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.”
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 …