The New New South

Politics and Society in the South

by Earl Black, by Merle Black
Harvard University Press, 363 pp., $25.00

Reconciling prodigious change with stubborn intransigence is a familiar problem of southern history. Solutions are rarely brought off without some sleight of hand. On the one hand “old” Souths (rarely lasting more than half a century each) continue to multiply while on the other a “new” South is forever being proclaimed, celebrated, or deplored. The new one defined in the book by Earl and Merle Black, political scientists at the state universities of South and North Carolina, respectively, is the latest of the new Souths. It only began toward the end of the 1940s and succeeded the one that took shape in the early years of the century.

The newest South is comparable with the new South produced by the Civil War for the extent and depth of revolutionary change over the old order it replaced. The order overturned, was, in political terms, the Solid South of white supremacy and one-party politics with an electorate of native whites and a voter turnout of around 25 percent in presidential elections. This was an electorate from which blacks were excluded by disfranchisement, white primaries, or other means, and women took small part. The politics of the Solid South generation were largely the product of a rural and small-town culture with an agricultural economy of one-crop, one-horse farmers. The only cities of any size were New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta, and none of them had a population of half a million before 1930. Three-fourths of the American blacks, mostly rural, still lived in the South. Yankees constituted only a tiny percent of the population.

The classic account of Solid South politics and the starting point and inspiration for all accounts of the period following is the work of V.O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation, published in 1949. In the era he treated Key concludes that “the hard core of the political South—and the backbone of southern political unity—is made up of those counties and sections of the southern states in which Negroes constitute a substantial proportion of the population.” And the “fundamental explanation of southern politics is that the black-belt whites succeeded in imposing their will on their states and thereby presented a solid regional front in national politics on the race issue.” That meant subordinating, segregating, and disfranchising blacks and keeping federal intervention in their behalf at bay.

The momentous transformations of recent decades in the South’s economy, demography, and race relations would seem to have been enough to undermine and by now entirely destroy the previous political structure. In place of the three cities of the 1930s the South of 1980 had forty-five large metropolitan complexes. Instead of furnishing one in twenty of the region’s votes for president, the big cities in 1980 accounted for 54 percent. The rural and small-town voters have shrunk from four-fifths to three-tenths of the South’s electorate, and their influence has eroded proportionately. A new middle class (disproportionately white, of course), now more numerous than the working …

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