Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Opposition to and support for views on racial injustice

Dabbs describes how people reacted to her husband's decision to begin speaking out against racial injustice during the 1940s. According to Dabbs, the stance that she and her husband assumed regarding issues of racial injustice were of concern to many people in their social circle. Dabbs describes the time as alienating in some ways because of the staunch opposition they often embraced. Nevertheless, she argues that she felt it was her duty to support her husband in his endeavors, regardless of how others reacted. At the same time, she emphasizes that although many people spoke out against them, they found a strong support system amongst her husband's students from Coker College. In this regard, her comments become revealing of generational differences in views of racial injustice during the 1940s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. 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

It seemed to me that through those years it always did and I always cringed and shook because I hated so much the tension and the hostility that you could just feel. And I felt that James deserved it less than anybody I had ever known in the world. Oh, I hated it.
In the forties?
Yes. I remember Frank said, "James, you don't know what you are saying. Do you hear yourself? You are plainly said that niggers are just as good as you are." James said, "Well, aren't they? Why wouldn't they be, why shouldn't they be, why couldn't they be? What stops them from being as good as whites?" And Frank tried to talk but he just couldn't get out any words. "Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness." He grabbed his chest and looked horrible. James said that he was really scared that he had overdone it that time, he thought that the man was going to have a heart attack. He was just totally overcome and in a few minutes, he just left, still almost speechless. He couldn't stand it anymore, he couldn't be around people who felt that way. They said their goodbyes and went home after a very few minutes. Well, that kind of thing happened a lot of times. I would try to avoid confrontations when I could but James would sit there quietly, very calmly. After awhile, I finally began to notice, I learned to watch the people in a group when these kind of confrontations were always coming up, and pick out the ones who had certain reactions, but didn't express them, tried not to express them. Everybody was afraid to say anything that didn't sound like everybody else. But I noticed that there were always one or two, sometimes more, who didn't say anything at all and they would be the ones that I would latch on to, with what little hope I had. They were the ones who "saved the ship" or or something. Then after some several years had gone on, not movement but things had developed further, so that everybody was involved, of course there were still some people, but there were more and more people who would at least express themselves if they thought they were in safe company and they wouldn't be swatted right down. They would make some very mild and half-way suggestion, that they were not as prejudiced against Negroes as some people were and that some people that we all knew—they'd go far enough to indicate it very gently, very hesitantly. Things slowly got a little bit better so that eventually people would speak up. Then came the great days and the young people began to speak up. "The crazy, crazy young people. They didn't have any sense, they didn't know what they were talking about they had departed their parents' beliefs and all that kind of thing." They would come up with the most wonderful, honest questions and comments and it was always a joy to me to notice how … I drank it in, I lapped it up …how students loved James. After he had talked at a college, often there would be a private time in some teacher's home, in a student union or a place where the students could get together and a whole room full of students would come in to ask him questions and talk after a lecture. They would sit around on the floor, knee-deep you know and if one or two would have to leave to study, they would close ranks and move up. I remember that up at Wofford College for one time. There were just lots and lots of places he spoke, but I remember particularly up at Wofford that Dr. Lewis Jones would ask him up there several times to talk to his history department, and that was the last time that he went up there, in the spring before he died, the spring of '70, Dr. Jones had him come up and talk. Afterwards, he had around to his home a section, a certain number of about twenty of his students to a buffet supper and to sit afterwards and talk with James. He said that during the year he had all his students in bunches, so many at a time and whoever was there came to the house—a very nice evening. After the buffet supper, we went into the living room and all the chairs were filled up and cushions were on the floor and where there were no cushions, there were people on the floor and they all sat around talking to James. Several of them had personal questions to ask him and I remember one boy said, "Why is it that I can ask you all these things, I never talked to you before, you don't know me and yet I can sit down here and ask you things that I wouldn't dream of letting my father know I thought?" That was just balm to my soul, you know. I just loved to sit back and watch other people react to him and appreciate him because I felt that everytime he wasn't appreciated, I felt it so keenly and when something nice happened, I loved him.
Well, those must have been really hard times, the forties, for you.
They were rough times because I didn't have an outlet. I had no way that I could actively do something except to do the harder things at home that I always did as part of a background to make it a placid place that he could unwind in. I suppose that I felt that was my chief function right then, to keep things as peaceful at home as possible. Not gloss over them, but to be able to really relax and to keep him assured constantly of my position that what he was doing was something that had to be done and it was great. I still think that was the biggest thing that could be done right then and I have no regrets at all. What else would I have been doing nearly as important as that? He was the most articulate person that I have ever known and he was the most beautiful human being. I'm prejudiced, but I knew him better than anybody else. If he could express something for both of us, then I could do whatever was possible for both of us to make him free to do it. I know that these Wofford boys asked him that night if they could arrange with the college to have a place available that summer, would he come up there that summer and just be an advisor in resident, just stay in Spartanburg on the campus through the summer or through a couple of months in the fall or sometime like that. He was so complimented, so happy to be asked and said that he would be delighted. I like to remember that in his last spring, he had that invitation and just the sheer joy of knowing that these young, young, people really wanted him.
That was a real vindication.
Yes. He used to say that he didn't know why people worried over his not having friends, alienating people and that kind of thing, he couldn't afford to worry about the general public's opinion because the general public never knew that he was there until he began to speak up. They never had been anybody to him. People who criticize him now are not his friends. All of his acquaintances were very silent when he needed them to speak up and still, he never took that as a personal thing at all. He said that the friends he did have, any one friend that he did have, was worth all the people who didn't want to try to understand what he was talking about.