|November 2, 2015 Issue|
The Price of UnionThe undefeatable South.
By Nicholas Lemann
Progress in civil rights has been matched by the Southernization of American politics.
Photograph by Walker Evans / Courtesy Library of Congress
When the Confederate States of America seceded, the response of the United States of America was firm: dissolving the Union was impermissible. By contrast, it took a few more years for the United States to resolve the question of whether it would permit slavery within its own borders, and it took more than a century for the U.S. to enforce civil rights and voting rights for all its citizens. This was mainly because of the South’s political power. In order to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States had to include the South, and its inclusion has always come at a price. The Constitution (with its three-fifths compromise and others) awkwardly registered the contradiction between its democratic rhetoric and the foundational presence of slavery in the thirteen original states. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase—by which the U.S. acquired more slaveholding territory in the name of national expansion—set off the dynamic that led to the Civil War. The United States has declined every opportunity to let the South go its own way; in return, the South has effectively awarded itself a big say in the nation’s affairs.
The South was the country’s aberrant region—wayward, backward, benighted—but it was at last going to join properly in the national project: that was the liberal rhetoric that accompanied the civil-rights movement. It was also the rhetoric that accompanied Reconstruction, which was premised on full citizenship for the former slaves. Within a decade, the South had raised the price of enforcement so high that the country threw in the towel and allowed the region to maintain a separate system of racial segregation and subjugation. For almost a century, the country wound up granting the conquered South very generous terms.
The civil-rights revolution, too, can be thought of as a bargain, not simply a victory: the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics. During the past half century, the country has had more Presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union. Racial prejudice and conflict have been understood as American, not Southern, problems.
Even before the Civil War, the slave South and the free North weren’t so unconnected. A recent run of important historical studies have set themselves against the view of the antebellum South as a place apart, self-destructively devoted to its peculiar institution. Instead, they show, the South was essential to the development of global capitalism, and the rest of the country (along with much of the world) was deeply implicated in Southern slavery. Slavery was what made the United States an economic power. It also served as a malign innovation lab for influential new techniques in finance, management, and technology. England abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, but then became the biggest purchaser of the slave South’s main crop, cotton. The mills of Manchester and Liverpool were built to turn Southern cotton into clothing, which meant that slavery was essential to the industrial revolution. Sven Beckert, in “Empire of Cotton,” argues that the Civil War, by interrupting the flow of cotton from the South, fuelled global colonialism, because Europe needed to find other places to supply its cotton. Craig Steven Wilder, in “Ebony & Ivy,” attributes a good measure of the rise of the great American universities to slavery. Walter Johnson, in “River of Dark Dreams,” is so strongly inclined not to see slavery as simply a regional system that he tends to put “the South” in quotes.
After slavery had ended and Reconstruction gave way to the Jim Crow system, the Democratic Party was for decades an unlikely marriage of the white South (the black South effectively couldn’t vote) and blue-collar workers in the North. This meant that American liberalism had a lot of the South in it. Ira Katznelson, in “Fear Itself,” adeptly identifies the deep Southern influence on the New Deal era, the country’s liberal heyday, including not just its failure to challenge segregation but also a strong pro-military disposition that helped shape the Cold War. The great black migration to the North and the West, which peaked in the nineteen-forties and fifties, partly nationalized at least one race’s version of Southern culture, and, by converting non-voters to voters through relocation, helped generate the political will that led to the civil-rights legislation of the nineteen-sixties. Once those laws had passed, the South became for the Republican Party what it had previously been for the Democratic Party, the essential core of a national coalition. The South is all over this year’s Republican Presidential race.
I’m a fifth-generation Southerner, though long expatriated, and I know the wounded indignation with which the folks back home react to any suggestion that the South is no longer—or maybe never was—an entirely separate region. What about our hound dogs, our verandas, our charm, our football worship, our slow-moving “way of life”? Outsiders who have visited the South, going back to Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederick Law Olmsted or even further, have usually agreed with the natives about the South’s distinctiveness, though they have often seen it as something to condemn, not admire. How can the South be so American if it feels (and smells, and sounds, and looks) so Southern?
One of the many categories of visitors to the South was concerned liberals during the New Deal, who were primarily interested not in race but in “conditions”—poverty, disease, ignorance. These included the documentary photographers dispatched by the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, who wound up creating most of the familiar images of the Depression, as well as anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, social reformers, artists, and filmmakers. James Agee and Walker Evans’s lugubrious book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is one of the most enduring examples of this tradition. (The 1941 Preston Sturges film “Sullivan’s Travels” manages the nearly impossible feat of poking fun at such visitors while also making it clear that their mission had a powerful moral justification.) During the same period, white Southern novelists produced their own body of work that trafficked in Southern dispossession and dysfunction. William Faulkner was at the head of this class, which also included Erskine Caldwell (who was part of the social-documentary tradition, too, through his professional and personal partnership with Margaret Bourke-White) and, later, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor.
Paul Theroux, the veteran travel writer, seems to have prepared for “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the first of his ten travel books set in the United States, by immersing himself in these works from the second quarter of the twentieth century. The genre in which he is working naturally organizes itself into vignettes rendered with a primary focus on literary artistry, rather than analysis, so he never has to state a full-dress argument, or even say exactly what he was looking for in those four long driving tours. The South remains more rural than the Northeast, but by now, as in the rest of the country, most people live in metropolitan areas. Still, Theroux tells us, “I stayed away from the big cities and the coastal communities. I kept to the Lowcountry, the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.” This principle may have been a way of simplifying his writing assignment: these are places where some people eat squirrels and raccoons, and are obviously unusual in a way that people in the Atlanta suburbs are not. That makes them easier to portray vividly. But Theroux is left trying to evoke the fastest-growing region of the country, where a hundred and twenty million people live, by taking us to a series of poor, deep-rural, depopulated places, like Hale County, Alabama; the Mississippi Delta; and the Ozarks, where the main noticeable changes in the past few decades are outsourcing and the advent of Gujarati Indians as motel owners.
V. S. Naipaul, Theroux’s former mentor, wrote quite a similar book twenty-six years ago, called “A Turn in the South.” Naipaul, never one for sentimentality about oppressed people, wound up celebrating “the redneck” (you have to have pale skin to have a red neck) as the South’s heroic type. Theroux thinks of himself as a liberal, and he doesn’t go anywhere near defending the white South’s politics and attitudes. On the other hand, he also doesn’t want to play the part of the disapproving or sneering Northerner. National culture, these days, seems to connect with the part of the South that Theroux visited through rollicking reality-television carnivals like “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Theroux strikes an empathetic, mournful tone rather than a mocking one. The people he visits are older, settled. Many of them either work in or are clients of social-service and community-development agencies. More are white than are black. He often compares the rural South—“rotting, picturesquely hopeless, forgotten”—to the underdeveloped parts of sub-Saharan Africa, which he has been visiting intermittently since he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, in 1963, and he regularly complains that the South gets far less attention from big philanthropies and the like. (He’s especially annoyed that the Clinton Global Initiative evinces so little interest in the poorest regions of Bill Clinton’s home state.)
In a final, confessional section, Theroux connects the book’s project to his own stage in life. At seventy-four, he finds himself contemplating the past more than the future, and wonders whether the onrushing world has left him behind. Where better to entertain such thoughts than in Allendale, South Carolina, a ghostly town bypassed by the interstate-highway system? But this turn of mind leads him inexorably to an implied theory of the South as, indeed, a region radically apart. Throughout the book, he registers the South’s religiosity and its preoccupation with guns as products of its degraded status, rather than of a culture that has always been more pious and more martial than the rest of the country’s. On one of several visits he makes to gun shows, during which he tries hard to understand rather than to condemn, he observes, “The whites felt like a despised minority—different, defeated, misunderstood, meddled with, pushed around, cheated.” His final judgment on the South, delivered at the end of the book, is this: “Catastrophically passive, as though fatally wounded by the Civil War, the South has been held back from prosperity and has little power to exert influence on the country at large, so it remains immured in its region, especially in its rural areas, walled off from the world.”
Even if you believe the South is that separate from the rest of the country, you might still, if you look hard enough, detect tendrils of Southern influence that extend past the Mason-Dixon Line. Race provides the obvious example. The slave states developed an elaborate and distinctively American binary racial system, in which everybody across a wide range of European origins was put into one category, white, and everybody across a wide range of African origins (including those with more white forebears than black forebears) was put into another category, black. These tendentious categories have been nationalized for so long that they seem natural to nearly all Americans. They are Southern-originated, but not Southern. They powerfully determine where we live, how we speak, how we think of ourselves, whom we choose to marry. They are deeply embedded in law and politics, through the census, police records, electoral polling, and many other means.
A frequent companion of the idea of a simple distinction between black and white is the idea of a simple distinction between racists and non-racists. There can’t be anybody left who believes that racists exist only in the South, but there are plenty of people, especially white people, who believe that racism is another simple binary and that they dwell on the better side of it. Paul Theroux marvels that Strom Thurmond, the old South Carolina arch-segregationist, fathered an out-of-wedlock black child. “Funny that a racist like Thurmond would have an affair with his black servant,” he remarks to someone he’s visiting. Come on! It’s visually evident how often this happened—“racism” as manifest in a sense of sexual entitlement, rather than of revulsion. Theroux himself displays an uncharacteristic electric jolt of resentment on the rare occasions when he contemplates urban black culture. In one passage, he refers to “the obscene, semiliterate yawp and grunt of rap,” and, in another, he describes a well-dressed black-bourgeois group he encounters at an event in Little Rock as being “like a shoal of leathery sharks” who are “suspicious, chilly, with a suggestion of hauteur in their greeting, as if they were still learning how to deal with whites.”
Ari Berman’s “Give Us the Ballot” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, makes for an excellent extended example of the mechanisms by which race in the South becomes race in the nation. The Voting Rights Act followed the better-known Civil Rights Act by a year. It is properly understood as part of a wave of legislation that represents the political triumph of the civil-rights movement, but Berman, like most people, finds a precipitating event in the murder, in June, 1964, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, of three young civil-rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s mission was voter registration—hence their connection to the Voting Rights Act. It’s sad but true that their murders would not have resonated so deeply if Goodman and Schwerner had not been whites from New York who had come South to participate in Freedom Summer. In fact, the grassroots organizing on behalf of voting rights was substantially black and Southern. Just before Freedom Summer, the congregation of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, in the all-black Neshoba County town of Longdale, had voted to make its church the local headquarters of the movement’s voter-registration efforts. A few days before the murders, the Ku Klux Klan burned the church down, because of the role it was playing. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were on their way back from a trip to Longdale to investigate the fire when they were killed.
“One Mississippi, Two Mississippi” (Oxford), by Carol V.R. George, a history of the Mt. Zion church, makes plain how essential the church was to the local civil-rights struggle. It was organized, with the help of Northern whites, during the period when the citizenship of former slaves was being rescinded, with the end of Reconstruction. For decades, its members were involved in every possible effort to reinstate the rights of blacks in Neshoba County, including the years of relentless activity that preceded Freedom Summer. And, after the church was rebuilt, it was deeply engaged in the long struggle to bring to justice one of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s killers, Edgar Ray Killen, whom an all-white Neshoba County jury refused to convict in 1967. That took until 2005.
So the passage of the Voting Rights Act was actually a North-South partnership, not an imposition of the North’s will on the South. And it would be a big mistake to think of the act as a great, enduring civil-rights milestone, representing the country’s belated decision to comply fully and everywhere with the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. As Berman demonstrates, the act has been, instead, the subject of half a century of ceaseless contention, leaving its meaning permanently undetermined. Most of the consequential fights about civil rights, beginning with the Reconstruction-era amendments to the Constitution, have been over the federal government’s role in enforcement. The Voting Rights Act gives Washington the power to review local voter-registration practices, and to change the boundaries of election districts in areas that have a history of discrimination or that appear to be drawing district lines so as to minimize the number of black elected officials. But the act, as written, invites conflict because its enforcement provisions come up for periodic congressional review.
Every few years, there has been a serious attempt to discontinue these enforcement provisions. Berman makes a persuasive case that the ongoing battles over the reviews of the Voting Rights Act, beginning with the first one, in 1970, have had a major impact on who has held political power. Periods of aggressive enforcement have produced more black voters and more liberal (especially black) elected officials—including, Berman suggests, Barack Obama—and also the potential for conservative politicians to take advantage of white resentment of the Voting Rights Act.
In August of 1980, Ronald Reagan chose to kick off his general-election Presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, in Mississippi, not far from where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered, and to declare, “I believe in states’ rights.” Once Reagan was in office, there was a battle over the terms of one of the Voting Rights Act’s periodic extensions, in which a significant actor was John Roberts, then a young lawyer at the Justice Department and now the Chief Justice. Berman has found in the National Archives a set of memos that Roberts wrote in 1981 and 1982, demonstrating a passionate opposition to aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three decades later, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Roberts led a Supreme Court majority that struck down the major enforcement provision of the act, arguing that the problem the act was passed to correct has long since been solved. This will help Republicans in subsequent elections, including the 2016 Presidential election.
At passage, the Voting Rights Act appeared to be only about the South, but over the years it has regularly been applied elsewhere. Politics is racial, to some extent, in most places; it was impossible to keep such a major law from having national repercussions. Among the states that have now passed election laws in direct response to the Shelby decision are Arizona, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The same dynamic—in which a “regional” issue goes national—repeats itself in just about every realm: not just in politics but also in culture, business, social mores.
“It will become all one thing or all the other,” Abraham Lincoln declared of the beleaguered, slavery-stressed Union, in his “House Divided” speech. In fact, the South and the rest of the nation have one of those hot-blooded relationships—the major one, in American history—which never settle into either trustful intimacy or polite distance. The South is too big and powerful to be vestigial; too married to the rest of the country to stand truly apart; too distinctive in its history to be fully united with the other states. Colin Powell, back in the days when, as Secretary of State, he was voicing skepticism about the Iraq War, used to say, “If you break it, you own it.” That seemed true for a while in Iraq, but, being halfway around the world, Iraq wasn’t so hard to leave. The Union’s defeat of the Confederacy makes for a better example. ?
Nicholas Lemann joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1999, and has written the Letter from Washington and the Wayward Press columns for the magazine.
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