Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

Synopsis

This meticulous reconstruction of the lives of poor whites in the heart of Dixie is a model study inviting new respect for a people who have suffered from widespread and continuing stereotyping.

Excerpt

The most fundamental question concerning Alabama's poor whites is also the hardest to answer: how does one define them? Although poor whites were often powerless, that was not always the case. in the antebellum years an alliance of yeomen and poor whites controlled a substantial share of political power, perhaps greater than that of planters. in later years, various organizations of poor whites, sometimes allied with blacks, wielded power through labor unions and political factions. Certainly "poor" does not refer to culture, for their culture sustained a remarkable sense of pride and dignity. Through religious and musical expressions, crafts, and lore, poor people created a subculture that had meaning to them, that survived various homogenizing influences, and one that they often considered superior to the culture of their economic "betters." All generalizations contain exceptions, and some poor whites consistently stood outside the state's political, social, and cultural institutions. To the extent that "poor white trash" had any meaning at all, it described a small residue of people who may be distinguished not only from middle and upper class whites but from impoverished poor whites as well. Refusing to pursue whatever meager opportunities came their way, they were satisfied with a subsistence existence consisting of a bit of corn and whiskey, freedom to hunt and fish whenever they chose, the most casual kind of living arrangements with the opposite sex, little effort at child rearing, and no institutional involvement in churches, political parties, farmers' organizations, or schools. Illiterate and transient, they moved through Alabama's history like a shadow, leaving little if any impression. But most poor whites occasionally made their mark on church rolls, census lists, union membership, or voting records. Striving, not accomplishment, often became their legacy.

Although degenerate poor whites appear only infrequently in the historical record, they dominate the fictional accounts of the white bottom class. From the southwestern humorists to Harper Lee, poor whites appear as an object of satire and scorn, characterized by shiftlessness, racism, violence, and demagoguery. Perhaps every society feels com-

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