Writer, educator, theologian, civil rights leader. Born on May 8, 1896, in the Salem community of eastern Sumter County, South Carolina, Dabbs was the son of the farmer Eugene Whitefield Dabbs and Alice Maude McBride. After receiving his private education in the one-room rural Salem School, Dabbs eventually graduated from the University of South Carolina (USC) as one of the top students in the class of 1916. Between 1913 and 1916 he filled pages of the college’s literary magazine with his poems, short stories, and prose sketches. In 1917 he earned a master’s degree in psychology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then served as a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army (1917–1919). On May 11, 1918, Dabbs married Barnwell native Jessie Clyde Armstrong. The marriage produced two daughters. After teaching in North Carolina from 1919 to 1920, Dabbs returned to USC to teach English. In 1924 he became professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, where he served as head of the department from 1925 to 1937. He retired in 1942 as a part-time faculty member, commuting from Rip Raps Plantation, his ancestral farm in east Sumter County. Following the death of Jessie Dabbs in 1933, Dabbs married Edith Mitchell on June 11, 1935. They had three children.
Moving to Rip Raps in 1937, Dabbs established a dual pattern of writing and farming that would last the rest of his life. He had begun to establish his reputation as a master of formal and informal essays in the early 1930s, when he began publishing in some of the country’s leading journals and rubbing literary shoulders with such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Robert Penn Warren. Although he was not one of the twelve contributors to the famous 1930 volume I’ll Take My Stand, Dabbs did address early on many of the same themes and issues about which the Southern Agrarians wrote: the distinctiveness of the South, the mixed blessings of industrialization, education, the African American presence and identity, and southern religion. However, he “out-Agrarianed” the Agrarians in one respect: he moved back to the farm. The Sumter artist Elizabeth White, his friend, spoke of Dabbs as “a man of letters and of lettuce.”
In the 1940s Dabbs began to identify and address the issue of race relations and the inequities experienced by black southerners. At the end of 1946 he wrote a pamphlet entitled When Justice and Expediency Meet, in which he stated unequivocally that “both justice and expediency indicate that the Negro should be permitted to vote in the Democratic primary in South Carolina.” By April 1947 he had assumed the chairmanship of the South Carolina Division of the Southern Regional Council, and in 1948 he was a delegate to the Charlottesville Declaratory Conference on Civil Rights, which met to approve “a declaration calling for an end to racial segregation and discrimination.”
During the 1950s and 1960s Dabbs attended innumerable conferences as a speaker or resource person on matters of racial equity, human relations, and social justice. He wrote frequent letters to newspaper editors expressing his view that racial segregation was variously unjust, tragic, nonsensical, hypocritical, impractical, discourteous, silly, and un-American. From 1958 to 1964 he served as president of the Southern Regional Council, the Atlanta-based interracial organization that focused on bringing about positive social and political change in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” included Dabbs among the half dozen “white brothers in the South [who] have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.”
Dabbs was also one of the South’s principal twentieth-century Christian churchmen and theologians, although he never claimed this distinction for himself. He certainly was the chief lay theologian of his denomination, the Presbyterian Church of the United States. For more than thirty years he contributed essays and articles to such journals as Christendom, the Christian Century, and Presbyterian Outlook. He served for years on his denomination’s advisory committee on Christian Action and permanent committee on Christian Relations. As a member of these two committees he drafted one of the Presbyterian Church’s most eloquent theological pronouncements on social justice, “Justice, Law, and Order,” which was officially adopted by the General Assembly of his church in 1969. He summed up a lifetime of views on Christian faith, practice, and churchmanship in Haunted by God. Published posthumously in 1972, the book focused primarily on the religious significance of southern culture. Despite the presence of evil in southern life and culture, “evils almost beyond compare,” he insisted that “somehow we’ve never ceased being haunted by God.”
In addition to Haunted by God, Dabbs wrote an autobiography, The Road Home (1960), and three other books. The Southern Heritage (1958), a history of race relations in the South, won the 1959 National Brotherhood Media Award. In Who Speaks for the South? (1964), Dabbs analyzed southern character, and the book was hailed as “the most perceptive book about the South and the southern mind and southern history since W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1941).” In Civil Rights in Recent Southern Fiction (1969), Dabbs linked his analysis of regional literature “with the relation of blacks and whites. This is the core problem of Southern life.”
Dabbs died at Rip Raps on May 30, 1970, and was buried at Salem Black River Presbyterian “Brick” Church. He was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1990.
Johnson, Thomas L. A Day in May. Hartsville, S.C.: Coker College, 1996. ———. “James McBride Dabbs: A Life Story.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1980.