The Making of Southern History in Britain
Eric Burdon stoned in Mississippi on the Animal's US tour. Mardi Gras Indians, segregation, 1964!
--The Mekons, "Amnesia"
At the end of 1997, a series of advertisements for a new "One-2-One" mobile telephone service began to appear on televisions and in cinemas around Britain. Most of these adverts took the form of a British celebrity explaining why he or she would especially like the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with a particular figure from history. Two of the first three featured icons from the modern South. Supermodel Kate Moss chose a young Elvis Presley, cinematically embalmed in his 1956 pomp. Ian Wright, a black England soccer player at the forefront of a national "Kick It Out" campaign to end racism on the terraces, chose Martin Luther King Jr.
The Wright advertisement was an especially powerful, rather moving piece of work--even if some have questioned the ethics of using the martyred King essentially to sell phones. It cleverly interposed Wright into familiar scenes of black protest and southern white violence from civil rights campaigns in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. The most poignant moment came when Wright admitted in a voiceover, heard as images of Bull Connor's flesh-peeling fire hoses played across the screen, that what he would most like to have asked King is how he had maintained his commitment to nonviolence amid so much provocation. This had added piquancy--or irony for the more cynical--for British viewers, who know Wright as a brilliant but highly volatile player, as an engaging, effervescent character off the pitch, whose frightening intensity and commitment on it has frequently led him into violent clashes with opponents and officials. Yet, here was Wright embracing King, the nonviolent warrior, as a readily intelligible symbol of the best he would aspire to be.
One of the most striking things about these advertisements is the simple fact that two of the modern South's most celebrated sons, Martin and Elvis, are obviously still such powerful cultural forces in Britain some thirty and twenty years after their respective deaths. Their images immediately conjure up a particular set of resonances, serving as shorthand for a time, a region, a set of values, beliefs, and modes of expression that are marked distinctively southern in British minds. I have seen this phenomenon in my own experience teaching southern history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Each year, I ask new students, few of whom have previously studied any American history--let alone any specifically southern history--to complete a simple questionnaire testing their knowledge of the region. King routinely gets more than twice as many votes as anyone else in the "famous southern men" category. Presley is the second most frequently nominated figure, a little way ahead of that other famous southern pelvic thruster, Bill Clinton. King and Presley also head the list of figures who these British students believe are heroes or heroines to southerners. Not surprisingly, Elvis is the most often cited "southern artist," followed not too closely by Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, country rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks, and the group REM. Perhaps even more revealingly, only the Civil War and emancipation are cited more often than the death of Martin Luther King as an event that "decisively shaped southern history."
Now, this spot quiz is possibly one of the least rigorously conducted or statistically reliable public-opinion surveys ever devoted to the South. For example, Bessie Smith's unusually strong showing in the "famous southern women" category one year probably happened because I played a couple of her songs while the students completed their questionnaires, disingenuously introducing the tracks with "this is Bessie Smith, she was a famous female southern blues singer." Nevertheless, the quiz does …