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.