Rosenwald Fellow Thomas Sancton, white Southerner and early proponent of civil rights for African-Americans, dies in New Orleans

Thomas Sancton Sr., an outspokenly liberal editorialist and novelist, died on April 7th in at the age of 97. He was remembered by The Times-Picayune, one of his erstwhile employers, as a controversial but pioneering journalist.

Sancton had already been published by numerous newspapers and magazines and served as editor for The New Republic when he was awarded the first of his three Rosenwald Fellowships in 1943. The 1940s would prove his most prolific and notorious years as a writer, a time in which he was very visible in both the black and white press for voicing his progressive views on civil rights for blacks.

In a time when racism was commonly considered a natural, inherent reaction to racial difference, Sancton took the historical view that economic conditions had caused current racial tension. Instead of joining the condemnation of the white working class as the perpetrators of racial violence, he criticized the landowners and businessmen of the South who benefited monetarily from continued economic inequality. “Sancton regularly blamed, by name, the southern aristocracy of large scale growers, industrialists, and elected officials for steadily fomenting and exploiting racial hatred to control whites,” wrote Lawrence Jackson in a 2007 article in the Southern Literary Journal.

Furthermore, according to Jackson, “Sancton resisted the mirage that southern elites of good will would transform centuries of injustice.” Sancton often turned his criticism on fellow white liberals who, in a misguided attempt to spare blacks any defeat in their battle for civil rights, found themselves arguing for the inevitability of Jim Crow segregation. In The New Republic, Sancton criticized the “pale, dishwater liberalism” of writers like Virginius Dabney, Mark Ethridge and John Temple Graves who called for slow, gradual integration rather than radical and immediate self-realization by blacks themselves. Sancton advised blacks to take action on their own behalf as soon as possible, arguing realistically that “the Negro, in the long run, is the Negro’s most trustworthy friend, and I believe he will never win any benefit he does not win by his own ability, independence, courage, and political organization.”

Sancton’s writing is strikingly reflective about the place of white liberalism in civil rights for blacks, recognizing its limited role as a mouthpiece for progressive ideas already familiar to blacks, and worse, false optimism or its flip side, well-intentioned but misguided temperance. Sancton’s nuanced work must have been held in high esteem by the Rosenwald Fund’s board, as he was given three fellowships for creative writing in 1943, 1945 and 1947. More than one grant renewal by the Fund was rare, but Sancton’s progressive writing merited its continued support.

By Michael Rose