Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Another "Great Migration"

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Another "Great Migration"

Article excerpt

From Region to Race in Southern Liberalism, 1938-1945

The history of the American South since World War II has been one of numerous wrenching changes, but in both the popular and the historical imagination, one has overshadowed them all: the transformation of southern race relations.(1) The Civil Rights movement has become the moral center of postwar southern history, a spiritual drama that for nearly two generations has defined the relationship of the South and its people to the larger meaning of American history. Given the Civil Rights movement's centrality to the southern story in our time, it is hardly surprising that southern history prior to the movement is nonetheless usually interpreted in light of this event, particularly the history of southern white liberalism. In the postwar era, commitment to the elimination of racial injustice became the very definition of a "southern white liberal," and the centrality of racial issues to our own time has been projected onto the past. The major literature on pre-World War II southern liberalism generally takes commitment to an integrated society as the basic criterion for assessing liberal credentials and usually frames its narratives in terms of progress, or lack of progress, toward that position. The odyssey of southern white liberals from the 1930s to the 1950s has thus been recounted as a series of tests, which many failed to pass at all and only a remnant managed to pass with anything close to distinction.(2)

Given the urgency of racial-justice issues in the postwar South, this emphasis is perfectly understandable. However, it tends to leave a major question unanswered: if southern liberals prior to World War II were reluctant to place racial issues, particularly segregation, at the center of their liberalism, in what sense were they liberals at all? What vision united southern liberals before the modern ascendancy of rights-based liberalism? Finally, why did so many figures clearly regarded as liberal in the 1930s fail to make the passage to racial liberalism?(3)

Implicit in much writing on southern liberalism, though often obscured, is one answer to these questions: southern liberalism in the 1930s organized itself not around race but around region. Shaped by the writings of the Chapel Hill regionalist sociologists, but undergirded by a semi-mystical organic attachment to a southern folk, regionalist liberalism was a distinctive form that united whites and blacks over a broad range of racial and social views under a rubric that understood the problems of southerners, white and black, as essentially common and geographically based. To be sure, this liberal consensus harbored some striking tensions. On the left, a popular-front liberalism with roots in rural insurgency, organized labor, and radical ideological perspectives stressed a class-based community of interest among the black and white poor in opposition to a grasping, domineering political and economic elite.(4) On the right, a whiggish, old-progressive strain saw insurgency as the enemy of progress and placed its hopes in the leadership of an enlightened elite. Left or right, though, southern liberals saw the problems of blacks in the South as basically economic in character and, for the most part, as the problems of the southern community generally; what was good for southerners was thus good for both blacks and whites.(5)

The major problem with this formula, of course, was its presumption of a harmonious community of interest in a South that in reality was internally divided, partly by class conflict but more deeply into two antagonistic racial communities; this division, indeed, reached into the heart of white liberalism itself, with the unwillingness of figures such as Virginius Dabney and W. T. Couch to surrender their commitment to what John Kneebone has termed "vertical segregation." The resulting contradiction finally tore apart the liberalism of the 1930s. In retrospect, it's obvious that there was no hope for progress of any sort in the South until the region confronted its "original sin. …

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