In the spring of 1945, a president from Missouri implored a political scientist from Texas to undertake a major examination of southern politics. Writing “to voice my opinion that the project is an important one,” Harry Truman sought to convince the reluctant V.O. Key Jr., a thirty-seven-year-old assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, to lead a University of Alabama appraisal of the South’s political rules and behavior.1 The result was a book of enduring importance, Southern Politics in State and Nation, which systematically analyzed how the region’s arrangements of power, patterns of voting, procedures for exclusion, and distinctive identity “in the last analysis…go back to the Negro.”2 Without that obsession, he argued, central features such as the poll tax that repressed white as well as black turnout, the unquestioning attachment of white citizens to the Democratic Party, or the party’s dual personality—a collection of factions at the local and state level, but the voice of the Solid South in Washington—otherwise would be incomprehensible.
Key’s study gained force well beyond the academy in part because it was written by a southern liberal who seemed to promise a way to topple Jim Crow when no one thought the federal government would be able to do it. He argued that Black Belt districts like Mississippi’s almost feudal Delta, which groaned with illiteracy, lacked electricity and indoor sanitation for all but a few, and were governed by minions of a landed oligarchy, made up “the hard core of the political South” that held the rest of the region in its thrall. If this grip by the most traditional and most reactionary parts of the South could be weakened, Key thought, change might come without external action, or even without much internal protest by blacks or whites.
Earlier in the decade, another great research enterprise on race in America, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, had noted “an increased determination on the part of white Southerners to defend unchanged the patterns of segregation and discrimination.” Accordingly, Myrdal thought that racial and economic progress could not be achieved without national action to “demonstrate that justice, equality and cooperation are possible between white and colored people.”3
Key disagreed. Two years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, he maintained that the task “of achieving a bit more justice for the Negro in this somewhat imperfect world” must depend not on the federal courts or on what he called the “fraudulent character” of “proposed types of Federal legislation,” but on action “by Southern state and local governments.”4 Even after Brown, he continued to press a “sectional position” concerned…
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