2016-03-10 / Top News

Southern Raised

BY BILL CORNWELL
Florida Weekly Correspondent

IN 1983, JESSE JACKSON UNDERTOOK an ill-advised run for the Democratic presidential nomination, which was to be conferred the next year at the party’s national convention in San Francisco. To that end, the peripatetic civil rights activist hopscotched the country in a failed attempt to fashion something that might vaguely resemble a political base.

In that pre-Obama era, the notion that an African-American might seriously aspire to the White House was extraordinary, to say the least, and Mr. Jackson’s outsized personality further piqued the widespread interest and curiosity. The newspaper I worked for at the time assigned me to chronicle the loquacious candidate’s quixotic pursuit; I spent 17 days traveling with him.

I got to know him just a bit during this time, and so it came to pass that on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, as he nursed glasses of apple juice and I did likewise with tumblers of Jack Daniel’s, our conversation turned to matters more personal than political.


The Rev. Jesse Jackson at a rally in 1983 in California. The author and Mr. Jackson both grew up in the South; their experiences differed. 
RON GALELLA, LTD./ WIREIMAGE The Rev. Jesse Jackson at a rally in 1983 in California. The author and Mr. Jackson both grew up in the South; their experiences differed. RON GALELLA, LTD./ WIREIMAGE As is so often the case, when two or more Southerners come together, either by choice or — as in this case — by happenstance, the talk turned to coming of age in Dixie.

Our experiences differed.

I am white, for starters, and I was born in 1949, making me eight years Mr. Jackson’s junior. I came from a stable family of means rooted in Decatur, Georgia, an agreeable suburb of Atlanta. Mr. Jackson was born out of wedlock in rural Greenville, S.C., to a 16-year-old woman who had fallen prey to the charms of a 33-year-old married neighbor. Discrimination and racism — things I had witnessed but only from the standpoint of the oppressors — were hallmarks of his early existence.


President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, shortly before he was assassinated. At the author’s Georgia high school, there were cheers that day in 1963 when it was learned the president had been shot. 
COURTESY PHOTO President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, shortly before he was assassinated. At the author’s Georgia high school, there were cheers that day in 1963 when it was learned the president had been shot. COURTESY PHOTO Mr. Jackson told me he was convinced, as a youth, that if he escaped Jim Crow’s pernicious thrall, he could make his mark. And so, with great enthusiasm, he had accepted a football scholarship to the University of Illinois. Finally, he had what he so desperately wanted: a paid ticket out of the benighted South.

His high hopes were dashed, quickly and rudely.

He learned that even in the “enlightened” North, not everyone was enamored with the prospect of a black quarterback leading the Fighting Illini. Even more searing was his experience when he auditioned for the debate team. The coach told him that despite his obvious rhetorical gifts, he never would be regarded as a serious speaker until he had shed his “Southern Negro accent.”


The 1963 March on Washington was one of the largest marches in the turbulent ’60s. 
COURTESY PHOTO The 1963 March on Washington was one of the largest marches in the turbulent ’60s. COURTESY PHOTO Dismayed and disheartened, Mr. Jackson left the University of Illinois after one year and transferred to North Carolina A&T, a predominantly black institution. It was a move that only months earlier would have seemed incomprehensible.

“I was totally unprepared for the hypocrisy of the North,” he said. “In the South, you knew who your enemies were because they would tell you, to your face, exactly what they thought. I did not like that, but I could deal with it better than the backstabbing in the North.”

Dark and edgy times

Mr. Jackson’s experience mirrors the agonizing ambivalence that many native Southerners of my generation, both black and white, feel about the region.


The Ku Klux Klan contributed to the chasm. 
COURTESY PHOTO The Ku Klux Klan contributed to the chasm. COURTESY PHOTO There was much to love about the South of the 1950s and ’60s, my formative years. But there was plenty to scorn as well. During those two decades, the Deep South was a dark and edgy place as white Southerners realized they were on the losing end of yet another great war, although this one was a conflict involving cultural and social values and not military in nature.

There was a palpable sense of foreboding and outright fear that I could detect, even as a child.

Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that outlawed segregation in public schools), the sit-ins at restaurants and lunch counters, the influx of Northern civil rights workers (who were seen as lineal descendants of the hated carpetbaggers), the voter-registration drives, the marches that featured the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 were signal events that devastated the Southern psyche as surely as the capitulation at Appomattox had nearly 100 years before.


An all-too-familiar sign seen in the segregated South. 
COURTESY PHOTO An all-too-familiar sign seen in the segregated South. COURTESY PHOTO The widespread loathing of JFK came about through a confluence of circumstances that absolutely terrified white Southerners. He was thought to be a liberal on racial matters, he was a New England Yankee and he was a Roman Catholic (Georgia, in particular, has a long, shameful history of anti-Catholicism), which meant that many Southerners believed his principal allegiance was to the Vatican and not to the United States.

When President Kennedy’s death was announced at my high school, scattered cheers echoed in the corridors.

“I didn’t know Lady Bird (Lyndon Johnson’s wife) was that good of a shot,” quipped one of my teachers upon learning of the assassination.


Survivors of the Battle of Olustee at the dedication of the battlefield monument in 1912 at Olustee, Florida. The author’s great-grandfather fought in the battle. 
COURTESY FLORIDA MEMORY Survivors of the Battle of Olustee at the dedication of the battlefield monument in 1912 at Olustee, Florida. The author’s great-grandfather fought in the battle. COURTESY FLORIDA MEMORY When we returned to school after that long weekend of grieving, another teacher told me the wall-to-wall television coverage of the assassination and its aftermath was annoying and unnecessary.

“The guy’s dead,” this molder of young minds said. “What more is there to say? Let’s move on to something else.”

Familial eccentricities

My family was not immune to the hysteria that roiled the South as the civil rights era unfolded. I didn’t think much of it, to be honest, because most families I knew succumbed to some degree. I vividly recollect hearing in the early 1960s a mild-mannered and seemingly reasonable uncle ask a gathering of relatives who had assembled in our living room: “When is somebody going to put a bullet in that nigger’s head?”


BATTLE OF OLUSTEE BY KURZ AND ALLISON BATTLE OF OLUSTEE BY KURZ AND ALLISON He was referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not too many years later, James Earl Ray did precisely that.

As a rule, though, the expressions of defiance emanating from my home were more absurd than hateful. When racial violence reached alarming proportions in Alabama, civil rights leaders called for a boycott of the jams and jellies manufactured and sold under the “Bama” label. Upon hearing this, my father dispatched my mother to the grocery store to buy every Bama product she could find. For months, the weight of these fruit spreads strained the shelves of our pantry, which had come to resemble a Bama warehouse.

(A word here about my mother, Mildred Estelle Hall Cornwell, a lover of poetry and language who died in 1968 at the age of 58. She came from a sensible Southern family. Her father was a doctor in Atlanta who pioneered the use of radium in treating cancer. She shared little of my father’s Confederate zeal and seemed to view his effusions with a mixture of bemusement and goodnatured resignation. Shortly before their marriage, her future mother-in-law, my grandmother, told her: “You’ve got to understand one thing about the Cornwell men. They’re peculiar.”)


President John F. Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. 
COURTESY PHOTO President John F. Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. COURTESY PHOTO Another symbolic display of contrariness undertaken by my dad was his refusal to recognize Memorial Day. Never mind that he served with distinction in India and Burma in World War II and that he had retired from the Army Reserves as a full colonel. In his mind, Memorial Day, which was originally conceived in 1868 as a means of honoring the Union dead, was something to be hallowed only by Yankees. But he did celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, an observance concocted by a gaggle of little old ladies in Columbus, Georgia, in 1866, a full two years before the Northern version came into being.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. 
COURTESY PHOTO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. COURTESY PHOTO These familial eccentricities did not seem odd or even out of the ordinary. It was life, as I knew it. The awareness that something might be amiss in the society in which I lived did not begin to dawn until I was in my middle and late teens, and even then I took no righteous, principled stands. To have openly denounced the inequities of the day would have required courage far beyond my limited capacity.

Racism resurgence

Some might assert that revisiting those woeful days in the South is a thrashing of the proverbial dead horse. Nothing can be gained from such an undertaking at this late date, these naysayers reason.


Author Cornwell, second from left, at Atlanta’s Royal Peacock nightclub in 1965, with friends and a member of the house band. left. 
COURTESY PHOTO Author Cornwell, second from left, at Atlanta’s Royal Peacock nightclub in 1965, with friends and a member of the house band. left. COURTESY PHOTO To those who put forth that argument, I say: Open your eyes and look around. There is an undeniable resurgence of racial animus, religious intolerance and xenophobic fervor that parallels much of what I witnessed in Georgia all those many years ago.

This time, though, the contagion is not contained to a geographic region.

It is a national epidemic.

Many of the long-gone political demagogues of the Deep South, such as George C. Wallace, the pugnacious, race-baiting governor of Alabama, would undoubtedly find receptive and appreciative audiences in 21st century America. When things turn ugly (as they have now), it helps to look back in order to see where we may be headed.

Disrespect is everywhere

About three years after my conversation with Jesse Jackson aboard that airliner, I landed a job as an editor in California at one of the largest newspapers on the West Coast, where Southerners were as abundant as Eskimos.

Shortly after I arrived, my boss invited me to lunch. We discussed various aspects of my new position. Toward the end of the meal, he said he wanted to broach something sensitive and hoped I wouldn’t take offense.

He said that seven people already working at the paper had wanted my job, and they were bitterly disappointed at being passed over, especially so since I — the eventual hire — had been imported from the hinterlands of Alabama.

The last point, that I was a soft-spoken Southerner with a pronounced drawl, was especially galling to many within the newsroom, he said. Southerner plus drawl equates to “redneck” in the minds of many people, he explained.


The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated, is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. 
COURTESY PHOTO The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated, is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. COURTESY PHOTO What he told me came as no surprise; I had long been accustomed to the Southerner-as-hick conflation.

“They’re going to test you, to see if you’re smart enough, tough enough for the job,” he went on. “I just thought you should know.”

He was right. I was confronted early and often.

On one occasion, I held open the door to the company’s cafeteria so the classical music critic — an imperious, imposing woman with a phony-baloney British accent — could pass ahead of me. A Southern man always holds the door for a woman. No exceptions.

“I open my own goddamn doors, Mr. Alabama,” she said in a voice loud enough to edify everyone within earshot.


Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church, Unitarian, located in Washington, D.C., march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims. The banner, which says ‘No more Birminghams,’ shows a picture of the aftermath of the bombing. 
COURTESY PHOTO Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church, Unitarian, located in Washington, D.C., march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims. The banner, which says ‘No more Birminghams,’ shows a picture of the aftermath of the bombing. COURTESY PHOTO Stung and embarrassed, the only reply I could muster was, “I beg your pardon. I mistook you for a lady.”

I had been conditioned to expect slights based on Southern heritage. Disrespect, my father warned, lurked around every corner, and my antennae were forever raised. As a result, I am certain that over the years I have taken umbrage to innocent remarks that were in no way intended to offend.

Important insults

When I was a child, our family took a vacation to Washington, D.C. My father was a prominent mortgage banker in Atlanta, and he spent considerable time dealing with elites and congressional leaders in Washington.


At left: The four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11. At left: The four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11. Despite his small-town upbringing, a rube he was not. To the contrary, my dad was impeccable in his manners and his dress and a world traveler who explored the Himalayas on horseback well after he had celebrated his 70th birthday.

He was a man of towering intelligence. He had studied engineering and architecture at Georgia Tech, held a law degree and was featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine, which proclaimed him to be one of the foremost amateur genealogists in the United States.

He also was tough, blunt-spoken and demanding of others (just ask anyone who worked for him), but his spirit and heart held not a trace of meanness, which made his hardline, uncompromising and sometimes racially repugnant Confederate outpourings a puzzle to many who knew him.


Author Bill Cornwell 
COURTESY PHOTO Author Bill Cornwell COURTESY PHOTO One night in D.C. we went to a fancy restaurant he favored, and at the end of the meal a finger bowl was set before him. The waiter said, “Sir, please do not drink that water, it is for moistening your fingers.”

Well, that set Dad off. The resulting explosion drew the maitre d’, the general manager and finally the owner to our table.

Despite profuse apologies, my father could not, would not, be mollified. After several minutes of extreme unpleasantness, my parents, my older sister and I stalked out of the restaurant as unceremoniously as Robert E. Lee had retreated from Gettysburg.

“That waiter intentionally insulted me because he knew I was from the South,” Dad said later. “He thinks Southerners have never seen a finger bowl!”


The Warren Court, so-called because its chief justice was Earl Warren, in 1953. In 1954, the the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, beginning major changes across the South. 
COURTESY PHOTO The Warren Court, so-called because its chief justice was Earl Warren, in 1953. In 1954, the the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, beginning major changes across the South. COURTESY PHOTO As I matured, I came to understand my father’s maniacal Southern pride was a logical consequence of his being reared in Monticello, Georgia, about 60 miles southeast of Atlanta on the fringe of the Great Gnat Belt.

Monticello in 1907, the year of my father’s birth, was a town of fewer than 2,000 people. It had been plundered and terrorized by Union forces in 1864 as part of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. More than four decades later, the hostility townsfolk felt toward Yankees, blacks and outsiders remained strong.

Monticello was relatively prosperous in my father’s early years, thanks largely to King Cotton. Jasper County, of which Monticello is the seat, had some 70,000 acres devoted to the growing of the crop, and nearly 36,000 bales were produced annually. The good times ended in 1915, when the boll weevil — cotton’s Kryptonite — made its way to Georgia and Monticello’s fields were laid bare.

This outwardly placid little town was actually a place that countenanced stunning explosions of racially motivated violence, none of which, thankfully, directly involved my forebears.

Between 1885 and 1920, 12 people were lynched in Monticello. That number included 11 African-Americans (nine men and two women) and one white man, according to statistics compiled by the Georgia Lynching Project at Emory University in Atlanta.

No one was arrested or tried for any of these murders, although in a place that small the identities of the perpetrators had to be known to just about everyone, including my kinfolk.

On the evening of Jan. 14, 1914, less than one month before my father’s 8th birthday, Monticello was home to one of the worst racial atrocities in the history of the Deep South.

One hundred white men stormed the county jail and removed a black man and his three grown children (a son and two daughters), who were held on charges of assaulting the white police chief who had arrested them for bootlegging. They were hanged and their bodies then tattooed with fusillades of bullets. The father died last, and it was a calculated move. His executioners wanted him to witness the deaths of his children.

Bitterness forever

Confederate war veterans were living and active when my father was a boy. He often recalled listening, wide-eyed and thrilled, to their tales of bloody battles in which Rebel soldiers were transformed into knights-errant, not at all unlike the chivalrous heroes who enlivened the writings of Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish author who was wildly popular in the Confederate South.

A central character in many of these stories passed along by the geriatric Southern warriors was my great-grandfather, William Dawson Cornwell —the Ivanhoe of Central Georgia, if you will. Known widely as “Captain Billy,” he was tall, trim and Rhett Butler-handsome. Billy, all agreed, cut a dashing figure in his dress grays.

In 1864, at the savage Battle of Olustee in Florida, Billy sustained a serious chest wound and was sent home to Monticello to recuperate and sit out the rest of the war. A few weeks later, he somehow mustered the strength to return to his outfit (Company A, 32nd Georgia Infantry) visibly diminished but determined to fight to the very end, which he did. His bloodstained battle sword, passed from generation to generation, remains the most sacred artifact in the Cornwell family. (It is now in the possession of my son, who, irony of ironies, lives in Massachusetts.)

After the war, Billy took up residence with his family on land near what is now Lake Jackson, just outside of Monticello. He fell into a deep depression and brooded over the Southern defeat. Frail and old beyond his years, Billy’s bitterness toward the North and the freed slaves festered. It also infected generations of Cornwells to come.

The chest wound my great-grandfather received at Olustee did not heal properly, rendering him prone to chronic respiratory ailments; it was the proximate cause of the pneumonia that finally killed him, in 1889 at the age of 53.

Family pilgrimages

The idolatry affixed to the Confederacy was in no way unique to the Cornwell clan, and it remains a distinctive part of Southern culture to this day, as recent flaps over the Confederate flag and Civil War monuments vividly illustrate.

“What differentiates white Southerners who defend Confederate symbols from the rest of us is their devotion to a heritage they perceive as being much more noble than it really was,” David Niose, former president of the American Humanist Association, wrote last year in Psychology Today. “There seems to be a sense that, because ancestors fought with honor for a cause they passionately believed, nothing else matters in assessing the historical legitimacy of the Confederate cause.”

Billy’s homestead at the river outlasted him by more than 100 years. It stood until the land changed hands a few years back and the new owners tore it down. The old place and its inhabitants had seen a lot: a civil war, Reconstruction, malaria outbreaks and even a violent earthquake in 1886 that left a long, jagged crack in the chimney. It was, I always thought, a rotting, forlorn monument to Captain Billy and his Lost Cause.

My father and I made periodic pilgrimages to Billy’s place. These journeys became increasingly fraught with tension as I grew older. I was changing, and my father sensed it, although he never would have guessed the extent of those changes.

Uneven segregation

By age 15, I — along with two likeminded friends, Robert Vining and Jimmy Leonard — was sneaking off to catch late-night shows at Atlanta’s Royal Peacock, the South’s most famous African American nightclub. While many of my contemporaries were smitten by the Beatles and other groups associated with The British Invasion, I favored black “soul” artists.

Every notable rhythm-and-blues performer of the 1960s — Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles and Chuck Jackson, to name but a few — performed there. It was at the Peacock (whose management blessedly never asked us to produce IDs proving that we were legally entitled to be there) that I first sampled Scotch and danced with a woman of color.

More often than not, Robert, Jimmy and I were the only white faces in the place, and although racial tensions were high, none of the black patrons — who were, on average, 15 to 20 years older than us — ever uttered an unkind word to the three white kids from suburbia.

Decatur, Georgia, when I was growing up, was not a hotbed of fervent racism, but that is not to say it was a citadel of tolerance. Those not raised in the South in the 1950s and ’60s wrongly assume that every town or city was as violent and extreme as Birmingham, Ala., or Philadelphia, Miss. That is simply untrue.

Former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, an Alabama native and an astute historian of the 20th century South, nailed it when he observed that “outsiders tend to think that segregation existed in a uniform way throughout the Solid South. But it didn’t. Segregation was rigid in some places, relaxed in others; leavened with humanity in some places, enforced with unremitting brutality in others.”

Decatur was one of those places where segregation was indeed “relaxed … (and) leavened with humanity.”

My high school, for example, integrated peacefully and without incident during my junior year. Black students may not have been welcomed with open arms, but they were not overtly stigmatized or subjected to abuse. Yes, there were stray, hurtful comments hurled their way, but crude behavior was by no means widespread, nor was it condoned by the school’s administration or most white students.

The whites were upset by the disruption of their social order, to be sure, but unlike other areas of the South, the people of Decatur grudgingly resigned themselves to the epic changes that were coming their way and resolved to make the best of what they saw as an extraordinarily bad situation.

The most outward manifestation of intolerance I can recall was a Ku Klux Klan rally held downtown when I was in grammar school. It was well attended, but many of those who showed up seemed to be curiosity seekers, not hardcore Klan disciples.

This relative tranquility might have come about because Decatur’s black residents chose not to provoke or test the white majority. Perhaps they were resigned to their dismal circumstances. I don’t know. Had widespread demonstrations and calls for change emanated from Decatur’s black community, who knows what the response would have been. For the most part, however, Decatur was a calm, quiet place, with its silent and largely unseen black residents confined to their cramped, rundown space, while their white counterparts occupied and controlled everything else.

Spurring transformation

Two things accelerated my disillusionment with Southern society.

The first was the bombing in 1963 of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young black girls (all about my age) were killed that Sunday morning, blown to kingdom come by a bomb planted by Klansmen. The sheer brutality of this act was too great to comprehend.

Many white Southerners speculated — and I heard this with my own ears — that “niggers, egged on by outside agitators, bombed the church themselves to stir up trouble and get sympathy.” It was a theory born of cynicism and hate that, even at the tender age of 14, I simply could not buy.

The second transformational occurrence involved a book by John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley.” In 1960, Mr. Steinbeck and his dog, Charley, set out on a journey across America in a camper. I must have been 15 or so when I read it. Although “Travels with Charley ” is light fare when held up against “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden” and “The Winter of Our Discontent,” in one portion of the book Mr. Steinbeck describes his encounters with screeching white women who were protesting integration in New Orleans. The vile racial slurs and frenzied behavior he recounted were oh-so familiar. Something — I’m not sure what — about seeing it spelled out on the printed page filled me with shame and regret.

By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I had come to view my surroundings as something akin to a federal minimum-security prison: fairly comfortable, but confining nonetheless.

I never talked to my Dad about our rapidly diverging views because I knew neither of us were going to change. In retrospect, that was a mistake on my part. I should have at least made the effort.

In 1975, I was working as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham. The church bombing, which remained unsolved at that time, still haunted me. I wrote a long piece for The Nation magazine detailing how Alabama authorities, who were sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, had thwarted the FBI’s investigation into this act of domestic terrorism.

It was my first published work in a national publication. My father, who did not approve of news reporting that cast the South in an unfavorable light, never acknowledged the article’s existence. I don’t even know if he ever looked at the copy of the magazine I gave to him.

Give and take

I’d like to think that for members of my generation who are given to thoughtful introspection, the positives of the Southern experience — the emphasis on manners and family, the courtliness, the respect for elders, the music, the sumptuous artery-clogging food, the grand tradition of storytelling and literature, the crisp fall afternoons spent in college football stadiums, the rich sense of history and place — outweigh the historical negatives, some of which remain unresolved.

An intrepid interviewer once asked Winston Churchill if his immoderate use of intoxicating beverages had diminished him in any way. His reply: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

On balance, I’d say — as with Sir Winston’s distilled spirits — I have taken more out of the South than the South has taken out of me.

But it is a close call. ¦

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