U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Continued Thoughts on the Newest South

Last week I posted a few thoughts about where historians can go in regards to studying the South in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. This week I’d like to expand a bit on those thoughts and present several areas where the New South can be described in even more detail. In the process, we here at the blog can also begin to think about the nation as a whole. That way, we can consider whether certain questions can only be posed about “the South”, or if these questions take on different parameters depending on the region they’re asked about.

First, there are several sub-fields of American history that would make a nice fit for a Southern-style history of the late 20th century. Environmental history, a field that I’ve not written about yet on this blog (but certainly plan to in the future) offers a unique take on the South’s recent history. Already, Southern history has begun to embrace an environmental framework for new, and fresh, takes on the history of the region. But most of these histories are set either in the antebellum period or the early twentieth century. There’s still a great deal to mine there, but there’s still more to do in recent Southern history concerning the South. This can take on a variety of forms, from studying the effects of industrialization on the Southern environment, to taking stock of the fact that the first major environmental social justice campaign was in the South, specifically Warren County, North Carolina. While that campaign has already received excellent treatment from historians, there’s still more to think about in regards to environmental social justice, other progressive movements, and the South itself.

Turning towards African American history (which shouldn’t be too divorced from environmental history, but again that’s a blog post for another time) here we can also mine for some rich new ways of interpreting recent Southern history. Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention works such as After the Dream by Timothy Minchin and John A. Salmond, or the great primer on civil rights memory, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory by Renee Romano and Leigh Radford. These two book, among others, have set the stage for other historians who also want to write about this era in Southern (and American) history. I also mention them because they offer some intriguing viewpoints from which to write Southern history. For example, Minchin and Salmond do a good job of putting the South’s history in a broader, national context on issues of politics, economics, and race. Meanwhile, Romano and Radford’s anthology includes essays on memory in the American South. The commemoration of civil rights agitation in the South offers people in the region a way by which they can engage with the past while still confronting the discrimination of the present…if they so choose to go down that route. Commemoration and memory are both tricky subjects, but they definitely deserve more attention when discussing the recent South.

Finally, a new political history of the South is needed. The “Southern Strategy”, the Richard Nixon-Kevin Phillips plan to cleave the South from its traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party, is unsatisfying on its own if we’re to explain how the South becomes a bedrock of the Republican Party by 2000. In fact, “bedrock” may be too strong a word, considering how states such as North Carolina and Virginia have been very competitive since 2008. (Of course, that also gets into which South we’re talking about—upper, Deep, Border regions, etc.) I recall a conversation with a few other “Twitterstorians” several weeks ago in which we discussed the 1970s and 1980s in Southern political history (and if all of you read this blog post, PLEASE chime in via comments!). The consensus is that, while there have been a few good pieces on the era, a lot still needs to be done about the Democratic Party, the struggles for Southern liberals and moderates after the 1960s, and the various “New South” governors who came to power across the region in the 1970s and 1980s. These questions of politics in the South dovetail nicely with an intellectual history of the region, as we’re able to get at deeper questions of what it meant to be a Southerner after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Gender should also be considered here. I already have a few colleagues working on feminism, the 1970s, and the American South, so there is much more to mine there too.

Here I’d like to offer one final outlook on race and the South. Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago offers a look at how Black Southerners see themselves as different from other African Americans across the country. Something like this study should also be important to historians who write about the South. Traditionally, questions of Southern “Exceptionalism” or “difference” have come down to how white Southerners see themselves. But there’s a long history of African Americans seeing themselves regionally, too, and while it has gotten some attention, dealing with the post-civil rights era (and the fact that so many African Americans have moved back to the South since the 1960s) offers historians a new opportunity to approach these questions of regionalism and race.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, You are right to suggest that we need to think about how to push southern history in new directions! Just to make a note regarding southern politics, there is some great recent scholarship that reframes the question of politics in the South in the post-1960s era, moving away from the Dan Carter take that the catalyst for the rise of New Right and contemporary conservatism was a southern-style understanding of race (see Carter, “The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.”) These books include Joseph Crespino, “In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution”; Matthew D. Lassiter, “The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South”; Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crepino eds., “The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism”;

    • Oh yes! Those are great ones. I think there’s still much to be done, but what Crespino and Lassiter have done is very important.

  2. Robert,
    Your last point about black Southern exceptionalism raised for me the question of internal differentiations in how black Southerners see themselves. Do you know of any work that examines how African Americans think about themselves in terms of living in/identifying with different Souths–the Sunbelt (e.g., Houston), the Deep South, or the Upland South (and perhaps there are others)?

    • You know, that’s something I’m already looking for, but I’m not sure. If it’s not out there it should be! I’m going to dig for that; perhaps, if I find anything, it’ll be the basis of some blog posts down the road.

  3. Great point in the last paragraph and I will have to check out that book! There is some interesting, suggestive/descriptive work about how a particular variant of Southern white culture (what I’ll call as shorthand the Lynyrd Skynyrd-Confederate flag variant) became popular nationwide beginning in the ’70s – this is a theme in Bruce Schulman’s “The Seventies,” which I think is a very useful book in general, and there was also a journalistic treatment of related themes in the ’90s by Peter Applebome, who was then the NYT correspondent in Atlanta (and a childhood neighbor of mine), called “Dixie Rising” (which I haven’t read anytime recently, having been a teenager at the time, but suspect it might contain useful fodder for thought). http://www.amazon.com/Dixie-Rising-Shaping-American-Politics/dp/0156005506

    I think these kinds of explorations are the flip side of the question, which I have been haranguing about on Twitter lately, of why the rest of the nation and especially the media so often equates “Southern” with “white male right-wing” as though 1) right-wing politics is confined to the South and b) the South doesn’t have lots of other kinds of people. Obviously the question of defining the South is its own pandora’s box but in general, I lean toward a big-tent definition of Southernness rather than one that merely reinscribes the limited definition of “who counts” that Jim Crow sought to impose (i.e., it drives me crazy when I see “Southern” implicitly or explicitly conflated with “right-wing white men”). I sometimes detect a tendency to see the civil rights movement, for example, as somehow outside of the South or fighting against the South, rather than itself distinctively Southern. In other words, I tend to think, and think we should think, of the South as symbolized by John Lewis et al. not just George Wallace et al. and if that forces a reconsideration of what we mean by “the South” then all the better. Sorry to ramble – thanks for this thought provoking post!

    • Oh no, THANK YOU for this post! In many ways what you’ve said here is at the heart of my motivation as a Southern historian–to make it clear to people that the South is a diverse region racially and ideologically, and that there’s plenty to say about conceptions of the South in recent years.

      And, to be blunt, part of my interest in the recent history of the South is that it’s been used, to some extent, as a punching bag by the Democratic Party. And this isn’t to say that the South hasn’t had a major influence on the GOP and conservatism in general since the 1960s–but it is to say that the South’s internal politics, the debates on the ground between Democrats and Republicans, as well as moderate v. liberal v. conservative Dems, needs to be given serious treatment. In many ways it’s the question that has occupied Southern Studies scholars in recent years–is the USA more Southern, or is the South more American?

      As intellectual historians, this matters to us because, as I’ve said elsewhere, place can and should have a role to play in how we understand intellectuals. I wrote a post months ago about receptions of “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual”, and several African American commentators noted that Harold Cruse didn’t even mention any Black Southern intellectuals! Of course, within this we also need to understand the role of Southern universities and how they were sites of conflict over academic freedom, and over ideas of race, etc. So much more to do here!

      • indeed! I look forward to following where you go with these motivations. having grown up in the South and considering myself a Southerner but having spent most of my “adult” life outside of it, it is just crazy how simplistically the South often gets portrayed, and, yes, how convenient it often is as a punching bag or scapegoat.

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