The White Liberal in Civil Rights Lit

Peck, Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Peck, Peters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”


As we have a few days left of Black History Month, I report today on a senior project I am mentoring on the figure of the white liberal in 1960’s Civil Rights literature.

Last spring Wick Eisenberg, an English and Political Science double major, came to me with a number of questions touching on race in America. A white liberal himself, he wanted to know why he felt defensive about his life of privilege and why race in America continues to be such an explosive issue, even though America has a black president.

Wick spent the summer reading up on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Ultimately he limited his focus to the 1960’s, studying four works: Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), Eldridge Cleaver’s collection of essays Soul on Ice (written in prison in 1965 and published in 1968), and Tom Wolfe’s own series of essays Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). To these he added a later work, Andre Dubus’s novella Deaths at Sea (1986) because its depiction of a white liberal came closest to his sense of himself.

Wick has discovered that the four works make a neat trajectory. The white liberal is lionized in Lee’s novel, suspected by Baldwin, demonized by Cleaver, and ridiculed by Wolfe. A major part of Wick’s project has been to understand this downward movement.

If Atticus Finch is an unambiguous hero who is honored by Maycomb’s Blacks, it’s in part because Lee herself is a white liberal in a position of privilege. Wick notes that, the more he looks at To Kill a Mockingbird, the more it appears to be a white fantasy.

Baldwin’s play helped push Wick towards this conclusion. That’s because Parnell, the white protagonist in Blues for Mister Charlie, is helplessly torn between the black and white communities. He is a friend of the black minister whose son is murdered but also of the white man who murders him. In the end, it is not clear, as it is clear for Atticus, what role Charlie has in fighting against racial injustice. He can travel along side the Civil Rights movement but he is viewed with suspicion.

There is no ambiguity in Soul on Ice. For Cleaver, whites in general are either “part of the solution or part of the problem,” and he sees white liberals as part of the problem. That’s because they refuse to take up violence against the white establishment. For that matter, Cleaver excoriates black liberals no less and sees Baldwin as a tool of the white establishment.

In Tom Wolfe’s essays, Wick sees the beginnings of the white reaction that would ultimately culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the New Conservativism. For Wolfe, white liberals, exemplified by Leonard Bernstein, are pathetic, more interested in social status than in righting society’s wrongs. The term “radical chic” is applied to a party that Bernstein throws for the Black Panthers in order to (as Wolfe sees it) create a social sensation. The Panthers, meanwhile, are depicted as conmen, filled with the language of revolution but actually just out for publicity.

Wick believes that the decade saw the Black Power Movement gaining in confidence and thus coming to see less of a need for alliances with white liberals. The gains of the 1960s suffered reversals in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the Reagan years that many Blacks started reaching out again to white liberals.

The more nuanced view of black-white relations in Andre Dubus’s novella explains why it appeals to Wick. In that story, there are tensions between a white junior naval officer and his black roommate, the one black officer on board the ship. But the tensions are caused, not by their own racism, but by the charged racial environment in which they find themselves. The white officer, a southerner and yet a liberal, understands why his roommate should sometimes blame him for the racism of others. In the end, they bond with each other, even as they must acknowledge that race conversations are never easy and that the white liberal has some learning to do.

I’ll be interested in seeing how Wick comes to see the evolution of black-white relations. Was the rift that arose between white liberals and black activists an inevitable occurrence? Was it necessary for American Blacks to break with paternalistic whites to develop a sense of their own power? Was the process bound to be messy and ugly given America’s past? Or was it a tragedy that could have been avoided if alliances had been fostered, a tragedy that led to the rise of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s election, and the politics of white resentment that we continue to see today.

Whatever he concludes, Wick is showing how poisonous the relationship between Blacks and white liberals became by looking at literature of the time. Only fifteen years later were authors able to look back and begin seeing the white liberal in a more nuanced and sympathetic light.

This entry was posted in Baldwin (James), Lee (Harper), Wolfe (Tom) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete