I grew up 90 miles north of Memphis in the bootheel of southeast Missouri, an area along the Mississippi River that would have been Arkansas but for a rich landowner’s influence on Congress. For college I ventured 150 miles south to the University of Mississippi, where I majored in history and edited the student newspaper. After two years in the Army I took a reporting job at Hodding Carter’s Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Miss. – in the heart of the region historian James Cobb called “the most Southern place on earth.”
The DD-T in the 1960s and ’70s was an honest, aggressive small daily in a state whose press was, with few exceptions, timidly selective in news coverage and subservient to the segregationist status quo. For a young reporter, Mississippi offered challenging stories about race, politics and poverty plus an endless array of spectacles, from the classic bootlegger-Baptist collaboration in Neshoba County to the National Tobacco Spitting Contest to state legislators’ rollicking debate over whether to repeal the ban on teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in the schools.
I love Mississippi. Many of my best friends are there. Alas, its few good newspapers were too small to provide a career for an ambitious writer whose family didn’t own one, so after a few years I began wondering what was next. The answer was a Nieman Fellowship, which gave a few mid-career journalists a year of independent study at Harvard. There I met Marylyn Lentine, who was working with a historian. On one of our early dates, she asked why I came to Harvard. To see if I’m as smart as the Ivy Leaguers, I replied. And, she asked? I am, I replied. She laughed and in time married me anyway.
After Harvard I worked briefly for the Ford Foundation, interviewing people who ran state prisons. It was interesting and well-paying work, but I didn’t like being on the bottom rung of a tall organizational ladder, so I contacted Reese Cleghorn, a friend who edited The Observer’s editorial pages, and asked how to get into opinion writing. Come to Charlotte, he said. I did.
To me, Charlotte was delightful. It was the New South – brash, energetic and thriving, eager for the future, vastly different from Mississippi, which was struggling with its past. But the year I arrived Jesse Helms entered the U.S. Senate, a reminder that North Carolina was not free of the reactionary forces that hobbled Mississippi.
The title of this book was inspired by W.J. Cash’s assertion in The Mind of the South that our region has been paralyzed by its hostility to dissent. The attitude emerged to deter criticism of slavery, then expanded to discourage challenges to even the worst elements of the Southern Way of Life. I believe hostility to dissent has been one of the most destructive burdens of Southern history. Throughout my career I worked to liberate my region from it.
The newspaper life also enabled me to follow my interests wherever they led, from religion to sports, from foreign policy to family, from photographing Eudora Welty to facing off with William Faulkner’s watchcow. As you’ll see, I had a lot of fun along the way.