Forum on Social Justice in the South

By Alderman, Derek H. | Southeastern Geographer, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Forum on Social Justice in the South


Alderman, Derek H., Southeastern Geographer


Introduction

Discussions about social justice have been taking place among geographers for many years (Bunge 1971; Harvey 1973; Peet 1975; Smith 1994). As of late, Mitchell (2000, 2003a) has called on the discipline to address justice, social power, and the rights of disenfranchised groups to claim cities as places to live and express themselves politically. According to him, the study of landscape should move beyond mere "surface readings" and delve "in-stead into the gritty, often ugly, sometimes energizing social history of specific places" (Mitchell 2003a, 791).

Some of America's "ugliest" social history has taken place in the South. The region has long been perceived as a backwater to more "progressive" areas of the country, a perception not entirely undeserved given its tradition of oppressive white elite rule. Historically, this rule was maintained by excluding, discriminating against and, at times, brutalizing African Americans, women, and other marginalized people. For example, in 1923, a fire-branding white mob wiped the African American community of Rosewood, Florida from the landscape after hearing claims that a black man attacked a white woman. In reality, she was the victim of a white man, most likely her extra-marital lover. Southerners have supposedly learned from and transcended these past atrocities, but it is worth noting that major segments of the white community remain extremely conservative and opposed to challenges to the established social order. Taylor County High School, in Butler, Georgia, did not hold its first integrated prom until 2002. A year later, a group of white students at the high school drew national media attention when they organized a private, white-only prom in competition with the integrated one.

Accompanying the South's strong legacy of intolerance and resistance to change is its distinction as a battlefield for "gritty" struggles for human rights and equality. Montgomery, Alabama is instructive for understanding how the southern landscape has served as a platform for campaigns to create both unjust and just societies. The city is the birthplace of two intertwined American revolutions--the Civil War and the civil rights movement. The first capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery was the site of Jefferson Davis' inauguration as President of the pro-slavery, secessionist government. A city block from the capitol building where Jefferson Davis was sworn into office is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor and led the yearlong boycott that desegregated the city's buses in 1956. The bus boycott was an inauguration of sorts for King, who was propelled into national prominence by the media and became one of the primary leaders of the movement.

The civil rights movement was arguably the most significant struggle for social justice for the South (and America for that matter). Yet, the fight for a fairer and more just southern society did not begin or end with Dr. King. In the 1930s, when worker protests in coal mining and textile towns were being violently put down, Myles Horton and Don West founded the Highlander School in Tennessee for the purpose of supporting strikes, organizing unions, and building a racially integrated labor movement. Highlander would later serve as key training center for civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, before pressure from southern segregationists forced the school's closure and relocation in 1961. In 1971, two years after King's assassination, white attorneys Morris Dees and Joe Levin founded the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a now international organization devoted to fighting discrimination, challenging white supremacy, and tracking hate groups. Recently, SPLC sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the grounds that the agency engaged in racial/ethnic profiling and illegally detained, searched, and harassed Latino residents in several southeast Georgia towns. …

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