U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thoughts on the Left and the South of the Post-Civil Rights Era

Last week I began a series of posts on the American South and how it was perceived by groups of American intellectuals. Today I’ll begin by teasing out a few thoughts on the relationship between the American Left and the American South. Now, both those terms are fraught with considerable internal dynamics that can, if not careful, be ignored by just saying “the Left” or “the South”. For the sake of this post, I’ll try to stay within a post-1965 time frame and tease out some trends amongst American leftist intellectuals, writers, and activists as they addressed what they thought of as the South. As this series continues, I’ll demonstrate that Leftists used the South for a variety of purposes. At the same time, they gave the South several meanings. It was both a place of considerable challenge for Left-wing agitation, and also a place of considerable potential. Finally, it’s important to consider the South’s own internal left-wing movements and organizations, and that will be the focus of my essay today. While often small in number, they still present some food for thought in regards to how we consider the history of the New Left and other Left movements in the 1960s and beyond. Their relationship to larger Left organizations is also important.

Several key trends are worth considering in thinking about the interplay between American Leftists and the American South. As Michael Dawson and others have pointed out, the relationship between African American Leftists and the broader American Left has never been an especially cozy one.[1] When dealing with the South, however, race has always been a major factor. Labor, and the history of labor movements in the South, is a second factor. Consider events such as the Uprising of 1934, or the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” in the late 1940s when examining the history of labor and labor agitation in the American South. Such events are not easily forgotten by labor and Left activists. In essence, the histories of race and labor in the South both offer lessons to Left activists. They also offered further reason for many activists to get involved in the South in the first place.

The intellectual backbone of the Civil Rights Movement is a natural place to start. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship to the American South (as a native Southern and as an African American) and as someone who was on the Left (on race, economic justice, and eventually American foreign policy) is a good gateway into the complex relationship between these two separate forces, and concepts, in American history. Michael Harrington often spoke glowingly of his relationship to King, which began in earnest in 1960 at that year’s Democratic National Convention. In interviews and his 1973 memoir Fragments of the Century Harrington made it clear that he and King were on the same page in regards to economic policies for the nation.  This culminated with Harrington’s work on the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. While I don’t want to get too much into counter-factuals, it is interesting to think about what the impact of a still-living King would have had on both the Poor People’s Campaign and the larger Left movements in the United States in the late 1960s.

While I’d like a bit more time to delve into Harrington’s views of the South in the 1960s and beyond, it’s also important that we talk about the concept of New Communism in the 1970s. These organizations, based all over the country and operating in the milieu of New Left and Black Power intellectual ferment, had organizations in the South. An example is the Georgia Communist League, which in 1972 formed the October League after merging with California’s October League. I don’t want to make too much of these organizations, as they were undoubtedly small in number and, likely, smaller in impact on political and cultural debates in the South. Nonetheless it’s important to link them to larger movements within the New Communism frame of intellectual debate in the 1970s. Not much, as far as I can tell, has been written about them. But the history of American radicalism in the late 20th century should certainly include such organizations. And considering the Southern roots of someone such as Angela Davis (a native of Alabama who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement), the New Communist Parties in the Deep South at least offer some food for thought among scholars of the American Left.

One cannot talk about the South and the Left in the 1970s without considering the case of the Young Patriots. An organization based out of Appalachia, the Young Patriots were white Southerners who used a jean jacket adorned with a Confederate flag on the bag as their uniform. Yet they were as radical as the Black Panthers, often allying themselves with that organization in the late 1960s and 1970s. Not only do the Young Patriots beg for an expansion of the imagery of 60s radicals beyond Black Power advocates and college student radicals, but the Patriots’ Appalachian roots beg for an expansion of the idea of “Southern-ness” in the 1960s and 1970s. There weren’t just Young Patriot organizations in the South, but also others located in places such as Chicago, which itself had a large population of white youths who were the sons and daughters of Appalachian-based whites. The book Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power does an excellent job of talking about the relationship between Black Panthers and Young Patriots.

So far what I’ve done is consider a few themes of Left agitation in the South. Links to the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, and Black Power all become important here. But I’d like to take some time to consider these questions in earnest, so in the future I’ll dig a little deeper on each of these topics. But for the immediate series of posts coming up, I’d like to consider the South and its role as both symbol and location of serious struggles involving race, labor, and gender.

[1] Michael Dawson’s book Blacks in and out of the Left seeks to understand the 20th century relationship between African Americans within the Left and those larger Left movements.