U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The American South and American Minds

Thinking about the South and questions of capital-E Exceptionalism means, ultimately, considering how others view the South as much as it does how Southerners view themselves. In the field of intellectual history, this is a useful tool to use in a deep analysis of how the South has been perceived, and used in 20th century American discourse. Here I’ll lay out a few thoughts on questions we as historians can ask, while zooming in on the post-1965 period for my examination. In the process, I hope to begin a series on the American South and a variety of “minds”, which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, I want to make clear that questions of how the American South is perceived by other nations—say, those in Europe or Latin America—is also a useful exercise. A recent article in the Journal of Southern History, for example, covers the topic of Great Britain’s interpretation of “the South” through music.[1]

One key area of study for Southern identity and Southern ideology is within American Leftism. Of course, Andrew Hartman’s already turning towards a history of American Communism, a project that I’m definitely intrigued to see the results of down the road. Furthermore, Kurt Newman has certainly posed some serious questions about what it means to be on the Left in the 20th century, and both are beginning the exercise of a panel on the Left and American foreign policy. (Of course, this began right after Michael Walzer’s essay about the Left and American Foreign Policy in the pages of the most recent Dissent magazine.) But what I’m proposing here is that we also should consider how the American Left views the American South. This is a complicated question, one that for the purposes of my upcoming series can be seen as beginning during the New Deal/Popular Front era and continuing through the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. At times, the South has served as an adversary for the Left, and at other times, as a potential “land of opportunity” for renewed political activism.

In many ways, the idea of the South in the liberal mind is related to how the South is analyzed in the left-wing mind, but with some caveats. For both, the South can be seen as an enemy and also as a land where new activism/political converts can be gained. In recent years, political historians have begun to write more about the collapse of Southern liberalism in the 20th century. Built on a quicksand of changing Southern race relations, liberalism in the South made some headway in the middle of the 20th century, but fell apart in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to a variety of factors: civil rights, growth of economic opportunity in the Sunbelt region, and new GOP strategies that began to cleave the South from the New Deal coalition as early as the 1950s.[2] And, as I’ve stated before, understanding how the Democratic Party rebuilds itself in the 1970s and 1980s is a story essential to writing an intellectual history of the recent American past. Conceptions of the South matter here, especially when considering the arguments between progressive activists (folks arguing in the pages of The Nation, Dissent, and of course, The Progressive) and members of the Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC. The DLC was filled with Southern Democrats, such as Sam Nunn, Al Gore, Jr. and most notably Bill Clinton. The South as an idea—and as a place with some electoral votes that were still up for grabs in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, stands out as something that we need to understand if we’re to get at what liberals thought about their future as an ideology in the late 20th century.

Now, there is the conservative mind to consider here too, but I’ll end instead on the African American mind and its relationship to the South.[3] Recently I’ve pressed the idea of regional differences among African Americans. I also, after some good discussion in the comments section, want to study differences among African Americans within the South. But how the South exists in the essays, magazines, and books written by African American intellectuals since the “end” of the Civil Rights era in the mid-1960s could provide more information on the continued debates among African Americans about, as Dr. King put it, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Such questions can also aid in asking new questions about African American ideology beyond the Civil Rights/Black Power paradigm of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the very least, we need to understand how these questions were often dependent on urban/rural divides, regional differences, and even questions raised by African Americans in both major political parties (as well as at independent Black political conventions and think tanks).

In the coming weeks I mean to get at these questions. There may yet be some new questions about the South, and what the South “means” the rest of the nation, that we can get at here on the blog in coming posts. Next week I’ll start an attempt to get at the South and the American Left mind.


[1] Brian Ward. “Music, Musical Theater, and the Imagined South in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. LXXX, Feb. 2014, No. 1, p. 39-72.

[2] A good recent essay that gets at the travails of liberalism in the South in recent American history is “Albert Gore Sr., Liberalism and the South in the 1960s” in Making Sense of American Liberalism (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), p. 159-180.

[3] Of course, there have been some excellent works on the South and American conservatism; a personal favorite of mine is Paul Murphy’s The Rebuke of History (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2001), and the work of Michael O’Brien on the South can’t be forgotten here either, but there’s still more to be done on the South, American conservatism, and intellectual history since the 1970s. The rise of the GOP in the South compared to its wavering fortunes elsewhere; the relationship between the South and evangelical Christianity; race and its continued role in Southern politics; gender, feminism, and regional differences for those concepts; and the South and the American military are all areas that still offer some research potential. The military and its role in Southern life, in particular, is something that requires more attention. Perhaps, now that I think about it, more than something shoved in a footnote far too long for a blog post.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think I read that a long time ago, but this will definitely be useful! Thanks a bunch.

  2. One thing about two of the three names you mention, Al Gore and Bill Clinton–they’re really *upland south* politicians. And I would argue Lyndon B Johnson was as well, coming from Texas hill country.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upland_South

    The Upland South seems like a different culture than the plantation-formed deep south. The upland south was more heavily settled by Scots Irish and historically had a different economy. I just finished reading Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America, and was interested in the sections where Crespino is talking about Thurmond’s vote getting in the “upcountry” areas of his state. Crespino has the upcountry whites more interested in labor issues than those in other areas, and are also more heavily evangelical. If you look at the demographics of the upcountry in general, apparently they’re considerably more evangelical than the deep south. See:
    http://www.patchworknation.org/communities/evangelical-epicenters

    One more interesting tidbit: In 3 cases upland southern states fought on the side of the union. But I was reading Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, and the author was noting that some Kentuckians displaying the confederate battle flag when their ancestors didn’t even fight on that side… So it appears there’s some sort of identity politics going on…

    • I’m glad you brought up the Upcountry South element here. There was a recent Journal of Southern History article (the 2013 SHA Address in fact) that addressed three “border men” who were president during a critical moment in the Civil Rights Movement: Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ. This article (in the Feb. 2014 edition) argues that the three men, being from border states, were able to both understand white Southerners’ concerns and surpass them for the sake of the nation as a whole.

      The Upland South point–or as addressed elsewhere the Rim South or Upper South–is crucial. Again, it’s a reminder that when we’re talking about the South, it’s a varied region. Thanks for the wonderful comment. (And Upcountry South Carolina—as a grad student here at USC I’m learning more and more about that split within the state everyday!)

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