We Ain′t What We Was

Civil Rights in the New South

We Ain′t What We Was

Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 31 tables Published: February 1997

Author: Frederick M. Wirt

Contributor: Gary Orfield

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Politics > Political Science

When officials of the U.S. Department of Justice came in 1961 to Panola County in the Mississippi delta, they found a closed society in which race relations had not altered significantly since Reconstruction. Much has changed, however, in Mississippi in the past three decades, as Frederick Wirt demonstrates in "We Ain’t What We Was," a remarkable look inside the New South. In this follow-up to his highly praised 1970 study of Panola County, The Politics of Southern Equality, Wirt shows how the implementation of civil rights law over the past quarter-century has altered racial reality that in turn altered white perceptions, and thus behavior and attitudes in a section of the country where segregation and prejudice had been most thoroughly entrenched.
Wirt uses multiple indicators—interviews with leaders, attitude tests of children, content analysis of newspapers, school records, and voting and job data—to record what has changed in the Deep South as a result of the 60s revolution in civil rights. Although racism continues to exist in Panola, Wirt maintains that the current generation of southerners is sharply distinguished from its predecessors, and he effectively documents the transformations in individuals and institutions. In a time of increasing popular challenges to the use of law in support of civil liberties, or the place of the federal government to effect necessary social change, this book testifies to the great changes, both public and personal, that were brought about by the strong implementation of civil rights law over thirty years ago. "We Ain’t What We Was" shows that adaptation to change was not overnight, not final, but gradual and always persistent.


“‘We Ain’t What We Was’ shows that you can sometimes legislate morality. . . . It is Wirt’s thesis that the change almost everyone in the South sees and feels would not have happened without the might to compel it. . . . Wirt looks at Panola County life using techniques that range from interviews with community leaders to questionnaires seeking to gauge the attitudes of elementary and high school students. . . . [A]long with statistics on voter registration and per capita income, Wirt gives us what is probably the most significant part of the story, a description of how people’s perceptions and attitudes are being reshaped.” — , New York Times Book Review

“[T]his is a well-written, insightful, thorough, and interesting study. The author blends individual and institutional change across voting, education, and economic development in order to explore fully the role of federal law in influencing social change.” — , Law and Politics Book Review

“Although Wirt stresses the efficacy of enforced national law, he rightly contends that other factors, notably federal economic aid, the onset of industrialism and generational change have helped to develop a pragmatic world-view, which enables most whites to interact civilly with blacks on a day-to-day basis. . . . [H]is analysis contains important insights for scholars interested in the law and social change, the civil-rights movement and the New South.” — , TLS

“Ambitious in scope, diverse in methodology, and targeting issues that are central to American politics, Frederick M. Wirt’s latest book is the type of research that is much appreciated and too often neglected in political science. . . . Wirt returns to Panola, Mississippi, in an effort to discover the social, political, as well as behavioral and attitudinal effects of civil rights legislation. . . . [T]his is a work that will prove fruitful for students and scholars of civil rights, southern politics, and the power and limitations of law.” — Peter Petrakis , Political Science Quarterly

“Frederick M. Wirt has written an interesting and useful book about the extent of change in one Mississippi county over the past thirty years. . . . [A] valuable study that makes clear the power of law and state activism in imposing change that can be positive. This is an especially important lesson in our times.” — Glenn Feldman , Journal of Politics

“The examination of Panola County is fascinating and makes the book worth reading.” — , Florida Historical Quarterly

“The vignettes of the changes wrought by the civil rights movement in the sort of small, rural southern community often left behind in traditional accounts of the area are informative. . . . Wirt closely examines the post-1970s direction of racial improvement in his study of black and white county leadership’s diverse responses to the increasingly progressive racial landscape, in his exploration of the ties between racial progressivism and economic improvement, and in his particularly interesting comparison of the different post–1965 evolutions by the county’s racially moderate city of Batesville and the more traditional Sardis.” — , Journal of Southwest Georgia History

“This is a meticulously researched and insightful study. The close documentation of how legal change affected daily lives in one place will be valuable to anyone concerned with the formation of social policy.” — , Journal of Southern History

“This, Wirt’s second work on Panola County, undoubtedly will be as highly praised as his first. It is an important book for all students of the South and one that should be assigned to undergraduate and graduate students to provide them with a framework for understanding race relations in the South both before and since the 1960s.” — Walter J. Fraser, History

“What distinguishes Wirt’s study is its richness in qualitative and descriptive detail. By interviewing both blacks and whites, surveying student attitudes and behaviors, observing social gatherings, and studying the contents of two local papers, Wirt enriches our understanding of the process of change as well as demonstrates the more subjective and long-range effects of legislated reform.” — Edward P. Morgan , Journal of American History

“For years, Fred Wirt has been a sane, sensible, deeply insightful analyst of some of our nation’s most complicated and controversial issues—those dealing with race, class, legal compulsion, and cultural change. He takes on all of those issues here in a book as wise as it is illuminating. It shows us to ourselves in a way that we can immediately comprehend but that suggests new possibilities and grander visions. This is simply a wonderful book.” — Jennifer Hochschild, Princeton University

“This book is a very important treatment of one of the greatest accomplishments of the American political and legal system—the elimination of the system of state-imposed apartheid in the South. . . . [It] offers richly grounded observations by the same scholar of the same issues over a quarter century of profound and complex change and provides an important resource for historians and those trying to think about the capacity of law to resolve aspects of the American racial crisis.” — Gary Orfield, from the foreword


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Frederick M. Wirt is Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of numerous books, including Schools in Conflict: The Politics of Education and The Politics of Southern Equality.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures and Tables ix

Foreword / Gary Orfield xi

Acknowledgments xv

Part I. The Context for Change 1

1. Setting the Community Scene 4

2. Regional Changes in the South, 1970–1990 16

3. Panola's Pre-1970 Response to Civil Rights 36

Part II. Institutional and Individual Changes in Panola 53

4. Local Politics and Black Empowerment 56

5. South Panola and Desegregation 84

6. Two Responses to Desegregation in North Panola 118

7. The Results for Students in Different Systems 142

8. The Local Economy and Political Regimes 157

Part III. Internal and External Concepts of Race and Law 193

9. Local Perspectives on Race and Law 194

10. The Theoretical Context of Race and Law 216


A. Student Sense-of-Self Questionnaire 243

B. Regression Tables of Student Reponses 251

Notes 259

Index 283
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Winner, V.O. Key Award (presented by the Southern Political Science Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1893-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1901-6
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