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The Great and Grudging Transformation

Magnum Photos
Barber shop, North Carolina, 1963; photograph by Leonard Freed from his ‘Black in White America’ series. A collection of Freed’s photographs of the 1963 March on Washington, This Is the Day, was published last year by the J. Paul Getty Museum.


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 “not so much about what the rights of the Negro citizens are but about who is to manage the redressment of wrong.” Only if the federal government maintained an arms-length position, he insisted, could the South overcome Black Belt domination and affirm what he called a “well-ordered course of things.”5

Read in light of these later essays, it is clear that Key had intended Southern Politics to be more than an academic treatise. Writing not only as an emerging star in his discipline but as an opinion-maker, he wanted to promote a transfer in the region’s center of gravity from areas in which a small white elite controlled a large black population by all means necessary to less racially obsessed cities, where moderates could hold sway and guide racial improvement without federal intervention or radical black disruption.

The South, he believed, would be able to obtain “emancipation from the Negro question” if the bright streets, proud schools, modern amenities, articulate business leaders, mature politicians, and growing middle classes of Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, and other rising urban centers could supplant the dominant position of the plantation districts and produce a class-based two-party system much like the rest of the country’s. Led by “men and women disposed to take advantage of the opportunity,” the South, on its own, he believed, would become less stridently unjust.


Sharing the Prize rebuts this line of thought. Written by Stanford’s Gavin Wright with the care and imagination he displayed in his superb work on slavery and the southern economy since the Civil War, this excellent economic history offers the best empirical account to date of the effects the civil rights revolution had on southern labor markets, schools, and other important institutions. In doing so, he explains why V.O. Key’s hopes, like those of other southern liberals, had been chimerical, and he shows how black mobilization and federal action, not demographic change or economic modernization, transformed the South and the country. Congressional lawmaking in the mid-1960s, Wright argues, produced the “watershed moments that reshaped all subsequent events in southern history.”

Key’s outlook had been premised implicitly on the idea that market forces would act as a solvent to dissolve the most irrational features of Jim Crow. This expectation was consistent with the conventional view among economists who believed, as Wright notes, that “market forces would undermine unjustified discrimination even in the presence of race prejudice” because racism, as famously articulated by the economist Gary Becker, is not an economic preference.6

Wright convincingly insists that this is too crisp a distinction. Economic rationality and racism can mutually reinforce one other. Most white southerners at midcentury, including the region’s business leaders, firmly believed that an end to segregation and moves toward racial equality would prove costly in economic, not just social or political terms. Racial considerations and economic strategies were deeply entwined. Overall, white businessmen and landowners, as well as both craft and unskilled white workers, were persuaded that the repression of black economic possibilities worked to their comparative advantage and should not be relaxed. “The vast majority of white southerners had a vision of economic progress in which blacks had no more than a subordinate role.”

Until the mid-1960s a broad spectrum of white southerners agreed on their racial superiority. Racist ideas, commitments, and practices were not imposed on the rest of the region by its backward parts. These values and behavior were supported, sometimes fiercely and often with enthusiasm, by the South’s most modern business and political elites. Worried about maintaining the patronage of whites, both national and regional firms in the South supported segregated race relations. Jim Crow did not loosen in such advanced cities as Atlanta and Nashville. If anything, the boundaries that maintained social distance between the races were enforced more rigorously in these places.

During the 1950s, urban business communities strongly reinforced rigid segregation across the full range of economic and social life, from toilets to cemeteries, hotels to hospitals, parks to restaurants. They hired no blacks as clerks, bank tellers, firefighters, truck drivers, or automobile mechanics; that is, in jobs that required nonservile contact across racial lines. After all, Wright recalls, segregation as a system of racial separation had “originated not in rural but in urban settings, in an attempt by leaders who considered themselves progressive to adapt the racial order to the modern world.”

The initial empirical chapters in Sharing the Prize underscore racism’s iron grip across the seventeen states that practiced mandatory segregation. Wright especially illuminates the injurious combination of racially defined job categories and wage differentials that were integral parts of this racial order. Combining measurement and interpretation, his careful historical analysis shows how these demarcations persisted well into the Kennedy administration. He also shows how occupational hierarchies and lower wage rates for blacks holding the same jobs as whites surprisingly were more, not less, characteristic of employment patterns in metropolitan manufacturing and commercial firms than on the region’s farms.

The urban and industrial racial division of labor, in turn, reinforced stark inequalities in education. Why invest in black schooling if African-Americans were to be excluded from higher-skilled jobs? If such outlays were senseless, why waste scarce resources? “The point,” Wright explains, “is simply to reject claims that the transition [by which forced segregation was ended] was merely an epiphenomenon driven by deeper economic and demographic forces.” Before the civil rights movement scored its legislative successes, the right question is why “dramatic economic change had so little effect on political and social relationships.” The causal arrows drawn by V.O. Key from modernization to racial progress should be reversed. Even the newest industries like oil, and even in plants managed by firms investing from outside the South, the region’s industrial pioneers had no trouble conforming to a rigid racial hierarchy.

Segregation, Wright observes, was “modern and progressive, an integral part of the New South creed,” and “a business policy by profit-seeking firms.” Thus, he persuasively concludes, it is a mistake to think that Jim Crow was “either imposed by law on a reluctant business community or…a manifestation of ‘traditional’ attitudes that would recede with economic development over time.” Rather, with the broad southern consensus about race, and despite differences in location and style among its political as well as business elites—Georgia’s Richard Russell and Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo could not have been more different in character—Wright’s judgment that “if the white South had been left to its own devices, the revolution would not have happened” rings true.

In short, the internal and self- generated racial progress that Key anticipated did not occur. Economic development and the growth of cities did not produce a more decent racial order. Despite economic modernization and increasing urbanization during the 1940s and 1950s, southern business and political elites who refused to accept the liberalization of politics, social life, schooling, and job structures remained entrenched in their positions and preferences. Segregation and its system of racial humiliation persisted. Citing an assessment written in 1961 by the outstanding southern historian C. Vann Woodward, to the effect that “there has been no break” with the South’s “economic, political, and racial institutions and doctrines,”7 Wright reminds us how “neither Civil Rights activists nor segregationists had reason to believe that fundamental change in the South was imminent or even likely in the near future.”


The core of Sharing the Prize shows how the perception of “the Civil Rights revolution as primarily a dismantling of legal barriers is deeply misleading.” The movement demanded economic justice as well political rights and personal security. The lawmaking that V.O. Key had hoped to forestall—most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—brought about vast material changes. These laws disrupted existing trends and placed the South on roads to change that otherwise would not have been traveled. A dirt-poor region made huge strides in overcoming devastating poverty, distortions of land-holding, deep wage and wealth disparities, debased educational systems, pervasive illiteracy, and catastrophic public health. As the South grew more prosperous, African-Americans, moreover, secured significant gains that largely did not come at the expense of whites.

If the first contribution of Shaping the Prize is the demonstration that economic modernization did not produce civil rights, the second is a rich empirical demonstration of how this great leap forward actually worked. After the passage of revolutionary legislation, the next half-decade produced the most radical transformation in the South’s racial order since Reconstruction. The new laws changed the economic relationships between whites and blacks to the great advantage of both populations as a result of desegregation in southern schools, the economic consequences generated by black voting rights, and especially by radical shifts in labor markets as employers were forced to abandon such practices as the occupational segregation that had barred African-Americans from the most desirable jobs.

  1. 1

    Cited in Andrew M. Lucker, V.O. Key, Jr.: The Quintessential Political Scientist (Peter Lang, 2001), p. 71. 

  2. 2

    Knopf, 1949, p. 5. 

  3. 3

    An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper and Row, 1944), pp. 666, 1020, 1021. 

  4. 4

    V.O. Key Jr., “The Future of the Democratic Party,” The Virginia Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring 1952), pp. 174, 173. 

  5. 5

    V.O. Key Jr., “The Erosion of Sectionalism,” The Virginia Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1955), pp. 169, 178. 

  6. 6

    Gary S. Becker, The Economics of Discrimination (University of Chicago Press, 1957). 

  7. 7

    C. Vann Woodward, “New South Fraud Is Papered by Old South Myth,” The Washington Post, July 9, 1961. 

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