My grandfather, Ben Muse, was born in North Carolina and lived in Virginia after 1934. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he worked for desegregation and civil rights. But, he started in 1898 in Durham, North Carolina, with attitudes that were typical of that time and place, and only gradually worked his way to a point where he actively opposed segregation.
Towards the end of his life, he remembered early 20th Century Durham as a city with relatively moderate racial views for the south. The white citizens believed in segregation, but they were disturbed by the lynchings from the deeper south. Moreover:
"The accomplishments of Durham Negroes had attracted some national attention and were a source of pride to Durham whites. The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company of Durham was, as it remains today, one of the largest and most successful black business enterprises in the nation. Yet racial segregation was scrupulously observed. In spite of the presence of distinguished blacks in the town, I often heard it said Negroes were like children, to be treated kindly but "kept in their place."
Matthew Lassiter explains how he moved beyond this point:
"...Like numerous other white southerners who came to oppose segregation, Muse's intellectual odyssey toward an increasingly liberal and outspoken racial stance involved highly personal experiences and time spent outside the South. In the mid-1950s, as the Brown decision changed the parameters of political discourse in Virginia and the rest of the South, Muse wrote an autobiographical manuscript (which has never been published) detailing the evolution of his own racial views. In this revealing retrospective he vividly portrayed his youthful beliefs in black inferiority and the importance of blacks remaining in "their place." His early view of history, largely influenced by D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation, recognized the evils of slavery while viewing Reconstruction as a tragic era of northern and black aggression justly ended by noble southerners such as the Klu Klux Klan. Muse described how his questioning of these traditional beliefs began during the years he spent abroad in the diplomatic corps, which included cultural interaction with diplomats from African nations. When he was in Paris, he noted, "race prejudice seemed provincial and unsophisticated."
Muse wrote that by the time he returned to Virginia in 1934, his racial attitudes had changed substantially, but he felt no pressing obligation to challenge the status quo. He employed black laborers on his farm in Southside Virginia during his brief stint in the state legislature, and he recalled that segregation seemed at the time to be "silly...but not outrageous or oppressive." After moving to the northern Virginia town of Manassas in the mid-1940s, Muse interacted with African Americans more frequently and on a more equal basis. Perhaps the most crucial step involved his friendship with Stephen Lewis, a local black dentist with whom he discussed political and racial issues. In hindsight, Muse concluded: "perhaps the best antidote for race predjudice, the clearest X-ray through which a white man can see the foolishness and wickedness of it, is a Negro friend."
Source: Lassiter, Matthew D. "A 'Fighting Moderate': Benjamin Muse's Search for the Submerged South." In The Moderates' Dilemma. Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia edited by Matthew D. Lassiter and Andrew B. Lewis. University Press of Virginia. 2002. Pages 170-171.; Benjamin Muse. The Twentieth Century As I Saw It. Carlton Press. New York. 1982. Page 15.
Revised April 12, 2005