Exposing All-White Towns: A Civil Rights Book Club Interview with James Loewen
When Civilrights.org started the book club one year ago we did not know that so many writers would submit their books for consideration. A number of authors have made our jobs easier – and readers choices more plentiful – by sending us books we might never have known about otherwise. James Loewen, author, scholar, and professor, was one of the first authors to request inclusion in the book club. However, we had already selected his book. Because he was so gracious and enthusiastic, Mr. Loewen was the obvious choice for our inaugural interview of the series. His book, Sundown Towns, deals with one of our most pernicious civil rights violations – housing discrimination and residential segregation. It’s a provocative book that reveals a piece of our nation’s history too long obscured.
Civilrights.org: So how did you find out that you were selected for the Civilrights.org book club? What were your thoughts when you found out?
James Loewen: I have no idea how I found out....My reaction was, “I’m delighted.” Because the civil rights community, if you will, is one of the most important audiences for Sundown Towns. And the reason for this is, first of all, the civil rights community might do something about it, and second of all, to my surprise the civil rights community on the whole doesn’t know about sundown towns. I have asked at least eight civil rights lawyers, for instance, if they knew that at least one town in the south – and perhaps as many as four or five or six whole counties – threw out their black population in response to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. And they had utterly no idea that that had happened. Now, that’s a response to Brown that’s a whole lot more hostile than Prince Edward County, Virginia, which merely closed all its schools. You know they got rid of the whole black population. Is that actionable? I would think so. I would think it’s still actionable.
Another reason I want to reach the civil rights community is that I think the court, particularly the Supreme Court, did not know about – put it this way, did not take judicial notice of – the sundown suburbs of Detroit when it decided Bradley v. Milliken. And if it had known about them it could not have claimed, as the key justice, I think Potter Stewart it was, in his deciding opinion claimed that the suburbs were all-white for "unknown and perhaps unknowable reasons." Well, the suburbs were all white for sundown policies, and this is clear after you read my book. So maybe there is some way to go after that decision and get it re-adjudicated. Certainly, that decision has left Detroit and the Detroit metropolitan area screwed to this day. And Detroit is the most segregated metropolitan area, it has the most downtown abandonment, and it had until the last five years the most sundown towns. Many of them have just recently broken and black folks can now live safely in at least three of the five Grosse Points, for instance, and in Dearborn, and in some of the others. But the damage has been done over the last several decades.
Civilrights.org: Looking at your books, Lies Across America, Lies My Teacher Told Me, The Truth about Columbus it is safe to say that you have a very sharp focus on telling the truth about American history. What drives you to write these kinds of books?
James Loewen: My interest in history particularly grew from my first fulltime teaching job, which was at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, next to Jackson, Mississippi. 1968-1969 was my first year teaching there full-time. I was assigned to teach the courses I expected to be teaching in sociology, but I also was assigned to teach a section of the freshman social science seminar. This was a class invented by the history department and required of all first-year students. And it introduced them to – you know the drill – sociology, anthro, poly sci, econ, psych, in the context of African American history. Made sense; 99 percent of our students being African American.
Now that’s the same chronology as American history, so second semester begins right after the civil war with, of course, Reconstruction. Second semester began. I had a new seminar, a new group of students. I didn’t want to do all the talking that first day of class, so I asked them, “Okay, what is Reconstruction, what happened then?”
And I will always remember this event. It was an “ah-ha” experience, or perhaps better an “oh no” experience. Sixteen out of seventeen of them said “that was the period right after the Civil War when blacks took over the government of the southern states but they were too soon out of slavery, so they screwed up, so white folks had to take control again.”
I sat there stunned. There are of course at least three direct misstatements of fact – I would call them lies – in that sentence. Blacks never took over the governments of the southern states. All of the southern states had white governors throughout the period; all but one had white legislative majorities. Second, the Reconstruction governments did not screw up. Mississippi, in particular, had probably the best government during Reconstruction than it had at any later point in the 19th century. Throughout the south, the Reconstruction governments wrote better state constitutions than any constitution the southern states have ever had, including those that they labor under today, and so on.
And so therefore, white folks didn’t take control to end it. Instead a certain group of whites took control at the end of Reconstruction: white racist Democrats using KKK tactics. In fact, it was of course the original Ku Klux Klan.
So I thought, "What must it do to you to believe that the one time your group was center stage in American history they screwed up?" Can’t be good for you. How could you come to believe this? I mean, if it’s true that’s another matter, you have to deal with it; you have to come to terms with it, figure out why this happened. But it did not happen. This is what we in sociology call BS or “bad sociology.”
And so I proceeded to try to get historians in central Mississippi to write a better textbook, because I visited black schools, with black teachers, and all black students – this was just before massive school desegregation in the Deep South – and I watched them teaching white supremacist history, because they were just teaching the book, particularly in, of course, Mississippi history, which was required in 5th grade and again in 9th grade.
I couldn’t get anybody else to write it. So finally after a year and a half I got a grant. I got together some students and faculty at Tugaloo, and some students and faculty at Millsaps College, the nearby white college, and together we wrote a new history of Missisippi. We had to sue the state to get it adopted. The lawsuit is called Loewen et al v. Turnipseed et al. But we did win.
But that whole escapade proved to me that history can be a weapon; that it can be used against you and that it had been used against my students.
By the way, the civil rights community might be interested to know, that our initial civil rights attorney associated with us from the beginning was Mel Leventhal, who was then the husband of Alice Walker and famous in his own right as the attorney who won Alexander v. Holmes, the case that desegregated the Deep South. And then after he moved to New York, our new attorney was Frank Parker, who became very famous as probably the number one voting rights lawyer in the United States before his death.
Civilrights.org: For people who haven’t read the book and are interested in reading the book, how did Sundown Towns come about?
James Loewen: I learned of my first sundown town when I was in college. That was at Carleton College in Minnesota. And many students at Carleton were from Minnesota, of course. Many of them were from the suburbs of the Twin Cities. And the most prestigious and richest suburb was then and is now Edina. The saying in Edina in the early 60s was, “Not one Negro and not one Jew.” And they didn’t have one of either either. Today they do, but they didn’t then. And I just kind of thought that was outrageous.
And then I learned of Darien, CT, one of the richest and most prestigious suburbs of New York City. Darien was briefly famous in 1947 because the Academy Award winning movie for Best Picture was Gentleman’s Agreement starring Cary Grant, about the agreement by which Darien kept out Jews. And of course it kept out blacks. Again, I thought that was outrageous. And I came to learn from personal contact with Darien that it hadn’t changed much in the decades since the movie came out.
And then I learned of Anna, Illinois, down in southern Illinois, which since 1909 has come to mean “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed” – A.N.N.A. And again I thought that was outrageous.
Now when I went to write the book I knew I was going to focus more in Illinois than in any other single state simply because I grew up in Illinois. And so I figured if somebody tells me Villa Grove is a sundown town, well, I know that’s over in eastern Illinois. I know that Kenilworth is the richest suburb of Chicago, and so on.
I thought I would discover maybe ten sundown towns in Illinois, maybe 50 across the country. To my amazement, I believe I have established that Illinois in 1970 had at least 474 sundown towns, which is a 70 percent majority of all towns in the state. And again this is a fact that no civil rights attorney, that no one I’ve ever met – including myself—had any idea of. I, therefore, concluded that there were probably about 10,000 at their peak across the U.S. – their peak being about 1970.
Civilrights.org: In your book, you coin the phrase, the Nadir. Can you talk about what that means and how it relates to The Great Migration?
James Loewen: The Nadir of race relations. I didn’t coin “The Nadir.” The nadir is a term actually coined by a rather famous professor at Howard many years ago named Rayford Logan and used by many historians. Nadir is of course an English language word meaning “low point”.
And so the nadir of race relations I date 1890-1940. Everybody who knows anything dates it beginning in 1890 because in 1890 three terrible things happened in race relations. First was –I’m not sure exactly which came first by the date – the first I’m going to mention was the Massacre at Wounded Knee, previously known as the Battle at Wounded Knee, which ended the last shards of American Indian independence. Second was Mississippi’s passing of its infamous 1890 constitution, which “legally” removed blacks from citizenship, eliminated them from voting, in direct defiance of the 14th and 15th amendments, and yet the United States did nothing. And third, the United States Senate failed to pass, more or less by a single vote, a voting rights bill that the House had passed and that Republican president Benjamin Harrison would certainly have signed into law.
And in the aftermath, the Democrats did their usual; they taunted Republicans – “You people aren’t nothing but a bunch of ‘nigger lovers’.” The Republicans had previously responded to this taunt with, “You’re darn right, somebody has to stand up for these people. It’s an outrage what you folks are doing down south” and so on. But in 1891 they made a new response. And that was, “No we aren’t.” And at that point, they moved away from, and gave up on, civil rights for all.
So for those three reasons we date the nadir as beginning in 1890.
And what happened during it was terrible. And I’ll just mention maybe four things. The Confederates – or maybe I should say neo-Confederates -- proceeded to put up Civil War statues all over place, including for instance all over Kentucky, even though Kentucky never seceded. They did this because they felt “now finally we have won.” And I would assert that’s correct. They did.
Second of all, they redefined what the Civil War was all about. And now it became about states’ rights. Secession was really about slavery. And they even renamed it and it became “The War between the States”. Nobody ever called it that at the time.
Third, lynchings went to their all-time high.
And, most important perhaps, certainly most lasting, sundown towns formed all across the north.
Civilrights.org: To a large extent, we’ve made great strides as a nation to combat employment discrimination and we are vigilant – if not always successful – in our efforts to open up educational opportunities for minorities. However, residential segregation and housing discrimination are persistent problems. Why do you think this is the case? And why don’t these issues get more attention?
James Loewen: I don’t think most people – even most civil rights oriented people – understand that America is so segregated not owing to individual choice. There are a lot of folks who think that the Joneses, who are white, buy their house, and they buy it in Dearborn, Michigan, and the Smiths, who are black, they buy their house and they buy their house in Detroit. And both groups are more comfortable that way. Well, both groups may actually be more comfortable that way. There is some literature that says that that’s so. Except that between 1863 - 1890, black folks actually moved everywhere. They were in Dearborn, or a predecessor of Dearborn. They were all across the upper peninsula of Michigan. They were in every county of Indiana but one. They were in every county of Montana, and so on.
And then between 1890 and 1940, during the Nadir, they have to commence what I call the Great Retreat. They withdraw from many of these counties and from Dearborn. They get driven out of town after town all across the Midwest, in Oregon, in Utah, all over the place.
People go all kinds of places. If it weren’t for force, there would be no all-white towns today, I’m convinced. Or at least none of any size whatever. People go for a number of reasons, you know. They go because of marital reasons, or they get transferred, or they just hear about the place, or whatever darn reasons there may be. Hey, we might even talk about your family who moves to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, because your father ate lunch there, you know. People move for the damnedest reasons. And who’s to say they shouldn’t? Well, sundown towns say they shouldn’t, and sundown towns have been saying "you shouldn’t" to black folks throughout the 20th century, and now some of them still say it into the 21st century.
But there’s been a silence about it. I think that civil rights groups help maintain that silence, and I’ll give you a specific example. The NAACP was actually founded partly in response to the attempt to make Springfield, Illinois, a sundown town. There was the briefly famous Springfield riot of 1908, the purpose of which was to drive out the black community. In fact the mob yelled, “Abe Lincoln brought you in, and we will drive you out!” That riot -- unlike similar riots in Pierce City, Missouri, or Pinckneyville, Illinois, or Liberty, Oregon, whatever, I can name dozens of them across the US -- unlike those riots, the one in Springfield was famous. Why? Simply because it happened in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, and it kind of showed how far we have sunk. I mean, here Springfield had a growing black population in the 1860s. After the murder of Abraham Lincoln, many black folks came to that funeral in Springfield, and some of them stayed. So things were looking better, but then by 1908 came the attempt to drive out the entire black community.
So that was briefly famous. And one of the reactions was the interracial group that founded the NAACP the next year. But the NAACP never attacked the sundown town, as far as I know. They did have me speak to them this past summer, so maybe they will. But they never have. And I think the reason for that is maybe the calculation; they needed some allies. And so they strapped on segregation in the south, but they didn’t strap it on in the north.
And I find this same thing in various autobiographies, such as Marion Anderson’s. She talks about the shame of having to ride up in a freight elevator to get to her room in a Birmingham hotel, before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in order to have a room in a white hotel in downtown Birmingham. But she never mentions that fact that on at least two occasions that I know of and probably many others – this would be Goshen, Indiana and Appleton, Wisconsin – she performed in a sundown town. And after her performance, not only couldn’t stay at any hotel – freight elevator or not – couldn’t even stay at a professor’s home at Goshen College or Lawrence University, because the home might be endangered by her presence. And so she had to go off to Elkhart, Indiana, or perhaps to Milwaukee or some other city in Wisconsin that wasn’t a sundown town. Why doesn’t she mention that in her autobiography? I think the same – I know she’s dead, I can’t ask her – the same calculation maybe goes on. She wants to write a document that becomes a vehicle for decreasing the oppression black people faced. And so the thing to do seems to be attack it in the south.
Civilrights.org: Alexander Polikoff, the lawyer who litigated the Gautreaux case that desegregated Chicago’s housing projects, said at a signing for his book of the case, Waiting for Gautreaux, that the one problem "we have chosen not to focus on" is the black ghetto. It seems that fixing the ghetto is related to fixing all-white neighborhoods, am I right?
James Loewen: I think he’s absolutely right and yet at the same time 180 degrees wrong. And what I mean by that is the ghetto is the result of the sundown town. And what we need to do then is attack the sundown town. Particularly in this case, we’re talking about the sundown suburb; let’s say the Kenilworths, the Dariens, the Edinas of the world. And those are the elite sundown suburbs. There’s also the working-class sundown suburbs like up until recently Cicero, Illinois. Dearborn, Michigan is a multi-class suburb. It’s working class all the way up to upper class.
Civilrights.org: Wasn’t Greenbelt also?
James Loewen: Greenbelt was certainly a sundown suburb. There are many former sundown suburbs around DC on the Maryland sign. I don’t know of any – although there may be some – on the Virginia side. In that regard, Maryland is a northern state and Virginia is a southern state. That is, let’s say Falls Church has a little black part of town, or had. College Park had a black part of town, but most of the other Maryland suburbs, such as Mount Rainier, Brentwood, perhaps Cheverly were sundown suburbs throughout. And the only one that still has the demographics of a sundown suburbs is – or I should say perhaps, are – the four suburbs that are collectively known as Chevy Chase.
At the end of Sundown Towns, in the last chapter, I suggest remedies. And this chapter I particularly would highlight for a civil rights audience. And one of the remedies I suggested is what I call the Residents Rights Act, modeled loosely after the Voting Rights Act. Unlike the Herculean efforts that might be necessary to fix the ghetto, the Residents Rights Act actually brings in money. One of the components of it will be – and it could be passed by a state as well as by the federal government – will be the following:
If a given city or suburb has a clear sundown town past – and this can be shown, I’ve shown it for many sundown towns and suburbs – and it has a continuing sundown town demographic, and if it has two complaints by African-American would-be residents finding it difficult or impossible to buy or rent a home there, then the town would "qualify," if you will, for the Residents Rights Act, under which one of the provisions would be that it would lose – residents in the town would lose – their ability to take off their mortgage interest off their income tax.
Now, the fact that homeowners can deduct mortgage interest is one of the most compelling reasons to buy a house in America. It’s the biggest single tax loophole there is. And the government I think passed this tax loophole because it believes that it’s a good thing to encourage home ownership. And I agree with that. I think it is a good thing to encourage home ownership. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to encourage home ownership by white folks in sundown towns. That’s something we don’t need to encourage. So why encourage it?
So as soon as a given sundown suburb loses its income tax exemption for mortgage interest, suddenly 95 percent at least of the residents are going to be saying, “Oh it’s wrong to be all-white, find us some black folks quick!” And the town will welcome them with open arms. And meanwhile, this civil rights act, unlike almost any other act the government has ever passed, doesn’t cost the government a dime. It brings in money --because you’re suddenly getting more tax revenue from these towns than before, when they had the exemption.
Civilrights.org: Have you ever spoken of that particular recommendation in public? What’s the reaction been like? It seems like it’d be a tough sell. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know.
James Loewen: I think you’re right, but my obvious question I wanted to ask is, why? So I will ask you why? Why do you think it would be a tough sell?
Civilrights.org: It reminds me of a quote that someone said that Americans have a really hard time doing things that aren’t in their immediate self-interest. And so it seems like you would have two competing desires, which is for that really great tax break and the desire not to have any black people near you. And so which one would win out? And I wonder if the desire not to have black people around you is that strong. I just wonder, I’m not sure. But that could just be my own skepticism.
James Loewen: Well, it would certainly be better, I would submit, to allow Kenilworth to remain a sundown town and take away all their income tax exemptions than to allow them to continue to be a sundown town – as we have done since it was founded in 1905 – and allow them to have the income tax exemptions. So at the very least this will make them pay for what they’re getting now free.
In terms of passing the bill – and that’s what I thought you would say would be unlikely...
Civilrights.org: Yea. I think how Congress would react has a lot to do with how their base would react. And I think their base would be outraged.
James Loewen: I would think that it would be passable. And the reason I think it would be passable is because ultimately it is very difficult – even for a Trent Lott or for a suburban white Republican from a sundown suburb in the north – to defend an all-white town that is all-white on purpose. Just for the record, Trent Lott hardly has to defend any because as far as I can tell Mississippi only has six and they’re very tiny. Mississippi is a pretty well desegregated state, so he wouldn’t even have any interest in defending it, perhaps.
In other words, to me, sundown towns are so extreme – just the notion that you can’t live in the entire city limits – that they become indefensible as soon as you talk about them openly. So such a law, I think, might be passable even under the Bush Administration.
We do have this problem: George W. Bush and Richard “Dick” Cheney both chose to live in a sundown town for some years. In fact, they both chose to live in the same sundown town, Highland Park, Texas, which admitted its first black family as homeowners just two and a half years ago, well after they had left. So obviously they see nothing wrong with choosing to live in a sundown town and having sundown towns.
But I think that when it's made explicit, this would be a higher level, let’s say, than the scandal we saw for some Supreme Court justices who had restrictive covenants in their property deeds. Because they could always argue, “Well, those aren’t enforceable anymore anyway” or “We just bought the property, we didn’t know.” But I would hope that it would be difficult for any politician to knowingly say, “It’s correct to have sundown town so therefore they should have a property exemption.”
Civilrights.org: I read your book and I thought it was great. But I’m wondering what it has been like to promote this book, for you, in terms of people’s reactions, things like that.
James Loewen: Well the usual reaction actually is gasps. When I tell audiences, for instance, that Villa Grove, Illinois, had a siren that sounded at 6pm until some point in 1999 and that the original purpose of that siren – which is well-known by many many people in Villa Grove – was to keep blacks out of town and to warn them at 6pm that it was getting dark. In other words, that it was a sundown siren and that it stopped finally in 1999, they’re amazed.
When I tell them that Anna, Illinois still means “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”, they are amazed. When I tell people that Sheridan, Arkansas drove out its black population in response to Brown v. Board of Education and that the first black resident to come back to Sheridan came back maybe four years ago, they are amazed.
In other words, people have no idea – as I didn’t either -- that these towns were so common, that there were sundown town signs all across the north, and that some of these towns still exist.
So that’s the primary reaction I get is amazement. I’ll give you an example, I actually got not only amazement but I got a standing ovation at Georgia Southern University last month when talking about this. In fact, the professors there had to stand up because the students had already stood up, so it shamed them into it.
Civilrights.org: Okay well thanks for talking to me.