Dixie is a political and social history of the South during the second half of the twentieth century told from Curtis Wilkie's perspective as a white man intimately transformed by enormous racial and political upheavals.
Wilkie's personal take on some of the landmark events of modern American history is as engaging as it is insightful. He attended Ole Miss during the rioting in the fall of 1962, when James Meredith became the first African American to enroll in the school. After graduation, Wilkie worked in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he met Aaron Henry, a local druggist and later the prominent head of the Mississippi NAACP. He covered the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge at the national convention in Atlantic City, and he was a member of the biracial insurgent Democratic delegation from Mississippi seated in place of Governor John Bell Williams's delegation at the 1968 convention in Chicago. Wilkie followed Jimmy Carter's campaign for the presidency, becoming friends with Billy Carter; he covered Bill Clinton's election in 1992 and was witness to the South's startling shift from the Democratic Party to the GOP; and finally, he was there when Byron De La Beckwith was convicted for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers thirty-one years after the fact.
Wilkie had left the South in 1969 in the wake of the violence surrounding the civil rights movement, vowing never to live there again. But after traveling the world as a reporter, he did return in 1993, drawn by a deep-rooted affinity to the region of his youth. It was as though he rejoined his tribe, a peculiar civilization bonded by accent and mannerisms and burdened by racial anxiety. As Wilkie writes, Southerners have staunchly resisted assimilation since the Civil War, taking an almost perverse pride in their role as "spiritual citizens of a nation that existed for only four years in another century."
Wilkie endeavors to make sense of the enormous changes that have typified the South for more than four decades. Full of beauty, humor, and pathos, Dixie is a story of redemption -- for both a region and a writer.
In this social chronicle of the American South's past 40 years, Wilkie (coauthor, Arkansas Mischief), a native Mississippian who exiled himself, proves that, indeed, you can't take the South out of the boy. Drawing on his own memories and dozens of books and magazine articles, Wilkie retells the big stories he covered as a journalist, most notably for the Boston Globe: Ole Miss's forced acceptance of its first black student in 1962; "Freedom Summer" of 1964, "the most terrible year of violence since the Civil War"; Nixon's Southern Strategy to wrestle the Southern vote from the Democrats; the election of Jimmy Carter; the conviction of Medgar Evers's murderer in 1994, 31 years after the crime. But at the core of this book is Wilkie's own development in the face of enormous changes. Raised as someone "who observed segregationist customs, but disapproved of blatant bigotry," Wilkie becomes appalled by the South's racism. In 1969, he flees Mississippi for the cultivated Northeast he'd read about in Cheever and Updike novels, planning never to return. Of course, he discovers New England has its own problems, like the controversial student busing program in 1975 Boston. After 25 years, Wilkie moves southward again and finds it, like himself, changed yet unchanged. "My generation experienced more disruption in our social order than any other.... Yet we maintained our own culture, our accent, our cuisine, our music as if should we give them up we would finally admit defeat." Wilkie's candid analyses and self-examination lift this book above a mere rehashing of the times.