Memory of a Racist Past — Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town by Willie Morris

Writers will find Chapter 2, in Part One, particularly interesting. Morris writes:

The most terrible burden of the writer, the common burden that makes writers a fraternity in blood despite their seasonal expressions of malice, jealousy, antagonism, suspicion, rage, venom, perfidy, competition over the size of publishers’ advances—that common burden is the burden of memory. It is an awesome weight, and if one isn’t careful it can sometimes drive you quite mad.

— p. 11

Memory haunts the South, a theme Morris returns to regularly. This push and pull is evident throughout the book as Morris relates heart-warming tales of family and friends along with the debilitating racism that divided many in the South after the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools. Morris describes skillfully the impact memory has on the individual. It is a theme throughout the book, often explored through Morris’s anecdotes about friends, acquaintances and adversaries. Both a blessing and a curse, memory shapes our lives and informs our writing. For Morris, it was the memory of racism past that manifested itself in racism present. Morris was never free from the Southern town he grew up in, nor from the Southern university he attended. He remained shaped by the powerful experience of growing up in Yazoo City, which he captures breathtakingly in this book. But while memory burdens, it also informs and motivates. Had Morris not experienced the deep-seeded racial antagonisms of the South, one hazards to think he would have approached the world as a writer-scholar-activist in the same ways. Yazoo City gave him the strength to crusade against it and the difficulties he saw persisting to the present. Without these memories, Morris’s crusade against segregation and racial injustice would have seemingly been unlikely. That he saw racism, spoke to racist members of the community, as well as racists across the country in his experience as an editor and teacher, radically oriented him toward the oppressive politics of the Jim Crow South.

For Morris, it was the memory of racism past that manifested itself in racism present…. He remained shaped by the powerful experience of growing up in Yazoo City, which he captures breathtakingly in this book.

Legal scholars will find Chapter 9, also in Part One, intriguing as Morris discusses his meeting with American Bar Association President John Satterfield. Morris recounts Satterfield’s hesitancy to endorse the Brown decision, portraying staunchly conservative Satterfield as the consummate racist — racist to the core, but too polite to indicate so. Morris’s discussion of his meeting with Satterfield is one of the text’s highlights. In this brief account, Morris opens a window on the racially-coded rhetoric of white Southerners, particularly those in powerful positions. Morris’s discussion is illuminating as it gives a first person account of the racial animosities lurking under the surface of official rhetoric.

This book is highly recommended for its ease of reading and intriguing portrait of a literary giant’s relationship to the South. Readers with an interest in Southern history, the history of race and racism, the Civil Rights Movement, and even legal history will find this book informative and enjoyable. Jennifer Jensen Wallach and Joanne Pritchard Morris contextualize the work and provide valuable biographical insights into the life of Willie Morris. The lesson is clear. Through a commitment to equality and social justice, racism can effectively be challenged even in the direst of circumstances. As Joanne Pritchard Morris writes in the “Afterword” about Willie Morris and the need for continued scholarly works on racism: “A guardian angel is expecting them.”

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