Slavery was America's original sin, one which four centuries of history have failed to extirpate. To be sure, the northern states secured its formal abolition in the bloodiest war in our history 150 years ago, and although the Civil War constitutional amendments failed to secure the rights of citizens for the freed slaves, the great civil rights acts finally corrected that problem. That did not, of course, end discrimination against black people, but it has allowed for enormous progress, culminating in Barack Obama's election. Yet it seems to me that slavery's most enduring effects, ironically, have fallen upon the descendants of those who owned the slaves, rather than the slaves themselves--and those effects still are a terrible burden to the American South.
One of my deepest beliefs--one which I cannot scientifically demonstrate--holds that human beings have an innate sense of equality--that they understand that the recognition we all crave depends upon extending that same recognition to others. That understanding, to be sure, eternally conflicts with other equally primal human feelings, such as the desire to rule; but it is there all the same. Although no other critic ever seems to have realized it, that belief, I argued in my undergraduate senior thesis, was the key to George Orwell's particular contribution to western thought, precisely because he had been denied that essential recognition throughout his childhood and understood its consequences. The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, specifically affirmed this in the enduring phrase that "all men are created equal"--and my blood boils at recent scholarship, by Gary Wills and others, that argues that the slaveholder Jefferson could not actually have meant what he said. The Founding Fathers were effective politicians, as well as theorists, because they could deal with contradictions between the real and the ideal. The American failure actually to implement that phrase, well known to Jefferson, did not, to him, invalidate it--it simply left us with more work to be done.
Jefferson's whole generation of slaveholders was in fact quite ambivalent about the practice, and many, like himself, freed their slaves in their wills. In the early 1800s Virginia came very close to passing a plan for gradual emancipation, but it narrowly failed. Then came two revolutionary developments: the cotton gin, and the rise of a generation of Southern Transcendentalists, who, like all Prophet generations (including Boomers) preferred to see life in absolute moral terms. They turned slavery, in their eyes, from a necessary evil to a positive good. The Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist churches split off so as to proclaim that slavery was an expression of God's law, and southern fire-eaters plotted the annexation of Cuba and the rest of Mexico to give slavery more scope. The Civil War resulted.
The South lost the war and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but white southerners, driven perhaps by a very bad conscience as well as by economic interest, held to their beliefs on race and re-established white supremacy through insurgency and terror. With agriculture at the beginning of a long-term decline, the South already led the nation in poverty and trailed in every basic public service by 1900. It was by then pursuing a new regional economic strategy, using cheap labor (including not only blacks, but poor white children) to build a textile industry. Meanwhile, Birmingham, Alabama became an industrial center and Atlanta a commercial center--but the United States remained two nations.
The years 1933-65 now seem to me to embody a second great southern tragedy. Roosevelt's New Deal aimed to helping the poorest Americans, and many of them lived in the South. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, federal relief, and public works projects literally saved millions from possible starvation. The Rural Electrification Administration (whose work is lovingly described in the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson) brought electric light to the South; the TVA developed a whole region. Such enormous works inevitably created a liberal white Southern constituency. Politicians like Lister Hill and Hugo Black of Alabama, Claude Pepper of Florida, Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson from Texas, and quite a few more, were New Deal stalwarts. They won a number of important victories over more traditional Democrats, who saw both the New Deal and the slowly emerging civil rights movement as Communist attempts to mongrelize and destroy America--and a second generation followed. By the mid-1950s the two Senators from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver and Al Gore, Sr., were both liberal Democrats. Alabama had a Governor, Jim Folsom, who publicly championed the interests of blacks, arguing that as long as they were held down, poor whites would be held down with them. And even some of the more conservative Southern politicians of the mid-century era, such as Richard Russell of Georgia and Sam Ervin of South Carolina, were men of formidable intellect, quite capable of making real contributions to other areas of national life despite their hostility to civil rights. All this, however, did not stop the steady migration of black (and some poor white) southerners into northern industrial eras, especially during the two world wars. And on one critical point the South remained aloof--it was resolutely, implacably hostile to organized labor. According to a contemporary source, the main point of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 was to make it impossible for the AFL-CIO to organize the South. It succeeded.
The civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965, sadly, turned out to have tragic consequences for the South--perhaps because too much of the white South was still not ready for them. White southerners in border and middle south states had been slowly moving towards the Republican party during the 1950s, and the civil rights movement and the legislation it secured accelerated that process. Hubert Humphrey won only one former Confederate or border state, Texas, in 1968, beginning a trend that dominated the next forty years. More importantly, "government" and "government programs" apparently became hopelessly associated in white southern minds with help for black Americans. Essentially the Reagan years spread a trend that had already begun in the south--a trend towards smaller government a lower taxes--to the country as a whole. Meanwhile, cheap labor and pro-business practices moved more and more enterprise southward, until the whole American textile and clothing industry operated below the Mason-Dixon line. That, too, is where foreign automakers began building non-union auto plants. With the decline of the rust belt, the migration trend of 1914-65 was reversed, and the South (and the Southwest) gained population and political influence. The only Democrats elected to the White House between 1964 and 2008 were southerners who could carry southern states.
In the last ten years all this has culminated in a new catastrophe--the de-industrialization of the South, thanks to NAFTA and the general movement of industry overseas. Regions that live by cheap labor, it turns out, die by cheap labor, because there is always somewhere where labor will be cheaper still. The election of 2008 drew a clear line around the deep South. Virginia and North Carolina, both of whom include substantial new urban and educated areas, voted narrowly for Obama, as did Florida, which is only partly a southern state at all. But the rest of the old Confederacy voted overwhelmingly for McCain, based on the same sad resentments that have controlled much of the poor white vote for most of the last 150 years. Republicans control all the Senator seats and the majority of the House seats from those regions--and there are no Richard Russells or Sam Ervins in this crop. The Sotomayor hearings displayed several of them before the nation, and they were of appallingly limited intellectual ability. That the Deep South now lives largely in a different mental universe is confirmed by a new poll on the question of whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S.A.--broken down by region.
Where all this has led can be seen in a front page story in today's New York Times, on the financial crisis in Jefferson County, Alabama, which may have to lay off 2/3 of its work force in the next few days. I did not recognize "Jefferson County" (as I would have recognized Fulton County, Georgia, or Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana) when I saw the headline and expected it to be depopulated and rural--but no, it includes Birmingham, and ranks as the wealthiest county in the state!. Several factors have contributed to its unprecedented crisis. The recession, of course, has hit every area of the country, but Jefferson County also lost enormous sums on a complicated financial deal designed to finance a sewer project--one that sounds a bit like Harvard's notorious interest-rate swap. In addition, the county has lost the right to levy a kind of income tax, upon which it relied beginning in the 1990s. The reporter's comments on that tax must be quoted:
"The tax that was ruled illegal, known as the occupational tax, is essentially a 0.5 percent tax on income, but the phrase “income tax” does not sit well with Alabamians. One of its peculiarities is that it exempts a long list of professionals like doctors and lawyers, as well as phrenologists, circus managers and crystal gazers. In 1999, state lawmakers from Jefferson County, who are allowed by legislative tradition to control the county’s ability to levy taxes, tried to earmark part of the money for their own projects, and the county balked.
"In response, the lawmakers voted to repeal the tax. But the county, buoyed by court rulings in its favor, continued to collect it, bringing in about $75 million last year — more than 25 percent of the county’s general fund."
Now the court has reversed itself and it is not clear that the legislature will restore it. The reporter discreetly left race out of her story almost completely, but I would assume that Jefferson County has a large black population which a Republican state legislature is not likely to want to help. What was once one of the most advanced economically (as well as the most bigoted racially) areas of the South has now been reduced, by long-standing southern political trends, to near anarchy. I suspect it will not be the last.
Crisis, in medical terms, leads either to death or to recovery, and this may be the last chance for the deep South to join the modern world. Parts seemed like they might do so during the New Deal, but sadly, racial prejudice wiped out that progress in much (though not all) of the region. Now, it seems to me, the old Confederacy faces another problem: most of its smarter folk, both black and white, have migrated away. There must somewhere be an opportunity in all this, however. If the Obama Administration can actually improve the lives of average white Southerners, it could deal a death blow to retrograde politics for a long time. If it can't, however, the possibility of a Republican resurgence remains--and that will mean that the rest of the country will move closer to the South once again, rather than the other way around.