Another “Great Migration”: From Region to Race in Southern Liberalism, 1938–1945

Return to issue

Another “Great Migration”: From Region to Race in Southern Liberalism, 1938–1945

by Peter A. Coclanis, David L.Carlton
Southern Cultures, Vol. 3, No. 4: Winter 1997

"White liberals of the thirties and forties viewed the South's problems in terms of region rather than race. What happens when their views begin to change?"

The history of the American South since World War II has been one of numerous wrenching changes, but in both the popular and the historical imagination, one has overshadowed them all: the transformation of southern race relations. The Civil Rights movement has become the moral center of postwar southern history, a spiritual drama that for nearly two generations has defined the relationship of the South and its people to the larger meaning of American history. Given the Civil Rights movement’s centrality to the southern story in our time, it is hardly surprising that southern history prior to the movement is nonetheless usually interpreted in light of this event, particularly the history of southern white liberalism. In the postwar era, commitment to the elimination of racial injustice became the very definition of a “southern white liberal,” and the centrality of racial issues to our own time has been projected onto the past. The major literature on preWorld War II southern liberalism generally takes commitment to an integrated society as the basic criterion for assessing liberal credentials and usually frames its narratives in terms of progress, or lack of progress, toward that position. The odyssey of southern white liberals from the 1930s to the 1950s has thus been recounted as a series of tests, which many failed to pass at all and only a remnant managed to pass with anything close to distinction.