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19 March 2023

The history of the American South is as contested as ever

In the home of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, the past is never dead.

By Robert Colls

Thirty years ago, when I taught history at the University of Mississippi, I learned three things in pretty short order. First, that no matter how cordial the exchange, Southern black people and Southern white people were suspicious of each other. And northern Yankees. Second, that when white Southerners talked about “the War” they meant 1861, not 1941. Third, that it was not a war about racism and slavery but “the secession of the states” (a phrase I’d never heard before). The South thought the North was racist too, not least in its depiction of poor whites. Nobody I met liked Roseanne because they thought it was about them, or crackers like them. On the other hand, the South’s music and literature were great. Fresh out of Leicester, all this fell on our little ole social democratic heads from out of a clear blue sky.

The old “South” – used here as a meaning rather than a geographical entity – was not old. The historian Charles Reagan Wilson dates the first institutional break with the North with the secession of three Protestant churches (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian) in the 1840s, coinciding with territorial expansion in lands capable of growing cotton, and a sudden uprush of “Jacksonian Democracy” with its emphasis on white civilisers, dead Indians and grateful slaves. By the 1850s, with abolitionism in the ascendant, Southern elites were telling themselves that the plantation was a gentlemanly, civilising tradition, quite superior to Northern business greed, when in fact the plantation was subjecting African Americans to the most primitive forms of labour in order to serve the most advanced forms of production elsewhere.

The novelist William Faulkner questioned this “gentlemanly idea” in the 1930s but, in truth, the Civil War wrecked it almost before it was invented. Humiliated and defeated, the Confederacy lay in ruins, losing almost a quarter of its young men, the great majority of whose families did not own slaves. This was the night they drove old Dixie down.

Intended to make sure old Dixie never got up again, “Reconstruction” was mired from the start by a white power structure that was too entrenched, and too angry, to give way. Black democracy was impossible without the force of Union arms all over again and, in the name of states’ rights, Dixie clawed back that which it had lost. That which it couldn’t claw back – slavery – became the “Lost Cause”. By the time of the Supreme Court’s revocation of the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883, and its affirmation of the racist doctrine of “separate but equal” in 1896, Southern blacks had learned that their best chance of being American lay in Chicago not Chattanooga, while Southern whites had learned that what could not be done constitutionally could be done regardless. This was the meaning of “Jim Crow”: the exclusion of blacks from white society by any means.

[See also: American civil war]

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If you like your history squinched, try this: in the name of the “Lost Cause”, the white idea of an antebellum South was forged in a post-bellum South raging to restore a status quo ante that had never existed and was impossible anyway. While the United Daughters of the Confederacy built monuments to their boys, black leaders had to figure out a way up from slavery. Booker T Washington and William Du Bois called on their brothers and sisters to build a moral superiority that would underpin the fight for civil rights. Washington the educationalist looked to hard work and “racial uplift”. Du Bois the sociologist looked to socialism (of a sort). Each man pressed for a black culture that was American without asking permission to be. Charles Edwin Robert’s remarkable Negro Civilization in the South (1880) charts the first shoots of an independent civil society.

Southern segregation lasted about a hundred years, from the end of Reconstruction to Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Whites only” was legalised racism made to look egregious in a country where, every morning, schoolchildren swore their allegiance to liberty and justice for all. The white supremacist Dixiecrats and Citizens’ Councils were effective in Hicksville, but nowhere else, and even Hicks loved a radio and television culture not confined to white audiences or musicians. By the time James Meredith and Rosa Parks took their seats on the bus, as it were, with Martin Luther King in the driving seat, segregation had become yet another lost cause. As Wilson shows, by the early 1960s activists were:

“On the offensive in struggles over the Southern identity in Oxford and Neshoba County, Mississippi, and in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. As great battlefields of the Southern identity and imagination, they ranked now with Shiloh, Manassas, Antietam and Gettysburg.”

Civil war had finally been joined, and matched, by civil rights. The region now meant black as well as white – in some respects more so, even as old Dixie kept mutating into new and weirder expressions of itself. “Southern living”, by the 1990s, was more likely to mean air-conditioning than catfish, and as for Donald Trump – businessman, Republican and carpetbagger – he is about as Yankee as they come.

Charles Reagan Wilson was director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Oxford, Mississippi. He knows all there is to know about Southern culture, and then some. His 1,600-page half-tonne truck of a book, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989), was a landmark work that, in this 600-page epic, has found its narrative partner.

He ranges across the full story, from fine oratory to racial epithets, from great literatures to two-dime records, from classical mansions to juke joints. He understands as well that culture is one thing, but economics another: that 1930s Vanderbilt “New South” agrarianism could never prevail in a period that saw the building of 16,000 roads and 12 interstate highways, and that the Klan could never prevail against a federal power that included the New Deal, the US armed forces, and Harry Truman’s 1946 Commission on Civil Rights. There never could be any doubt about which way it would go. Durham Statement over Atlanta Compromise. Zora Neale Hurston over Margaret Mitchell. Muhammad Ali over George Wallace. Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline over Robert E Lee carved in stone.

Wilson has spent his life turning the South from something not forgotten into something born again. Whether he is right that a new creole identity can replace the old bi-racial crackle (he finds much significance in contemporary Southern cooking, for example), or whether multicultural societies end up having less trust and no identity to speak of, remains to be seen. But his immense scholarly achievement stands. It is events, not opinions, that will decide, and in recent years the pace and intensity of events has not let up.

But how could somewhere that got so much wrong get so much right? Just for a moment, let us forget the cops and the swamps and the alligators and consider the Killer. Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935. Jerry, the son of hardscrabble farmers who mortgaged their land to buy him his first piano, had cousins sprouting all over the place, one of whom he married when she was 13, and his seventh wife was this third wife’s brother’s former wife. His most famous cousin was the great televangelist, hustler and gospel singer Jimmy Lee Swaggart. This was not a family known for its devotion to the finer points of civil rights. On the other hand, nobody ever worked out a way of playing piano according to the colour of your fingers. The long line of Deep South rock ’n’ rollers, rockabillies, country singers, jazzmen, bluesmen, bluegrass boys, soul sisters, hot gospellers, Appalachians and Cajuns, not forgetting Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, shines out in the night. The South taught the world how sweet it is, but Jerry – who could have been Chuck or Bo, Elvis or Ella – was somebody who carried the crazy genius of a region where deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where there lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode. Johnny, whatever he looked like, never learned to read and write so well but would play a guitar like ringing a bell.

Ringing a bell just about gets it. This particular past is not dead. It’s not even past. In the years of the culture wars, the 1850s have never seemed closer.

The Southern Way of Life: Meanings of Culture and Civilisation in the American South
Charles Reagan Wilson
University of North Carolina Press, 616pp, £43.95

Robert Colls’s “This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England” (Oxford University Press) will be published in paperback in 2023

[See also: The new civil war]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink