Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Frontiersmen: Race, Manliness, and the Rhetoric of Liberalism in the Early 1960s

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Frontiersmen: Race, Manliness, and the Rhetoric of Liberalism in the Early 1960s

Article excerpt

Between 1940 and 1970, 3.2 million poor whites left the upland South to work in booming industrial cities in the North and West. (1) They reshaped the urban fabric of dense neighborhoods like Chicago's Uptown, the Briggs section of Detroit, and Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district. By the 1950s, each had a reputation as being awash in impoverished white people from the hollows of Appalachia. Not surprisingly, longtime city dwellers did not always welcome these newcomers; indeed, some white southerners never wholly adjusted to the culture and pace of the urban North. (2)

No one expressed the tension between these displaced white southerners and their neighbors as cantankerously as did Albert N. Votaw, a reporter for Harper's Magazine. In 1958, as thousands of West Virginians and Kentuckians arrived in Chicago, he observed, "These farmers, miners, and mechanics from the mountains and meadows of the mid-South--with their fecund wives and numerous children--are, in a sense, the prototype of what the 'superior' American should be, white Protestants of early American, Anglo-Saxon stock; but on the streets of Chicago they seem to be the American dream gone berserk." (3) Votaw's assessment rekindled long-held assumptions about the people of the southern mountains and called to mind turn-of-the-twentieth-century intellectuals like Theodore Roosevelt. In his voluminous study of U.S. history, The Winning of the West, Roosevelt theorized that Kentuckians were the living purveyors of a frontier lifestyle and had even evolved into a separate "backwoods race." Accordingly, Roosevelt's Kentuckians were "the true, hardy backwoods stock, fitted to grapple with the wilderness and to hew out of it a prosperous commonwealth." However, at the same time, many were also '"poor whites,' or crackers; lank, sallow, ragged creatures, living in poverty, ignorance, and dirt.... With every chance to rise, these people remained mere squalid cumberers of the earth's surface, a rank, up-country growth, containing within itself the seeds of vicious, idle pauperism, and semi-criminality." (4) With great indignation, Votaw voiced the same ambivalence as Roosevelt. Fifty years after Roosevelt's "hardy backwoods stock" wavered uneasily between racial strength and "semi-criminality," the reporter for Harper's witnessed "the American dream gone berserk." Both articulated a troubling paradox: an allegedly superior population had fallen into a state of economic, cultural, and biological decline. (3)

But what Votaw and Roosevelt did not predict was that resolving this paradox would become a prevailing goal for many white liberals by the early 1960s. In these years, the spectacle of white male poverty and the accompanying perception of racial and manly deterioration captured liberals' attention and helped foster the impetus for the War on Poverty. Just as Theodore Roosevelt and other Progressive-era reformers grew distraught over what they believed was the racial declension of strong and virile white men, so too did midcentury liberals like John F. Kennedy, Michael Harrington, Harry M. Caudill, Lyndon B. Johnson, and others. While the strategies and policies to address this crisis had changed drastically by the mid-twentieth century, Progressives like Roosevelt and liberals like Kennedy nonetheless shared the conviction that the state must be leveraged to rescue white manhood from the precipice of collapse.

Many historians have studied the racialized and gendered contours of liberalism in the 1960s. Jill Quadagno, Michael B. Katz, and Martin Gilens have demonstrated how racism undermined the War on Poverty, especially as images of so-called undeserving African Americans dominated the media by the late 1960s and 1970s. (6) Meanwhile, the heroic narrative of the 1960s has positioned white liberals in alliance with the civil rights movement, emphasizing the ways African American activists at the local level worked with sympathetic politicians at the federal level to dismantle Jim Crow from the bottom up and launch a war on poverty. …

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