Thursday, November 04, 2004

United States of the South

Today I decided to get away from it all by going to the library and working on an essay I've spent too long trying to finish. It's on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer and how it handles a historical event of 1886, a mass murder of black men in a Mississippi courthouse. Actually I was not getting away from it all at all. The story behind the story is the suppression of the black man's vote in the years after the price for that vote had been paid in blood. Outrage is a powerful motivator. Maybe I will finish that essay after all.

I wasn't expecting to come across this, a passage from W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South, published, after a long gestation, in 1941:

Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its action--such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism--these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today.

Cash killed himself, hung himself with his own necktie, in that same year, 1941. C. Vann Woodward was more optimistic about the future of the perpetually "New South," observes Jacob Levenson in the Columbia Journalism Review; he believed that somehow the legacy of Jim Crow could be overcome in a period of new economic growth, while a strong positive regional identity remained.

In the fullness of time, the South triumphed on the national political scene: "Governors like Jimmy Carter, William Winter, and Dale Bumpers encouraged biracial coalitions that cast an aura of reconciliation across the region." But the predicted demise of Jim Crow took a curious route. The shift from a historical allegiance to the Democrats, the party of white supremacy, to the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, took off when Goldwater denounced the Civil Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, said that he knew he was giving the South to the Republicans "for a long time to come." Then, as Levenson reminds, Nixon aligned himself with Strom Thurmond.

But it was Reagan . . . who tightened the Republican hold on the region. Reagan’s success in the South can be viewed as an affirmation of both Cash’s and Woodward’s view of the region. Reagan skillfully employed a version of the cultural code that Cash had identified forty years earlier to overwhelmingly win the white southern vote. His first major campaign stop after gaining the 1980 nomination was near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the community in which the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered. There he pledged to the almost all-white audience at the Neshoba County Fair—an obligatory stop on the Mississippi political circuit—that he believed in states’ rights. In another speech he denounced the welfare queen in designer jeans. At the same time, though, his message to southerners went beyond coded racial signals and incorporated a range of southern themes, some that had endured through two centuries, and others that spoke to Woodward’s transformed South. He solidified his connection to the evangelical right by speaking openly about his Christian faith, and at the same time offered tax cuts to appeal to the newly emergent middle-class, white, suburban southerner. In 1980 Reagan took every southern state except Georgia, and in 1984 he swept the region. The elder Bush did the same. And, of course, after Bill Clinton won some southern states in ’92 and ’96, George W. Bush swept the South in 2000, and is considered a good bet to do so again this year.

And the rest is our living history.

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