'Making of a Southern Liberal' looks at struggles from past, politics of present

features@islandpacket.comNovember 17, 2013 

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Brandt Ayers was a Southern liberal when that term didn't mean being brazen enough to drive around Hilton Head Island with an Obama bumper sticker.

After growing up in small town Alabama and going off to North Carolina, then Washington, as a political reporter, he returned home to run the family newspaper -- and to the violent battles of a "dying civilization," the era of legal segregation.

At home, he campaigned for peace and biracial cooperation in the face of Ku Klux Klan rallies and shootings and bombings. Across the region, he was a founder of the New South movement, progressives inside and outside of government trying to transform the states of the Confederacy into states of modern economic development and harmony.

To a large extent, the effort failed; the deeply conservative, largely resegregated Deep South of today was not what these people envisioned in their heyday of the 1970s. But Ayers' memoir, "In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal," is less about these days than of those, the years when all seemed possible after legal segregation had been beaten.

Ayers was -- and is -- publisher of the Anniston Star in Alabama, whose voters re-elected George Wallace after a blatantly racist campaign in 1970. At the same time, he was working with a new class of Southern governors, men like South Carolina's John West and Dick Riley and Georgia's Jimmy Carter, who were finding ways to share ideas for a new-look region.

"What they said," Ayers writes, "what they stood for, was nothing less than the death of one civilization and the birth of another," with elected leaders "saying plainly that the South must turn away from racial rhetoric and begin the serious business of problem-solving."

What happened to the heady dreams? He has several explanations:

  • The urgency of the Civil Rights days is gone, for both white community business leaders who saw moderation as a practical necessity and black leaders filled with the passion for the right to vote and for access to public accommodations.

  • The appeal of today's leave-us-alone Southern politics is, in part, a result of the scorn shown the South by the rest of the country, a feeling that we're the subject of "amused condescension," the butt of redneck jokes.

  • The failure to achieve an integrated society is the result of too much, too fast, in large part court-imposed remedies, which led to the reality of white flight.

  • Ayers struggles to explain the contradictions about the South and its people, including those in his own mind. He writes that he loves the region, he pays tribute to its everyday working people, he defends such symbols as the Confederate flag as necessary pieces of an inerasable history. But he sees little of the social progress he and others envisioned, and deplores the dominant Southern politics of today -- a Republican Party he sees as a direct descendent of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential campaign, the White Citizens Councils that sprung up to fight the civil rights movement, and Wallace.

    There are other layers of interest in this book. When I worked for him in the 1990s, he told of being introduced as "Brandt Ayers -- he's well-known for ... well, for being well-known." Indeed, he has rubbed shoulders -- and ideas -- with all manner of important folk. He recounts in some detail meetings and conversations with high officials, including Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- he was one of those Lincoln bedroom people. He's fond of quoting his own bon mots in the presence of eminence.

    Ayers leaves no doubt about his political leanings, but this is not a book about the hot partisan issues of today -- deficits and immigration and gay rights, health care and the Tea Party and abortion. This is about the politics of another time, and their successes and failures.

    It's about the brief promise of a more united United States.

    "But that would not last," Ayers writes. "In time we would return to our natural home, the parochial South, living in a kind of voluntary apartheid."

    Joe Distelheim was executive editor of The Anniston Star from 1990 to 1994. He now lives on Hilton Head Island.

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