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Is There Hope for the South?

Among the regions of the United States, the South has long stood out as the most distinctive, and, in the minds of many, the one that has deviated the most from the norms accepted by the rest of the country. This sense of difference and peculiarity goes back to the early nineteenth century when African-American slavery was being eliminated in the North but was rooting itself more and more deeply in Southern society. After the abolition of slavery as a result of a war fought primarily over the question of the future of slavery in the United States, the federal government made an ineffectual attempt to guarantee civil and political equality for the freed slaves. When the North’s Reconstruction policy failed and “home rule” was restored to the Southern states, another “peculiar institution” emerged—legalized segregation, or Jim Crow. In 1928, Ulrich Phillips, the leading Southern historian of his time, wrote, “The central theme of Southern history” was the struggle to maintain white supremacy, “to remain a white man’s country.”1

Did the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which desegregated the South and opened the voting rolls to blacks, bring an end to the South’s exceptional character? It did so only if we take the essence of Southernism to be legalized segregation. Inequalities and conflicts arising from white prejudice and discrimination against blacks were not confined to the South but manifested themselves strongly in the North, most visibly and dramatically following the great migration of the early- to mid-twentieth century that populated the urban ghettos. If the success of the civil rights movement did not resolve America’s racial problem, it seemingly nationalized it. Overcoming the longstanding disadvantages of blacks, and the de facto discrimination and segregation to which they continued to be subjected, was as much, if not more, a Northern problem as a Southern one.

In the summer of 1965 I traveled for two months in the South trying to prepare myself, as a Northerner who had spent little time below the Mason-Dixon line, for lectures on Southern history that I would give at Harvard. I interviewed several prominent writers, historians, and others I thought could speak about the meaning of Southernism. Since most of them were considered liberals by the standards of the time, I also wondered what might be distinctive about Southern liberals. My stock question was “What at bottom has made the South different?” I remember Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution and a prominent proponent of desegregation, telling me that it was purely and simply the Jim Crow system. The effective enforcement of the recently passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts would, he said, obliterate all essential differences between the North and the South.

But others denied that the history of legalized racism was the actual or potential basis for Southern distinctiveness. In 1930 a group of twelve prominent writers and intellectuals, most of them associated with Vanderbilt University, argued that the “agrarian tradition” was the South’s main historical legacy and called for its revival as a means of opposing the soul-destroying industrial capitalism that, they said, was the latest threat against the Southern way of life emanating from the North. In the book they produced collectively, I’ll Take My Stand, the “Nashville Agrarians” either sidestepped the race issue entirely or endorsed segregation as an arrangement acceptable to both races.2

This view of the South as the last American bastion of the pre-modern values associated with family, community, and attachment to land and locality survived to some extent into the 1940s and 1950s when issues involving race and civil rights could not be evaded. Some of the Southerners who described themselves as liberal told me that a rural tradition of face-to-face, intimate relationships between whites and blacks, despite all the inequality and condescension that these connections had admittedly involved, provided the basis for better race relations in a post-segregation South than was possible in the more urbanized parts of the country, where individualism and loss of community had proceeded much further.3

In the 1950s and 1960s America’s emergence as the dominant world power suggested another positive aspect of Southern identity that it was thought might set a good example for the rest of the nation. C. Vann Woodward, the greatest of Southern historians, maintained in several brilliant essays that reflecting on what he called “the burden of Southern history” offered Americans an antidote to reckless international ambition and triumphalism. What the Southern exper-ience provided—or could provide if rightly understood—was a wisdom born of failure, defeat, and the realization of human fallibility. The South’s experience of lost causes could serve as a salutary example to a nation that was in danger of overextending itself and succumbing to what another wise Southerner of the time, Senator J. William Fulbright, called “the arrogance of power.”4

Has anything happened since the 1950s and 1960s to fulfill the hopes of liberal Southerners of that era that their region’s unique historical experience could become a politically effective source of wisdom and leadership for the nation as a whole in its pursuit of racial justice at home and a responsible and constructive role in the world? The new collection of essays by prominent Southern liberals of the early twenty-first century suggests that such hopes are waning and that the answer may in fact be “no.” As Anthony Dunbar points out in his introduction, the title of Where We Stand and the number of contributors to it were inspired by I’ll Take My Stand. But this book is much more concerned with current political issues than its predecessor of three quarters of a century ago and has a somewhat more heterogeneous cast of characters. The Nashville Agrarians were mostly poets, novelists, and critics—among them were Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom—who were contributing to the South’s great cultural achievement of the twentieth century—the literary “renaissance” that flowered between the 1920s and the 1970s.

The writers of Where We Stand are harder to characterize. They include historians, legal scholars, journalists, and activists. Some of the essays are personal and autobiographical, such as the historian Paul Gaston’s account of how the radical utopian community in Alabama in which he grew up has become a bastion of upper-middle-class conservatism. Charles Bussey describes what it is like to teach Southern history in Norway, and the ecologist Janisse Ray gives an account of how she was able to live a simple life “beyond capitalism” in several Southern states. What the essays have in common is a strong sense of alarm about the policies of George W. Bush and the Republican Party as it currently exists. Whether explicitly or implicitly, they clearly feel impelled to speak out together as white Southerners against the support their fellow Southerners have been giving to the disastrous course that the nation has been following since 2001.

The collection opens with an eloquent essay by Dan Carter condemning the war in Iraq and the remilitarization of America under George W. Bush. Carter is the leading historian of the new conservatism in the South and in the nation since the rise of George Wallace in the 1960s and the subsequent Republican adoption of a “Southern strategy,” which, with much success, mobilized reaction to liberal reforms. He is therefore exceptionally well qualified to criticize the current regime, having seen its coming. But I find nothing distinctively Southern in his argument except perhaps his anger and shame as a Southerner that his own region has generally supported the turn to the hard right that the country has taken in the last few years. His sense of being part of a small minority in the South comes across when he observes that twenty-six of the twenty-seven students in the class he taught at the University of South Carolina on the eve of the war in Iraq favored the invasion. (The exception was an exchange student from Scotland.) For the most part, however, his essay could have been written by an equally well-informed liberal from Chicago. Two essays by legal scholars are similarly generic and transregional. Daniel H. Pollitt describes how the Bush administration’s security policies are threatening our basic civil liberties and Gene Nichol argues strongly that economic inequality has become a fundamental national problem.

If there is a central theme in the entire book it is a lament over the way the worst elements in the South—whether politicians or ideological tendencies—have come to power nationally with George W. Bush. According to Paul Gaston, the South has “become the engine driving the Republican Party.” Similarly, the liberal activist Leslie Dunbar calls today’s South the party’s “present dynamo” and likens the dogmatism and intransigence of Bush and his “Southern-led party” to attitudes of the Southern secessionists of the 1860s and the court-defying segregationists of a century later. Charles Bussey complains that “America today, led by George W. Bush, has ‘moved’ South. America now seems to have undergone a ‘Southernization’ process and become the worst of the South, to have drifted far to the right politically and socially.”

This theme is most fully developed in the essay by John Egerton which concludes the book, entitled appropriately enough “The Southernization of American Politics.” Egerton, the author of several books interpreting Southern culture and politics, provides a brief historical account of how the Southern states came to vote Republican. He describes how the national Democratic Party’s support of civil rights legislation in the 1960s alienated many white Southerners and by the 1970s drove them into the arms of the Republicans. President Lyndon Johnson was prescient when he told members of his staff in 1964 that his decision to push the Civil Rights Act through Congress would have disastrous results for the party: “We may,” he said, “have handed the South to the Republicans” for a very long time to come. As a consequence, the end of legalized segregation did not mean the end of race-based politics in the South. Most Southern whites became Republicans, Egerton writes, because “in the last analysis they saw GOP conservatism as a safer haven for their racial biases than the far more liberal national Democratic Party.”

The current situation in the South is that most whites—65 percent in the last presidential election—vote Republican and virtually all blacks vote Democratic. Since whites outnumber blacks substantially in all of the former Confederate states, this racial polarization strongly favors the Republicans, although moderate white Democrats can sometimes win statewide races by combining the black vote with a minority of the white vote. Blacks have been helped by the provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 preventing states that formerly disfranchised blacks from redistricting in ways that would invariably create white majorities. Without that provision, African-Americans would be even more underrepresented in Congress and state legislatures than they are now. The ACLU voting rights expert Laughlin McDonald defends federally mandated black majority districts as a form of much-needed electoral affirmative action. Since few whites, even Democrats, are inclined to vote for blacks, there is, McDonald writes, no other way for them to achieve direct representation.

Of course conservatism in the South, as in the rest of the country, is about more than race. Many well-to-do and socially influential Southerners felt it was more important to maintain their position and power as the dominant class than maintain legalized segregation, which was in any case an increasing embarrassment in the postwar world in which the armed forces were desegregated and American racism much criticized internationally. By the late 1960s members of the Southern economic and social elite were willing to accommodate themselves to a seemingly color-blind legal and political order in return for low taxes and very limited government (especially limited with respect to provisions to protect the poor, working people, and the environment). At the same time, however, many less-well-off whites in the South were willing to support Republican economic and social policies that would seem to run counter to their interests. Why they did so is one of the issues discussed in what I found to be the most thought-provoking essay in the book, historian Sheldon Hackney’s “Identity Politics Southern Style.”

We usually associate “identity politics” with minorities who vote as a bloc for candidates and parties who give them the symbolic recognition they crave, whether as African-Americans or Hispanics, for example. Liberal critics of such group-centered or multicultural politics complain that this ethnocentrism inhibits alliances with other groups who have similar economic and social needs and would benefit from the same government policies. What Hackney (a former university president and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) finds special about the South is not the identity politics of blacks, which occurs throughout the nation, but rather the identity politics of Southern whites. “If one is tempted,” he writes,

to conclude that the South is so heavily Republican because it is characterized by features that characterize Republican votes throughout the country, such as Protestant Christianity or rural residence, one must also come to terms with the fact that the South has disproportionate numbers of people at lower levels of education and income, which are powerful predictors nationally of Democratic votes.

In other words, Southern whites are more likely than whites elsewhere to subordinate their material interests to their desire to maintain the sense of status and the personal satisfaction—“ego enhancement”—that has long been associated with belonging to the white race. Southern liberals, Hackney contends, suffer from a long-standing weakness because they are vulnerable to race-baiting for betraying a “white Southern identity” that “was originally and fundamentally a racial construction.” They were, and are, “cosmopolitans living in a parochial culture.” One could also say that they were nonracists living in a deeply racist culture. An attack on Where We Stand recently posted on the Internet calls the authors “scalawags,” thus invoking the term used to stigmatize Southerners who cooperated with the Yankees during Reconstruction.

It would be easy to draw very pessimistic conclusions about the future of interracial liberalism in the South on the basis of the essays in Where We Stand. There seems to be little evidence that the hopes I described earlier for warmer, friendlier race relations have been realized. The failure to move beyond desegregating public facilities in the direction of substantive equality comes through most vividly in the essay by the writer and documentary filmmaker Connie Curry. She shows in her account of the ups and downs of a large black family which is headed by a woman how the promise of equal opportunity through integrated education glowed, flickered, and then died. The eight members of the Carter family of Sunflower County, Mississippi, who first attended newly integrated (but still substantially white) schools between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s went on to graduate from college, unlike their five older siblings, whose education in legally segregated schools had left them no options except joining the military or emigrating from the state in pursuit of work.

But thereafter, as whites chose increasingly to go to private schools, the public schools became predominately black and were allowed to deteriorate from lack of adequate funding, with the result that the next generation of the family was more likely to end up in prison than in college. Curry warns us that “the Sunflower County pattern of failing education for blacks, minorities, and poor people in general, and the fast track to prison is being replicated throughout the United States.” But the problem seems particularly acute in the South, where most states “now spend more on incarceration than on education.”

Even less evident is a realization of C. Vann Woodward’s hope that the tragic weight of Southern history would enable people in the region to adopt a critical position when faced with the kind of hubris and arrogance that has led to the unjustified and self-destructive invasion and occupation of Iraq—unless of course one chooses to take Where We Stand as an indication of how thoughtful Southerners can see through nationalistic pretensions. But as Dan Carter’s poll of his class suggests, a liberal, antiwar viewpoint is not widely shared even among educated Southerners. In general the region seems much more supportive of the war, and the militarism and imperialism associated with it, than most other parts of the country, with the possible exception of the mountain West. Where, one wonders, are the Southern senators upholding the example of William Fulbright and questioning the recklessness and bellicosity of American foreign and defense policy makers? If we consider West Virginia as part of the South, we can name Senator Robert Byrd, but almost no one else.

If Where We Stand offers any hope for the future growth of support for interracial equality and the pursuit of international peace among rank-and-file white Southerners, it comes from the career and ideas of former President Jimmy Carter, who wrote a brief foreword for Where We Stand. For him, “Extreme inequality is a moral issue” that current policies are failing to address. Some of the essays that follow cite Carter as reflecting the best side of the white South and embodying liberal hopes for the future of the region. As someone who admired Carter’s remarkable (if little noticed) speech to the Democratic convention, I tend to share this view. But it is not so much how Carter performed as president that earns him the praise of liberals (he did after all govern as a centrist most of the time) as his career as former president—his almost twenty-five years of tireless effort in the cause of human rights, democracy, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts throughout the world. If there is something distinctively Southern about Jimmy Carter then perhaps the belief of the authors of Where We Stand that “Southern” and “liberal” are not inherently contradictory terms has some basis to it.

What stands out in Carter’s career and in his foreword is a specifically Christian inspiration for a liberalism—whether in racial matters or in foreign policy—that, to my mind, has a Southern flavor to it. The classicist Susan Ford Wiltshire writes eloquently of how growing up in a religious environment in Texas gave her the basic convictions that made her an advocate first of black equality and then of the rights of women and gays. Carter’s success and Wiltshire’s essay don’t suggest to me that one has to be a Christian believer to be a liberal in the South. Other contributors do not explicitly invoke religious values and traditions. But it seems to me that the peculiarly intense religiosity of the South—it leads the nation in church-going and orthodox Christian beliefs—is not inevitably tied to the religious right which currently dominates the politics of the region and provides a powerful constituency for Bush and his policies. The example of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement show that evangelical Christian belief can provide a great impetus for egalitarian reform at home and the pursuit of peace in the world. A non-Southerner and a nonbeliever like myself is in no position to suggest that a new Social Christianity may be the best hope for Southern liberals. But it does seem to me that the one deeply rooted Southern tradition that might give rise to an interracial progressive politics is an ethical imperative based on faith, following the example of such people as Jimmy Carter and Susan Wiltshire. Of course one can also argue that the nation would be better off, or at least no worse off, if the last of our strong regional identities simply disappeared. Perhaps the longstanding sense that the South is somehow different and exceptional should simply be allowed to fade away as we try to engage politically and culturally with the new world of the twenty-first century.

  1. 1

    Published posthumously in Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, The Course of the South to Secession (Appleton, 1939).

  2. 2

    Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Harper, 1930).

  3. 3

    This viewpoint was reflected in a 1962 collection of essays by Southern liberals of the civil rights era. See Hoke Norris, We Dissent (St. Martin’s). Perhaps the fullest and most eloquent presentation of the argument that “we can do it better” was by one of the contributors to that volume—James McBride Dabbs, president of the Southern Regional Council—in his book Southern Heritage (Knopf, 1959).

  4. 4

    C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (Louisiana State University Press, 1960).

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