The Good Southerner

Posted on August 17, 2019


William Alsup, the man who wrote Won Over, Reflections of a Federal Judge on His Journey from Jim Crow Mississippi, grew up in Mississippi and embraced not racism and “the Mississippi way of life” but instead was led by his sense of decency and justice through the most turbulent times in the history of the modern Deep South. Born into a stereotype—a man from Mississippi—he nonetheless championed the full incorporation of African Americans into American life, with all the rights and privileges of citizens of any and all stripes, religions, colors, and backgrounds. Won Over is his story.

Just a few weeks ago the University of Alabama recalled this era by awarding Autherine Lucy an honorary Ph.D. Lucy was the first black student to enroll at Alabama in 1956 and was greeted by jeers and riots and barred from campus after three days for her safety. Receiving her honorary degree–with grace and dignity and love for the University–represents a tectonic shift in the culture of this nation. We have come so far, and we need to remember this period with honesty and truth, and even equanimity and love, as Autherine, entering her nineties, does.

The same scenarios unwound in Mississippi where James Meredith was the first black admitted at the University of Mississippi in 1962 under threats of federal suits and federal arms.

To say this was a tumultuous period in the life of Civil Rights in our nation is a gross understatement. Many, but not all, Southerners were at war with the federal government which forced the end of segregation in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.

What is so good about this book is the author’s commitment to fairness and equality and justice as he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in and around Jackson. He was not a rabid racist, not a member of the Ku Klux Klan or the white Citizen’s Councils, not a believer in lynching as a way of taking justice into your own hands. Rather he believed in justice and equality for all, or as he styled it in one of his chapters in the language of the 1950s, “We Are for Civil Rights for Negroes” as he noted in his diary.

Alsup was not a full-fledged believer in taking down all of Mississippi’s traditions and ways of life and embracing that of a freedom rider from somewhere like Ohio or New York. With like-minded friends, all sons and daughters of Mississippi like himself with deep roots in the South and all it meant, he nonetheless was “won over” as in the title of his book to the “other side” of hate, segregation and Jim Crow.

I found his story especially compelling—not just because I lived through those same times—but because he represents a part of the South that I knew from my father and his family, all South Carolinians, like Mississippians, with their own “way of life.” That way changed in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday

of the Civil Rights movement with celebrated leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., largely due, I would suggest, because men such as Alsup and my father were Americans as well as Southerners.

They accepted they were Mississippians, or South Carolinians, but were decent and honest people as well. Alsup, later a graduate from Harvard Law School—about as quintessentially Yankee and liberal as you can get–and with a distinguished career as a federal judge, wrote explaining his life, “growing up white in Mississippi, I say in a brief ruling, opened, not closed, my eyes to the cruelty of racism.”

He tells his story with the clarity and honesty of an eyewitness, always the most powerful testimony that judges, small and great, can hear before a court. His journey from a boy in Jackson to today, is told in short, easily read chapters, that are largely self-revealing, self-effacing and honest.

The story of Mississippi is also the story of Alabama and the civil rights movement in Alabama is never too far from his narrative. It is part of the thread of our own history, whether you were born here or adopted into a Southern family as I was by my South Carolina relatives.

Finally, I’ll quibble a bit. It would have been very useful to do an index, so the reader could easily navigate to her own areas and places and names of interest. They take time to do and are thought of as too academic and old fashioned these days.

This is a thoughtful, well-informed gently told story that is as American as it gets, even set in the blistering heat and passion of the Old South. It is part of my heritage and part of yours. That a William Alsup became who he became is testimony to the true values and culture of our larger nation.

Published as “A thoughtful story, gently told, about a turbulent era,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 9, 2019.

Posted in: History