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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Importance of a legal basis in ending Jim Crow segregation

Gordon argues that the fall of Jim Crow segregation was largely dependent on the formation of a legal base by way of court cases and legislation. In an earlier excerpt, he stressed the importance of intraracial alliances and he revisits that notion here. Nevertheless, he ultimately explains that those networks were only able to succeed because the federal government had established a legal basis for change. Had this not occurred, Gordon believes the fall of institutionalized segregation would have been more difficult to bring to fruition.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Gordon, January 19, 1991. Interview A-0364. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN EGERTON:
Were you surprised when the Brown Decision came down? Do you remember where you were that day?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Very surprised. I remember because I put out the edition of the newspaper. I didn't think it was going to be unanimous like it was, but I thought they were going to resolve it.
JOHN EGERTON:
You knew- everybody knew didn't they?-for a year or two that this was in the mill, it was being debated in the Supreme Court and that there was going to be a decision. The fact that something was going to happen was pretty well known to everybody, wasn't it?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Oh, yes. Everybody knew that and they felt it. Thurgood Marshall, of course, is another person I should mention. They knew it, but they didn't know how it was going to be, but they knew about it and they were ready for it. As I said in the beginning, what irritated it was some of these elements that just took advantage of it and tried to incite feelings and emotions and got blacks stirred up between it. The Little Rock situation never should have happened. I used to go to Little Rock when I lived in Memphis when I was a youngster. You couldn't find a city more cordial from the white side than Little Rock at the time. Blacks were going to the University of Arkansas right downtown long before that. With political ambition as [Governor Orval] Foubus had in mind, he just took it and exploited it.
JOHN EGERTON:
The white South was fond of saying back in those pre- Brown years that if you leave us alone, Yankees or whoever, we will work this out. Suppose that had happened, suppose this white South had gotten its wish and had been left alone by the Federal government, how long would it have taken to bring equality?
WILLIAM GORDON:
I think it would have taken much longer because the people that said it did nothing about it. You had to have something legal to fall back on. I think the best thing that could have happened was the 1954 decision and also the subsequent civil rights laws that they passed.
JOHN EGERTON:
What about the movement itself, the protest movement of the blacks and allied whites through the 50s beginning with the Montgomery Boycott? What would have happened it that had not developed?
WILLIAM GORDON:
Well, I think eventually it would have fallen apart but it would have taken much longer.
JOHN EGERTON:
That and the court actions speeded it up.
WILLIAM GORDON:
That's right. Nobody today in the South wants to be called a segregationist, not even Jesse Helms. Nobody wants to be called that now. One thing that interests me. I had been in Columbia, South Carolina, once to meet the governor who was then Governor West. I was crossing the street and there were two young white men standing on the corner, I think they were lawyers, and I heard them in the conversation saying, "you know, it's interesting but we're not going backward, we are going to go forward in the South. It's to our best advantage now to preach for equality for everybody regardless of race." I think there was another dimension here too. With all the foreign elements coming here from abroad, from Europe not Africans but Europeans, it was unthinkable to come South in any country and see one part of your population being held down. It was inconceivable for them to see this-how can you tolerate this kind of thing? If you go to a little country like Holland, for example, it is fully integrated. Our missionaries, for example, here's an interesting story about them. A Baptist mission had been in Nigeria for more than one hundred years. We go abroad to teach these people how to follow Christianity. A lot of Africans, who were subsequently invited here, were amazed that they couldn't go in a white church. With this kind of problem it could get around the world, we couldn't have stood it. It couldn't last.
JOHN EGERTON:
Do you think it is unrealistic to think that these changes that have come as a result of the court actions and the civil rights movement might have been brought voluntarily by southerners of goodwill during that period of '45 - '50? Could it have happened?
WILLIAM GORDON:
It would have been very difficult. I don't think it would have happened. It would have been very difficult because people like McGill, for example, whom you say was conservative, which he was, finally came around to reality. Even after the courts had passed the 1954 decision McGill used to wake up in the morning sometime and his whole front yard would be full of garbage. Somebody had pulled up with a garbage truck and dumped everything out in his yard. There were cases where they would shoot through his house, through his windows. And he had people at the paper who didn't like what he was doing. But he survived all of that because he had this legal base to stand on.