The South Moves into Its Future: Studies in the Analysis and Prediction of Social Change

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The South Moves into Its Future: Studies in the Analysis and Prediction of Social Change

Edited by Joseph S. Himes; University of Alabama, 1991, Tuscaloosa.

Introduction: Background of Recent Changes in the South (pp. 1-9)
Joseph S. Himes

The Civil War was the most traumatic event in the history of the American South, for it separated the Old South from a newer version of the region. It is customary to refer to the region before that calamity as the Old South, the antebellum South, or the Traditional South. Such titles recognize characteristics of the region that are no longer customary.

This chapter will examine some of the changes that differentiated the Old South from this more modern version. The central focuses of this analysis are the changes of social structure and relations that distinguish the transformation of the region.
The Civil War imposed at least three lasting changes on the structure of the region. First, it abolished the legal institution of black slavery and thereby in a single stroke altered the work structure and swept away a major portion of wealth in the region. Second, it necessitated creation of a new labor system of free workers that was based on several credit patterns--sharecropping, the company store, and the advancement of seeds, tools, and supplies to tenants. And third, these changes alienated poor whites and blacks, made them competitors for economic and political values, and established the structure of intergroup competition and controversy.
Growing tired of controlling, punishing, and edifying the traditional leaders of the region, in the late 1870s the Congress withdrew the occupying Union Army; repealed the Reconstruction legislation; liquidated the Freedmen's Bureau; and pardoned the leaders of the Confederacy and the Confederate Army. This action permitted the pre-War leaders of the region to operate again. Rejecting the option to copy the industrial North, the leaders preferred to restore the "Old South" insofar as possible (Current et al. 1983, 484). What they could build was a new version of the old model.

Restoring the Old Structure

Many of the pre-War planters still had or could acquire land, tools, and equipment. They created various novel credit systems with which to hire the jobless blacks and poor whites. Soon they moved to control the entire economy and the state and local governments. In this way they confirmed their claim of being the autocratic cavalier class of the region. Proper social distance was established and maintained between these aristocrats and the lower orders of Southerners.
The new middle-class sector was composed of plantation and factory managers, free-standing and institution-related professionals (doctors, lawyers, ministers, and journalists), and large tradesmen. Although some of these middle-class individuals maintained social contacts with the elites, most were relegated to a distinct lower circle of social activities. Middle-class persons and families also lacked the wealth and power that characterized the aristocracy.
The remainder of the population was regarded as lower-class, even though they occupied several different ranks in the stratified system. Many whites and some blacks in this category owned property and were politically active, voting and holding minor elective and appointed offices of government. The poor whites were often excluded from political participation by the Jim Crow laws, particularly those requiring payment of poll taxes and ownership of property as qualifications for voting. Further, as poor whites many worked as sharecroppers and hired hands on the plantations. They were exploited by plantation owners and threatened by competitive black workers.
Most blacks were relegated to the base of the status ladder and virtually excluded from membership in the polity. The systems of Jim Crow laws, enacted in the late nineteenth century, achieved these ends (Franklin 1980, 266). They could not register and vote, run for or hold public office, serve on juries, or participate in the political parties. They were largely excluded from working in the factories and commercial enterprises of the region. Thus most were confined to tenant work on plantations under the credit systems that kept them impoverished. To protest or resist such treatment constituted open invitation to police abuse or collective violence. Prejudice and custom functioned to separate blacks from all classes of whites.
Under this structural pattern, women were almost as greatly suppressed and abused as in the antebellum South (see Chapter 5). Although they were ceremonially placed on social pedestals and revered, many white women had little or no position in the economic and political affairs of the region. Poor white women fared better than their aristocratic sisters, however. They worked and shared along with their laboring husbands, and they enjoyed respect and consideration. On the plantations many black women became the heads and leaders of their families. They enjoyed high respect and great power in the family and community systems of black society.
The black and white masses in this reconstructed South were typically poor. Incomes of all workers were among the lowest in the nation. Poverty conditioned the housing, subsistence, and clothing of all people. These Southerners belonged to the sector that President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s called the most "ill fed, ill clad and ill housed" third of American Society. In the half century before the Great Depression this condition of poverty changed very little.
In the early years of this era, Southern governments and philanthropies provided few public and private services for the citizens. Just after the Civil War some effort was made in this direction. Although the Reconstruction legislatures of the South, including many black representatives and senators, acted to initiate public school systems, after the national government withdrew its control of the region in the late 1870s, little money was appropriated--and most of that went to the service of whites. State governments and local governments made little attempt to provide health and social services to their residents. Some private service was provided by wealthy Southern women, and Northern philanthropy supported public or free schools for poor whites and blacks--for example, the Rosenwald Schools. As a consequence, the experience of poverty in the region was only slightly alleviated.

The Business of Race Conflict

Stabilization of this new class-race social structure was accompanied by extensive interracial controversy and conflict. In the late 1870s and early 1880s the whites established a series of aggressive organizations--for example, the Ku Klux Klan and the White Camelias--to "put the blacks back in their place." For nearly half a century these organizations left a trail of floggings, lynchings, and riots in their wake--and in our national history.
In the 1890s powerless and economically distressed whites and blacks began to find a common cause and tried to cooperate politically under the Populist movement ( Frazier 1957, 151-531. In this episode the race struggle was played out as a class struggle. Nevertheless, although the movement was widespread in the region, it achieved little in substantive improvement of social and economic conditions, and it intensified interracial hostility.
Widespread aggressive actions by whites compounded the fear of blacks and led them to perceive their situation as desperate. As far back as the 1890s they began to consider strategies and organizations to protect themselves and improve race relations. In 1898 in a famous speech, Booker T Washington took a first significant step in this direction. He asserted of blacks and whites: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." He urged blacks to obtain useful training as workers and to be respectful, courteous, prudent, and restrained in relations with whites. This speech had a dramatic impact in the region and expressed the philosophy of the pragmatic education that distinguished Tuskegee Institute where Dr. Washington was principal.
However, some members of the black community thought that Washington's strategy was passive and deferential. These spokesmen argued that blacks should demand full participation and democratic justice. Under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, a group favoring this point of view met at Niagara Falls in 1909, discussed the problems, and issued a list of social demands.
These ideologies, together with these and other leaders, generated a series of implementing action organizations, the most successful of which are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL). Even before the First World War these organizations initiated a kind of liberation movement in the black community. Control and repression of this resistance by blacks became a focal preoccupation of Southern whites. It was said that Howard Odum once commented that whenever two or more people gathered, obsession with race relations always dominated their conversation.

World War I

World War I (1914-1917) interrupted this preoccupation of Southern whites with control and exploitation of blacks. We can see clearly now that it marked the end of an era in Southern life and began rotating the region toward the future. The war demanded the attention of all people, both whites as well as blacks, with issues of defense and survival. Wartime conditions affected traditional structures and patterns of Southern life. For the first time since the Civil War, the South was opened to the remainder of the country. Southern young men were sent North, and the Northern recruits were shipped South for military training. This was a novel experience for many of them. In addition, these young men were sent to Europe to fight and there encountered still another cultural shock. Most Europeans had little knowledge of or concern with the Jim Crow practices and exploitative tactics of the South. For many this was a rude awakening. War-related experiences drew other whites and blacks to the North for opportunities that were limited in the South, i.e., industrial jobs, higher education, cultural opportunities, and business enterprises.
Wartime conditions affected traditional structures and patterns of Southern life. Pulling millions of young men up by their social roots had a profound effect on family life and structure in the South, both of their parental families and of their own future families. The Southern economy was transformed into a military institution for the duration of the war. After the fighting, this institution had to be reoriented for peacetime operations. Many blacks left the South, stripping cotton agriculture of its work force and providing Northern industries with a new labor supply.
The war also had important psychic effects on the South. It shook the region out of its traditional lethargy and began to project it into the energetic activity of the industrial North. Under wartime circumstances many of the pleasant customs of the traditional South could no longer be practiced. After the war, it was hard to revive and restore this fabric of comfort and culture. Moreover, many thoughtful people began to question the legitimacy and morality of international war in general and aggressive conflicts in particular. Arendt (1963, 3) reported that as a consequence of the war, many serious people concluded that national aggression is fundamentally criminal and that war is justifiable (if at all) only to ward off or prevent aggression, and that aggressive wars are morally indefensible. At the same time, the South could enjoy the heady gratification of believing that "we" had helped to save the world for democracy and ensure peace of generations to come.
The war also caused a number of novel economic problems. Millions of working-class people experienced a forerunner of "Recession" (Current et al. 1980, 294-95). Mobilization and demobilization severely affected the established labor forces of the South. Structural unemployment was widespread. The full effect of this downward economic slide was not felt until the fall of 1929.
Fundamental change of the South had already begun by the end of World War I. The regional population was in the process of massive change--rural blacks were industrialized in the North and the South's agrarianism declined. Traditionalism of culture, social organization, and power was challenged. The South was opened to let native residents out and "curious Yankees" in. The migration of large numbers of black farm workers to cities worsened race relations in the North. Riot violence increased in the North while lynching and assaults declined in the South. Prejudice and discrimination intensified in Northern cities as Jim Crow abuses and practices tended to abate in the South. As a consequence, the contrast between North and South became perceptively less striking by the onset of the Great Depression ( Williams and Jaynes 1989, 60).

The Great Depression and World War II: Toward a New South

World War I prepared the South for fundamental change. However, it required two further world-shaking events to break the South loose from its roots and its past and to propel it into the American mainstream. The two historic events that had this effect were the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II from 1939 to 1945. Pulled and pushed by the seismic forces issuing from these phenomena, the traditional closed, autocratic, racist, agrarian Southern system gave way to a new-style, large-scale, industrial, bureaucratic, and urban pattern of social organization (see Falk and Lyson 1988).

The Great Depression, and especially the New Deal, affected the South in several crucial ways ( Leuchtenburg 1963). Initially, the New Deal stimulated and helped to stabilize the reeling Southern economy. Public assistance through work programs (Works Progress Administration, N.Y.A., etc.) pumped massive injections of ready cash into the financial arteries of the region. These projects supported and extended the urban and general infrastructure of the region--by means of streets and roads, water and sewer systems, and public buildings of many kinds. Workers, families, young people, and the elderly were immediate beneficiaries of these programs. The money they received as wages made its way into the retail system and thence back into the primary structures of the economy.

Of even more importance, the federal legislative engineering actions of the government functioned to bolster and regularize the South's social and economic structures. Labor-relations laws imposed order and dependable regularity upon the intercourse between employers and workers. Wages-and-hours laws and the anti-racial segregation posture of the government signaled a new respect for workers and their services. Blacks were heartened and their opportunities were expanded by the Fair Employment policy of the national government. Unemployment insurance and the Social Security Program gave thousands of Southern people a sense of confidence and feeling of hope they never believed possible. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority the government salvaged, reorganized, and stabilized a vast section of the region that had been peopled in the main by poor, non-slaveowning whites.
The involvement of the United States in World War II at the end of the New Deal functioned to "cure" the Great Depression. The military activities of both the Allies and the United States dramatically increased the demand for agricultural and manufactured resources. As a consequence, unemployment was virtually eradicated. All aspects of the economy--agriculture, industry, transportation, and so on--were operating at peak level. This activity stimulated rapid change in all aspects of national society.
World War II reinforced "the rediscovery" of the South by Yankees and other outsiders (Woodward 1986). As in World War I, Northerners were sent to the South and Southerners were sent North for military training. Adventitiously, training in the South was important for Northerners because it afforded them the chance to observe and learn firsthand about the region. They were impressed in various ways--by the Sunbelt, the traditional hospitality of locals, the courtesy and openness of public officials, the abundance of untapped raw materials, and the vast unused labor force and unexploited market (see Newman 1984, 1). Many of the thoughtful young officers decided that as soon as they were discharged from military service they would return to examine and exploit some of these opportunities.
Indeed, many did return after 1945, bringing with them investment capital, executive and technical personnel, good economic connections in the North, and plans for immediate action. The firstcomers acted to expand, update, and utilize existing industriesm-textiles, tobacco, furniture, and the primary extractives. Another wave of in-migrants came in the late 1960s and 1970s and initiated high-tech industrial development (see Weinstein and Firestein 1978, 19). They stimulated a way of in-migration for the new jobs and opportunities. The third innovative front was in service and sales. Both high-tech and service industries required trained personnel. As a consequence, there was increased in-migration of workers and intensified education of local personnel for the new jobs.
The far-flung travel experiences of both Northern and Southern persons affected the social characteristics of the region. In-migrants brought with them the mass culture of the older urban-industrial sections of the nation. Southerners acquired this cultural veneer as part of their work experience. Traditional, rural-based Southern culture was slowly relegated to remote and isolated enclaves of the region. (See Chapter 8, below.)
In addition, the far-flung military experiences of Southern-bred soldiers affected their racial attitudes and values. Southerners were sometimes uneasy and disturbed by the casual racial relations and contacts they found in Northern localities. Yankee soldiers were also shocked or disturbed by the racial patterns they found in Southern communities. Both learned a good deal from these experiences.
Experiences abroad often affected racial and class attitudes and practices brought from home. For example, aristocratic Southern officers were sometimes required to be respectful or even submissive to a black or other nonwhite head of state; or expected to comply with commands issued by Indian or Malaysian senior officers. Still other soldiers observed or were forced to engage in actions that seemed to contradict and disparage hallowed American values-principles of fair play or civil rights practices.
These and other social forces and conditions tended to push the uncertain South of the early twentieth century off its traditional moorings and turn it toward the mainstream of economic, political, and social life in the rest of America. By the end of World War II, the South was becoming substantially a "new South," as Reed calls it (see Chapter 8). It was a rapidly changing mix of the old and the new, on its way to becoming more new and much less old. This brief historical background is intended to bring the discussion to the point where the other authors will take up the analysis.
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