There’s something about coming south on a train, especially the train that leaves New York and comes into Virginia bound for Atlanta and New Orleans. To me, it’s like the coming of spring, with its thickening leafy shadows and wild smells. I do love the South, the old family stories going back deep into Augusta, Ga., and its canal and into east Tennessee. The South I love was distilled perfectly in the time our daughter Sarah and I stopped by Uncle Jim’s farm in Dixon Cove, returning from her college-search visit to Sewanee before her scheduled surgery at Emory to have metastasized osteosarcoma removed from her lungs. We stayed the night, eating a dinner of food mostly grown on that land – three generations around the table. We helped our cousins bottle home brew, and I found a 1936 book signed by its authors that was a sequel to I’ll Take My Stand, more focused on critiquing American capitalism and individualism (among the thousands of old books in that homemade house, this one was called Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence).
In New York, we saw “All the Way,” the acclaimed play in which “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston impersonates LBJ in his year of being an accidental president – 1964. The play has become part of the country’s 50-year anniversary reflection on its Civil Rights turning point. The sense of tragedy I got from the play was the way the white South turned away from LBJ’s populist sentiment. His power-games and insecurity were ugly, as the LBJ character admits. He had a knack for politics, and it’s ugly (Obama, take note, the playwright seems to be saying). But he had a heart for the poor, because he had been poor, and for poor Hispanic children, because he had taught them, and for civil rights, because as nasty as his political tactics were, he was disgusted by the easier, sleazier tactic being used by every other Southern politician at the time (even Georgia Gov. “Cufflink” Carl Sanders, my kinsman from Augusta, a character in the play). Their tactic was to sow fear and hatred for all the forces of change that would bring black Southerners – their maids and laborers and Atlanta University intellectuals – into equal citizenship and full humanity as Christian brothers and sisters. King preached it, and so did other remarkable characters in the play, like Bob Moses and Henry Aaron and Fannie Lou Hamer, the saints and martyrs of Freedom Summer. (Oh my South, when will you see another “Freedom Summer”?)
LBJ, feeling harassed by pressure from these blacks, won the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not from any outside pressure but from his own soul-borne convictions. The first Southern president since Wilson, he represented a vision that the white South – the political South – rejected. So his victory in the end left him profoundly sad. He knew he had lost the South to the Republican Party for generations to come. He won the greatest popular vote of any American president, but the Deep South went for Goldwater.
We’re home again, getting off the train in beautiful Charlottesville.
(Footnote: Sarah, cancer-free for five years now and a year after her graduation from Sewanee, is working for the New York Times, processing photos for its media partners. She and her boyfriend appeared in the lobby of the Novotel upon our first arrival there Sunday night. Hendley, Barbara, Maggie Glaze and Wyn arrived then to announce, with controlled giddiness, that they’d just seen Bryan Cranston leaving the stage door for his limo on 52nd St., practically next door to our hotel.)
— Prof. Doug Cumming