Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
There was a time, when I covered the troubles and triumphs of the civil rights struggles - from 1954 through 1965 or so - I believed there was hope and promise for the American South, that the Old Confederacy would indeed rise again and that whites and people of color, freed from the chains of race, would lead the nation in a kind of political and social renaissance. That hope is gone.
Despite the election of Barack Obama, or perhaps because of it, much of the old South – from Virginia to Florida and Texas – seems to have regressed, retreated into the hard-shell right-wing, state-rights, anti-Washington racism, on which its politics is now based and its leaders feed.
What is going on now is not a rise of conservatism. The southern conservatives who I have known were traditionalists who sought to retain the values and grace and, yes, the racist order of the old South. But they yielded to changing times and they would be appalled at today’s would-be destroyers of American political system.
Historian and journalist Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, demonstrated how his home state, which had been a hotbed of 19th century populism, turned to the right with its citizens voting against their own interests, following instead, like the mechanical rabbit on the dog track, extraneous and irrelevant “cultural issues” such as abortion and gay marriage.
I’m not sure Kansas was the best example. Kansas did elect liberal Democrat Kathleen Sibelius as governor (she’s now the Secretary of Health and Human Services). And Kansas has been Republican at least since it voted for native son Alf Landon in 1936.
But its two Republican senators, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, are conventional conservatives. And Kansas has not demonstrated the vicious animus towards Washington and Obama that we’ve seen coming from secessionist states such as Texas and South Carolina. So the more relevant question is what is the matter with The South?
It pains me to ask that, for I spent more than a dozen years living and working in Houston, the largest and most diverse city in the south, with the largest black population. And for a young man transplanted from Brooklyn, working for one of city’s conservative newspapers, it was an exciting time. Competition was fierce, Houston was a boom town, the civil rights movement was edging into the city and southern writers and reporters were providing accompaniment to the prelude to change.
Think of the richness: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, Reynolds Price, Horton Foote, Shelby Foote, James Dickey, William Styron.
And the newspaper reporters: Claude Sitton, John Herbers and Tom Wicker of The New York Times, Gene Roberts, later hired by the Times and Jack Nelson of The Los Angeles Times.
And there were great and courageous editors, Ralph McGill, of the Atlanta Constitution, Harry Ashmore, of the Arkansas Gazette, “Pete” McKnight of the Charlotte News & Observer and Hodding Carter II in Greenville, Mississippi. They don’t make them like that anymore.
I was one of a dozen of reporters who followed the movement. We called ourselves “Southern Correspondents Covering Racial Equality Wars” or S.C.C.R.E.W. But they were my guides and, yes, inspiration as I graduated from covering the cops and courts to write about the Freedom Rides, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the more radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as they caused their kind of trouble across the south, agitating, marching, sitting in.
As I think I’ve written elsewhere, we reporters who were on the race beat had the luxury of unobjectivity, rooting for the movement although we covered its problems and internal disputes. But one day, when I watched King coming up to the crest of a hill on the road from Selma to Montgomery, as black sharecroppers in Lowndes County, Alabama waited and shouted, “Dere he is,” he was, for sure, a modern Moses leading an exodus.
And the thousands marching behind them, including black and white celebrities and clergy of every faith under the protection of the National Guard and with the blessings of a president from Texas, were cause for my hope, for the future of the south and that the south would show the rest of the country the way to racial understanding if not peace.
We ought to remember that the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, plus a couple more, were part of the Democratic coalition that Roosevelt had built and was still holding when Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater.
It is true that the Solid South was Democratic because Lincoln had been a Republican. But by the time Johnson was president, southern stalwarts in the Senate like Richard Russell, J. William Fulbright and Sam Ervin helped overcome the throwbacks like James Eastland, to pass the civil rights bills – with Republican help. These were true constitutional conservatives; their recognition of the rightness of the cause of civil rights preserved the union.
But Lyndon Johnson, who knew the south and politics like no one else, ruminated in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act meant the South would go Republican in 50 years. It didn’t take that long.
New Yorker writer George Packer recounts an anecdote from Pat Buchanan who was with Richard Nixon in 1966 in Columbia, South Carolina where he worked the crowd into a frenzy.
“Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric was about patriotism and law and order...As they left the hotel, Nixon said, ‘This is the future of this party, right here in the south.’”
Two years later, Nixon and the Republican Party won the presidency by adopting the “Southern Strategy” which divided the south by race - blacks who began to vote with the Democrats and whites, those of the old south who reacted to what they saw as civil rights unrest and those of the new south - suburbanites (many from the north) who had belonged to no party.
As cynical as his campaign was, Nixon had been a creature of Washington and did not seek to dismantle the federal government. Indeed, he sought an improved welfare system, health care and gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. The Vietnam War and Watergate stopped the Republican advance.
Ironically, Democrat Jimmy Carter, as an outsider from Georgia, initiated the attacks on Washington and his presidency never recovered from Washington’s reaction. So it was left to Ronald Reagan to fasten to the right-wing of the Republican Party the overt racism as well as the ideological opposition to the central government as a socialist threat.
Reagan, you remember, deliberately began his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi where three voting rights workers were murdered in 1964. Trent Lott, then a Republican congressman from Mississippi, had suggested the site. Reagan said in his speech: “I believe in states’ rights.” And the first priority of his presidency (although not completely successful) was the dismantling of the social programs of Johnson’s Great Society.
The elder George Bush’s 1988 campaign was led by South Carolinian Lee Atwater who made race (Willie Horton) part of the campaign. But to his credit, Bush, a conventional and moderate conservative who had voted for the civil rights bills in Congress, ran afoul of right-winger Pat Buchanan by raising taxes when it was necessary and it cost him the presidency.
Reagan’s legacy was twisted even further to the crazy right by the southern-led Republican cabal in the 1995 Congress led by Speaker Newt Gingrich of Cobb County, Georgia (where the Klan was strong) and Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas, and the then-Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott who lost his job for praising the racist legacy of the late Strom Thurmond.
The younger George Bush, who all but ignored blacks and gay people, did not take after his father. Rather, he mindlessly gave the radical right further aid and comfort questioning global warming, the reasons for homosexuality and even evolution and he sought to bring down the two pillars of social insurance. He left the nation a political and economic wreck.
But amid that wreckage, Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, with the help of corporate money and far right cable television propagandists, have organized the angry whites and political leaders of the Old Confederacy to destroy the legitimacy of a liberal, black president. Even conservative stalwarts and northern moderates have been forced to join in this revival of the cries of the Civil War with racism again at its core.
Once again, the south is leading the rest of the country in a virulent ideological war shouting for states’ rights and even threatening secession – in practice if not in fact.
They may be an embarrassment to some mainline Republicans. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, who became the Republican chairman, apologized to the NAACP for not reaching out to black voters after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and he said the southern strategy was “wrong.”
More recently, Ohio Senator George Voinovich told an interviewer that southerners are what’s wrong with the Republican Party.
“We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns,” both hard-right anti-government senators, respectively, from South Carolina and Oklahoma. “The party’s being taken over by southerners,” said Voinovich. “What the hell they got to do with Ohio?”
Indeed, Ohio is deep in recession with the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs. But DeMint and Coburn steadfastly held up legislation to extend unemployment compensation to the jobless. They vociferously oppose any action to create new green jobs to slow global warming, the existence of which they deny. And, of course they are fighting any health care reforms. DeMint has boasted that the defeat of health reform would be President Obama’s “Waterloo.”
More than one observer has suggested that the complaints and aims of the so-called teabaggers are vague and almost groundless, mostly aimed at Obama’s presidency and his legitimacy. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, noting that a near majority of southern Republicans believe Obama was not born in America, said, “Southern Republicans, it seems have seceded from sanity.”
Sadder still, like Thomas Frank’s Kansans, the southerners don’t realize they’ve been played for suckers by the demagogues who lead them.
Once the New Deal and the Great Society held promise for the backward south. Now, the south leads the country in the percentage of uninsured and resultant deaths; it has the lowest educational attainment; the highest percentage of infant mortality and lowest median household income. The 2008 poverty rate was greater than national rate (13.2 percent) across the old south, and 44 percent of children in the south (12.2 million) - more than in any other region - live in low-income families.
As much as any other region, and more than most, the south has been victimized by right-wing Republican policies that have widened the gap between the rich and educated elite and families struggling to get by. They have a right to be angry even they don’t know exactly why. But formless though their tea bag protests have been, history tells us to beware when large numbers of dissatisfied men and women, some with guns, take aim at the nation’s most conservative institutions.
Here is a relevant quote from Tony Judt’s fine piece in the December 17 New York Review of Books, in which he analyzes why Social Democracy, practiced almost everywhere after the maelstrom of the Great Depression and war, has not taken root here:
“If there was a lesson to be drawn from depression, fascism and war, it was this: uncertainty – elevated to the level of insecurity and collective fear – was the corrosive force that had threatened and might again threaten the liberal world.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: My Favorite Garment