But it seems unlikely that either the South as an American region, or the South as Dixieland, or the South as Lost Cause could hold so much scholarly and popular attention in focus if the South were not also an enigma.
– from “The Enigma of the South” by David Potter, Yale Review (1961)
I have been studying the South intently, yet at my own pace and through my own areas of interest, for about twelve years. My initial interest was piqued in 2001, when I began working at a small publishing house that specializes in Southern subjects, especially Civil Rights, and I was hooked almost immediately. I realize that a dozen years doesn’t make me the Old Man Moses of Southern Studies – it doesn’t even make me one of the old pros – but I’m also not a rookie with momma’s milk still behind my ear. And the more I read and study and travel and watch the news, the less things make sense to me. Like the old saying goes: the more I learn, the less I know.
Anyone who claims to have figured out the South is lying, either to you, to himself, or both. The subject is too complex even to fathom. Like I said, I’ve tried. As one example, a few years ago I went out to explore, research and write a book about my home state of Alabama, and the amount of material to cover amassed so incredibly and so fast that I became completely overwhelmed. I had so much information and so many perspectives that would have led me down so many rabbit holes . . . I never would have accomplished anything cohesive or coherent. And that was just focusing on one state.
Yet, it still seems proper to point out and discuss a few of the more significant enigmas that have baffled me and a lot of other people, too. These Southern cultural features are so captivating in their ability to befuddle anyone who attempts to make sense of them. Why bother, you might be asking. You might have the same attitude about the region that I find myself developing: the South so hardened itself against change, and really doesn’t seem to want to. Well, I don’t know many people who do want to change, but one way to incite necessary change is by inviting introspection. Looking critically at ourselves and our habits can lead to revelations and epiphanies that could cause positive change . . . if we let it.
The first of these enigmas is prompted by ideas presented in Frank Vandiver’s “The Southerner as Extremist,” published as an essay in his 1964 edited collection The Idea of the South: Pursuit of a Central Theme, but originally delivered as a lecture in 1963. After an opening paragraph that rattles off a wide range of then-recent Southern events and historical figures, the first sentence in his second paragraph reads: “No matter the guise, one underrunning trait brands them all: violence” (43). Vandiver’s lecture proceeds to tie the Southern propensity for violence to what he calls the “offensive-defensive” strategy. I have to attack my enemy before he can do what I think he plans to do! Southerners, in particular Southern political leaders, have been employing this brand of logic for a very long time: to protect ourselves from outside interference we will go on the attack! To stop the abolition of slavery, which hadn’t even happened yet, Southerners seceded and went to war. In the 1930s, to prevent unions from gaining the upper hand on the owners of farms, mills and mines, which hadn’t even happened yet, law enforcement and corporate thugs went about union-busting by cracking the skulls of organizers and sympathizers. In the mid-twentieth century, to stop anyone who even suggested that racial equality might work, before it even happened Deep Southerners bullied, maimed and even killed them. Even today, to answer federal and national calls for progressive reform of any kind, Deep Southern states rally an immediate and vehement opposition, what Vandiver called the “doctrine of interposition.” Yet, what good has it done the South? Not much. It could even be argued that this modus operandi is largely responsible for the South’s entrenched backwardness and political isolation. Vandiver writes, “Clearly, though, the tide of Western civilization has run hard against Dixie” (47). This “offensive-defensive” strategy has only really accomplished the South’s enigmatic position as a political entity in and of itself within the larger nation, which I’ll get to in a moment.
This issue of the Southern propensity for violence is even more enigmatic when considered in context of the Deep Southern region’s alternative title, the Bible Belt. What makes the dualistic way of life possible are Southern interpretations of the Bible that hearken more to the Old Testament prophets than to the New Testament’s “God is Love” or “Blessed are the peacemakers” varietals. The South’s “offensive-defensive” strategy is more akin to what we see, for example, in the Book of Joshua when the Old Testament God leads the Israelites on a military campaign to exterminate the un-Godly people living in Canaan so God’s people can live there in righteous adherence to God’s law; this way of spreading the Good News operates in direct contrast to an approach more similar to Jesus’ admonition to his apostles to “wipe their dust off your feet” (in Matthew 10 and Luke 9) if people won’t listen to The Word. The people of the Deep South are not known for their tolerance of differing ideas, nor for their ability to walk away from a fight, i.e. “turn the other cheek.” You may hear the phrase “God and guns,” when the Deep South is discussed. Juxtaposing that interminable Protestant insistence on the primacy of the Holy Bible with an equally interminable propensity for preemptive violent responses doesn’t exactly make sense— unless you’re a Southerner.
Speaking of things that only make sense to Southerners, in the 1972 historical work The Disruption of the Solid South, George Brown Tindall brings up the next enigma, this one political: the habit of Southern voters of supporting and maintaining a one-party political system. In this small book, Tindall covers the complicated political terrain from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, using four-year presidential terms as his basic organizing structure, to wonder out loud about the “Solid South.” The simple version of the history goes like this: the South was solidly Democratic from the time of Lincoln, since the Republican Party was the party of Emancipation. Even though Republicans tried a variety of in-roads and strategies to change that, what eventually did change it was not a Republican move but a Democratic change in course: Harry Truman’s post-World War II Civil Rights reforms threatened Jim Crow, and the subsequent Dixiecrat movement of 1948 was the first real sign of the Solid South crumbling. Then beginning with Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, the almost-total support for the Democrats was clearly eroding, with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson putting the final nails in the proverbial coffin in the 1960s. What Tindall couldn’t have known about or written about in the early 1970s is the continued shift from Blue to Red during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, into an almost exactly identical kind of one-party dominance for the Republican Party! For example, in Alabama, where I live, we have a Republican governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, Republican super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature, and a state Supreme Court that is completely Republican.
Why does the South do this, and what does it accomplish? In this book from 1972, Tindall doesn’t really get into the why of it, but he does remark on how the two-party South of that time was an improvement over one-party domination. Far more recently, in his 2009 book The South’s New Racial Politics, history professor and former Alabama legislator Glenn Browder made similar observations about post-Civil Rights bi-partisan cooperation that he experienced in the 1980s. It isn’t that having Republicans involved in Southern politics is better or worse, or that having Democrats in the mix is better or worse— it’s that having one party so dominant as to bandy about unopposed does not allow for healthy political discourse and compromise, both of which can lead to progress.
In January of this year, The New Yorker‘s George Packer wrote the following, in an article titled “Southern Discomfort”, about the non-mainstream tendencies of the one-party Southerners in the US Congress:
Solidity has always been the South’s strength, and its weakness. The same Southern lock that once held the Democratic Party now divides the Republican Party from the socially liberal, fiscally moderate tendencies of the rest of America. The Southern bloc in the House majority can still prevent the President from enjoying any major legislative achievements, but it has no chance of enacting an agenda, and it’s unlikely to produce a nationally popular figure.
To point out what Packer is commenting on, think about South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham or Alabama’s Jeff Sessions. Both men criticize virtually everything that President Obama does; furthermore, their party can put them up on TV to do that because neither man has to fear for his re-election in states where being ultra-conservative and anti-federal government are viewed positively. Yet, the relentless highly combative politics that the South proffers to the nation has no appeal for the American mainstream, yielding the sentiments we contribute to the national discourse virtually invalid by being devoid of wider support. The nation will not follow the South’s political lead, but that doesn’t change the Southern tendency toward a unified conservative voice in both state and national politics.
The final enigma to mention here is in this relatively short space is the big question: are Southerners “reconstructed” yet? What America wants to know is: is racism alive and well in the South, or is it dead and gone? There are no shortage of voices claiming that, now fifty years after the movement, the South has moved on and no longer has the problems that it once had. Other people disagree. No definitive answers to this big question exist. So let’s take smaller bites. Have overt kinds of discrimination, like “Whites Only” signs, been removed and abolished? Yes, they have. Have segregation laws and other “Black Codes” been repealed and struck from law books? Yes, they are either nullified by court verdicts, repealed or not enforced. As per the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, are schools desegregated? Well, sort of— if you don’t factor in the realities associated with self-segregation via the nearly all-white private schools. Has racial discrimination in housing and hiring been eliminated? Well, maybe— depending on whether you believe that landlords or employers don’t let their own personal biases affect how they really evaluate applicants. Have Southern law enforcement officers stopped unfairly targeting black people for arrest and have juries stopped unfairly imprisoning black people? Well, supposedly— but it’s hard to ignore the fact that black people are a massively disproportionate percentage of the prison population.
As one more example from this debate, the county’s attorneys in Shelby County v. Holder have finished their arguments to the US Supreme Court to negate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is the main instrument of assuring that what once occurred rampantly in the South – disfranchisement, vote buying, voter intimidation, etc. – never happens again. (To read a pretty good summation of the case, click here.) The plaintiffs claim that the law unfairly targets Southern states (for their histories of discrimination) and shouldn’t have been re-authorized in 2006, because it over-reachs the intent of the 13th and 14th amendments. Basically, the attorneys are arguing that, even though the South had an obvious and flagrant culture of racist and classist voter fraud for roughly a hundred years, it isn’t fair to require that Southern states continue proving that it has stopped. The case pushes the envelope by forcing that fundamental question: has the South changed? Attorneys for Shelby County want the Supreme Court to assume that yes, it has, to a degree sufficient to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Many other voices would scream, No! For example, the 2001 book White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva expounds that “color-blind racism” now dominates the scene. His ideas are that white people don’t believe that they are racist anymore, which makes their racist practices (white flight, school re-segregation, subtle housing and hiring discrimination) all the more insidious and undermining. As another example, many opponents of voter identification laws, which sound good in theory, claim that those laws are just another way to prevent certain kinds of people from voting. This enigmatic fact remains: the Jim Crow-era racist was easier to fight because he stood stolid and vehement in front of all comers, identifying himself by shouting his venomous rhetoric out loud, but the modern racist can lie even to himself by believing that his motives are rooted in self-interest, or in politically sound logic, not in racism. Is this true? It is almost impossible to say for sure, because standing up to (or even identifying) an insidious, almost passive aggressive enemy is a very different fight altogether than the one that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The enigma lies in trying to prove something for which there is no proof, no documentation, no evidence, and beyond that, in many cases, supposed perpetrators claim that racist discrimination is not even occurring, not even in their minds.
David Potter was right . . . no matter how a person regards the South, no matter what lens we use to view it, we are left with the paralyzingly slippery nature of Southern culture. For all of us lifelong Southerners down here, the paradoxes are as natural as breathing. For everyone else who has to deal with us . . . not so much. If history is an indicator of the future, then the Republicans may well dominate the South for the rest of the century, and our region will lift up a new generation of 21st-century George Wallaces and Strom Thurmonds. And questions about those folks and their actions will have to be confronted by 22nd-century historians after we are all gone.
Personally, despite federal intervention, targeted activism, lawsuits and movements, I don’t believe that the South has changed much, nor does it want to. For two hundred years, the same tendencies have been there, but have manifested in different ways to meet each era’s challenges. That said, I leave this discussion with my own questions about the ever-present enigmas: what kinds of political and legal wrangling will the South employ during the 21st century to uphold its conservative disdain for social change, and who will the major figures of this new Southern political movement be?
I would like to believe that the South will change. I still like to think about hypothetical possibilities whereby our existing institutions altered their courses. Imagine if Southern evangelism pointed itself more directly at the Christ-like virtues of tolerance, forgiveness and kindness, and less on selective Old Testament-style legalism that points to hell-fire/damnation conclusions . . . the region would be a beacon for Christian fervor if the same zeal were applied to a different approach. Or if Southerners devoted themselves to policy-driven self-improvement in the way that they devote themselves to an über-faith in ultra-conservative heuristics . . . we would be something near to utopians! Finally, just think about what might happen if the brilliant Southern legal and political minds that devote their best efforts to intricately woven defenses of “offensive-defensive” strategies were to re-focus their efforts toward listening, understanding and compromising for social progress . . . I think about the where the South could be, as opposed to where it is. And it kind of makes me sad for all of us.