Sam Smith – I first noticed it around 1960, when, as a 20 something Washington radio news reporter, I was struck by how many of those in the capital with real power and influence had southern accents. Even some of my friends from northern states who went to work on Capitol Hill, picked up the southern sound after just six months or so.
Of course it didn’t hurt that the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader both came from Texas. Or that numerous key committees were run by southerners with little chance of being diselected. And it didn’t hurt that Washington itself was still a southern city although desegregation of its schools and restaurants had preceded other places below the Mason Dixon Line.
Today few remember this about DC. But as one who (until my parents moved out of town) went to a segregated public school through fourth grade, walking to class past a row of black occupied shanties – half without running water – for me returning to this southern town didn’t really surprise me. And it was southern. I recall checking with police dispatchers for an update and being told several times something like, “Nothing but a couple of nigger stabbings.” When, a few of years later, I joined the civil rights movement, even more of the town seemed to whistle Dixie. And numerous times in the years to come I would find myself wondering: did the Union really win the Civil War?
But reporters are meant to cover events and not culture so it wasn’t something I wrote about. And in the more than 50 years since then, cultural context is still not considered all that newsworthy. It’s okay for the corporate media to spend hours spreading the views of a Donald Trump, but there’s not enough airtime to point out the cultural similarities with, say, George Wallace. Or to point out that the ways in which the Civil War has yet to end.
Yes, the Civil War was about slavery, but in ridding the nation of that disgusting part of of the South’s culture, a lot was left behind. Consider, for example, that slavery was not only the evil suppression of blacks, it was used to keep working class whites in their place socially and economically as well. Imagine if today, as was the case in the deep South of 1860, 47% of those in the American workplace were slaves. What effect would that have on the incomes and working conditions of those who remained free? As Tim Wise has noted:
“Three-quarters of southern whites didn’t own slaves; as such they might not be as committed to the system’s maintenance, or that of white supremacy…. In 1859, giving voice to concerns [of] poor and landless whites may prove insufficient support for elite interests in the face of class-conscious anti-slavery forces, one South Carolina politician exclaimed: “I mistrust our own people more than I fear all the efforts of the Abolitionists.”
Then, as now, the answer of the southern elite was to convince less successful whites that the source of their problems was not to be found in the dining halls of Confederate mansions but in the alleged threat of its other victims, at that time black slaves.
And as Wise points out, “Even in the North, these kinds of appeals were common. During the Civil War, Democratic politicians in places like New York appealed to Irish working-class racism, warning that if slaves were emancipated, it would cause blacks to flood northward to “steal the work and the bread of the honest Irish.”
When post-Reconstruction segregation was in full swing, immigrants were also southern targets. As Ben Railton wrote in American Prospect:
[A] 1924 law extended and made permanent the so-called Emergency Quota Act, a 1921 law that had established immigration quotas based on national origin. The central arguments for both creating a national immigration law and basing it on such quotas were openly racist, as reflected in a speech delivered on the Senate floor by then-South Carolina Senator Ellison Durant Smith, himself a white supremacist dedicated to “keeping the niggers down and the price of cotton up.” Smith, one of the 1924 law’s more ardent supporters, argued that “the point as to this measure … is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. … Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.”
Or as Donald Trump puts it now: make America great again.
Ironically, blacks are still being led into thinking that economic and ethnic issues are separate, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. Just as southern whites were taught that it was blacks and not the elite that were the real danger, so today we find a billionaire candidate making similar arguments against Mexicans. Blaming the poor but casting it as a matter of ethnicity was a key element of southern culture and later adopted by the national Republican Party.
Bear in mind, however, that it was the powerful elite – not all of the south – that was involved in such things. For example, one of the reasons the KKK, wore hoods was to hide the fact that under them were faces of top officials, ministers and lawyers.hiding their actions from more decent residents.
Further, when the south desegregated, it happened in many places more peacefully than, say, in Chicago and Boston, one reason being that in such cities blacks and whites had never known each other whereas in the south, despite it being an unfair relationship, white and blacks were what has been called part cultures – cultures defined in part by another one with which it shares space.
What still burdens the south, however are things like its traditional definition of liberty. David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed describes four distinct types of communities created by the early British settlers in America. For example, in Puritan New England, freedom was strictly ordered; the community set its limits and described its character. If you didn’t like it, you had to take your freedom somewhere else. In the south, however, freedom was hegemonic, which is to say the more power you had the more liberty you had. If you were a cavalier, you had a lot, if you were a servant you had little, if you were a slave you had none. “How is it,” wondered Samuel Johnson back in England, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” And John Randolph, as though in answer, said, “I love liberty; I hate equality.”
The southern elite’s view of power and prejudice continue to haunt us, but they are not the only things. Consider, for example;
- The excessive influence of southern evangelical religion, so strong that it seems at times to define Christianity despite it heretical beliefs and standards.
- The south’s key role in keeping America in an endless state of warfare, This is exemplified not only in the southern influence in Congress, such as Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia, chair of the House Armed Services Committee for 14 years, who once claimed, “I built the United States Navy right here in this room.” but, as the LA Times noted, “Southern states consistently provide the biggest proportion of recruits…The highest-rate contributors were Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Virginia and South Carolina.
- The powerful southern model of white machismo that, with the help of media, has found emulation throughout the land and has provided little help for ethnic or gender equality.
One could even argue that the so dominant corporate model of social organization has been quietly aided by historic southern hierarchical principles in which power is its own virtue.
In any case, while the south had to surrender slavery and secession as result of the Civil War it got not only to keep other aspects of its culture but to spread them throughout the Union, a gift in music and literature to be sure, but in politics too often an unnoted triumph inherited from its perverse and harmful past.