For a Christmas gift a son and his wife sent me a book which has quickly become a treasure. Speak Now Against the Day by John Egerton bears a subtitle: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. It is the story of men and women of the South who spoke and worked against the development of segregation as a way of life which they knew to be destroying both the South and the idea of equality. This is a story that has not been told before in detail from the perspective Egerton brings. For me it brings a call to action directed very much to our present time. The context for that call comes from Egerton’s use of the words of William Faulkner, in 1955:
We speak now against the day when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and good will, say, “Why didn’t someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time!”
Faulkner was speaking at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Memphis, at a dinner where Benjamin Mays was also a featured speaker. It was the year after the Supreme Court decision pointed a clear way toward the end of segregation. The South had almost unanimously rejected that decision ; most leaders from every segment of that society spoke against the decision and spent creative energy devising ways to avoid its implementation. With assurance that the execution of the Court order was impossible, that it would never be effected, the South dug in for long-term resistance. This meeting was called to discuss both the decision and the resistance. In that context Faulkner warned against the repetition of mistakes of the past: “We accept insult and contumely and the risk of violence because we will not sit quietly by and see our native land, the South, not just Mississippi but all the South, wreck and ruin itself twice in less than a hundred years over the Negro question.” Then he went on to call for “speaking against the day.”
If resistance continued Faulkner knew that the day would come when people of the South would realize the 1954 decision had provided them an opportunity to reconstruct their society; they would recognize the error of resistance and would then look to their neighbors with the question, “Why didn’t someone tell us this before?”
Faulkner called for people to “speak against that day,” and to speak against the day of resistance. Those who know Faulkner better than I are often very critical of his own failure to use the enormous prestige he enjoyed to “speak out” as vigorously as they wish he had. Without engaging that argument I want to take into my own heart the call from Faulkner:
Speak Now Against the Day!
That is the call which comes from Faulkner, through John Egerton, now to me and to you.
Speak Now Against the Day when politicians direct the anger of middle class voters downward toward welfare recipients, those with the least power to defend themselves.
Speak Now Against the Day in which crime invokes more punishment and prisons than prevention.
Speak Now Against the Day when frustration seeks scapegoats in new immigrants who are not white, have little money, and whose first language is not English.
Speak Now Against the Day when wealth is encouraged to prosper while poverty is blamed on those who are poor.
Speak Now Against the Day when an increasingly white suburban population avoids involvement with urban life, and responsibility for urban development.
Speak Now Against the Day when “Far Righteous” religious leaders distort the Christian faith to engineer their personal, political, often racist visions.
Speak Now Against the Day when young Black men are to be found more frequently behind prison bars than college desks.
Speak Now Against the Day when artists are denied the support which encourages their creative contributions to the progressive movement of society.
Speak Now Against the Day when the President fails to extend clemency to Leonard Peltier, allowing him to languish in prison convicted of a crime still not proved.
Speak Now Against the Day when many join the insane clamor which asks that the state kill in order to prove that killing is wrong.
Speak Now Against the Day when our nation rests easily with a disproportionately high infant death rate among Black babies.
Speak Now Against the Day when too many accept the decades-old pattern which maintains an unemployment rate for people of color at least twice as high as it is among whites.
That is a good call to attention! Let’s not let the hour pass quickly to a day when we suddenly wake up to see how we have missed the opportunity to speak for what we know to be right, and good, and just. The time may not recognize the hour, but, we must. Let’s make sure that no one can ever say to us, “Why didn’t you tell us what was happening?”