Lillian Smith wrote Now is the Time (1955) in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Smith saw the decision as every child’s Magna Carta, and in Now is the Time, she laid out that in order to move forward, we must act. The book, in essence, as Rose Gladney and Lisa Hodgens put it, “crystallized approximately two decades of Smith’s practices as well as theory about effective social change.” There are multiple takeaways from Smith’s Now is the Time, and today I want to take the time to look at some of the most important.
As a white Southern woman, Smith took a lens to herself, examining her own position is a racist system, nation, and world. In the process, she did what authors such as Frank Yerby, Charles Chesnutt, and others did, she dove into the psychological effects of racist systems on not just the oppressed but also on the oppressor. This examination caused her again and again to note how racism causes the oppressor to lose freedoms, specifically the freedom to do right.
Smith points out that the Brown decision “deeply affected” white children just as much as black children because “race segregation is a cruel frame that twists and misshapes the spirits of all children. White Southerners who grew up in the segregated system thought of themselves as “free”; however, “[they] did not have the freedom to do right. For there were laws in our states that compelled us to do wrong.” One need only think of Miss Maudie’s comments in To Kill A Mockingbird about Atticus fighting her’s and others whites’ fight to know that freedom did not truly exist.
Writing about the desegregation of schools in the border states, Smith talks about the importance of the constitution and the court’s decision, adding that children “began to understand,” as desegregation occurred, “that freedom can be freedom to do wrong as easily as it can be freedom to do right.” Laws, then and now, hinder individuals from doing right. Think of the Fugitive Slave Act, Jim Crow laws, immigration laws, and the list can go on and on.
What keeps people from acting? What keeps people from standing up against those who oppose even laws such as desegregation? Smith answers this question as well, writing, “Two things: anxiety–a taboo like fear–which is aroused in many minds when the pattern of segregation is questioned; and the demagogues and other opportunists who deliberately exploit this anxiety to their political and economic advantage.”
Fear and the rhetoric of fear keep people from acting or speaking out. Fear of what will happen if they voice their opposition. Fear of what those in power in might do to them. This fear gets stoked by rhetoric that serves, at its core, the “political and economic” greed of those who have power and seek to maintain it. These tandem things cause people to lose their freedom. Their freedom to speak out. Their freedom to act. Their freedom to oppose injustice. They stifle individuals.
Two years later, Smith wrote a speech, “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” for the one anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was ill and could not deliver the speech, but Rufus Lewis read the speech for her. In the speech, Smith wrote that “the white people of the South are giving up their freedoms.” Then, she asks, “What freedoms?”
a. The freedom to do right.***
b. The freedom to obey the law.***
c. The freedom to speak out, to write, to teach what one believes is true and just. We have almost lost this basic freedom now in the South. Teachers are compelled to sign statements that virtually strip them of their freedom to believe and to speak out. Penalties are imposed on those who speak out, anyway: jobs are lost.
d. And, having lost those three big freedoms, the precious ones that we Americans say we cherish, we are losing our freedom from fear. In old Reconstruction days, white people were afraid of freed Negroes, or so they said. Today, they are afraid of each other and themselves.***And is this fear restricted to the South? Not at all: Magazines with mass circulation are timid about “offending the white segregationists.” They fear, also. And this is very sad: to see our people, our proud, free people grow afraid to speak out and to act according to their conscience.
Lillian Smith is not the only artist/activist who points out that racism, xenophobia, and oppression cause the oppressor to lose freedoms as well. Ernest Gaines does the same thing throughout his works, specifically with characters such as Frank Laurent in “Bloodline” who claim that things will change, after his time. He tells ‘Malia and Felix, “I didn’t write the rules. I came and found them, and I shall die and leave them. They will be changed, of course; they will be changed, and soon, I hope. But I will not be the one to change them.”
What holds Laurent back from enacting change? He has a position of power, and if he works to enact change or even to acknowledge that his brother, Walter, is Copper’s father, then his life will change. Fear keeps him from enacting change, the fear of the ways that change will ultimately affect him. Jennine Capó Crucet puts it this way, “If something feels unfair to you as a white person it’s likely that equality is actually being achieved in that moment.” Laurent feels it’s unfair to acknowledge Copper as his nephew because if he does, then he would have to acknowledge that Copper, not himself, would be the true heir to Frank’s land and wealth.
Elsewhere in Gaines’ work, there are characters like Jack Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men who, rather than enacting change, drink themselves into a stupor to escape confronting what they know they should do. Looking at Marshall as he drinks his daily bourbon, Tee Jack thinks to himself, “You know, I sympathize with him. ‘Cause you see he never wanted none of this. Never wanted to be responsible for name and land. They dropped it on him, left it on him.” Marshall, like Quentin Composn in William Faulkner, inherited the land and the lineage. However, those things began to fade. Instead of working with the change, each decided to turn away from it, Marshall through drinking and Quentin through suicide.
There are other examples that I could provide, but the key is that those who are in the position to enact change must enact that change. For those of us who do not inhabit those positions of power, we must speak and act to show those in power that they cannot ignore us or our calls for equity. That is what Smith argues. That is what Crucet argues. That is what Gaines highlights. That is what we need to remember.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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