more rigid in terms of segregation, more of a diehard situation. What I could see merging to the front was more enlightened-the change of attitude by the white leadership, in particular, towards more respect for the blacks by bringing blacks into the total picture of the economy. I could see and feel that. I saw it in the teachers and especially in the white leadership. In Atlanta, in particular, there had long been a close working relationship between the white educated elite and the blacks. They used to meet at Atlanta University. We ran in Atlanta, at the YMCA-we used to run a thing called the Hungry Club and it was integrated. We would invite white speakers and whites would come and sit. . . .
JOHN EGERTON:
Was it under the Atlanta U. auspices?
WILLIAM GORDON:
No, this was under the YMCA. This is where I met Harold Fleming because The Southern Regional Council was there. They were located on Auburn Avenue.
JOHN EGERTON:
Was it organized at the Negro YMCA?
WILLIAM GORDON:
It was organized at the Negro YMCA but the whites would come to the Negro YMCA. I could see a further break in it when once as editor of the paper I was invited to speak to young white groups around the area, the Jaycees in particular. One day I was invited to speak to the Jaycees. They met in the white YMCA uptown in Atlanta. I spoke there and there were a lot of young whites in there. I remember one young white fellow followed me all the way down to Auburn Avenue. He said, "you know, if you hadn't come and spoken to us I never would have met you. But now I can see what is needed more for us to come together and work together as people." Then we got involved in the-not only the Jaycees-AVC, the Americans Veterans Committee.
JOHN EGERTON:
You were a member of that?
WILLIAM GORDON:
I became a member of that and Harold Fleming was involved with that. I met people like Harold Fleming, Johnny Glustrum from Atlanta, and many of the young whites at that time. I could see this all emerging. This is Atlanta now, of course, but, when I went into Memphis I could see a change. The younger whites were seeing in a completely different light than the elders see. They saw the handwriting on the wall.
JOHN EGERTON:
What would you say to the notion that that period of time from the end of the War to about 1950 until things kind of turned nasty with all the anit-communist hysteria and the election defeat of Claude Pepper and Frank Porter Graham and Jim Folsum and some of those folks, up until that time there was a period of four or five years when it looked like maybe the more liberal progressive people in the South, white and black, might decide to come to grips with this problem and try to work out something better, but they wouldn't do it?
WILLIAM GORDON:
You are right about that. I think they wanted to do it but they were silent on the whole subject. A lot of them were, "if I do it I don't want to be ridiculed by my neighbors." There is still a lot of that today. People like the Talmadges whom I got to know later on, who were not as badas-I mean, Herman Talmadge, ( ). A lot of this was done for political reasons. I think people like Dr. [Benjamin] Mays, and Dr. [Rufus] Clement were at Atlanta University were working quietly to change these things, but the moment these problems came to the surface. . . . For a long time, even in Little Rock, living in the cities, blacks and whites lived in very close proximity. But when we began to point out these things then there was this feeling that maybe we shouldn't do this, maybe I shouldn't send my child to these schools.
JOHN EGERTON:
People lost their nerve.
WILLIAM GORDON:
Lost their nerve. I think a lot of that was going on. I was naive about some of the things because when I went to the woman who used to write for The Constitution she interviewed me after the 1954 decisions and she said, "what is your feeling about this?" I said, "well, I think in six months or a year you won't know tha segregation ever existed." She said, "are you sure about that?"
JOHN EGERTON:
You were wrong about that.
WILLIAM GORDON:
I was wrong about it because the moment these things come to the surface there is always some element in there that is going to exploit it for the worse. It always happens like that.