Fires That Would Not Go Out, and Unutterable Separations

Paul Harvey

Going to Macon, Georgia soon for the Lamar Lectures at Mercer University, and corresponding with my esteemed colleague in southern history at Macon State, Andrew Manis, has reminded me to put up a post about Manis's fine work, which has not received the full attention that it deserves, IMHO. So here's a little primer for you on the work of Andrew Manis, essential for anyone interested in race/religion/civil rights history.

Several years ago, Manis's A Fire You Can't Put Out: the Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a compelling study of this remarkable man. The link takes you to one review of the work, from the Journal of Southern Religion. Another review states,

Shuttlesworth, by contrast [with King], had all the bridging qualities of a sharp stick. He won a reputation in the movement for absolute fearlessness, for reckless and unattractive egotism, for dictatorial leadership. He and Bull Connor seemed made for each other. Yet Shuttlesworth, in his own way, was indispensable to the movement. Without his working-class following, and without Shuttlesworth's insistence on confrontation, the SCLC and King would never have tackled Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth remains a fascinating figure of the movement, and Manis's biography does him justice without engaging in hagiography, always a tenuous balance.

More recently Andy has published Macon Black And White. This was a commissioned book, and the focus on one city could have made this a less compelling work. Instead, the focus drives the work and shows how the general narrative of southern history can look when based on a local history. This is, really, a moral history of a southern city. Below is my review of the work from the Journal of Southern History. Manis's works should be on anybody's reading list for race/civil rights/religion. I look forward to further reflections on Macon after I return!

Macon Black And White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century. By Andrew M. Manis. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University and the Tubman African American Museum, 2004. Pp. xvi, 432. Paper, $20.00, ISBN 0-86554-958-3; cloth, $45.00, ISBN 0-86554-761-0.)

Surprisingly enough, few volumes in southern history follow the course of black and white life, separations, and interactions in a single community over an extended period of time; Manis’s work will serve as a template for those that may follow. Home at various times to the black Reconstruction legislator and AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a dazzling array of black musical talent, Elijah Poole (the future Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X’s mentor), and to a variety of white leaders ranging from the most reactionary to the most progressive, Macon turns out to be nearly an archetypical southern city in terms of the complexity of race, violence, economics, and political power. Manis moves his story beyond prototype by following the flesh-and-blood stories of myriad figures from Macon’s past, ranging from local Klansmen in the 1920s, to pastors of local churches, to Sam Oni (an African student who desegregated Mercer University in the 1960s), to the recent and controversial black mayor C. Jack Ellis.

From the standpoint of white Maconians for much of the twentieth century, white supremacy was “unutterable,” in the sense of “unuttered because of its taken-for-granted status and its sacred inviolability” (7). . . In more recent years, segregation is an unutterable part of a shameful past, but the existence and reality of “white privilege” remains the unacknowledged reality indelibly shaping the exercise of economic and political power. Finally, “unutterable” refers to “unspeakably evil or tragic” (8). In all these ways, An Unutterable Separation is both a social and a moral history.

Most of the major themes in southern historiography appear here, from progressivism “for whites only,” to the rise and fall and reappearance of the Klan, to the frustrations of black accommodationists, to tentative efforts at interracial cooperation, to the “days of hope” during the New Deal and civil rights awakening during the World War Two era, to civil rights struggles from desegregation to black power, and finally to continued separations and inequalities down to the present day. The patterns of southern racism painfully evident at all points in Macon’s history were moderated and “leavened” at points by the impressive activism of the local NAACP branch, by the presence of a relatively moderate local newspaper (the Telegraph), by the presence of local interracial efforts, and by the influence exercised by white moderates at local educational institutions such as Mercer.

The interest here is not in any new schema of southern history being offered, but rather in the sheer human interest and drama in watching how diverse struggling individuals lived out these themes in politics, culture, economics, and social life over the course of a century. Manis’s work reminds us that even if people do not make history just as they please, they nevertheless make history. And, in a deliberately sermonic epilogue directed particularly at local readers, Manis reminds us that people can still remake history, in this case simply by remembering that “efforts towards reconciliation must go beyond dialogue between individuals to address unequal power relationships” (352). His outstanding work ultimately serves both as a compelling social history as well as an inquiry into the “moral demands of justice” (362).


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