Saturday, April 18, 2009

Summary of "What do Southerners do about a difficult past?" talk given by Dr. Griffin

"The Past is never dead, it's not even past." - William Faulkner

If we keep in mind the truth of that statement by one of the south's great writers, we'll be able to answer the call to action issued by Dr. Larry Griffin, one of the south's great sociologists, at Centenary this past Thursday.

I know a lot of people couldn't attend, being in the middle of a work day and all, so for those of you are interested me to sum it up. I'd then like to propose something, inspired by his analysis.

Dr. Griffin began with a quote from William Faulkner, about how the past makes us who are, and how contemplating it can make us wish we were someone else, and lead us to ask for forgiveness.

Dr. Griffin described how growing up and going to college in Mississippi in the 50's and 60's was a formative experience, but it's taken him a while to realize how that's so, for better and worse. He said it has taken him a long time to get where he is today: giving a speech like this at a place like Centenary.

Dr. Griffin first pointed out that many societies have made transitions from illegitimacy to legitimacy. Those societies have to peace with a past of violent oppression and injustice.

A common feature of societies that have successfully completed transitions is that the previously oppressed take their turn in power. This has not happened in our region. Whites maintained political control after slavery, and immediately after the end of segregation.

Societies such as Poland after communism, Chile after Pinochet, Guatemala after the death squads, Cambodia after the Khamer Rouge, and South Africa after apartheid have also used mechanisms aimed specifically to restore faith in the goodness and justice of the society.
  • Public trails of especially culpable individuals
  • Truth and reconciliation commissions offering public forums for confessions and requests for forgiveness
  • Apologies of organizations for their complicitness in the injustices of the previous era
  • Reparations paid to ancestors of victims
Dr. Griffin argued that the south has not completed its transition, but he pointed out that there appears to be an increasing awareness of the need to do so. The University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina, and Wachovia Securities have all issued apologies for their complicity in slavery. No organizations have apologized for Jim Crow segregation.

A key part of Dr. Griffin's talk was reminding us of the grim past for which our society and its organizations might want to apologize. For example, we might want to collectively apologize for the over 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched, or for the daily humiliation and degradation blacks had to suffer through segregation.

So, should our society, as a whole, apologize? Should our state? Should our city? Our historically white universities and colleges? Companies?

In my next post I'll talk about why we'd want to apologize for something that happened a long time ago, doesn't seem relevant today, and might appear to only make things worse.

As always, feel free to comment.


trudeau said...

I think the time will come when southerners in general will feel compelled to state their feelings of guilt and abhorrence for the Jim Crow era. At the moment, I don't think it's clear as to how or when to make such statements. We remain neck deep in denial. And there's a general complicity, I believe, in this period of silence.

Loren said...

I agree, Robert, that it's not clear how or when to state our feelings of abhorrence for segregation. I'm going to take a shot at drafting a paragraph would do it for it us. My hope is that reading a statement that explains how we feel would facilitate things. Maybe our little group of ABetterShreveport could start it off.