Maurice Jones of the city of Charlottesville, Virginia recently interviewed Paul Gaston — author of the NewSouth published Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea — for Dialogue On Race, a new city initiative designed to improve race relations. The new program promises to bring people of diverse races and backgrounds together to find new ways to move forward together as a community.
Topics Gaston discussed include his life as a southern historian, his work as a civil rights activist, and the progressive change he’s witnessed over the past forty years in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia.
In the interview, Gaston discussed his beginnings as both a teacher and civil rights activist. “As a student in college in the early 1950s, it was clear to me that the big issue coming to the South and the nation was the issue of civil rights,” he said. “I was looking for somewhere to enter the civil rights movement, and I decided what I’d like to do was teach southern history in a southern university and hold up a mirror to these students.”
Gaston also discussed his activist role during the civil rights movement in Charlottesville, noting that change didn’t come to the city overnight. “One thing I learned is that rational argument, evidence, and civil discussion did not change people’s minds,” he said. “Martin Luther King, Jr. was right — you had to shake people up. So we had sit-ins and soon all of the community’s attention was focused on what we were doing.”
Gaston reflected that these small steps weren’t necessarily great things, but given the context of the time, were transitional and made a difference. “That was a turning of the coin,” he said, “and I was lucky to be a part of it.”
Though he acknowledged there’s been great changes in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia, Gaston remains adamant much work involving race relations remains, saying, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — those weren’t final triumphs. They were steps that cleared the way for important work, and there’s much work to be done.”
Watch the full interview at the City of Charlottesville website.
Paul Gaston’s life and work has earned him a reputation as one of the most respected southern historians in the country, and his new memoir, Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea, chronicles his life as an agent of change from the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama to the streets and classrooms of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. NewSouth also published Gaston’s highly regarded The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking, considered to be one of the most influential works of Southern history of the twentieth century.