On this day in 1946, Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, published an essay in the Saturday Review of Literature titled “Is the South That Bad?” It is—as you might imagine it to be—a rather defensive reaction to criticism of the South stemming from political and social fights over segregation and civil rights. “And before the whole region is despaired of,” he wrote,
let us recognize that there is an authentic desire on the part of thousands of white Southerners to bring about genuine improvement in the Negro’s status. One significant piece of evidence that conditions are improving is to be found in the virtual extinction of lynching.
Dabney wrote that in addition to no longer lynching blacks, the South is progressive in all sorts of other ways, and only northern liberals will be to blame if “the Negro’s status” doesn’t continue to improve.
The greatest danger confronting the South today lies in the possibility that the attacks being made upon it from other sections in a mounting crescendo will have the effect of stifling the authentically progressive movements which are under way in the region. Just as in the 1830’s the unbridled attacks of the Northern Abolitionists drove the entire Southern people into a defensive position from which they were never able to extricate themselves,* and killed the promising indigenous effort for the elimination of slavery, so the assaults being delivered currently upon the South, and many of its more enlightened leaders, tend to discourage, and even to crush, movements which otherwise might bring important and far-reaching advances.
Here, then, came a word of warning: “Let it be remembered that the Southern people are a proud people. They can be persuaded but they can never, under any circumstances, be driven.”
The inversions here are head-spinning: the South, Dabney freely admits, has its “Negro problem,” but if that problem isn’t solves, it’s the North’s fault; and while he is the one making the argument here, he has suddenly placed himself, and his fellow section-mates, in the passive position of needing to be persuaded.
Dabney, it should be said, was a remarkable figure who should not be judged on a single magazine article. This, however, was not his finest hour.
* According to Dabney, it was the Northerners in the 1830s who put Southerners on the defensive and not, say … oh, I don’t know … NAT TURNER!
IMAGE: Virginius Dabney, 1992 (Richmond Times-Dispatch)