What is the dilemma that haunts every Southerner who confesses he or she is a liberal?
For Brandt Ayers in his new book, “In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal,” it is this: his progressive views set him apart from many of his fellow Southerners, whose culture and basic values he respects and shares. At the same time, this attachment to his Southern heritage sets him apart from non-Southerners who share his basic political views but cannot understand his attachment to the positive features of Southern culture.
The Ayers family publishes the Anniston, Ala., Star newspaper. Like the Hodding Carter family’s Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss., and the Neil Davis family’s newspaper in Auburn, Ala., the Ayers’s Anniston Star pushed for racial tolerance, fair treatment, and opportunity for blacks when the majority of their readers were committed to preserving the Deep South culture that Gov. George Wallace called “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
There are North Carolina connections to these families. Hodding Carter III and three of Neil Davis’s children live in North Carolina. Brandt Ayers’s wife, Josephine, grew up in Raleigh, the granddaughter of Gov. J.C.B. Ehringhaus, and they have a second home here.
Although Ayers worked at his family’s newspaper as a teenager, he got his professional journalism start with the Raleigh Times in 1959. While in North Carolina he admired Gov. Luther Hodge’s successes in attracting business, handling the challenge of court-ordered school desegregation, and promoting the Research Triangle Park. Ayers also observed Terry Sanford’s victory over staunch segregationist I. Beverly Lake in the 1960 Democratic primary and Sanford’s push for educational improvement and racial tolerance.
Ayers remembers hearing from many in our state “a self-conscious phrase: ‘North Carolina is a vale of humility between two mounds [sic] of conceit.’ It finally dawned on me that Tar Heels are mighty cocky about their humility.”
Upon his return to Alabama, Ayers used the positive accomplishments of Hodges and Sanford in North Carolina to contrast with the failures of Alabama leaders like George Wallace.
Under Ayers’s father, Col. Harry Ayres, the Anniston Star had developed a progressive stance. The Star was the first newspaper in the South to endorse Franklin Roosevelt for president.
When Brandt Ayers returned home to work at the Star, he led Anniston’s efforts not to be like Montgomery, Selma, or Birmingham, where racial turmoil engulfed communities and made reconciliation problematical.
While “In Love With Defeat” is a personal memoir, it is also an exploration of the transformation of the South from a region of racism and poverty to what it is today.
Ayers writes that some things, good and bad, about the old South have been preserved. “The glue that held the old, segregated civilization together, which binds our society today, is the sameness of everyday life: workday rituals, habits of civility, conformity to the norm, ambivalence, indifference, and resignation. There were bitter-end haters, but it is remarkable how light was the hold of the haters on the rest of us.”
At the end of his book Ayers is still caught between his liberal leanings and his identification with Southerners who do not share those views.
“Morally, millions of white Southerners would have to confess they recoil at the idea of being governed by a black man. However, partially in their defense, the average white in the Deep South has not heard or felt an invitation to Barack Obama’s e-pluribus-unum national oneness.
“‘We’ used to be the solid Democratic South, an impenetrable phalanx arrayed to stop the black man from entering. ‘We’ are now the solid (white) Republican South, arrayed with similar intent, lessened affect, and excused with heightened deceit.”
Maybe it is a tough puzzle to understand, but former Mississippi Gov. William Winter says Ayers comes “as close to explaining who we Southerners are and why we act as we do.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs at noon Sundays and at 5 p.m. Thursdays on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch
Next week’s (Sep. 15, 19) guest is Ben Fountain, author of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.
North Carolina native Ben Fountain’s debut novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” won the 2013 National Book Critics’ Circle Award for fiction and was named a “best book of the year” by Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.