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.