Review

Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South by Curtis Wilkie

by Curtis Wilkie



You might think everything possible has already been written about
the total transformation that has overtaken the American South in
the last 50 years, changing it from the sleepy and backward-looking
"Old Confederacy" into the fast-growing and business-oriented
modern region of today.

Curtis Wilkie, a sharp-eyed and sensitive journalist, covers that
familiar terrain in his new book, but he does so from a wonderfully
vivid personal perspective tied to the landmark events that he
himself witnessed as both newspaperman and occasional participant.
A Mississippi native who somehow turned out to be a genuine
northern-style liberal, Wilkie gives the series of
precedent-shattering events that began with the Supreme Court's
desegregation decision of 1954 a sense of you-are-there
immediacy.

Wilkie was only 14 years old when that decision came down but he
was a student at the University of Mississippi eight years later
when the campus erupted in shameful rioting over the attempted
enrollment of its first black student, James Meredith. His account
of that riot is one of the most vivid things in his book. Other
events at which he had a front-row seat included the "freedom
rider" summer of 1964, the 1968 crusade that ended with the
assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the battle of
"insurgents" against the regular party-line Mississippi delegation
to the 1968 Democratic national convention, the election of Jimmy
Carter in 1976, and the trials of high-profile racists like Byron
de la Beckwith and Sam Bowers.

Wilkie weaves into this historical record his own autobiography; in
fact the first third or so of the book is mainly a rather charming
and nostalgic look back at his own young years.

What the reader gets from Wilkie's prose is the sense of a native
southerner's personal revulsion at what he calls "the politics of
'never'" --- his term for the unyielding, ruthless and violent
campaign to preserve racial segregation and to squash anyone who
opposed it in the slightest. He is unsparing in his condemnation of
those who pursued this policy --- politicians, media people,
clergy, law enforcement personnel. Yet he also admits to an abiding
affection for his native region and a disdain for those in the rest
of the country who condemn it without having ever lived there
themselves.

That affection led him actually to move back south even while he
was still writing for a bellwether northern newspaper, the Boston
Globe. He persuaded his Yankee editors to let him set up shop as
their roving southern commentator and promptly moved to New
Orleans. If this book is any indication of the kind of thing he
wrote for the Globe, he brought to his assignment a detailed and
even poignant eye for the southern mind, heart, and
landscape.

The book is full of nicely observed character sketches of people on
all sides of the segregation battle. Some, like the racist former
Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, are virtually destroyed by his
pen. Jimmy Carter, while given grudging credit for his good
qualities, comes off in these pages as a rigid, stiff-necked and
virtually humorless political operator. There are also revealing
glimpses of the jealousy and infighting that afflicted the civil
rights movement itself. It was by no means a united front.

The book has some minor faults. It loses some of its focus when
Wilkie is assigned to cover Arab-Israeli turmoil in the Middle
East; he feels compelled to write a detailed account of that
assignment and makes rather awkward efforts to relate it to his
southern experience. Also, it seems there was hardly a politician
or public figure anywhere in the South who did not at some point
earn from Wilkie the honorific "my friend."  Can that be a
southern conversational gimmick that a northern reader/reviewer
takes too seriously?

No matter. Even those who may think this subject has been more than
adequately covered by scholars and historians over the years will
find something new and insightful in this fine book.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 21, 2011

Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South by Curtis Wilkie
by Curtis Wilkie

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0684872854
  • ISBN-13: 9780684872858