“Letter to a Northern Editor”

William Faulkner

March 5, 1956


My family has lived for generations in one same small section of north Mississippi. My great-grandfather held slaves and went to Virginia in command of a Mississippi infantry regiment in 1861. I state this simply as creden­tials for the sincerity and factualness of what I will try to say.

From the beginning of this present phase of the race problem in the South, I have been on record as opposing the forces in my native country which would keep the condition out of which this present evil and trouble has grown. Now I must go on record as opposing the forces outside the South which would use legal or police com­pulsion to eradicate that evil overnight. I was against compulsory segregation. I am just as strongly against compulsory integration. Firstly of course from principle. Secondly because I dont believe it will work.

There are more Southerners than I who believe as I do and have taken the same stand I have taken, at the same price of contumely and insult and threat from other Southerners which we foresaw and were willing to accept because we believed we were helping our native land which we love to accept a new condition which it must accept whether it wants to or not. That is, by still being Southerners, yet not being a part of the general majority Southern point of view; by being present yet detached, committed and attainted neither by Citizens’ Council nor NAACP; by being in the middle, being in position to say to any incipient irrevocability: ‘Wait, wait now, stop and consider first.’

But where will we go, if that middle becomes unten­able? if we have to vacate it in order to keep from being trampled? Apart from the legal aspect, apart even from the simple incontrovertible immorality of discrimina­tion by race, there was another simply human quantity which drew us to the Negro’s side: the simple human instinct to champion the underdog. But if we, the (com­parative) handful of Southerners I have tried to postu­late, are compelled by the simple threat of being tram­pled if we dont get out of the way, to vacate that middle where we could have worked to help the Negro improve his condition—compelled to move for the reason that no middle any longer exists—we will have to make a new choice. And this time the underdog will not be the Ne­gro since he, the Negro, will now be a segment of the topdog, and so the underdog will be that white embat­tled minority who are our blood and kin. These non-Southern forces will now say, ‘Go then. We clont want you because we wont need you again.’ My reply to that is, ‘Are you sure you wont?’

So I would say to the NAACP and all the organiza­tions who would compel immediate and unconditional integration: ‘Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a mo­ment. You have the power now; you can afford to with­hold for a moment the use of it as a force. You have done a good job, you have jolted your opponent off-balance and he is now vulnerable. But stop there for a moment; dont give him the advantage of a chance to cloud the issue by that purely automatic sentimental appeal to that same universal human instinct for automatic sym­pathy for the underdog simply because he is under.’

And I would say this too. The rest of the United States knows next to nothing about the South. The present idea and picture which they hold of a people decadent and even obsolete through inbreeding and illiteracy— the inbreeding a result of the illiteracy and the isolation so that there is nothing else to do at night—as to be a kind of species of juvenile delinquents with a folklore of blood and violence, yet who, like juvenile delinquents, can be controlled by firmness once they are brought to believe that the police mean business, is as baseless and illusory as that one a generation ago of (oh yes, we sub­scribed to it too) columned porticoes and magnolias. The rest of the United States assumes that this condition in the South is so simple and so uncomplex that it can be changed tomorrow by the simple will of the national majority backed by legal edict. In fact, the North does not even recognise what it has seen in its own news­papers. I have at hand an editorial from the New York Times of February ioth on the rioting at the University of Alabama because of the admission as a student of Miss Lucy, a Negro. The editorial said: ‘This is the first time that force and violence have become a part of the ques­tion.’ That is not correct. To all Southerners, no matter which side of the question of racial equality they sup­ported, the first implication, and—to the Southerner— even promise, of force and violence was the Supreme Court decision itself. After that, by any standards at all and following as inevitably as night and day, was the case of the three white teen-agers, members of a field trip group from a Mississippi high school (and, as teen-agers do, probably wearing the bright parti-colored blazers or jackets blazoned across the back with the name of the school) who were stabbed in passing on a Washington street by Negroes they had never seen before and who apparently had never seen them before either; and that of the Till boy and the two Mississippi juries which freed the defendants from both charges; and of the Mis­sissippi garage attendant killed by a white man because, according to the white man, the Negro filled the tank of the white man’s car full of gasoline when all the white man wanted was two dollars’ worth.

This problem is far beyond a mere legal one. It is even far beyond the moral one it is and still was a hundred years ago in i 86o, when many Southerners, including Robert Lee, recognised it as a moral one at the very in­stant when they in their turn elected to champion the underdog because that underdog was blood and kin and home. The Northerner is not even aware yet of what that war really proved. He assumes that it merely proved to the Southerner that he was wrong. It didn’t do that be­cause the Southerner already knew he was wrong and ac­cepted that gambit even when he knew it was the fatal one. What that war should have done, but failed to do, was to prove to the North that the South will go to any length, even that fatal and already doomed one, before it will accept alteration of its racial condition by mere force of law or economic threat.

Since I went on record as being opposed to compul­sory racial inequality, I have received many letters. A few of them approved. But most of them were in opposi­tion. And a few of these were from southern Negroes, the only difference being that they were polite and cour­teous instead of being threats and insults, saying in effect: ‘Please, Mr Faulkner, stop talking and be quiet. You are a good man and you think you are helping us. But you are not helping us. You are doing us harm. You are playing into the hands of the NAACP so that they are using you to make trouble for our race that we dont want. Please hush, you look after your white folks’ trou­ble and let us take care of ours.’ This one in particular was a long one, from a woman who was writing for and in the name of the pastor and the entire congregation of her church. It went on to say that the Till boy got ex­actly what he asked for, coming down there with his Chicago ideas, and that all his mother wanted was to make money out of the role of her bereavement. Which sounds exactly like the white people in the South who justified and even defended the crime by declining to find that it was one.

We have had many violent inexcusable personal crimes of race against race in the South, but since 1919 the major examples of communal race tension have been more prevalent in the North, like the Negro family who were refused acceptance in the white residential district in Chicago, and the Korean-American who suffered for the same reason in Anaheim, Calif. Maybe it is because our solidarity is not racial, but instead is the majority white segregationist plus the Negro minority like my correspondent above, who prefer peace to equality. But suppose the line of demarcation should become one of race: the white minority like myself compelled to join the white segregation majority no matter how much we oppose the principle of inequality; the Negro minority who want peace compelled to join the Negro majority who advocate force, no matter how much that minority wanted only peace?

So the Northerner, the liberal, does not know the South. He cant know it from his distance. He assumes that he is dealing with a simple legal theory and a simple moral idea. He is not. He is dealing with a fact: the fact of an emotional condition of such fierce unanimity as to scorn the fact that it is a minority and which will go to any length and against any odds at this moment to jus­tify and, if necessary, defend that condition and its right to it.

So I would say to all the organizations and groups which would force integration on the South by legal process: ‘Stop now for a moment. You have shown the Southerner what you can do and what you will do if nec­essary; give him a space in which to get his breath and assimilate that knowledge; to look about and see that (1) nobody is going to force integration on him from the outside; (2) That he himself faces an obsolescence in his own land which only he can cure; a moral condi­tion which not only must be cured but a physical con­dition which has got to be cured if he, the white Southerner, is to have any peace, is not to be faced with another legal process or maneuver every year, year after year, for the rest of his life.’


[Life, March 5, 1956]