“Everything That Rises Must Converge”
by Flannery O’Connor
Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) was born in Savannah, Georgia, to a middle-class Catholic family, and devoted her literary career to portraying the culture of the South with all of its macabre social and religious tensions. “Everything that Rises Must Converge” dramatizes civil rights activism surrounding public transportation in the South and the strong undercurrent of violence that runs beneath race relations in the region. O’Connor wrote the short story near the end of her life; she had long suffered from lupus and died of kidney failure on August 3, 1964.
Events in History at the Time of the Short Story
O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge” concerns an interracial encounter on a city bus. The modern era of civil rights history in the United States is often referred to as beginning on December 1, 1955. On that day, an African American department store saleswoman in Montgomery, Alabama, was told to give up her seat on a bus to a white person—as was customary at the time—but she refused to do so. The woman, Rosa Parks, was sent to jail for her obstinacy and her act in essence launched the civil rights movement into the modern age. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Parks was the secretary, and another political group with which she was associated, the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, sprang to her defense. Parks’s lawyer began to develop a test case that would challenge the constitutionality of segregated buses, but the WPC started something even more significant—a black boycott of Montgomery’s public transit system. Originally, the boycott was to last only one day—December 5, 1955—but the black population of Montgomery was so incensed with the prejudice and restrictions with which they were forced to live that they decided to extend the boycott indefinitely. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a young Baptist minister, emerged as their leader, and under his direction the Montgomery bus strike lasted thirteen months.
Montgomery’s buses had been patronized primarily by the city’s African American population, almost all of whom began walking to work or using
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carpools, winter and summer, an act which brought public transit in the city to its knees. Without African American passengers, the buses were practically empty. The first goal of the boy-cotters was not desegregated buses, but merely a more fair system of segregation in which there were clearly marked black and white sections of the bus that could not be waived according to the whim of the driver and the number of white riders. The bus company agreed to certain modifications of the system, but the city’s white administration refused to approve them. The black leadership countered with the demand that now they would settle for nothing less than desegregated public transit. City officials resisted even further, even forbidding black cab drivers from giving groups of black workers a ride to work for a lower rate than usual. Yet this new obstacle did not serve to drive African American riders back to public transit, especially when money poured in from private sources to purchase station wagons for carpools. Montgomery’s police force then became the embodiment of the official white power structure, issuing traffic tickets to black drivers. King himself was pulled over on January 26, 1956, and, until a large crowd of African Americans gathered outside the police station, it appeared that he might be held indefinitely. King was released, but two days later his house was bombed. In November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregated buses were in fact unconstitutional; on December 20, 1956, Parks, King, and others—accompanied by a host of journalists and photographers—boarded a Montgomery bus and sat in the front, legally. “I believe you are Reverend King,” said the pleasant white driver. “We are glad to have you with us this morning” (quoted in Halberstam, p. 562).
In May 1961, two months after O’Connor finished “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” another civil rights crisis occurred that also revolved around public transportation. This crisis involved interstate buses. Some so-called “freedom riders,” both black and white, left Washington D.C. in two buses and headed south to challenge segregation and test federal rulings. In 1946, in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, segregation on interstate buses had been ruled unconstitutional. Nine years later the federal Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregated buses and bus stations involved in interstate travel. Freedom riders were testing this last ruling in particular. The civil rights protesters were now adept at using the media to make public their causes, and soon the freedom rides became Page 90 | Top of Articlea press event. Their transit through the South was peaceful enough until the buses reached the Alabama center of Anniston. A mob shot out the tires of one of the two buses and dragged the nonviolent and unarmed protesters from their buses, beat them, set fire to the buses, and mobbed the hospital where they were taken for treatment. The second busload met much the same fate in Birmingham, Alabama, and yet another attack occurred some days later in Montgomery, Alabama. Up to this point, authorities had done nothing or little to protect the lives of the freedom riders. But when Martin Luther King Jr. phoned U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy from a church gathering in Montgomery organized in support of the freedom riders,
he informed Kennedy of the mob outside that seemed ready to burn down the church and everyone in it. The Kennedy administration, which supported civil rights in the South but was hesitant about convincing states to enforce them, finally persuaded Alabama governor John Patterson to take appropriate action, and National Guard troops arrived at the scene. Further freedom rides throughout the state were supervised by the Guard. Upon arriving in Mississippi, however, the riders were arrested, supposedly for their own good, to keep them safe. Three hundred of them served sentences in Mississippi jails. As media coverage of their plight spread both across the country and the globe, the federal government began to more actively support the demand for black rights.
Separate but equal
The policy of separating areas of use by black and white Americans was customary in more facets of daily life than just public transit. The late 1880s gave rise to a system in the South called “Jim Crow” (after a comic stage character, a figure based on an old black stableman who sang and danced). The system, which depended on separate facilities for the two races, effectively deprived the black population of its civil rights. Blacks were made to patronize establishments, or parts of the same, reserved specifically for them, and were expected to behave in certain deferential ways. ’Jim Crow involved formal codes, restrictions written into law, and informal codes, unwritten but understood forms of behavior” (Cooper, p. 545). It was asserted that African Americans were naturally “inferior” to whites. When such a state of affairs was challenged in the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson (which had confirmed that Louisiana’s policy of racially segregated public transportation was constitutional), the phrase “separate but equal” was first uttered. This legal philosophy involved, among other things, the sanctioning of racially segregated parks, hospitals, schools, churches, libraries, phone booths, drinking fountains—even a separate Bible on which to swear in the courtroom. Yet “separate but equal” was in reality “separate and unequal” the majority of the time. In 1946 black activists took the University of Texas to court over the decidedly unequal law schools available on campus to white and black students. As a result, the Supreme Court heard and rejected an argument that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, but did uphold the contention of African Americans that their law school was in fact illegal because it was unequal to the white school. In 1954, however, the high court reversed this decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Desegregation in the South now gained a legal basis and was officially on its way to becoming reality.
The 1950s proved to be a tumultuous time in the United States, as the black population and many sympathetic whites fought hard to achieve equality before the law for people of all races. The battle was difficult, as the white supremacist Page 91 | Top of Articlestrain of Southern society fought sometimes viciously to keep African Americans from exercising their voting rights and from achieving equal protection under the law. In 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act, which created a federal commission for investigating and correcting abuses of civil rights. O’Connor’s story dramatizes the tension between outright integra-tionists like the character Julian and more reluctant people like his mother, who claimed that black people should remain separate from and perhaps equal to white society.
Declining upper class
Julian, the main character in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” has a conflicted relationship with his mother, who descends from a wealthy Southern family that has fallen into decline. She tries to keep up appearances, convinced that her heritage is something that sets her apart from the others in her rundown neighborhood, but Julian claims to see things differently. Still, he fantasizes about the family mansion that his mother knew as a child; it was sold long ago as the Chestny family fell into social and economic decline.
The fictional Chestnys of O’Connor’s story had many real-life counterparts; in fact, an entire way of life—that of the old-style family landowners—began to disappear by the early years of World War II as the South started to invest heavily in agricultural industrialization. Long after the slave-supported plantations belonging to Southerners such as Julian’s greatgrandfather had ceased to exist, a privileged lifestyle was still enjoyed by landowners who ran the family estate. Replacing the plantation was a system of sharecropping and tenant farming, whereby black or white farmers leased land from a white owner, or worked it in exchange for a percentage of the yield. Improved industrialization in the South brought with it larger farming enterprises that put these smaller concerns out of business, just as human labor itself shrank with the introduction of industrial technology. Unemployed rural residents, black and white, streamed to the cities in the South, or moved north in search of an improved way of life.
Between 1940 and 1980, approximately 14 million Southerners, black and white, left Southern farms for cities. Julian and his mother are the short story’s representatives of an entire displaced class of Southerner—the wealthy rural population suddenly ousted from its comforts with the advent of technology. The civil rights movement further hastened the whirl-wind of change that swept through the previously monied classes. As Julian’s mother reminisces in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” the farm or plantation life shared by white landowners with their black employees often bred a kind of paternalism; “I’ve always had a great respect for my colored friends,” she said. “I’d do anything in the world for them” (O’Connor, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” p. 488). The empowerment of black laborers and the granting to them of improved civil rights made them less dependent upon the goodwill of their white employers. In keeping with this trend, as O’Connor’s story testifies, interracial relations in the South as a whole became less dependent on the economic and social condescension of white citizens.
The Short Story in Focus
Julian, a typewriter salesman who has finished college and wants to be a writer, accompanies his overweight mother to her weight-loss class at the downtown YWCA. She is dressed in a ridiculous hat that cost her more than they can afford, but she is very concerned about keeping up appearances. Julian’s great-grandfather was once governor of the unnamed Southern state in which they live, and the mother and son come from a once-privileged family that has fallen onto hard times. The pair live in an apartment building in a shabby part of town; both fantasize about returning to the family mansion, which is now completely run-down and inhabited by poor blacks. Julian’s mother, though, is proud of her struggle to remember who she is despite her economic and social decline; Julian, on the other hand, is bitter and convinced that his life will not amount to much.
The two start up an old argument on their way to the bus stop; Julian’s mother claims that she has always respected her colored friends, but feels that the civil rights movement is unrealistic in its aims toward integration: “They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence” (“Everything that Rises,” p. 488). Julian despises his mother for her attitudes on race and class, and fantasizes about teaching her a good lesson. The matter is taken out of his hands when, on the bus, a black woman, wearing the same hat as Julian’s mother, sits beside Julian and across from his mother. The black woman’s boy is taken with Julian’s mother and she plays peekaboo with him, to the irritation of the black mother, who orders him to behave. Julian sees what his mother
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does not—that this woman will not suffer a condescending attitude from white people like Julian’s mother. As the four of them—the two women and their sons—get off the bus at the same stop, Julian tries to prevent his mother from handing the little black boy a penny—she has no larger change—but she persists. The black woman hits Julian’s mother angrily with her purse and knocks her down, yelling, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” (“Everything that Rises,” p. 498). Julian is smug about what has happened to his mother, feeling that she got exactly what she deserved and hoping that she will have learned her lesson:
“Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman,” he said. “That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies.... [T]he old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.”
(“Everything that Rises,” p. 499)
To his horror, Julian then discovers that his mother has been badly injured by the blow; she picks herself up off the sidewalk but doesn’t know where she is or even when it is. She calls out for the black nurse of her childhood and the stunned Julian breaks off his righteous lecture about a just new social order to notice that she is barely conscious. As the story comes to a close, she crumples to the sidewalk again and he runs off frantically into the night to find help:
[H]is feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.
(“Everything that Rises,” p. 500)
In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” it is the unexpected act of violence between two women, one black and one white, with which the story culminates. This focus upon the actions of women in particular in a story about civil rights marks the contemporary emergence of women—black and white—as vocal demonstrators for equality across racial and gender lines. Young white middle-class Southern (and eventually Northern) women took notice of the effective organizational and protest skills of the civil rights marchers and showed evidence of their own spirit of rebellion. Many became tireless agents for the cause of liberation in general, at first working to mobilize the white community to the cause but, as time progressed, eventually moving within black communities themselves. The modern feminist movement grew from these conditions, not just because women were learning how to articulate their feelings of oppression, but because they came together, Page 93 | Top of Articleblack and white; white women rethought the basic tenets of femininity as they watched black women take to the streets in protest, become community leaders, and refuse to be cowed by the potential brutalities their actions sometimes brought. As one Southern woman explained, “For the first time, I had role models I could respect” (Evans, p. 169).
Unfortunately, the relationship between black and white women involved in the civil rights cause was not to proceed altogether smoothly. The flooding of white women into black communities brought a commensurate number of interracial relationships with it, something that historians point to as the greatest of Southern social taboos: “The presence of hundreds of young whites from middle- and upper-middle-income families in a movement primarily of poor, rural blacks exacerbated latent racial and sexual tensions beyond the breaking point” (Evans, p. 173). The civil rights movement began to show signs of stress, as those involved tried to manage the new social realities brought on by white women living and working in black communities. Some black women accused their white counterparts of doing all the indoor safe work while they themselves confronted an angry public, and ascribed the growing tensions within the civil rights movement to white women’s inability to work with black people of both genders. Partially as a result of all this, white women were gradually phased out of the civil rights movement in the South, their services no longer required or desired. Black women continued to fight to strengthen their social position, linking racial and gender issues, and participating in the surge of black nationalism that took off in the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, many of the middle-class female activists went north, and eventually allied with the university student protest movements that also emerged in the mid-1960s.
If, in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Julian and his mother are taken aback by the attack that occurs at the end of the story, O’Connor’s readers, both at the time the short story appeared on its own and much more so when the collection was released, would have probably been less so: tensions between black and white women in the South were a well-documented part of the civil rights-era climate.
O’Connor took the title of her story from the works of the modern Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955):
I’m much take … with Pere Teilhard. I don’t understand the scientific end of it or the philosophical but even when you don’t know those things, the man comes through. He was alive to everything there is to be alive to and in the right way. I’ve even taken a title from him “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and am going to put it on my next collection of stories.
(Letter to Thomas Strich, September 14, 1961, in O’Connor, p. 1152)
The French priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin spent much of his time between 1923 and 1946 in China, where in 1927 he was part of the team that discovered Peking Man, a Stone Age hunter from the Pleistocene era. But Teilhard is more properly famous for his efforts to reconcile science, particularly evolution, with Christianity. He discussed the specific idea of convergence, or moving toward a common end. As his editor explained, Teilhard saw it as “the tendency of mankind, during its evolution, to superpose centripetal [moving toward a center] trends, so as to prevent … fragmentation” (Huxley in Johansen, p. 71). What O’Connor means in her use of the phrase “everything that rises must converge” as the title for her story, and for the story collection that was to be her last, has been debated among her critics. In each of the short stories in the collection O’Connor seems to write about a rise to a higher level of consciousness through a coming together of people or forces temporarily at odds with one another. In the short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” both Julian and his mother, worlds apart in their racial attitudes, both end up stunned and hurt by the violence that erupts from the black woman who strikes out against what she sees as condescension.
“Everything that Rises Must Converge” won the O. Henry award for short fiction in 1962. Robert Fitzgerald, editor of the 1965 collection bearing the same title as the short story, points enthusiastically to O’Connor’s “austere” vision, which “will hold us down to earth where the clashes of blind wills and low dodges of the heart permit any rising or convergence only at the cost of agony” (Fitzgerald in Johansen, p. 180). The general consensus seems to be that the title story is perhaps not the finest of those collected in Everything that Rises Must Converge, but is nevertheless an important exploration of the “sexism, false nationalism, classism and other destructive attitudes … [that] are all part … of the attitude of a proud individualism which prevents humanity from rising and converging” (Spivey, p. 144).
For More Information
Cooper, William J., and Thomas E. Terrill. The American South: A History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Evans, Sara. “Women’s Consciousness and the Southern Black Movement.” In A History of Our Time. Edited by William H. Chate and Harvard Sitkoff. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Grimshaw, James A., Jr. The Flannery O’Connor Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard, 1993.
Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O’Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” In Collected Works. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988.
Spivey, Ted. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995.