An acquaintance of mine was about to take another trip through the Deep South, one of the many he had made in the last few years. “If you don’t understand Southern history”, he said, “you cannot understand American history”. The historical records, archives, oral histories, literature, and photographs only available in the South would provide a context to the volumes of academic research written on the subject.
He had not been disappointed. Many of the restored antebellum h0mes in which he stayed had well-preserved records of plantation operations. The owner of one in particular had kept a ledger carefully detailing expenditures on housing, clothes, health care, food, and incidentals; and benefits – the per capita production of cotton.
This ledger provided first-hand information that illustrated the propositions of Time on the Cross (Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman), a seminal work on the economics of slavery. The authors’ contention was that slavery was a going c0ncern, unlikely to collapse under its own weight, and that without the Civil War, the institution would have survived until the the inevitable forces of free labor, free markets, mechanization, and industrialization transformed the South.
The ledger was testament to their contention that slavery was particularly viable because slaves represented both labor and capital; and that when considered as such, the investments made to keep cotton production high (proper food and nutrition, health care, shelter) were logical and necessary. While the authors did not doubt the abuses that occurred under slavery, it would have been illogical for plantation owners to deliberately degrade such a necessary economic resource.
Time on the Cross is but one of many academic treatises on slavery. The Genoveses are well-known for their Marxist interpretation of the institution, and present an analysis far different from economists Fogel and Engerman. Slavery for them was no less than an inhumane exploitation of labor by capital necessary for the perpetuation of a privileged class system.
Northern progressives, taking inspiration from early abolitionists, have taken a moral posture. Whatever the economics of slavery, its historical evolution and antecedents, and its developmental role in the South, it was simply an immoral, reprehensible act, offending both God and Man.
Trips through the South, said my friend, were a way of putting all this into perspective. The ledgers and historical records archived in private homes, foundations, libraries, and museums were one thing; but the legacy of slavery, the War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights was immediate, personal, and unmistakable.
The relationship between whites and blacks in the South is very different from that in the North. Southerners are often surprised to hear of the continuing de facto segregation in Washington, DC - how Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River divide white and black as absolutely as any South African apartheid law. Entire neighborhoods in the city are either black or white. In many small towns and cities of the South such separation rarely occurs. Races are segregated by block not by quadrant as in Washington. Of course there are racial ghettos in every one of these towns. it’s just that they are never out of sight, never as removed as Upper Northwest Washington is from Southeast.
Municipal governments in the South are increasingly black-run. Northerners have learned the lesson of racial demographics very early and clearly; but segregation dies hard in the South. The Civil War, many Northern and Southern critics have observed, did not end in 1865 but a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Act. Many more observers have commented that the War is still being fought and will be until that older generation of Southerners who still have vivid recollections of the Old South passed on to them by their grandparents die off.
A review of the cultural antecedents of slavery – Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character is an excellent place to start – provides the context for life in the modern South. Pilgrimage Balls, celebrations of the grace, style, and genteel manners of past generations of Southerners are only now being discontinued. Not only are the restored antebellum homes and fancy dress balls testaments to the Old South, but more importantly the sense of regional identity felt in the everyday South is real and palpable.
The book The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity by James R. Cobb expands on the notion of Southern cultural particularity; and it, like Time on the Cross and Cavalier and Yankee provides an important academic context to the modern, transforming South. Much of what Cobb says about historical legacy, cultural identity, geography, climate, and demographics can be observed by simply spending time in Indianola, Greenwood, or Cleveland.
When my friend told of his forthcoming trip to the South, he was met with harsh criticism from his Northern liberal friends. “You shouldn’t go there”, they said. His trip – any trip to the South – would give comfort and support to the enemy. It would provide legitimacy to a morally unreconstructed region. It would relieve the South from its penitence and remission of its sins. It was wrong, and immoral.
My friend was nonplussed by this reaction. His motives for travel were clear. He was ignorant about the South and the legacy of slavery was unavoidable in the North. Every black ghetto, the persistence of black speech patterns, the insular cultural identity of the inner city, social norms and behavior that differed significantly from the majority. How did this happen? How did slavery gain such a foothold; how and why did it so divide the country; and why has it persisted for so long. The answers, at least in part, were in the South.
Yet he was treated as a traitor to the liberal cause, an apostate, and a consort of the most evil people in America. For many of his friends, this was a single issue judgment. Going South and especially taking an interest in it was heinous and unconscionable.
His interest in the religious fundamentalism of the South received as much opprobrium and calumny as his interest in slavery. Ignorant, slavish belief in the Bible; equally unthinking faith in venal, corrupt evangelical preachers; and facile references to God and Jesus were all traits of a backward, unenlightened, and hopelessly retarded people, said his liberal friends. There was nothing to learn. Understanding such obviously perverted beliefs was not worth the effort.
A recent study (2011) by Pew found that over 285 million Americans (13 percent) classified themselves as ‘evangelical’ Christians; and a significant proportion of these reside in the South. The percentage of those in the South who believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, who profess a belief in Creationism, and who base their lives on their religious faith is the highest in the country. Church attendance in the South is far higher than anywhere else in the country, and even the casual visitor notices the number of churches. Nine out of the top ten states in religious observance (Gallup 2013) are in the South.
How, therefore, can one understand the South – and America – unless one understands the profound religious faith of the region?
Yet Northern liberals are quick to dismiss this very regional phenomenon which, like everything else Southern, has to do with some form of congenital ignorance. They conflate fundamentalism with racism – both are products of insular thinking and perpetuated by the same retrograde absolutism. To make matters worse the so-called ‘faithful’ are the dupes of venal pastors who prey upon ignorance and backwoods belief.
While Southern fundamentalism – like any other phenomenon – may well be a product of regional isolation, a stubbornly agrarian society, and a social conservatism bred in the defiant days of the antebellum and Reconstruction periods; it would be wrong to dismiss its spiritual dimensions. Whether for profound spiritual reasons, the need for community and belonging, or a sign of status and public image, religion in the South cannot be dismissed.
Southern evangelicals are far more open, proud, and expressive of their belief in God and Jesus Christ than most Northerners ever will be. Religious faith can be felt in the South.
When put all together – racial harmony, discord, and the legacy of the Civil War; religious fundamentalism, social and political conservatism, persistently low socio-economic rankings, and a continuing proud regional identity - the South is a very complex place.
Lincoln tried his best to preserve the Union; but as in the case of all civil wars, what is the victor supposed to do with the vanquished? No one knows what Lincoln would have done had he lived; but the draconian measures applied by the Radical Republican Congress after the war were sure to perpetuate Southern animosity, hatred, and resentment. Those who shared Lincoln’s vision were in a hard place. They felt obliged to punish the rebels, but to what extent? Since the Confederacy no longer existed, and Southerners were just as American as Northerners, punishment could not last forever. The goal was to rebuild the South, hopefully in a Northern image, not to crush it out of existence.
The issue is just as relevant today. How to accept the South for all its uniqueness and peculiarities, help it to develop at a faster rate, and fully integrate it into the American commonwealth; but be censorious when necessary?
The problem is that the liberal mind is closed to the Southern experience and has been so for a long time. Opinions and attitudes have been case-hardened and are unlikely to change anytime soon. As long as progressives persist in their obsession with race, their hatred of the South – the place where race began – will continue.
It is one thing to say, “I disagree with what you say but will defend your right to say it”, another to say, “You may be right.” Tolerance begins and ends with that principle.