“What is wrong with them?” “They’re dumber than I thought!” “This is a new low, even for them.”
Comments like these were made to me by many friends and colleagues in New York during discussions about the 2016 special election in Alabama that narrowly rejected Judge Roy Moore’s candidacy for the Senate.
Sneering about the “Backward South” has become a form of escapism for many Northern liberals. There’s a certain comfort in thinking that the country’s worst problems exist far away rather than a few stops down the subway line—out of our control, an affliction unique to them. The late-night comedy version of the South as a land of ignorance, violence and prejudice is crude at best, serving mainly to make us feel good about ourselves rather than conveying anything of substance about the country.
But activists in the South have been mobilizing voters and challenging power structures successfully for decades, from flooding Mississippi’s jails with Freedom Riders in the 1960s to helping to drive the surge in (especially black) voter turnout that defeated Moore. Like anywhere else, the South can change. Its institutions are constructed by human beings and are vulnerable to mass collective action. If the left can renew and extend this spirit, it may even win in the South—but not until we dismantle our prejudices about and against it.
The first step in doing so is to understand how the South is different, and where it’s not. The Triple Evils identified by Dr. Martin Luther King—poverty , racism and militarism—are American, not uniquely Southern, but the South’s roots in slavery and Jim Crow racism color everything in distinctive ways. Mississippi didn’t fully ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery until 2013—news that Jon Stewart justly ridiculed at the time as “only 148 years late.” Alabama didn’t legalize interracial marriage until the year 2000. There’s still a proud statue of the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan just off Interstate 65 near Nashville, Tennessee.
But as Elizabeth, a character from James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain saw it: “There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly on one hand, it took back with the other.”
Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the daughter of a share-cropper in the Mississippi Delta, was similarly frank in a speech she gave in New York in 1971. “I used to think that if I could go North and tell people about the plight of the black folk in the state of Mississippi,” she told her audience, “everything would be all right. But traveling around, I found one thing for sure: it's up-South and down-South, and it's no different. The man shoot me in the face in Mississippi, and you turn around he'll shoot you in the back here.”
The truth of these reflections go back as least as far as the Civil War itself, when a mob attacked the “Colored Orphan Asylum” during the New York City draft riots of 1863, punctuating their terror by chanting “burn the niggers’ nest.” Not to mention the many subsequent, unpunished attacks against people of color well north of where ‘the racists’ are supposed to live: Chicago in 1919, Los Angeles in 1992, Staten Island in 2014.
Like racism, the second of Dr. King’s Triple Evils—poverty—is ostensibly more acute in the South. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights only recently described conditions in rural Alabama as the worst he’d ever seen in the ‘developed’ world. At the beginning of 2018, Jackson, Mississippi endured a “boil water advisory” and a mass public school closure after the city suffered 116 water-main breaks in the space of one chilly week.
But for every Jackson, Mississippi, there is a Flint, Michigan. For every opioid overdose in Kentucky, there’s at least one in Massachusetts. And any effort to address poverty and inequality soon comes up against national resource constraints that are rooted in America’s giant military budget, nearly half of which goes straight into the pockets of defense contractors. Like Dr King’s other two evils, there’s nowhere to hide from militarism.
In short, the South’s problems are—and always have been—America’s problems. The sooner we accept this fact and shake off our smugness and complacency, the sooner we’ll be able to play a more effective part in forming local, regional and national coalitions for action that turn the spotlight on poverty, inequality and racism throughout the country.
Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring political realities: the daunting, decades-long dominance of the right in most of the Southern United States. Hard-nosed pollsters looking to deliver victories for the Democratic Party in the 2018 mid-term elections would likely tell us to forget about the really Deep South: too conservative, too close-minded, too ignorant.
But the South has a rich, though frequently overlooked, leftist tradition. You can find some traces of it at Nashville’s impressive Bicentennial Mall, which includes a massive marble plaque celebrating Tennessee’s rivers and lakes. It proudly quotes Section 29 of the state’s first constitution, which declares “That an equal participation of the free navigation of the Mississippi is one of the inherent rights of the citizens of this State; it cannot, therefore, be conceded to any prince, potentate, power, person, or persons whatever.”
This eloquent declaration of a public good is accompanied by the force of the 1977 Tennessee Water Quality Control Act: “The people of Tennessee have a right to unpolluted waters.” The full text of the act refers to “the waters of Tennessee” as a “public trust.”
Unfinished movements from the past have also been revived and built upon. In a recent article for Transformation, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert highlights how Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign has been reignited under the leadership of Reverend William J. Barber in North Carolina, and is beginning to build coalitions across class, racial, gender and regional lines.
Project South, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, carries out its own local organizing while also supporting social movements across the region. Its legal advocacy has exposed abuses in prisons and immigration detention centers, and constantly pressured the Georgia state assembly over anti-Muslim discrimination and surveillance.
The Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi has promised to make his city “the most radical on the planet.” His counterpart in Birmingham, Alabama has similarly ambitious plans. Meanwhile, elections at the state level suggest that more progressive advances may follow Doug Jones’s senate win in Alabama, particularly in the legislatures of Virginia and Georgia.
New Orleans has taken down its monuments to the Confederacy and white supremacy. Mississippi has established a new Civil Rights Museum in the state capitol. Inside, visitors are confronted with the names of the victims of lynching projected onto giant illuminated columns, enlarged mug shots of every activist sent to Parchman Penitentiary for protesting segregated transportation, and detailed electoral maps exposing the cynical redrawing of congressional districts to diminish the strength of the black vote after the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1964.
Much of this is symbolic, but symbolism matters: it tells us something about how we define ourselves and our aspirations. If a Southern state is building symbols that honor the continual struggle for civil rights rather than the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Civil War, then this hints at a small shift in mindset that could grow into something bigger.
From my own experience, I know that the South is more diverse, more contradictory and more complex than is often portrayed. It has a history different from, but wholly entwined with, the rest of the country. It is full of social and political movements that many of us don’t know about. Its story is dynamic, not static, shifting constantly between huge strides forward—emancipation , Reconstruction, civil rights—and the enduring legacies of its racist past and present.
Liberals and progressives who snigger at the region would benefit from approaching it with the same values they claim to uphold: openness, intellectual humility, and a deep appreciation of diversity. Then, we might stand a better chance of winning people over—and maybe even learn something new about ourselves.