Decline and Fall of the White South


Women veterans, Memphis
Whitfield, Mississippi, Mental Hospital
Mississippi State Legislature
Delta Debutante Cotillion
In the fall of 1969, Jeff Nightbyrd and I left Los Angeles and traveled to the deep south. We had received a modest contract from E.P. Dutton's Editor in Chief, Hal Scharlett, to fashion a book out of photos and interviews. It was conceived as a collaboration in the manner of James Agee and Walker Evans; a "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" for the 1960's.

Jeff and I, white southerners, had attended college in the south, the University of Texas and Ole Miss respectively.We had both been active in the southern civil-rights movment and worked together in the National Office of The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Our work continued to the following Spring. In the meantime, Jeff, who was editor of "Rat", one of the best known of the "underground" newspapers of the era, faced a feminist revolt at the New York weekly in his absence. He was also caught up in the Chicago 7 trial (stemming from riot charges at the 1968 Democratic Convention) as a close friend of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. I got divorced. Tragically, our editor, Hal Scharlett, died.

The book was never published.

There was no way to know, at the time, that this was the end of the white south. The familiar system of white dominance that had remained largely unchanged throughout southern American history was over. The spring of 1970 saw the massive integration of the schools all over the south, and bussing in the border states. The white southern vote for President Richard Nixon in 1968 had yielded little, if any, support for a system in defeat. The white resistance collapsed over the winter of 1969/1970. It is but a memory now.

There are more than 4,000 negatives and dozens of hours of tape recordings. We're now thinking about making another pass at this 32 year old project.

Looking at the photos after all these years I am struck by the totality of the white world of the deep south. Blacks largely didn't exist within the world that we inhabited, except at our request. I know that people now, especially academics, say these kinds of things about the white south of the recent past. But, I am stunned by the EVIDENCE in these pictures. And I shot them.

I am amazed at my easy entry to red neck bars, debutante balls and state prisons. Yet, that was the way I had effortlesly lived my life, as a white southerner in good standing with the Delta elite; a member of the Bachelors Club of the Delta Debutantes; an initiate of Kappa Alpha Order at Ole Miss, a fraternity founded by Robert E. Lee. Even as I had gone into opposition to the prevailing system, I was privileged inside of it. Looking back, it is astounding.

I am also aware that these are pictures shot by a young man, with his keen interest in women and in other young people. In that sense it is not a comprehensive look at the south. Moreover, we traveled out of my hometown of Greenville,Mississippi and, no doubt, neglected areas of the south. But, the Delta, where Greenville is located, has often been called the most southern place on earth. It was there that cotton was truly king and that caste and class reached a level unmatched in the United States during the era of legal segregation.

Vestiges of the old system have been preserved: class surely triumphed over race, in a way that the Marxists would say "I told you so". But, whatever there was before is largely gone. It was not a revolution, merely reform. But, in the American grain, a sweeping and utter shift.

There is a realization, at least on my part, that however flawed this work may be, it is also absolutely unique. No one else thought to do this. Not quite this.

D. Gorton

Greenville,Mississippi, 1969

Honky Tonk near Wayside, Mississippi
Ku Klux Klan, Stone Mountain, Georgia
French Quarter, New Orleans
Law office, Birmingham Riot, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee
Healing service, Mississippi
Civil War battlefield, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Prisoners, Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi
Businessman, Atlanta
Pee Wee football, Mississippi
George Wallace for Governor rally, Eutah, Alabama
Bourbon Street stripper, New Orleans
Anti Vietnam War march, Ole Miss
Panhandlers and hippies, Atlanta
Old South Tearoom, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Bikers hired to intimidate white civil rights workers, Mississippi
All white barber shop, downtown Atlanta
Roadside stand, McGhee, Arkansas
Arkansas City, Arkansas
Debutante Ball, Mississippi
Anti-integration march, Clarksdale, Mississippi