Three Books #4: The Modern Deep South
The modern Deep South just invites long-term study and contemplation, especially from its residents— who, unfortunately, usually just accept it for what it is. Mired in controversial and often contradictory ideals, the post-Civil Rights Deep South bears the unfortunate burden of attempting to be graceful losers, which we often shoulder by creating new un-winnable and isolating political circumstances.
For more than a century and a half, the region’s leaders – the ones who have been crafting public policy – have been shaped by a shameful defeat in the Civil War, further shame from the Radical Republicans’ Reconstruction, even further shame by having to accept the New Deal, and even further shame having to accept more defeat during the Civil Rights movement. The themes of the Deep South’s socio-political meanderings could possibly be summed up by Alfred E. Newman’s smiling question, “What, me worry?”
So why do our region’s cultural values have to be rooted in obstinate stubbornness, nonsensical paradoxes, and wild fantasies about a comeback— or worse in the pretensions that the region never actually fell at all? It’s a mammoth question. And understanding what led us to this point might aid in overall comprehension. Three books that I suggest for learning more about the modern Deep South are: Bloody Lowndes by Hassan Kwame Jeffries, Thirteen Loops by BJ Hollars, and The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson.
The first of three of the books focuses on the mid-1960s. Hassan Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, published in 2009 by New York University Press, provides a solid and readable narrative of what-came-next. Having suffered across-the-board defeats with its Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party candidates, the young SNCC activists focused their energies during and after the Selma-to-Montgomery on Lowndes County, the extremely poor rural county between Dallas and Montgomery counties. Unlike the nonviolent efforts of the early 1960s, this effort would very different.
Jeffries begins with the chapter “Conditions Unfavorable to the Rise of the Negro,” a stark description of a starting point, in which he provides some historical background, offering his reader a survey of the brutal racism that led to the county’s nickname, “Bloody Lowndes.” From there, the grassroots activism of organizing in a majority black county with a spread-out population, who are dominated in every way by white power structure, takes shape. The dangerous and time-consuming tasks of canvassing house-by-house and developing candidates for local elections constitutes the beginnings of the Black Panther Party. The goal, in the 1966 elections, is to put black people in local offices.
By focusing on a fairly narrow subject within a short span of time in a small geographic area, Jeffries’ book succeeds in showing us how the small movements occurred. Certainly, the 1955-1956 bus boycott, the 1960 sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1965 march were important, but the small, local efforts were the glue that held those large events in place, keeping the pressure on a Jim Crow politico. If Civil Rights pressure had only been incremental and sporadic, the movement might not have succeeded. These small, local movements shaped their own communities in distinct ways. (For more on these smaller freedom movements, I’d also suggest the book Groundwork, edited by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward.)
My second suggested book on the modern Deep South, BJ Hollars’ Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, published in 2011 by the University of Alabama Press, also starts out in the early twentieth century but spends the majority of its pages on the early 1980s, examining the circumstances and effects of the lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. Men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan were quickly identified, tried and convicted of the very public and seemingly random crime that was supposedly a retaliation for a legal victory by the Southern Poverty Law Center over the United Klans of America.
Michael Donald was a fairly ordinary young African-American man in Mobile, until he became the chosen target. A very under-the-radar kind of guy, quiet and unassuming, Donald worked a menial job and enjoyed playing basketball. However, one evening in March 1981, on his way to buy a pack of cigarettes, Donald was kidnapped, beaten, killed and tied to a tree where anyone could see him. His death is often called, somewhat spuriously, “the last lynching in America.”
Hollars’ book offers readers a look inside the post-Civil Rights Ku Klux Klan, a group whose position in Southern society had been severely diminished by the movement. The author, once again, traces the events of a brief period of time in a specific locale. Writing in a somewhat-ephemeral, somewhat-journalistic way, the style reminds me of the über-short paragraphs often found in New York Times op-eds. Through Thirteen Loops, we see how the official sanction of Klan violence had waned; responding to white-on-black violence eighteen years after Birmingham church bombing, law enforcement had become less tolerant of the Klan’s way of “sending a message” by the time of the Michael Donald lynching. Henry Hays, the son of reputed Klan leader Benny Jack Hayes, was sentenced to death for Donald’s murder, and he was executed in 1997; by contrast, Michael Donald had a street in Mobile named for him in 2009.
Then, after you’ve had the wind knocked out of you by those other two books, Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South, published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster, points you more amicably, but no less honestly, toward the present and future. First of all, don’t let the title fool you— this book doesn’t pick up where WJ Cash’s 1941 classic left off. The tone, style and message are all very 21st century. That said, Thompson’s conversational writing style carries the reader through the quagmires of modern Southern life, baggage and all, but in the voice of an amiable friend. In short,The New Mind of the South reads like a really long newspaper column.
Where the first two books focus on Alabama subjects, Thompson sets hers primarily in her native Georgia. With such telling chapter titles as “It’s Complicated” and “The Big Lie,” The New Mind of South comments on where the Deep South is today, decades after the (legal) end of Jim Crow. In “Salsa with your Grits,” Thompson discusses the effects of immigration on the region, and in “Jesusland,” she describes the nuances of Southern evangelical Christianity. Her book ends with a rather long chapter simply titled “Atlanta,” the South’s major megapolis— other than Nashville.
The strength of Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South lies in her ability to interweave many subjects, even citing and quoting sources, in an accessible, readable way; the downside of the book – at least for me – is that she sometimes gets too cute and seems to be going wink, wink as she’s talking to us. Above all, though, her insights are solid and worthy of attention, managing to discuss a lot in less than 250 pages.
In these three recent nonfiction works, a student of the modern Deep South has three eras to survey: the mid-1960s, the early 1980s, and the early 21st century. As always, other books could be appropriate for a list like this one. Academic treatments like The New South, 1945 – 1980 by Numan V. Bartley and The Selling of the South by James C. Cobb were possibilities. So Dixie by Curtis Wilkie or Dixie Rising by Peter Applebome, both of which are more accessible. I also thought about including Allen Tullos’ Alabama Getaway, which is an incredibly sharp book, but I didn’t want all three to be about Alabama.
The real question to be asked about the modern Deep South is: where do we go from here? With the 2010s being the fiftieth-anniversaries of 1960s events all over the region, the need for comprehension about those events is distinct. These books could help with that . . . if you read them.