Letters reveal a troubling side of Alistair Cooke
Alistair Cooke was the epitome of the civilized man. His English voice, redolent with informed nonchalance, enchanted millions who heard his Letter from America over BBC radio. His observations of American life were cool, witty, empathetic and insightful. He typed them up wherever he was in America, and for 58 years, until he was 95, unfailingly read his words into a microphone in such a beguiling manner it was as if you and he had just struck up a friendly conversation. He enhanced his reputation for authority about his adopted country as the television host successively of the CBS arts program Omnibus, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, and the BBC’s America and with his best-selling book Alistair Cooke’s America. His range was extraordinary. He seemed to know every region and every rascal in it. He was the American Oracle.
Can it really be the same Alistair Cooke whom we hear again in a new collation of half a century of Letters, this time focused on race relations? In The Custom of the Country, he acquiesces in the denial of certain inalienable rights for one-tenth of the U.S. population, the black citizens. Can the broadcaster known for celebrating American freedom have been a closet reactionary? In a sense we feel we are eavesdropping when we hear our hero express misgivings about the implications of the seminal 1954 Supreme Court ruling desegregating schools:
And when you start with mixed and equal schooling, in a society where the school is also the meeting house, the club, the dance hall – the very focus of young life – how do you prevent people from approaching and at last accepting the final equality of love and marriage?
The Custom of the Country, edited by David Meghan, is absorbing because the reporting is so vivid, but it is also disturbing because it is so honest. We see into the mind of an educated, liberally disposed humanitarian confronted by the daily life of people in the South who happen to be black. About 165 of the original letters touch on race relations between 1946 and 2003. The editor has selected 47 here, of which 44 have not previously been available in book form. As he writes in his discerning introduction to the selection, some observers might have ducked the ugly truth of racial injustice in the South. Alistair Cooke does not. Some of his admirers will wish he had. Cooke’s abiding love of the romance of the South collides with the realities of Jim Crow. He indicts the sins of white supremacists whose segregationist policies are “conceived in hate and spawn illiteracy”; he condemns the “evil delinquents” who spat on the black schoolgirl entering Little Rock; but he exhibits an excess of understanding for the South’s historic excuses. He adopts, as his own, the position of the ruling elites that if the critics would just leave them alone, they’d gradually enter the civilized world. Instead of a cry of pain at the manifold oppressions over decades, we get from Cooke an eloquent cry for tolerance of the intolerable.
These are not sentiments that would win Cooke the sophisticated following he had in his heyday – but that is precisely why this collation is so valuable. Cooke’s own feelings are a remarkable portrait of white liberal opinion at the time – North as well as South. I know his observations to be right on the mark because I followed in Cooke’s footsteps. He was a native of Lancashire in the north of England who won a Harkness Fellowship, a kind of reverse Rhodes scholarship, for two years of study and travel in the U.S. Me, too. Cooke began his travels in the mid-thirties, when pictures of Franklin Roosevelt were the only decoration in the sharecroppers’ tarpaper shacks. I started across the country 20 years later. In economic terms, the ebullient (“I like Ike”) fifties were wholly different from the Depression era of Cooke’s travels; in human terms, the country had not changed at all. The black population in the South was still stuck where it had been since Reconstruction, suppressed in one-party white dictatorships dedicated to white supremacy in 17 Southern and Border States. Negroes, as they were still called, had access only to degraded services and employment, segregated in schools, colleges, hospitals, churches, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, restrooms, streetcars, waiting rooms, elevators, theaters, cinemas, libraries, beauty parlors, bowling alleys, prisons and cemeteries. In many parts of the Deep South they risked their lives if they wanted to vote, and were certain to be convicted of anything a white man alleged against them.
Most Americans, decade after decade, never gave a moment’s thought to the indignities and injustices. Ralph Ellison’s introspective novel The Invisible Man, which came out in 1952, described what it was like to be looked through as if you were as transparent as air. White Americans, north and south, did not “see” the national predicament of the Negro when they hailed a graying “boy” for their bags at the hotel, never noticed that there wasn’t a single black face in the church and on the sports field. They weren’t all racists. They were just oblivious, as Cooke was oblivious in his early years in America. The empathy thought characteristic of his work was absent for people in what he chose to call “darktown.”
Cooke recoils from bigotry and violence. He blames the outrages in the South on the “white trash”, and there were certainly a fair portion of goons among them, but he quite fails to appreciate that the mores and practices of society were set by the elites who charmed him as they charmed me so many years later. “Leave the South alone. We’ll solve our ‘problems’ in our own good time. We understand our ‘nigras’.” I heard it as frequently as he must have 25 years before. Their own “good time” had still not arrived. In the South, the distinctiveness of individuals and publications regarded as enlightened was not that they favored desegregation – they didn’t – it was that they were opposed to lynching and the poll tax. The business and community leaders in the White Citizens’ Councils forswore violence while they organized civil repression – the denial of work, credit, supplies, housing, and of course the vote. As for reform, everywhere in the country, north as well as south, the condescending assumption was that improvement in the condition of the black population would come as today’s good deed from white patronage. Almost no one in the mainstream anticipated that the blacks would lead a civil rights movement, whereupon even leading powers in America’s vaunted free press – North and South – got into a fret that their fellow citizens were demanding rights they themselves had always taken for granted as the air they breathed. They tended to deplore “extremism” on both sides, equating the white mob with the non-violent activists. The attitude began to change after the spectacular March on Washington in August 1963, followed the next month by the Birmingham church bombing.
It bothers me, as no doubt it will bother his many admirers, that over a span of years Cooke’s letters about race reveal less sensitivity for the feelings of the powerless minority than they do for the apprehensions of the majority who could summon the coercive powers of the state. I like to think that a generation later he would have felt as discomfited, even angry, as I did. The notes I took at the time, which found their way into my autobiography (My Paper Chase), reflect a deep aversion to the “customs of the country” he’d defended. Perish the thought that I was merely vindicating Cooke’s charge that for lack of self-examination I was one of those liberals who could not resist “the gorgeous impulse towards self-righteousness.” (I was certainly naïve in assuring my Southern hosts that black immigration would never ruffle British society.) At the same time, the letters do suggest a certain evolution in Cooke’s attitude. One intriguing clue David Meghan came upon was in Letter 734, broadcast in 1962. Cooke typed: “I believe with all my heart (I am not quite sure about my head) in the sense and the sanity of having Negroes enjoy the basic political rights that the Constitution boasts…”
But Meghan did not find the chilling parenthetical caveat in the broadcast archives. Second thoughts had prevailed at the microphone. And in two passages I’ve put together from 1994 and 1997 he wrote and spoke of his misgiving:
I marvel sometimes to look back and realize how painlessly, how casually we – a stranger like myself – took for granted this strict social separation as – well, simply the custom of the country.
It struck me as strange at first but then I knew that President Franklin was an uncommonly far-seeing and compassionate leader, but I doubt he ever lost a moment’s sleep thinking about the white signs and colored signs “only” in railroad waiting rooms, public toilets, the galleries, for Negroes only, in theaters – the wholly white worlds of baseball, football, eating, golf. To think of Roosevelt (or, if you’ll excuse the expression, of me) as crassly insensitive and prejudiced is to make the same mistake as calling Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite because he proclaimed to the death his concern for human liberty and yet kept slaves. It is the cruel mistake of judging a man outside his time.
The letters are, in fact, a literary dramatization of a serious and sensitive observer living what Gunnar Myrdal called The American Dilemma, the conflict between the egalitarian American Creed and the inequitable reality of black life. The South did not have a monopoly of prejudice. Some 63 percent of Americans were opposed to the non-violent protests of the Freedom Riders in the civil rights movement’s summer of 1961. The New York Times tut-tutted that they were “challenging not only long-held customs but passionately held feelings”. Time magazine called it “a confused crusade”. How many today remember that an entire succession of future presidents – Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush vigorously, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford vaguely – opposed part or all of the three major bills of the period: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act? They became law because decent opinion yielded to the moral imperatives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson, two leaders foremost in challenging the obduracy of received wisdom.
Alistair Cooke’s delayed drop should be a jolt to the complacencies of today. Even with a black president, we are still witnessing the fulfillment of the prescient Senator Patrick Moynihan’s prediction that black poverty, crime and low educational achievement would continue without jobs, retraining and a restoration of black family life.
PHOTO: Alistair Cooke speaks at the taping of the 2,000th program of Letter From America at the British Broadcasting Company’s Manhattan studio, June 17, 1987. REUTERS/Helayne Seidman