Reading: Three Books on Southern History
Certain aspects of the Southern culture get a lot of play in the public discussion of the region: slavery, the Civil War, the Depression, and Civil Rights. All of those difficult features of our culture play a huge role in who we are now, certainly. Whether we like it or not, the current “New South,” aka the Sun Belt South, is a post-slavery, post-Civil War, post-Depression, post-Civil Rights culture. The region’s socio-political “answers” to each of those historical dilemmas have, in turn, shaped the next stage in our development, and now— we live with the consequences of layers and layers of reactionary decisions.
Yet to sum up the South by only considering those four cultural features would be short-sighted. There is more to look at, and that’s where reading comes in.
Though modern Southerners live in the same geographic space, we also live in a different “place” than earlier generations of Southerners, because though we may not have a different language, we do have different customs and a different social structure. The old folks try to tell us about what we weren’t there to experience, but we roll our eyes and stop listening when we hear, Back in my day . . . As Southerners, to avoid being duped about our own past by modern-day fire-eaters, we must read to truly understand how we landed at this moment in history— which is the only way to dig out of the hole we’re in.
Perhaps one of the only remedies for a half-true mythology that has been slathered on like peanut butter is reading works produced by historians to straighten out the popular consciousness. Historians, who do the time-consuming work of digging up the facts and connecting them for us, serve our culture well. Although reading straight history can be cumbersome, challenging and often dull, the payoff is immense, and having the factual foundation to comprehend modern ideas and phenomena is well worth the time and effort. Knowing-better about the South, my home place, beats the hell out of expecting a politicians’ rhetoric to make sense, and having this base of knowledge has offered me something more profound than trying to pick up the Southern cultural milieu from the daily news cycle, which focuses almost solely on the right-now.
Three books that I would recommend for any person living in the South today to read, so that they could understand their own culture more thoroughly, are: George Tindall’s Disruption of the Solid South, James C. Cobb’s The Selling of the South, and Numan V. Bartley’s The New South, 1945 – 1980.
George Tindall’s tiny volume, The Disruption of the Solid South, is the shortest and easiest to read of the three. Published in 1972 and taken from a lecture series at Mercer University, Tindall’s little book comes out swinging:
The rigid solidarity of the South, according to a common and persistent opinion, downgraded issues and programs, encouraged a politics of personalities, gave rise to demagogues, fostered neglect and nonvoting and reduced the region’s influence in both national parties. (24)
That little passage comes on the second page of the first chapter. In the rest of the first chapter, Tindall describes how and why post-Civil War Republicans couldn’t maintain the South due to a combination of Democratic scare tactics and the wide-ranging responses to the how and why of reconciliation. As always with difficult political situations compromise arose – this time over the election of Rutherford B. Hayes – and a cultural/political scene called the Solid South was built. In the second chapter, Tindall discusses the heyday of the Solid South built on racial politics and a disdain for the federal government, which he says occurred from 1880 until the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948, then the third and final chapter wonders out loud about a two-party South. With Harry Truman’s pro-civil rights moves, the doorway opened for the Republicans, from Eisenhower to Nixon, to winnow their way back into the Southern voting booth. Writing in the post-civil rights early 1970s, Tindall supposes:
The drift of Southern politics will depend largely upon the two different groups of people who have felt most aggrieved at the policies of the recent past: Some five million [George] Wallace voters and some three million (potentially five million) black voters, whose counterparts, the independents and freedmen of the nineteenth century, also figured as objects of the southern strategy. (70)
Tindall leaves with the prediction that the post-Civil Rights South will be defined by newly enfranchised black people and the white people who are scared of them.
Where George Tindall’s little book focuses on traditional politics – voting, campaigning, elections, leadership styles – James C. Cobb’s The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936 – 1990 focuses on politics as it relates specifically to the now-common Southern practices for recruiting industry. Beginning mid-Depression, Cobb enlightens the reader about the Mississippi roots of offering “incentives” to entice new businesses, which create new jobs. The BAWI program (Balancing Agriculture With Industry) started the whole damn thing. Like Tindall, Cobb cuts to the chase in his beginning pages:
Manufacturing and commerce were far more advanced in the North by the 1880s and investment capital was relatively scarce in Dixie, but the South was rich in natural resources and blessed with an abundant supply of workers. Consequently, New South promoters aimed their sales pitches at labor-intensive industries that would prepare agricultural products and raw materials for final processing elsewhere. The manufacturing operations they courted employed few skilled workers. Wages were minimal and many owners preferred rural plant locations where they could draw on a surplus of agricultural labor. (2)
BAWI and the programs that followed it basically created the scenarios we see in Tennessee Williams’ “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” (made into the film Baby Doll), Erskine Caldwell’s novel-turned-film Claudelle Inglish, and the 1967 classic Sidney Poitier film In the Heat of the Night: small towns with mills and factories run by outside or absentee owners who offer unemployed or underemployed locals a pittance to work like hell.
Cobb carries us from the Depression, through the government-contract era of World War II, and into the Civil Rights era when Atlanta became “the city too busy to hate.” The Selling of the South also acknowledges the realities of the strategy: wages stayed low and education remained a low priority, thus quality of living only improved only a little for most people. The book’s latter chapters describe the Sunbelt South, where Florida emerged as a tech and aerospace leader and where Atlanta became the greatest city in the South. Despite the highfalutin claims of recruiters, chambers of commerce and governors, Cobb’s truth comes in the final chapter, “The Price of Progress”: the South became the place for companies to go to underpay workers, dump trash and pollute rivers, because no “business friendly” politicians were going to stop them.
At the beginning of World War II, Southern society had its own insular cultures that rested in the sense of roots, place and tradition anchored by family, church and community. (xi – xii)
Yet, the South was changing in massive ways after the Second World War, becoming more urban, more mobile, and more educated. Bartley begins at the war’s end, but of course he has to harken back in the first chapter to the Depression, which can’t be ignored in that discussion, alluding to Roosevelt, the New Deal, etc. However, in the 1940s, “the South was the great training ground for the nation’s military forces” (11), i.e. Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” Although the South of World War II was a post-New Deal South, it was also a post-Howard Odum and post-Gunnar Myrdal South: “Justifications for white supremacy – and for de jure segregation – rapidly lost intellectual respectability” (13), writes Bartley.
The New South, 1945 – 1980 is more of social history; where Tindall’s book focuses on politics and Cobb’s on economic impacts, Bartley’s covers the broader gamut of modern Southern experience. He covers not only politics, money and jobs, but also church, migration patterns, education and social movements. This book is easier to read than Cobb’s The Selling of the South, but it is still straight history. On the last page of the nearly 500-page book, Bartley ascribes some measure of progress by 1980:
The region was no longer the nation’s number-one economic problem nor the nation’s number-one moral problem, but economic and racial problems persisted. (470)
And they still do . . . which is why I suggest that more people read these three books.
When I chose these three for this relative short entry, I had to make some tough choices about which books not to discuss— and I settled on these because I’m most interested in the modern South and because all three take on topics of import to all Southerners. Certainly, C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow could have made this list just as easily as Jack Temple Kirby’s Rural Worlds Lost, as could Peter Applebome’s Dixie Rising, the edited collection The Idea of the South, or Michael Kreyling’s The South That Wasn’t There. So many books, so little time . . .