No other region of the United States is as stigmatized as the South. Southerners are frequently viewed as nonintellectual, backwards, and lazy. We are all familiar with the image of house furniture on the porch (the front porch that is), rednecks drinking Bud Light and chewing tobacco at NASCAR races, and of course, the famous southern drawl. While many of these sectionalist stereotypes are sophomoric at best given that every region has its share of shameful images, it is true that the South trails much of the country in health indicators, the arts, and most notably, progress-oriented policy. In this essay I intend to explain how southern culture serves as a barrier to regional growth and development.
Culture not geography defines the south. Although areas like northern Virginia, Maryland, and south Florida are geographically southern, its citizens are not considered purveyors of southern culture. Using this logic, if states like Mississippi or Arkansas revolutionized their cultural practices would they still be considered members of the South? Similarly, would Alabama still be part of the South if its citizens elected Artur Davis (A pro-Obama African American running for governor), eliminated the public display of rebel flags, and ousted its antebellum senators?
The answer to these questions is yes, but only in terms of geography. This is true because implicit in our current concept of the South is a culture that is unwelcoming to progress-oriented change which ultimately works in the favor of its power elite, the Bourbon conservatives. Any change in the balance of culture threatens their power. Thus the South is the South because of its culture which has historically worked to maintain an exclusive social hierarchy that denigrates those who, because of their racial or political identity, exist outside the cultural box.
Preserving the Order
We are all familiar with the story. Before the Civil War, southern Democrats - prodded by southern planters - voted to leave the United States to preserve the cultural and economic institution of slavery. After losing the war, the South was forced to experiment with social and cultural pluralism. During this period of Reconstruction, freed slaves received voting rights and African American officials were elected to several prominent posts. During this time the South made attempts at modernization and industrialization. However, this type of progress did not fare well with the Bourbon conservatives who saw an opportunity to regain power after the election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes who represented northern interests and Samuel Tilden who represented southern interests.
No clear winner emerged after the votes were counted. As a result, a deal was struck between Hayes and Tilden. Hayes would become president only if he agreed to end Reconstruction. Hayes assented and soon afterwards, federal troops were removed meaning that the North no longer had any real method of enforcing its plan for Reconstruction. The Bourbon conservatives quickly seized the moment by rewriting state constitutions in a manner that disenfranchised African Americans, passing stiff segregation laws, and strengthening clandestine terrorist groups that enforced the old ways. As a result, educational, economic, and political opportunities for marginalized groups began to evaporate in the heat of the South’s cultural hegemony. Under such circumstances, those existing outside of the box began searching elsewhere for equality, justice, expression, and prosperity.
The Critical Mass
Accordingly, in 1916 African Americans started leaving the rural South en masse to pursue opportunities not afforded to them in their current locations. This social phenomenon known as the Great Migration occurred in two phases: The first Great Migration which lasted from 1916-1930 and the second Great Migration from 1940-1970. The 1.5 and 5 million respective migrants included many talented and ambitious individuals who would go on to profoundly influence society and culture.
While the South focused on maintaining its social order the rest of the country was growing from the cultural contributions of the Harlem Renaissance. While the South was busy applying poll taxes to African American citizens, Nobel recipient Ralph Bunch was promoting diplomacy in the Middle East. While the southern socioeconomic order was actively suppressing African American males to low-paying menial tasks; Syracuse University, UCLA, and the University of Southern California were busy recruiting Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Charles White.
Though the migratory destinations of African Americans were far from utopian, it is evident that many found success that otherwise would have been absent. The years between 1916 and 1930 saw significant increases in the number of African American school teachers and business owners. This era also saw a dramatic rise in the African American literacy rate from 39% to 85%.
Back in the South, during the late 1960’s as Democrats became increasingly liberal over the question of segregation, clever Republicans implemented the infamous “Southern Strategy” which hypothesized that segregationist Democrats would leave the party because it was fast becoming the political choice of African Americans. African Americans naturally gravitated toward the Democrats demonstrating their respect for the progressive policies of Kennedy and Johnson and as planned, segregationists started leaving the party in great numbers. This Southern Strategy proved politically successful and propelled the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, and George Bush II to the presidency. Indeed, the Southern Strategy represented a new way to preserve the old way.
With the exception of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the South has historically lacked critical agents of change - individuals who possess the skill, knowledge, and desire to challenge the social order. While I respect the accomplishments and economic wisdom of Booker T. Washington, he was not an agent of change, but a casualty of the status quo. Other southerners who had the potential to be change agents such as Ida B. Wells were forced to leave the South under threat of violence.
Thus the critical mass of African Americans needed to challenge the Bourbon conservatives continuously slipped away to the North and West. Those left did not have the numerical or ideological support to engender major changes. As a result, the good ole’ boy politicians and business leaders in power today are no different than those who maintained power during the antebellum and the Jim Crow eras. With regard to states rights, industry, and economic pluralism there is no significant ideological or cultural difference between Richard Shelby (R AL) and Saxby Chambliss (R GA) of today and William Yancey and John C. Calhoun of the antebellum period.
That’s Just the Way it is…
The southern power structure remains in tact because there is no challenge or resistance to the Bourbon conservatives. While the South still has the highest proportion of African American residents with roughly 37% living in the nine-state region (45% if including Texas), a critical mass of middle class, politically active African Americans live in other areas. Consequently, the region has no African Americans senators or governors and it currently has only 12 African Americans in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, of the nine states in the region, six have Republican governors. Likewise, over half of its representatives in the House are Republican, as well as 13 of its18 senators.
Although a significant number of rural African American migrants moved to southern cities such as Birmingham, Atlanta, and Memphis; these urban areas exist as mere islands of liberal policy and practice surrounded by a sea of cultural single-mindedness. President Obama won most major cities in the South, but lost in every southern state except Florida and North Carolina, which incidentally, are almost not Southern. As the good ole’ boys remain in power, they will continue to mandate limits on progress; it is in their best interest to do so. Consequently, the South should not prepare for any benefits associated with positive change. Indeed the living is easy…and cotton is high on the minds of the Bourbon conservatives.
 See www.inmotionaame.org/migrations
 American Community Survey Three Year Estimates. 2005-2007 (2007). United States Bureau of the Census: Washington, DC
 See http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/index.html and http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
 The nine state region includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida (I count Florida, at least until the capital is moved from Tallahassee in the southern sympathizing panhandle to the more cosmopolitan city of Orlando).