Elizabeth Gillespie McRae | Excerpt adapted from Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy | February 2018 | 19 minutes (5,394 words)
In the late fall of 1923, a young Nell Battle Lewis decided to spend an evening at the Superba Theater in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, watching Birth of a Nation for the fifth time. Reviewing the film in her Raleigh News and Observer column “Incidentally,” Lewis noted that each time D. W. Griffith’s movie came to town, she had to see it. This was her sort of “religious observance.” Birth of a Nation, she wrote, was “the best movie we’ve ever seen.” It made her weep and drove her to exclaim, “This is my native land.” She went on to claim that the first KKK was “a necessary tour de force effected by some of the leaders of a . . . civilization in danger of its very life.”
Her devotion to such a film at first seemed incongruous. Lewis had returned to her hometown after years as a southerner living outside the South. After a brief stint at Goucher College in Maryland, she attended and graduated from Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts. At Smith, she sat in integrated classes, heard black and white political leaders, debated woman suffrage, and studied a curriculum that challenged the conservatism, reactionary impulses, and, to some extent, segregated and sectarian currents of the South. After a year in Manhattan, she had gone to France as part of the YMCA’s “Y-Girl” program to support the American Expeditionary Force. In 1921 Lewis had returned to Raleigh and interviewed with the News and Observer editors while dressed in jodphurs, a blazer, boots, and a hat. Her androgynous presentation gave pause to the editor, but he hired her anyway, as an embodiment of the “New Woman” — single, independent-minded, and career-oriented with world experience. As the newspaper’s first female staff writer, she set out to challenge the hidebound traditionalism of white southerners, pedestal-residing white women, and greedy industrialists. In economics, she rejected the trappings of the New South creed and disdained the materialism and business practices of the textile industry. In her early politics, she seemed to identify more with white women of the working class than those like her former St. Mary’s School classmates. Instead of joining the Daughters of the American Revolution and preaching Americanization and anti-immigration, she made fun of their reactionary politics and condemned their red-baiting. Opposing evangelical Christians, she parodied creationists and defended the study of evolution. When H. L. Mencken pronounced the South “the Sahara of the Bozart,” Lewis expressed her intellectual alliance with him, noting that he was “a heady stimulant . . . and effective purgative for intellectual inertia and dry-rot complacency.” As her prominence grew, southern commentators called her an iconoclast and a radical. Her enemies called her a communist; her father and brothers characterized her as abnormal, eccentric, and perhaps even mentally unstable.
Considering the widespread influence of the second Klan, her relentless attacks on them might have merited such judgments. A national organization with professional fundraisers and advertising executives, the KKK proclaimed Anglo-Saxon superiority, recruited record numbers of members, sponsored candidates for southern legislatures, and intimidated their political opponents. More than a few southern leaders lacked the moxie to publicly condemn the Klan, yet Lewis castigated them for their contribution to mob justice and racial violence and told her readers that the KKK was ignorant of the very race science it claimed to follow. In her published poem, she ridiculed their cowardice and intolerance in her opening stanza: “The Kautious Klan Klandestinely. . . . Kwarrels Konstantly with those; Who Kannot Like their Kourse DesPotio.” When the Klan threatened to send one of its female members to take Lewis’s job, she gleefully wrote of her anticipation and then attacked them for their criticism of professional women and flappers. She deplored most of all that KKK activity put North Carolina in the company of its less progressive southern neighbors — Georgia and Alabama. Each time the KKK reared its ugly head, Lewis felt it testified to the failure of North Carolina’s white leaders who had promised a more humane, compassionate, and just state. Still, she wept through Birth of a Nation, a film that she knew the second KKK had exploited.
Lewis did not erase the black South or ignore black achievement…. In fact, the stories she wrote offered up both the black elite and the black folk, but such writing often served to educate white people about the appropriate ‘place’ of blacks and whites in a Jim Crow world.
Taken together, these seemingly dissonant reactions were in fact not anomalous but rather typical outcomes of Lewis’s work in the cultural production of white supremacist politics. As Lewis put pen to paper, she celebrated a world led by educated white progressives, white female reformers, and black elites and populated by oppressed white industrial workers and black southerners receptive to enlightened white leadership. In the News and Observer and other periodicals, she crafted public narratives that created a cultural landscape of a more “affectionate segregation.” Her fiction and non-fiction reinforced specific historical interpretations, invoked black stereotypes, and celebrated white liberals and exceptional black men and women. Her feature writing often highlighted white women who called on social reform for white and black North Carolinians, noting white women’s gendered affinity for cleaning up politics. She praised white and black progressives and condemned those who participated in racist violence and who justified the neglect systemic to racial segregation. Lewis did not erase the black South or ignore black achievement. For example, she celebrated the poetry of Harlem Renaissance writers, congratulated North Carolina’s black collegiate choral groups, and lobbied for state-run girls’ homes for wayward black youth. She also wrote a piece that attributed the impoverished state of the black neighborhood Haiti Alley to the suspect character of those who lived there and ignored structural poverty. When she returned from her travels, she celebrated seeing the first shacks of black sharecroppers because they told her that she was home, romanticizing economic outcomes of segregation. In fact, the stories she wrote offered up both the black elite and the black folk, but such writing often served to educate white people about the appropriate “place” of blacks and whites in a Jim Crow world. In crafting her narratives, she encouraged her readers to follow cultural practices that reinforced racial segregation. She was a storyteller for Jim Crow.
In telling these stories, Lewis did important political work for the segregated South. Culture was one of the central levels where everyday experience could be translated into support for the larger social system, joining social welfare policies, educational practices, and electoral politics as critical sites where the Jim Crow order was shaped and sustained. Her writings offered a template for segregation to be modern and long-lasting — a system grounded in new cultural and scientific arguments more than older biological ones. For Lewis, North Carolina’s segregated order would be a product of a progressive state that adopted national reforms. Educated, liberal white supremacists, not mean reactionaries, would control race relations and mitigate the worst abuses of the system. Relying on the “best” white people, Lewis was a female counterpart to Howard Odum, who, as historian Glenda Gilmore noted, served as one of the “hydraulic engineers at Jim Crow’s watershed” urging white liberals to be the engines of gradual incremental change. With so many stories of mean-spirited and violent segregationists abusing black women and men, rarely did Lewis or Odum or progressives nationwide have to confront how their liberal reforms reified racial inequities. A broad agreement on white supremacy among white social reformers meant that Lewis could easily balance her progressive ideas with her devotion to a society of white over black. To her readers, she delivered lessons on a racial etiquette that upheld racial segregation, gendered ideas about female citizenship, paternalism, and devotion to social reform. For all the stories she told celebrating North Carolina’s enlightened race relations, she served the Jim Crow order by suppressing those that challenged the authority of liberal-minded, middle-class, educated white men and women. Lewis knew that the segregated order was never as secure as it might seem. White people needed instruction in how to maintain white supremacy. White apathy and white misuse of racial authority threatened the very system that guaranteed their political, economic, and cultural authority. In the 1920s and 1930s, her stories criticized the way segregation as practiced departed from the way she wanted and believed it should be. Right up to 1954, Lewis kept calling on fellow white southerners to live up to separate but equal, not abandon it.
Lewis’s brand of white supremacist politics clearly took root in the particular conditions of her home state where she could bring her beliefs in progressive era reform, modern science, eugenics, and women’s civic participation to bear on her work for racial segregation. North Carolina’s champions held the state apart from the racial violence of the Deep South, advertised its black educational institutions, embraced voices that challenged the material greed that undergirded the New South creed, and condemned the rawness and rage that characterized other southern demagogues. Politically, a relatively active state government had earned North Carolina its progressive reputation. Throughout the 1920s, rising public expenditures for state services inspired broad political discussions on economic development, social welfare, and education. Some white political and religious leaders even talked about improving black facilities, held interracial conferences, and welcomed black participation in a community of Christian humanitarianism. For the state’s leaders, North Carolina’s black population of nearly 30 percent figured in their vision of the state, where black moderates like James Shepard, president of North Carolina College for Negroes, could urge black North Carolinians to challenge inequality gradually and cautiously, exemplifying the “politics of respectability.” Josephus Daniels, once an architect of the 1898 white supremacy campaigns, owned the News and Observer, which served as a voice of moderation and modernization. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recruited to its faculty such luminaries as sociologists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson and moved to national prominence under the leadership of Harry Chase and Frank Porter Graham. Progressive reformer Kate Burr Johnson headed the state’s Bureau of Social Welfare. In the interwar period, Bertrand Russell, Gertrude Stein, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the University of North Carolina or Duke University, bringing some of the cosmopolitan energy Lewis had experienced in Manhattan and France.
At the News and Observer, Lewis first contributed feature pieces, edited the Society Page, and wrote a children’s page. Despairing at the limitations of these forums, she nevertheless made her first mark in “Kiddies Corner.” In this full-page feature, Lewis encouraged literacy and imagination, reinforced the social order with black dialect stories and caricatures, and promoted the study of North Carolina history. An early story entitled “Patrick, the Rollin’ Possum,” was written in dialect and included a Nell Battle Lewis original cartoon with the caption: “then the n****r held Patrick up by his long skinny tail and said: Ef dis heah’ possum ain’t sho’ nuff fat, den I dunno fat w’en I sees hit.” The next week, she encouraged young people to have their mothers read to them about their home state so they would “not only . . . feel that North Carolina is the best State, but to know why it is.”
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Soon she introduced her weekly column “Incidentally,” which would run almost uninterrupted for the next forty-five years. Prophetically, her column began with a scene in a park, depicting two black men and one black woman whose “contented laughter broke forth frequently, and the red meat of the melon disappeared rapidly.” Later her caricatures acknowledged the calming comfort offered by “deferential Negroes who wave to you even when they don’t know you.” Contented black North Carolinians joined Lewis’s frequent romanticized depictions of black-white relationships embodied in her print tributes to “mammy.” She noted that the ties between mammy and her white children were “more than imaginative gossamer,” as she lamented a system based on paternalism that was “now passing with the changing times.” In return for their loyalty and love, Lewis said that mammies would receive no earthly reward but the same spiritual reward “as the white folks they worked for.” In fact, the mammy of her childhood, she claimed, “came as near being a Christian as anyone who ever lived.” For Lewis, “Mammies” embodied the epitome of black leadership — serving in a position of deference, devotion, and dependency to white middle-class women. While she attacked her state’s social ills, she had established her column by trotting out minstrel-like black characters that assured herself and others of the satisfaction of the state’s black population. Under the helpful hands of the state’s white progressives, Lewis believed, black North Carolinians would take childlike steps forward.
Her writings offered a template for segregation to be modern and long-lasting — a system grounded in new cultural and scientific arguments more than older biological ones. For Lewis, North Carolina’s segregated order would be a product of a progressive state that adopted national reforms.
But as Lewis paid homage to the Mammy in print, she was participating in a larger cultural production of white supremacy in which the iconic black domestic took center stage. In the immediate aftermath of the 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, the UDC’s Washington, DC, branch gained congressional support for a granite tribute to black mammies. Mississippi’s Senator John Sharp Williams proposed and received appropriations of $200,000 for it, and North Carolina’s Charles Stedman introduced the funding bill to the House of Representatives. At the peak of its membership, the UDC seemed poised to build a monument that imposed its historical interpretation on the national cultural landscape. Some black newspapers responded with outrage. Newspaper owner, editor, and art historian Freeman Henry Morris Murray argued that “public sculpture was not merely reflective . . . but also productive of new publics and power relationships.” Encouraging his readers to be more critical in interpreting the meaning of sculptures, he asked them to evaluate “its obvious and also . . . its insidious teachings.” Black newspapers published their own renditions of a mammy statue that spoke to sexual aggression and assault coupled with long hours and no wages. For the UDC, the Mammy monument offered a racialized household that put white women in positions of authority, allowing them “to recast their own citizenship” and create a more “affectionate segregation.” While the monument never materialized, “mammy” did not need to be cast in bronze to function as an important symbol of segregation. Inked in Lewis’s columns, she remained both important and politically flexible in propagating the cultural infrastructure of segregation.
Lewis did not just deliver black characters of white mythology in her storytelling but also offered up black literary luminaries and black educational leaders. Lewis had long noted that she read the NAACP paper, The Crisis, and celebrated the artistic achievement of “Negro poets” like Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson. Her favorite Harlem Renaissance novelist was Jessie Fauset, whose upper-class African American characters condemned passing as white and interracial marriage, themes that would have fit well with Lewis’s belief in eugenics and white supremacy. Lewis’s book reviews also upheld a racial hierarchy. In 1924, Lewis wrote a joint review of Walter White’s A Fire in the Flint and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, declaring that Forster’s work was art and superior in form and tone to White’s A Fire, “a more melodramatic piece along the lines of propaganda.” With omissions and exaggerations, White’s book, she claimed, made for a biased treatment of the “Southern White” and the “Southern Negro.” Like Forster’s work, there were similarities in the ruling people of each area who did not understand the colonized — blacks or Indians. She also saw parallels in that the rulers were ruling for “their own good,” not the common good. What bothered her most, however, was that “the Negro mind,” which she assumed to be distinct, appeared in White’s book as “not one whit different from that of the white man.” White’s black man acted just like a white one would under similar circumstances. “Can the Negro author who speaks for his race in this novel give us something more distinctive than that? . . . With all the mystery of Africa and all the darkness of slavery behind him, is there nothing unique in the Negro, after all?” she asked.
Lewis’s question exposed the cultural and geographic underpinnings of her racial ideology. Proud of her association with social reform, informed by scientific data, and assured of white women’s authority because of their particular racial and gendered identity, Nell Lewis rejected the pedestal and the pulpit but believed in Anglo-Saxon superiority. She rooted her hierarchical beliefs in “race science,” a position superior to those southerners whose racism rose from raw emotion. To educate her readers, she ran a crossword puzzle about eugenics, celebrating modern scientific thought. But as her review of White suggested, her racial liberalism left no space for discussions of an equality born of commonalities. Modernism had educated her, and there were differences — biological, cultural, historical differences — she believed, that should shape public policy and culture. It was not anti-modernism or economic gain that drove her racial politics, but a Progressive Era devotion to social reform, women’s gendered contributions to society, and modernity itself.
While Lewis’s attention to black accomplishments reflected a kind of racial moderation to both her white readers and her black readers, it simultaneously stung some black readers. In the winter of 1925, she attended a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night put on by the Shaw University Players. Despite the technical perfection, Lewis noted that “the general effect of the performance was strikingly artificial.” Instead of Shakespeare, which black students must perform, she claimed, in their “adopted language,” she advised them to focus on folk drama. While the KKK had carried “racial consciousness and racial pride . . . to excess,” she conceded, “I am a great believer in trying to be what you are.” Lewis advocated an emphasis on “their own distinct racial character.” Lamenting that the “advancement of the Negro has been largely imitative,” she was anxious to witness “a genuine drama of their own.”
Willing to engage with her critics, Lewis published the objections of two black North Carolinians who lamented how white supremacist ideology infiltrated her public narratives. Shaw University dean William Turner appreciated her “to some degree complimentary criticism” but disagreed with her assessment of English as an adopted language for African Americans. He instructed Lewis that black and white babies learn language in the same way and that there was no “racial predilection for any particular language.” Black social heritage in the United States, he continued, was the English language. At the State Department of Public Instruction, W. A. Robinson also noted that her comments solicited much discussion among those who “admire your usually broad attitude toward thought in general and concerning the Negro in particular.” He also disagreed with her suggestion that black Americans just imitated white Americans, noting that black Americans had long legacies of their own American traditions.
Two years later, Lewis again sparred with her critics after she reviewed black musical performances at the governor’s mansion. When black performers sang “Negro-folk songs,” Lewis praised them because they “sang like Negroes.” In the middle of “Cotton need a-pickin so bad,” the Fayetteville singers even “did a little shuffle . . . exactly right,” she wrote. This time a University of North Carolina professor reminded her that the “cultured Negro . . . is not the freedman of 1867.” Eavesdropping on a conversation about her review among black college girls, he heard them comment that “the white audience had a taste for music that was satisfied in direct proportion as the program descended toward more clownish setting.” For Lewis, the Jim Crow South meant black southerners occupied a particular cultural place, and this meant deference, dialect, and slave spirituals, not Shakespeare, “correct” English, or political participation. Her reviews and accompanying criticism reminded her readers — both black and white — that white supremacy reigned even among white southern liberals.
Lewis knew that the segregated order was never as secure as it might seem. White people needed instruction in how to maintain white supremacy…. In the 1920s and 1930s, her stories criticized the way segregation as practiced departed from the way she wanted and believed it should be.
Lewis’s views on social reform, however, held some real possibility for positive changes to the justice and prison systems. She worked together with Howard Odum and the Journal of Social Forces to publicize reform proposals for mental health and penal facilities. This work connected her to nationwide efforts that rooted reform in social science research and simultaneously reified an American racial hierarchy. Condemning capital punishment for those suffering mental disabilities, Lewis wrote about “a lone man behind the grim gray walls of the State’s prison, with a pitifully jangled brain [who] will pass swiftly and mercilessly and forever into death’s dark silence.” In 1925, she told her readers how prison guards murdered a “mentally defective Negro prisoner.” Lewis blamed this state-sanctioned killing on politicians who cared more for the bottom line than prisoner well-being, an impulse that also shaped an unwillingness to fund a segregated institution for the “feebleminded.” Thirsty for revenge, state officials would rather have a rape trial and lynching of a black man “with a mind of a 10 year old,” Lewis wrote, than “provide adequately for the mentally ill.” Lewis was incensed that “mental defectives” — particularly those who were black — were often left in society to commit crimes and then put to death without ever receiving treatment. Lewis argued that without the “exercise of disinterested public spirit and intelligence” that might consult sociological rather than economic studies in the pursuit of a fair and just legal and penal system, the state’s political leaders would fail to uphold North Carolina’s progressive image. Subsequently, Lewis feared that North Carolina would never rise above the South’s reputation of “savagery” and “backwardness.”
Her outrage about capital cases of mentally ill prisoners in 1921 and 1925 coalesced in her study entitled “Capital Punishment in North Carolina.” Full of data about age, region, race, economic standing, and crimes of those put to death by the state, her research connected her to the American League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (ALACP) and the work of its secretary Vivian Pierce and lawyer Clarence Darrow. Pierce praised Lewis’s report on capital punishment as unmatched and asked her for permission to publish parts of the report. While Lewis worked with the League and other reform organizations, she did not join the ALACP, the southern-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation, or the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). In 1930, when a black man was lynched for the alleged rape of a white girl in Edgecombe County, Lewis did not sign the petition circulated by the North Carolina ASWPL. She did write a blistering article that blamed South Carolina’s former senator Coleman Blease, known for inciting racist violence among the white working class, for the particular brand of vitriolic racism now circulating in her home state. She criticized the barbarity of a mob that took no account of either the evidence or the mental condition of the accused. Lewis worked closely with white female reformers, public health officials, and the League of Women Voters to upgrade mental health facilities, youth reformatories, and prisons, and to make the state’s judicial system administer justice that met the spirit of separate but equal. From this liberal political platform, Lewis managed to continue to craft North Carolina’s position as a progressive southern state even in its commitment to racial segregation.
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In 1931, the editors of the Chapel Hill magazine, Contempo, Lewis’s friend Paul Green, and social scientist Guy Johnson invited Langston Hughes to the University of North Carolina for a reading of his scathing poem “Christ in Alabama,” about the false accusations and shoddy trial of the nine Scottsboro boys. Hughes came to town, read poetry, and charmed many Chapel Hill residents, simultaneously earning the ire of industrial and political leaders across the state. While Nell Lewis applauded academic freedom, her brother, Kemp Lewis, led a campaign to punish those who sponsored Hughes. He wrote to UNC president Frank Porter Graham claiming that Hughes’s poetry, particularly the poem he referred to as “Black Christ,” was “enough to make the blood of every Southerner boil to have a man like this . . . given any attention or consideration whatever by decent white people.” Kemp Lewis asked “if this Negro was allowed to use the buildings” or if he had “any recognition whatever by the faculty?” He then questioned Graham about the students who authored Contempo and accused them of “striking at the very foundations of our civilization and our social relationships.” Not satisfied with alerting only Graham, Kemp Lewis proceeded to notify Governor O. Max Gardner and included clippings of Hughes’s poetry in his letter. He then asked the governor to speak to Graham about this attack on white supremacy.
The turmoil over Hughes alerted the state’s white elite to “subversive” activity at their university. By early 1932, more than 300 people had signed the Tatum Petition that called on Graham to curb “the alleged evil influences of the University of North Carolina upon the youth of the State.” Though convalescing from oral surgery and bouts with mental illness at Tucker’s Sanatorium in Richmond, Nell Lewis did not let this attack on academic freedom pass silently. She wrote her brother Kemp that she hoped “all is well at the University” and asked “Is ‘Contempo’ still uncensored?” “I wish you would run David Clark out of that State,” she continued, as he was “behind that petition . . . as sure as the world, and is nothing but a public nuisance.” Kemp Lewis did not sign the Tatum Petition, but he continued his protest and broadened his attack to include the university’s leniency on socialism. In her weekly column, Lewis ridiculed the Tatum Petition, describing it as “foolishness, just plain foolishness — I don’t care how many mayors, ministers, and manufacturers have signed it.” She defended the presence of both Russell and Hughes and claimed sarcastically that “although that [the Hughes visit] was in the ticklish realm of race relations in the South, lynching still seems to me out of order.” While Kemp continually referred to the “nausea that came to me over the Langston Hughes incident,” Nell Lewis wrote, “Black or white . . . Hughes is a poet and like it or not, his works are part of current American literature.”
When Lewis returned to health and to North Carolina, she became less vitriolic in her calls for reform and more indebted financially to the very brothers she had excoriated. The cultural landscape of white supremacy that she continued to shape from her columns, however, was not decidedly different than before, even with the New Deal. She still condemned racist violence and an unresponsive judicial system, and she upheld what she believed could be a sanctified and responsible system of white over black. Far from challenging this position, architects and leaders of the New Deal helped her cultivate this space for social reform in the hands of an enlightened white elite. Thus, Lewis’s friend Frank Porter Graham could belong to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and deny Pauli Murray, an NAACP member and civil rights activist, admission to University of North Carolina’s graduate program in social work. Even as African Americans realized the subversive potential of the New Deal, liberal white supremacists, like Lewis, saw few national challenges to southern race relations from the federal government, the Democratic Party, or black southerners.
While many North Carolinians and students of the 1920s would remember Lewis’s radicalism, advocacy for industrial reform, and opposition to the region’s most reactionary moments, her most long-lasting work had been in the cultural production of white supremacy.
She still worked to expose her state’s failures to meet the equal part of separate-but-equal and attacked reactionaries who condoned exploitative and cruel public policies. Lewis’s commitment to prison reform and her public commentary on the deplorable conditions faced by the state’s black and white incarcerated demonstrated that she still had room to critique the implementation of white supremacy without threatening its foundation. She exploded with characteristic fury and sarcasm when two black prisoners, Woodrow Wilson Shropshire and Robert Barnes, lost their feet to gangrene. Sentenced to “serve short terms” on the state highways for larceny and drunk and disorderly conduct, respectively, Shropshire and Barnes suffered frostbite after being “hung up” in marginally heated cells during twenty-degree nights. After nine days of such treatment, they worked eighteen days in the prison camp until they received medical treatment for “the flesh of their gangrenous feet rotting and dropping off the bones.” At ages nineteen and twenty, the two black men had their feet amputated and were left crippled. When the case reached the courts, the unfairness of the judicial system compounded the tragedy, reinforcing how Jim Crow courts equaled injustice. The jurors failed to find the guards and the prison physician guilty of cruel and unusual punishment. Lewis claimed that this case revealed how African Americans were often denied the right to ask for justice in the state’s courts. Lewis noted that the state-appointed attorney presented a lackluster case for the prosecution. Even though an indictment could not help the prisoners, she noted that it could have shown them that justice was available to African Americans in North Carolina. Instead, she claimed, the trial “actively says to them — and to an admiring world . . . Just a couple o’ n****rs — so we should worry.” Taking an even sterner stand, Lewis proclaimed that black North Carolinians had not “a ghost of a chance in its [the state’s] white man’s courts . . . because they were poor Negroes without influence.”
Read as a defense of black civil rights, Lewis’s condemnation of prison abuse would earn her a place among some of the most liberal activists of the 1930s. The all-white court system — a product of segregation — was partially to blame, contended Lewis. This was a bold assertion in 1935; it was not a damning one. For Lewis, whites failed to uphold a legal system that guaranteed their superiority, not their infallibility. Segregation laws did not prohibit a just conviction of white criminals. The white prison guards and physicians deserved jail time for their crimes and for compromising the myth of white superiority. Whites had failed to uphold the law and in doing so had threatened the entire rationale of white supremacy. In failing to carry out its legal responsibility, the courts of North Carolina, not Lewis’s critique, jeopardized the system of racial segregation. In fact, she was all too aware that incidents such as these earned her beloved state the condemnation and condescension of outsiders and perhaps threatened to incite the spirits of the state’s black citizens.
Her blistering attacks fell short of condemning racial segregation. Neither did she support the Southern Committee for People’s Rights, a Chapel Hill group led by her friend Paul Green and other white radicals who called for the dismantling of racial segregation. Lewis’s commitment to social reform did not apparently push her this far. The committee rebuked the system and also defended the rights of the prisoners as individuals. In advance of a national discussion, they spoke of human rights and tied their efforts to those working for African American civil rights. Lewis did not adopt the human rights discourse but maintained a tone of parental remorse and paternalistic regret when she affirmed that even in the face of injustice, “it seems to me that the Negroes of this State, as a whole, are remarkably well-behaved, remarkably patient.” In her open statement to North Carolina’s black population, she reassured them that “many other white people in North Carolina are shamed by this verdict . . . [and] we consider it a disgrace to the State.” She admitted, however, that her “many” was really more like a few.
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While many North Carolinians and students of the 1920s would remember Lewis’s radicalism, advocacy for industrial reform, and opposition to the region’s most reactionary moments, her most long-lasting work had been in the cultural production of white supremacy. Carefully balancing her political radicalism in other areas with a relatively liberal position on segregation, Lewis had emerged as an incisive storyteller for segregation and the political project that undergirded it. Her reputation as a “truth-teller” only reinforced the lessons she offered about white over black in the Jim Crow South. Her racial politics also offered educated, progressive white southerners a politically palatable way to digest the politics of white supremacy. Lewis was not out of step with more progressive views of women’s political activism. Her efforts connected her to reform projects across the nation — prison reform and social science-based policies hatched in universities across the nation and published in academic journals. Rooted in this modern political context, she offered white southerners stories to take them forward in terms of the white supremacist political project.
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Elizabeth Gillespie McRae is an associate professor of history and director of graduate social science education programs at Western Carolina University.
Editor: Dana Snitzky