BLOVIATORS GONNA' BLOVIATE!

Way back yonder in December and way out yonder in California, the Ol' Bloviator did an interview with Gregory Rodriguez of Zocalo Public Square and a Q&A with a bunch of very nice people who not only showed up for the occasion but stayed awake--mostly--during the entire proceedings. The O.B. is deeply grateful to Gregory and his editorial associates for their earnest efforts to keep him from coming across as a complete idiot. This interview is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.

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James C. Cobb is Emeritus B. Phinizy Spalding distinguished professor in the history of the American South at the University of Georgia. He has published 13 books and many articles focusing on the interaction of the economy, politics, and culture in the American South. Three of his books--The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development 1936-1990, A Way Down South: A History of Southern Identity, and The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity--are considered classics in the field.

In December 2017, he sat down with Zócalo Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Gregory Rodriguez in Los Angeles to talk about what "the South" is, how the South came to embrace Thanksgiving, and why old country songs often reinforce a cult of the noble loser.

This transcript of the discussion has been edited for clarity and length.

You have been called "the most Southern man on earth." Is this true? And, if so, what does that mean?

Well, if I were truly the most Southern man on earth, I would tell you that I had no idea.

What is the simplest way to know whether you're in the South?

This comes up in Texas all the time. You're in the South if bar fights unfold in parking lots. In the West, bar fights happen inside the bar. So that's a rule of thumb for you. If you hear anybody say, "Would you like to step outside, buddy?" you're still in the South.

At what point did Americans begin to identify the South as a distinct region?

You could argue as far back as even the colonial period, but I don't. I think at that point the differentiation was not so much Southern colonies, as slave colonies. And that sufficed to define the South even into the early national period. And, of course, slavery itself, the institution, became one of the characteristics that set the South apart from the rest of country, which is really ironic because slavery was kind of the impetus for the development of New England. It financed the expansion of the Northeastern financial establishment; it was an incredible boon to the national banking system when it was reinstituted in the [early 1800s]. And so New England is heavily involved of course in the slave trade: It's heavily involved in the production of goods to be used on Southern plantations and in the capital raised through shipping and manufacturing. And commerce related to slavery becomes kind of the accelerant for the development of New England and ultimately a good bit of the Northeast. So slavery came to define the South because it seemed so out of character for a new nation trying to find itself and which had already gone on record as being about freedom and equality and liberty.

Were there forces other than slavery that forged this sense of regional distinctiveness?

Identity is not something that we get to pick. We are not the sole arbiters of our own identity. Our identity is partially what we think we are, but it is also defined by others. What they see us as being. And as the nation developed in the first few decades, there were already differences in the South and the New England states. The South is a dispersed population, organized around the agricultural plantation. New England is organized more around the small towns, the villages. More concentration of the population and more demand for education and innovation spawned what I always call a foolish Yankee faith in education. That also spawns, then, the market for public communication, for newspapers and magazines and journals.

Whereas in the South everything is so spread out, and any printing material you get there would take so long to arrive, it would be way out of date. And public education was unknown. The planters who had the money, they educated their kids privately. There was no investment in public education.

So with all of that, basically the definition of the South as a region set apart from the rest of the country was actually written in New England. And at the same time, New Englanders and the New England media are pushing New England as the essence of what this new country is supposed to be about--the New England ideals of frugality and hard work and piety. And so, it's sort of a struggle as to who gets to represent the true American. And, the advantages clearly lie with New England in this respect.

When we finally decided we were not going to fight Great Britain anymore, we no longer had the kind of antithetical foe or antagonist that group identities are usually dependent on. You know, when you identify a group, it's not just "this is who we are," it's also "they are who we ain't." And so, whereas Britain had served in that role up through the War of 1812, the South then sort of supplanted Great Britain. Now you had these people out in outrageously hot weather living dissolute lives growing wealthy off the labors of bondsmen--so it was easy to write the South out of the central narrative of American history, but make it a vital component nonetheless in the formulation of a national identity.

Slavery itself, the institution, became one of the characteristics that set the South apart from the rest of country, which is really ironic because slavery was kind of the impetus for the development of New England.

What role does Thanksgiving play in the way the South was written out of America's national narrative?

Thanksgiving was basically a New England holiday. And by the time there was a push in the 1840s to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, abolitionism had become so associated with New England that many Southerners and Southern politicians, in particular, didn't cotton to the whole idea of basically an abolitionist holiday. So there was a strong resistance to celebrating Thanksgiving that carried over well through the Civil War era. And it's only after Reconstruction that the Southern states finally say, well, we realized we've finally got to get back in the fold and get with the program--to show that we are after all American--that the Southern states start to embrace Thanksgiving.

Now let's go back even further. You have cited that as early as the 1790s, the South was depicted as what historian Edward Ayers has described as America's Latin America, a sort of swampy, disease-ridden region motivated by lust and gluttony.

That was a type of "othering." If you are all these things that are so awful, then that brings up a lot of space for us to be all the things that are good. And, you know, the South is then set up as the antithesis of what America is supposed to be--and certainly what New England is and can bring to the country--even though New Englanders are the first people to come up with the whole notion of secession after the War of 1812. They held a convention at Hartford to discuss the idea of pulling out, because they were upset about the War of 1812 because it hurt shipping very badly. The New England colonies were not flourishing, and by that time the cotton gin had been invented for over a decade and the Southern population was flourishing. And of course slavery was thriving and there was westward expansion across the lower Southwest. But the narrative by that point was pretty well fixed as far as what's America and what isn't--and what's Southern, and what's not Southern.

 

Historian James C. Cobb in Los Angeles. Photo by Jake Fabricius.

How did Southerners react to these characterizations of them?

Up until the rise of abolitionism on a national scale, I think the Southerners were not really too much attuned to this more critical view of them--possibly because not many of them were reading what was being written about them.

And yet the South enjoyed disproportionate political power prior to the Civil War?

Yes. The South dominated the presidency. They dominated the Supreme Court. But that political dynamic is shifting by the time you get to the 1850s because the white population is expanding much more rapidly across the mid-Atlantic states and into the Eastern, Midwestern states. And it's the South then that's losing momentum. The crusade against slavery creates this sense of resistance and being besieged by external forces--Northern forces--and that kind of siege mentality becomes much more characteristic.

So the siege mentality originated before the Civil War?

Oh yeah, but it really did! At least in my examination, it does come forward really in a very pronounced way only with the abolitionist surge of the 1830s. And I think it is just something that most Southerners had not previously contemplated in terms of where they stood relative to the rest of the country.

What was the primary impulse for Southern states to secede?

For many generations, white Southerners have insisted that the Civil War was not about slavery, that it was about states' rights or it was about economic differences, or tariffs. But if you go back and just read the debates over secession in each Southern state-- which I have had the dubious pleasure of doing--it becomes very clear that the debate is taking place between two groups of slaveholders. And every state secession convention was dominated, not just by slaveholders, but by large slaveholders. And the question that they're trying to wrestle with is: "Can we best protect slavery by leaving the Union, and creating a new nation centered on protecting slavery, or can we still find better ways to protect slavery by staying in the Union?" That's the debate.

So it wasn't a groundswell of enthusiasm for secession. There was a lot of opposition from the upland mountain counties where there was no slavery and no real sense of being worried about an interest in slavery to preserve. Secession happened because the people who were interested in promoting and protecting the institution of slavery were also the people who were in power. They dominated the state legislatures and they dominated the state secession conventions.

The Confederate government was unpopular almost instantly. And so Confederate white affections settled on the military: the guys who were doing the fighting. And that's why there was the embrace of the battle flag, as opposed to the national flag of the Confederacy.

Was slavery, then, the reason Southerners--even those who owned no slaves--fought on behalf of the Confederacy?

I think it's worth distinguishing between what started the war, and who started it, and the people who fought it. There were lots of reasons why white Southerners might have taken up arms that didn't necessarily have anything to do with any vested interest on their part in slavery. Once Lincoln makes the call for troops, it becomes--in the minds of many--"Well, I've got to protect my home, my family, my community." My great-great-grandfather's two sons went off to war. One of them was underage and the other never made it any closer to the front than North Carolina, where he died of measles. The one who was underage came home on furlough over Christmas of 1861 and tried to get discharged because he had signed up underage. And so he filed a petition with the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, and never hears anything. The kid goes back to his unit and dies that September in the Battle of Antietam. And his family never had any slaves. They had 150 acres of land.

And so there were a lot of people who fought in that war for reasons we can't fully comprehend. It was a war that served the interest of slaveholders and was precipitated by just the existence of the institution of slavery and of course the desire to see it expand. But we cannot necessarily extrapolate from that to say that everybody who fought in that war was fighting for slavery.

And as much as I am in favor of getting rid of the public display of Confederate monuments, I do think it is important to realize that there is a possibility that people see their ancestors as fighting for something other than slavery. I have trouble making the leap to where they still kind of defend them--these monuments--but there is an essence in there that there is some benefit of the doubt still due, I think.

Did the Confederacy ever forge something akin to a new national identity?

No. You know there was all this talk about stirring up Southern nationalism in the decade prior to secession. The South had basically benefitted in a lot of ways from New England's superiority in terms of literature and communications and educational firepower. The planters sent their sons to northern schools. The majority of the men at Princeton in 1860 were from the South. And so there was an effort to say, "We're not sending our boys up there to be educated by the Yankees anymore. We are going to stop hiring these Yankee tutors that come to the plantation. We are going to quit reading Northern books and Northern newspapers." But none of that stuff worked a lick. People didn't stop doing any of those things.

When suddenly all at once there is secession, it's, "Oh my God, we have got to have a government!" What happens is the Southern leaders basically just seize on the model of the United States. I mean, their premise is that we are really trying to restore the original intent of our forefathers, and what they had in mind in terms of the sanctity of the sovereignty of the states by creating our own nation. But the Confederacy wasn't a confederacy at all! It was a very centralized slave-holding republic. There was more concentrated power in the Confederacy then there was in the United States government at that time.

Everybody is enthused when the war is going well, but the exigencies of throwing together a government that can actually govern, it's hard enough to do that in peacetime. But a brand-new government trying to govern in war is infinitely more difficult. So the Confederate government was unpopular almost instantly. And Confederate white affections settled on the military: the guys who were doing the fighting. And that's why there was the embrace of the battle flag, as opposed to the national flag of the Confederacy.

What was the Lost Cause? And what led to its emergence?

In the grand sweep of human history there have been as many nations built on defeats as much as on victories. Because you can find unanimity and a ferocity in how you handle defeat and how you react to defeat as much as through victory. And so the whole idea of the Lost Cause was to justify the white South's position and to ennoble the Confederate cause.

Basically, what they were trying to do was create a Southern nationalism that had never existed before secession--based on the idea of the hallowed Confederate warriors fighting against overwhelming odds who only lost because they were so outnumbered. It was also an attempt to restore masculine pride among Southern white men. So it is really the basis of kind of a nationalist ethos. And it leads, of course, to the erection of all these monuments at the end of the 19th century and during the early 20th century.

Is it fair to call that ethos sort of the cult of the noble loser?

Yeah, I think it is.

Is there any connection between that cult of the noble loser, the Lost Cause, and country music?

I think there is in the sense that there is a kind of chip-on-your-shoulder mentality that so much of country music exudes. It's now less so than back in the glory days of country music but there is a sense of being looked down upon and feeling that you're kind of at loose ends and you need to be back among your own people. And so I think country music does capture those sentiments. But again, it's not today's watered-down version, which is all about the perils of trying to live in suburbia. But I think the country music of the '40s, in particular, when it became much more of a modern phenomenon and you hear a lot of songs about how "I may be a hobo and a hillbilly, but I can still whip your ass,"--there's a kind of grudge mentality that's definitely there.

You're implying that country music has been suburbanized. Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of country music and what it says about Southern white identity?

Country music emerged from the musical heritage of the British Isles. And then as it becomes a more commercial art form, it pulls together not just the old themes from the old British ballads but the contemporary events that shape the South: big events like train wrecks, automobile accidents. And it becomes a rehashing of the very, very familiar. It's got a strong religious component that always kind of brings you back to: if you sin you going to suffer for it.

I think country music has simply adapted as the South has changed. And if you go back and look at people like Patsy Cline--who is of course now regarded as the classic female country singer of all time--in her day she was viewed as a threat to traditional country music. That was because she sang with the backup of the Nashville sound, which was the big orchestral stylings, lots of strings--even a harp.

So a great majority of Southerners do live in suburbs now. With all of that, the music has adapted. But it came out of a rural culture where it was hard-bitten, hard times for much of the South's 20th-century history. The spike was in World War II, when you finally get a little infusion of prosperity, and you get a surge in the modernity of the music in the sense of amplification and the instrumentation; but it's still mirroring what's happening in the South.

In the country music of the '40s, in particular, when it became much more of a modern phenomenon and you hear a lot of songs about how "I may be a hobo and a hillbilly, but I can still whip your ass,"--there's a kind of grudge mentality that's definitely there.

Most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and about 1910, which suggests that they were less about memory and more about building a new identity based on a supposedly glorious defeat. You write a lot about the concern--shared even by some who fought against Jim Crow--that white Southern identity was so tied up with segregation that the South would disappear as a distinct region when it ended.

The proliferation of those monuments corresponds with the era in which the Southern states were instituting Jim Crow Laws. They were taking the vote away from black people and the monuments were used as sort of props for those moves. And that is why I think you just can't have those monuments anymore, regardless of what they may have meant once to white Southerners who thought their ancestors fought for something other than slavery in the Civil War.

It's very interesting, somebody said that what white Southerners do best is resist. And what will happen when there is nothing left to resist? And so after the civil rights movement, when the end of institutionalized Jim Crow is fait accompli, there is this kind of identity crisis. For generations everyone had heard that segregation, white supremacy, and Jim Crow was the "Southern way of life." So what was there now to be redeemed of Southern identity, if the racial component had been stripped away?

And in that sense I think white Southerners are sort of like other immigrant groups to the United States or elsewhere, who work really, really hard to get over the stigma of being from somewhere else, and being unlike other Americans, and they push and push to deemphasize their accents. And all of a sudden, they see, with the racial stigma lifted, they're about to--by God--trip over and fall into the American mainstream. And when they get there, they pull up short and say, "Whoa, if we just jump in there and say, OK, the South is over--what will that say about us? Who will we be?"

And so you get a classic example of the commodification of identity in the South with efforts to transform Southern identity into a lifestyle. Then you get all these lifestyle magazines like Southern Living and Southern Accents and Garden and Gun. Identity becomes a hot commodity in the global marketplace. They're selling all kinds of things to remind people of whatever identity it is that they choose to embrace. And so what happens is that something you were cautious about revealing, or certainly not emphasizing--your Southern identity--suddenly becomes a point of pride because it's something that makes you special.

What role did President Jimmy Carter play in the emergence of a post-segregation white Southern identity?

It was a short love affair with Jimmy Carter. But if you reel back to that period of the mid-'70s, that's a time when there's really a national embrace of Southern culture. That's when country music really explodes as a national phenomenon. And if you think about what's on TV, you've got The Andy Griffith Show; you've got The Waltons; you've got the emergence of Willie and Waylon and the laid-back boys from Luckenbach. There's this nice, warm, fuzzy, embraceable South.

Carter surfaces amid that. And he's coming on the heels of Watergate. And he's got the whole small-town rural Southern boy humility and religiosity and maybe that's just what we need: someone who is a good old, down-to-earth Southern boy who is humble and knows he should be humble. Maybe he's exactly what this country needs. And in certain ways I think he was what the country needed.

But there were ways in which being a Southerner really hurt him--particularly when he was being a good Southern Baptist. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist and you know you frontload suffering if you are a Baptist. You know it's out there, so you may as well go out there and start suffering. And so that's what Carter did. He comes in and he says, "You know, we can't keep doing all this stuff. We can't have all the oil we want. We can't treat the whole world as our oyster anymore. We've got to lower our expectations and live more reasonably." And of course, Americans don't want to hear that. Then of course there are other things: The Iran hostage thing kills him.

Has the South lost its distinctiveness since World War II?

Assimilating the South and homogenizing the country was once tantamount to a national mission. But it strikes me that white Southerners have tried to hang on to vestiges of their Southern identity that aren't tied to race. But you also have American mass society a little bit reluctant to admit that the South is basically much like the rest of the country. Because, if you do that, then you have to own the South, which is something that the country has never really been ready to do. And I'm not sure if it still is. You can't just keep saying that when you have a racial atrocity in Pennsylvania, you can't say, "This is the kind of thing you would expect to happen in Mississippi, not Pennsylvania." But if you sort of say, "The South is in it, we're all in it together," then you lose that negative image that makes you feel good about yourself, and proud of yourself. If you sort of accept the South as basically joining the rest of American society--I wrote a piece called The Necessary South where I argued that it's really kind of necessary for America to have the South so as to not quite have to look itself full in the mirror.

American mass society is a little bit reluctant to admit that the South is basically much like the rest of the country. Because, if you do that, then you have to own the South, which is something that the country has never really been ready to do.

And yet the North began to confront its own problems in the last half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, what Southern segregationist politicians had been saying for decades was born out. They always predicted, that you just wait and see what happens when Northerners, white Northerners, are told they have to integrate their schools. And when the court decides that it's not just enough to get rid of de jure segregation. As soon as that gets in the court system, and it's starting to affect places like Detroit, then there's--as a famous Southern historian said--there's a massive withering of Northern self-righteousness.

And then also--the South has always been the poorest, most backward part of the country--but then the Rust Belt happens. And you get this massive drainage of people and capital moving South during the fuel crisis. There are very solid economic reasons behind it as well, but there also is more fresh opportunity in the South. So the whole saga of the more progressive, more prosperous North kind of starts to fray around the edges.

What should it mean to be American?

If we're talking about the ideal of being American, I think it means accepting differences based on history and culture. Obviously not accepting human rights abuses, and not persecution; but sort of understanding that people came. I mean, you come to Los Angeles, and one of the great things about our visit so far is just, I mean, Atlanta is a pretty globalized city, but you know it ain't in the ballpark with you folks. And it's just wonderful. I mean, everybody you meet has a different story from a different part of the world. And that's something that also held the South back for a long time, because it was not necessarily terribly friendly to outsiders. And it didn't offer opportunity for people to want to go there--they weren't seeing an opportunity for them to make a better life for themselves. And so, I think being less hung up on regional differences, as well as ethnic differences, and just sort of thinking: We're in this together, and it doesn't matter whether your great-great-grandpa shot at my great-great-grandpa or not. Just sort of trying to find that common ground that allows you not to forget your history, and it doesn't force you to apologize for it, but forces you to acknowledge it and keep it. Keep it as your history without letting that become something that's divisive.

 

LOOKIN' SOUTH AT NORTH

TIME magazine's, August 6-13, 2018 isssue was dedicated to the South and featured Georgia Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams on the cover. In conjunction with this issue, the nice folks at TIME.COM asked the Ol' Bloviator to look at Time's take on the South way back in the critical year of 1964. What follows is a close approximation of that piece.

During the 1950s and '60s, New York-based publications like TIME, Newsweek or Harper'sregularly devoted special issues or special sections of regular issues to the South. All of them focused in one way or another on assessing the region's progress in surmounting the barriers of racism, poverty and educational backwardness that continued to separate it from the rest of the country--meaning, effectively, the northern states, which had long served as the embodiment of American ideals of virtue, enlightenment and prosperity.

This was no random practice. After all, the nation was in the throes of a civil rights movement, which at that point, was concentrated on toppling the entrenched Jim Crow system that still set the South apart. By the middle of the 1960s, however, forces were already stirring that would soon shatter the perception of a southern monopoly on racism and cast serious doubt on the presumption of superior northern virtue.

 Sensing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed and speedily signed into law on July 2, marked a truly "historic turning point in the relations between the races in the U.S.," the editors of TIME devoted a portion of the July 17, 1964, edition to assessing southern reaction to the law during the first week that it was in effect. Though it had been ten years since the Supreme Court declared de jure segregation in the public schools unconstitutional, fewer than one in ten black pupils in the states where dual school systems had supposedly been outlawed were actually attending racially integrated schools. Now, with its sweeping prohibition of racial discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, the Civil Rights Act promised more integration overnight than the Court's decree had accomplished in a decade.

Despite warnings that such peremptory federal action might trigger a "race war" in the South, to the clear relief of TIME's editors, one week in, this did not seem to be in the offing. Across the South, blacks and whites were seen eating and lodging together without incident in citadels of segregation like Birmingham, Memphis and Jackson, and in Greenville, S.C. a young black man sat in the same hotel dining room as Senator J. Strom Thurmond, the chief filibusterer against the Civil Rights Act.

It wasn't all pretty, to be sure; in Bessemer, Ala., six black lunch-counter customers were beaten with baseball bats by whites, and two men were wounded during a "wade in" at a lake in Texarkana, Texas.  More ominously, in rural North Georgia near Athens, a shotgun blast from a passing car killed black educator and Army Reserve officer Lemuel Penn. Still, in all, TIME's editors thought that "the South's initial compliance with the new Civil Rights law was, by any standard, encouraging." This guarded optimism also surfaced in a companion piece in this issue, which hailed segregationist Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender's warning that any further southern opposition to the Civil Rights Act must respect "the orderly process established by law" as "a statement of stunning reasonableness," and reason to hope that future resistance might at least be pursued by legal rather than extralegal means.

The generally peaceful white acquiescence to the Civil Rights Act suggested that even if white southerners' feelings about their black neighbors were impervious to legislation, their overt behavior was not. The readiness of black southerners to step forward to test the actual viability of the new statute was also heartening, though hardly more so than their courage and resolve in responding to the Freedom Summer voter registration effort then underway.

The cover of this issue of TIME bore a sketch of William Faulkner, and its cover story delved into Faulkner's writings for "a deeper analysis of the traditions, emotions and psychological factors" that were at once the root of the race problem in the South and the key to its solution. When it came to improving southern race relations,  Faulkner would seem at first glance an unlikely source of encouragement In fact, he had been among those who warned of potential bloodshed if the federal government moved too abruptly to dismantle segregation, and his dark and savage portrayals of white racial hatred in novels like Light in August hardly inspired optimism. Yet his fiction also offered characters like Isaac McCaslin in Go Down Moses, who was dogged by guilt and struggled desperately to find the personal courage to reject the white South's racist rituals and dogma. In this respect, Faulkner also invested great hope in a younger generation of white southerners like Chick Mallison in Intruder in the Dust, who had developed a healthy skepticism of such unhealthy practices early on. Faulkner saw the South's ultimate racial salvation coming not from legal coercion, but from changes in the mindset of the region's whites, but while surprised, he might also have understood that their general accommodation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was at least reason to hope that the change of heart that he had worked so hard to effect might at last be underway.

Still, optimistic about the region's prospects as they might have been at that point, TIME's editors and writers could hardly have imagined that within scarcely a decade, the South would not simply be "accepted into the fraternity of states," as one writer put it, but wielding substantial influence over national affairs. This remarkable upgrade in regional standing reflected not only continued progress in the South, but striking changes in the confidence and relative moral authority of those Americans who had long judged its progress from distant perches north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Though they could hardly be recognized as such in mid-1964, some of the forces behind this jarring shakeup were beginning to stir even as TIME's take on the South went to press. The "white backlash" against the Civil Rights Movement, which would soon envelop the entire country, was foretold in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act, who accepted the Republican nomination on July 16, the day before the official pub date of that issue. Goldwater's blatant courtship of lifelong white Democrats outraged by their party's aggressive embrace of the Civil Rights agenda won him five Deep South states that November and set the stage for Richard Nixon's more skillfully implemented "southern strategy," which also played well nationally four years later. The white backlash would expand and intensify exponentially in the face of surging black violence in the nation's inner cities that was just beginning to manifest itself in the Harlem Riot, which also erupted just as the TIME issue appeared and some three weeks before a similar conflagration in Philadelphia. Despite TIME's focus on the South, these riots and the dozens to follow, not to mention the mounting white outcry against forced integration in places like Chicago and old abolitionist Boston, gave ample proof that racial intolerance was every bit as real and just as ugly up North as down South.

Finally, three weeks after the TIME issue appeared, Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granting President Lyndon Johnson virtual carte blanche to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Though hardly foreseeable at that point, this was a critical step toward creating a new object of national outrage that sapped the civil rights campaign of much of its sense of moral urgency. It also quickened the nation's march into a spirit-devouring swamp of futility and failure from which the legend of American invincibility would not emerge intact. Then, with the U.S. still struggling to extricate itself from this quagmire, the Watergate scandal blew a gaping hole in the almost foundational myth of national innocence and virtue. Even further indication of a nation turned downside-up came in almost daily reports of once dynamic northern cities hemorrhaging jobs, capital, and people to the more salubrious business and living climates of a suddenly vibrant southern corridor.

As these developments compounded, historian C. Vann Woodward noted that "the old grounds for Northern moral superiority gave way" and "self-righteousness withered along the Massachusetts-Michigan axis."

Interestingly enough, Woodward's commentary appeared in the Sept. 27, 1976, issue of TIME, which was largely devoted to a South that no longer seemed an iffy destination, but a beckoning land of "spectacular beauty," where yesterday's night-riding rednecks were today's laid-back, fun-loving "good ole boys" like Billy Carter. Meanwhile, Billy's more buttoned-down older brother, Jimmy, whose regional heritage helped to inoculate him against the crippling effects of failure or guilt, stood ready to lead the nation out of its post- apocalyptic funk. In short, as an optimistic Saturday Review writer had put it a few weeks earlier, here was a South no longer walled off from the rest of the nation, but one whose racial progress, capable leaders, and dynamic economy seemed to offer "a foretaste of the New America."

That this suggestion proved prophetic, albeit largely in ways that ran counter to the liberal writer's hopes, should not have been surprising. Nor should we resist seeking a glimpse of the nation's future in a South still very much in transition today. If the developments between TIME's South-conscious issues of 1964 and 1976 revealed nothing else, it was that, even at its worst, the region had always been not only a part of America, but in a very real sense, a window into its soul.

 

There's Somethin' 'Bout A Truck!"

The pickup truck's rise from its crude, makeshift origins to the near luxury-item status it enjoys today amounts to a Horatio Alger tale with a technological twist, providing a striking allegory of cherished national legends of progress and upward mobility.
In the early 20th century, a number of Americans seeking a more expeditious means of hauling material that could not be crammed into or strapped atop the traditional motorcar, took their tinsnips to the family flivver, affixing a large box or old wagon bed to the rear of the chassis. The frenzy of vehicular DIY-ing soon encouraged smaller entrepreneurs to install cabs and hauling containers on the slightly modified chassis of the Ford Model T.
But the Ford Motor Company itself did not offer the first fully factory-assembled pickup truck until 1924-1925 with its "Model T Runabout with Pickup Body" and a 20-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. Chevrolet and Dodge made serious moves into pickup production in the 1930s, and once the wartime production restrictions of the 1940s were lifted, the competitive scramble to cash in on pent-up demand led to a steady progression of bigger, more powerful trucks, which by the 1950s boasted 6- and 8-cylinder engines supplying 100 horsepower, improved transmissions, and easier steering.
By that point the pickup was no longer simply an adjunct but another vital technological component of one of the most far-reaching transformations in American history: the mechanization and consolidation of Southern agriculture.
Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating rapidly after 1945, with mules proving no match for the tractor in planting and cultivating his fields, the farmer needed to make not just the production but the transportation of his precious crop more efficient. When its bed was framed by slatted wooden side-bodies extending up to cab height, a pickup truck could haul a bale of cotton five miles to the gin in scarcely the time it took to hitch two mules to a wagon. And the same was no less true when there was fertilizer, feed, and seed to be picked up in town.
For families on smaller farms where there was no extra money for a car, the pickup might be forced into double-duty in getting the family to church, the doctor, the grocery store, or school events. In rural farming and ranching areas, children quickly learned to drive the family pickup in the course of finishing off their chores. Local authorities tended to look the other way when one of the youngsters, whose face could scarcely be seen over the steering wheel, was dispatched via pickup to the feed or farm supply store. And even when they reached legal driving age, the pickup often remained their only means of getting to and from school or practice or simply escaping the isolation of the farm for a few hours in town.
Like country singer Alan Jackson, who couldn't "replace the way it made me feel" when his daddy let him take the wheel of his "old hand-me-down-Ford," even in middle age and far removed from their rural roots, Americans reared on a farm retained vivid memories of experiences with pickups that defined various stages of their youth. As a seven-year-old boy, I lived for the thrill of riding to the gin sprawled atop a load of cotton piled high on our pickup. But several years later, I cringed at the mere prospect of accompanying my dad in the same mud- and manure-encrusted truck on a trip to town, where I knew I faced the absolute certainty of encountering the prettiest, most stylish girl in my class.
The same forces that embedded the pickup in rural life would eventually begin to erode the very foundations of that life. The dwindling prospects of any but the largest and most mechanized farming operations pushed much of the increasingly marginalized population off the land toward the beckoning bustle of the metropolis. Although Americans fleeing the farm took their memories of the family's dilapidated old pickup with them, actually parking such a vehicle in your driveway guaranteed a cold shoulder on arrival in the studiedly urbane and fervently aspirational 'burbs.
Soon enough, however, rising metropolitan incomes and the growing popularity of camping, boating, and other outdoor activities justified the acquisition of newer, better-kempt pickups, equipped with once unheard of comforts and conveniences like leather seats, air conditioning, extended cabs, automatic transmissions, and power steering.
Annual sales of pickups topped 2 million by 1980 and had surged past 11 million in 2017, and the enormous and sustained profitability of its truck line has led Ford to limit its future sales of traditional cars in North America to the iconic Mustang and the yet-to-be unveiled Focus Active. With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today's pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock, or much of anything else likely to scratch them.
Though pickups continue to have some practical applications in theory, in practice, a great number of them serve their owners primarily as "lifestyle vehicles" or some might even say "lifestyle statements." Indeed, for a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity. (Ironically, some older pickup owners, more concerned now with asserting their rural roots than flashing their middle class creds, have fallen into a certain reverse snobbery, deliberately hanging onto vehicles like my 1994 GMC Sierra, which sports 110, 000 miles on the odometer but not much of its original paint job.)
The pickup truck had become a fixture in country music well before 1975, when David Allan Coe disputed his songwriter friend Steve Goodman's claim that his "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" was the "perfect country song," pointing out that it made no references to pickup trucks, trains, mothers, drinking and prison, all of which comprised the collective sine qua non of a legitimate country offering.
Only when Goodman inserted a new verse about a fellow who admits that he was "drunk" the day his mother got out of prison and laments that before he made it to the station to meet her in his "pickup truck," she had been "runned over by a damned ol' train," did Coe admit that his friend had indeed achieved perfection in a country song.
More than 40 years later, the rusty rattletrap Coe had in mind is little in evidence in songs by Luke Bryan and others about good ol' boys and gals dancing the night away to a deafening mix of country rock and hip hop or just sitting and sipping on the special "diamond plate" tailgate protector of a lavishly accoutered "big black, jacked-up" pickup, POSSIBLY a Chevy Silverado, which Bryan himself favors.
With luxury pickups offering some of the highest profit margins in the industry, manufacturers are riding the pop culture wave, their truck ads awash in country artists and soundtrack. Luke Bryan now serves as an official "brand ambassador" for Chevrolet, and neither the cultural or economic distance between Music City and Motor City is as great as singer-songwriter Mel Tillis suggested 35 years ago in his classic, "Detroit City."
Today's fancy models may be portrayed in ways that seem to celebrate a wide-open, "anything goes" social outlook, but the pickup's political implications have most commonly skewed Right, even Far Right. The stereotypical combination of a gun rack and Rebel flag decal once conjured images of night-riding, racist thugs. Even sans flag, the racked shotgun or rifle (or both) invited suspicions that the driver was not simply a dedicated hunter but someone just itching to be crossed. Ironically, the proliferation of extended cab vehicles in combination with the increased risk of theft amid the burgeoning illicit traffic in firearms, has gone a long way toward reducing the gun rack to a garage sale item.
Even so, a pickup remains a preferred prop for politicians looking to portray themselves as "politically incorrect" conservatives on issue like guns and immigration. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp apparently feared he might have been too subtle in an ad showing what appears to be a couple of AR-15s in the background as he pointed a shotgun at teenage boy while prompting him to swear undying fealty to the Second Amendment. Just to be sure the message came through, Kemp followed up with another spot showing him in his Ford 350 XLT pickup, touting his "big truck," which was going to come in handy when he went out to "roundup criminal illegals."
Although foreign truck manufacturers have forced their stateside competitors to pay more attention to fuel economy and vehicle dependability, "Buy American!" still seems to resonate in the pickup marketplace. Significant differences in overall production levels notwithstanding, it is striking that Ford sold nearly twice as many F-Series pickups last year as all of the leading Japanese heavy and mid-size pickup truck models sold combined. Marketing experts think it is no coincidence that potential buyers are reminded periodically that Ford was the only major automaker to refuse federal bailout funds during the last recession, a message that General Motors may have been trying to counter in a Chevy Silverado ad declaring "This is our country. This is our truck."
If the pickup truck is deeply ingrained in our national life and culture, like America itself, it has been and remains many things to many people. For generations born on the farm, it may summon a wave of classically bittersweet nostalgia. For some whose experiences with it have been less "up close and personal," it has at times been a metaphor both for unvarnished rusticity and a comfortable, laid-back middle-class existence. For others, it has been a disquieting signifier of latent violence or vigilantism and active prejudice.
More broadly, the story of the pickup truck affirms the historic capacity of Americans to adapt not only our social and political outlook, but also our cultural and consumer preferences to dramatic changes in the economic, technological and demographic forces that have shaped our identity as a people.

The Ol' Bloviator wishes to acknowledge that an earlier version of this little piece appeared on Smithsonian Magazine.com via Zocalo Public Square.org

THE ART OF THE KNEEL

 

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 Amendment I, Constitution of the United States of America (Ratified December, 15, 1791)

 

"You better go home and read your Constitution, Buddy!"

Sec. of State Alexander Haig to Sec. of Defense Casper Weinberger, explaining why he was "in charge" until Vice-President George H. W. Bush arrived at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Pres. Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.

.

As it turned out, that ol' Snuggle Bunny Al Haig was wrong, about where he stood in the line of presidential succession--which was fourth behind Bush, rather than second--as well as the authority for that succession, which was actually established by an act of Congress in 1947. Even so, "Read your constitution, Buddy" is always pretty sound advice in any situation and never more applicable than in the current uproar over the rights of N.F.L. players to kneel in protest of police violence against black citizens during the playing of the national anthem. Although the Second Amendment may be giving it a run for its money these days, the Ol' Bloviator would venture that the most commonly misappropriated amendment to our constitution is the First. A great deal of this is attributable to the deeply ingrained embrace of "free speech," in principle if not always in practice, as a fundamental component of the American Way of Life.

            The First Amendment's reference to "freedom of speech" has been interpreted expansively enough to include many forms of individual expression, from music, to the visual arts, to choice of apparel, to bumper stickers. Likewise, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech" has been extended to cover state and local, as well as federal laws and policy and federal practices requiring or sanctioning suppression of free expression. Pervasive governmental involvement in so many aspects of national life has taken First Amendment protection into areas where few could have imagined they would apply. All of this being said, however, the courts have largely required that some level of government involvement in the restriction of free expression be established before First Amendment protections are operative.

            Ironically, the gratuitous self-insertion of the Great Orange Blusterbag into this controversy may have inadvertently rendered the First Amendment more relevant here than it would have been otherwise. While it guarantees his right to criticize the kneelers as a private citizen, there is court precedent to suggest that, as an agent of the federal government, he is not free to use his bully POTUS-ian pulpit to encourage Americans to boycott the NFL in order to actively coerce owners into ixnaying the players' protests. Still, we might rightly ask whether filing another legal action against a man who pays them no more mind than his debts or his contracts is akin to trying to calm Kilauea by tee-teeing on it.

            If legal determinations are to be factor here, the O.B. can't see the dispute coming down to anything other than the right of an employer to restrict the behavior of an employee while he or she is on the job. There are laws in many states which prohibit bosses from penalizing workers for their political activities outside the workplace, and there are laws that prohibit discrimination within it based on race, sex, or sexual orientation. So far as the O.B. knows, which, granted, sometimes ain't all that far, no employer can be required to tolerate on-the-job behavior by an employee that he or she deems detrimental to the employer's economic interest. Staffers may well exercise their freedom as individuals to raise controversial, divisive political issues while engaged with clients and customers, but they have no legitimate expectation that the boss must tolerate such behavior.

            What it boils down to is that we as a people pride ourselves in maintaining legal protections for free speech in certain forms and within certain contexts, and pay unceasing homage to it in principle. Yet, no less than most human societies, ours readily relies on the forces of popular opinion and the marketplace to discourage or punish speech that is seen as unsettling, embarrassing, divisive, or otherwise inimical to the dominant interests of the day.

There is no denying the racial factors that drive and complicate this particular controversy. Some 70% of NFL players are black, while 80% of the fans in the stands are white. Increasingly stratospheric ticket prices simply exacerbate this disparity. The heaviest concentration of household incomes across the NFL fan base falls within the range of $75,000 to $100,000, meaning even the bottom tier of this demographic stands $35,000 north of median household income for blacks as of 2017. Meanwhile, some 70% of the overall viewing audience is also white. By no means all of the roughly 65% of whites who seem to disapprove of the kneeling personally deny the legitimacy or sincerity of the players' concerns, but by stressing the anti-American implications of what the kneeling "sons of bitches" were doing, His Evil Orangeness effectively piled a lack of patriotism on top of the racial antipathy already harbored by many whites while casting whites more sympathetic to the player's objectives as America-haters as well. The impact of his onslaught registers in survey data showing the share of respondents with favorable attitudes toward the NFL falling from an already frail 30% to 17%  during  DT's weeklong Twitter rampage on the subject last September, his calculated outrage helping, as one survey firm noted, to render the NFL one of the "most divisive brands" out there. Needless to say, if you are heavily invested financially in such a brand, this is seldom good news, and, in this case, it likely means that no intricate algorithmic calculation will be needed to convince team owners and league officials that the best bet for their pocketbooks lies in moving to pacify by far the largest and most affluent segment of their unevenly divided fan base. Cracking down on protests by black players obviously promises less overall revenue lost to fan boycotts or other collective attempts to cut into their bottom line than vice-versa. A player strike or coordinated refusal to report for training camp in July might well counter this strategy, but given the racial and ideological pressure cooker in which this conflict is playing out, the owners might well double down, sensing that folding in the face of a raise by the players would only intensify the backlash from white fans, not to mention a certain self-serving politician as well.

If the message here is that, as a practical matter, protecting free speech can be costly to the owners, what of the free speakers themselves? Speaking out against injustice has cost  thousands of  lesser-known Americans their lives, families, and livelihoods, and even more celebrated voices of dissent have not escaped unscathed. Witness here John Carlos and Tommie Lee Smith, who, in raising a fist in the "Black Power" salute and bowing their heads during the national anthem at the Olympic awards ceremonies in 1968, not only forfeited their medals but left themselves severely restricted in their career opportunities thereafter. Ditto the Dixie Chicks, who were riding the momentum of a recent multi-platinum album and, in a bitter irony, in the process of launching their "Top of the World International Tour" in 2003, when singer Natalie Maines declared the group's disgust with their fellow Texan in the White House for his hokey invasion of Iraq. As might have been expected from not only fans but performers and executives of the most indisputably most conservative and hawkish sector of the American musical scene, the country music establishment and the great majority of the field's leading artists reacted as if Ms. Maines had pooted at Minnie Pearl's funeral, and the high-flying trio summarily nose-dived directly into Lake Pariah, their extrication from which remains incomplete even fifteen years later.

None of this is to suggest that players who kneel in protest during the national anthem are not fully aware that, historically, there have been significant costs attached to such actions or that they are not fully prepared to absorb them. The O.B. will readily admit that his visceral reaction to the way they are making their statements is decidedly negative, even though he recognizes that the necessity for such a statement is urgent. He concedes that even a more subtle or individualized gesture is likely to invite an acrimonious reaction, as in the shallow, malevolent Laura Ingraham's "shut up and dribble" advisory after LeBron James called some of the Cheeto-in-Chief's language "laughable and scary."

The Ol' Bloviator wishes he could see an outcome here based a more constructive and sensitive appreciation of opposing points of view and a recognition that humane values should always count for more than raw emotions. Sadly, he can hardly imagine a time in our nation's history less propitious for such an eventuality. Hence, he humbly suggests that if and when an accommodation is announced, the appropriate musical accompaniment will not be Faith Hill or Whitney Houston's soaring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," but Cyndi Lauper belting out "Money Changes Everything."

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MLK'S 'DREAM" GOT TOO BIG

 

According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this month died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent, a figure well above anything Donald Trump has been able to ring up thus far.

White racial resentment was still a critical factor at that point. But  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's unfavorable numbers were at least 25 points higher in 1968 than in 1963, and his faltering appeal over the final years of his life was also a consequence of appearing to fall behind his times in some respects even as he was leaping well ahead of them in others.

A day after returning home in December 1964 from a tour whose most important stop was Oslo, the Nobel Laureate for Peace joined a picket line at Atlanta's Scripto Pen factory, where some 700 workers were striking for better wages for less skilled employees  Though it was a remarkably humble gesture for someone who had received such a lofty affirmation, King's actions that day and his call for a nationwide boycott of Scripto products won him few friends in his hometown's white staunchly antiunion business community.

His picketing also foreshadowed a future in which King would move beyond the bloody battles against blatantly illegal state and local racial practices in places like Birmingham and Selma. Not content with the gains registered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he resolved to pursue a more expansive, aggressive, and (to white Americans, especially) unsettling socioeconomic and political agenda, one that would draw him into another fateful labor dispute some three-and-a-half years later in Memphis.

 

While still involved in the Scripto affair, King sat for a Playboy interview with Alex Haley, in which he endorsed a massive federal aid program for blacks. Its whopping $50 billion price tag was, he pointed out, less than annual U.S. spending for defense. Such an expenditure, he argued, would be more than justified in "a spectacular decline" in "school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils." Many poor whites were "in the very same boat with the Negro," he added, and if they could be persuaded to join forces with blacks, they could form "a grand alliance" and "exert massive pressure on the Government to get jobs for all."

King had made passing allusions to this possibility before, but a straightforward call for an active biracial coalition of have-nots was just as terrifying to white ruling elites, be they on Peachtree or Wall Street, as it had been when raised by the Populists in the 1890s.

King did nothing to quell these concerns when he later told David Halberstam that he had abandoned the incremental approach to social change of his civil rights protest days in favor of pursuing "a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values," one which would "look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation."

            That King's vision of a "revolution in values" was not purely domestic. In April 1967, he denounced American involvement in Vietnam, once at his own Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and once at Riverside Church in New York before 3,000 people, on April 4, precisely a year before he was killed.  He decried the hypocrisy of sending young black men "eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem." Beyond that lay the painful irony of seeing them join white soldiers, with whom they could "hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta," in "brutal solidarity "as they torched "the huts of a poor village." In this they were, however unwittingly, agents of a U.S. policy that destroyed and depopulated the countryside, forcing its former inhabitants to take refuge in cities teeming with "hundreds of thousands of homeless children" who were "running in packs on the streets like animals."

Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael observed that in this case, King was taking on not a hapless, wholly unsympathetic villain like Birmingham's Bull Connor, but rather "the entire policy of the United States government," as the. The consequences were swift and severe:  an outraged President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact with King.  And a majority of black Americans--including many old allies and colleagues from the civil rights years--also objected to his stance, fearing it could have devastating consequences for their cause.

King hardly fared better in pursuing his domestic agenda. It was one thing to capture public sympathy nationwide when pitted against the raw hatred and brutality that seemed the peculiar province of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line. It proved quite another to persuade whites outside the South to share their neighborhoods and jobs with blacks, or to support expensive federal assistance programs dedicated to helping blacks overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations.

King had a better grasp of what he was up against after his 1966 open-housing campaign in and around Chicago, where he confronted white mobs he described as more "hateful" than any he had seen "even in Mississippi or Alabama."   In this context, his own stern insistence on strict adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence met with growing disdain among a younger generation of black leaders. Tired of relying on the excruciatingly slow process of peaceful protest and tedious negotiation, some mocked King's ministerial oratory and called him "De Lawd."

 

It was impatience with King's doctrine of nonviolence that turned what would prove to be his last march, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 28, 1968, into a riot.  Some marchers quickly broke ranks to break store windows, and looting was soon underway.  An aggressive police response, complete with tear gas and billy clubs, led some protesters to retaliate with Molotov cocktails. By the end of the confrontation, one person was dead and some 50 others wounded. Feeling repudiated and ashamed by this failure to prevent violence, King had to be pressured  into returning to Memphis a week later for yet another march, one that a single assassin's bullet on April 4 assured he would never lead.

When Stokely Carmichael originally scheduled a press conference for April 5, 1968, he had planned to use it as a platform for demanding the release of fellow black militant H. Rap Brown, who had been stuck in a Maryland jail for several weeks. Instead, he devoted but a few sentences to the plight of "Brother Rap" before declaring that "white America made its biggest mistake last night" by killing Dr. Martin Luther King.

King's slaying meant the death of "all reasonable hope," Carmichael warned, because he was "the only man of our race...of the older generation who the militants and the revolutionaries and the masses of black people would still listen to" even if they no longer agreed with what he had to say. There would be no more "intellectual discussions."   Black Americans would now retaliate for the murder of one of their leaders by seeking their justice not in the courtrooms but in the streets.

 

And so they did, in classically Pyrrhic fashion. Younger, more militant black spokesmen who had spurned King's commitment to nonviolence and peaceful negotiation proceeded to stoke outrage over the slaughter of someone so un-menacing and well-intentioned. A week-long orgy of violence raged across more than 100 cities, leaving at least 37 people dead and many more injured and millions of dollars in property destroyed. This was a bitterly ironic sendoff for someone who had sacrificed his life to the cause of achieving social justice by peaceful means.

 

 King's view of the Vietnam War would approach the mainstream of American thought within a few years. And his condemnations of American militarism and gross disparities in wealth and opportunity still echo, though to little more effect than he was able to achieve fifty years ago.

 The basis for a current approval rating north of 90 percent could be captured succinctly in carefully cropped newsreel footage of  King's countless confrontations with vicious, inflammatory bigots and his magnificent oratory that day in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when achieving his "dream" seemed largely a matter of rallying his countrymen against institutionalized racial persecution in the South.  Overly narrow historical memories typically serve a purpose, and in this case it is far more comforting to focus on Dr. King's success in making a bad part of the country better than to contemplate the reasons for his equally telling failures to push the whole of America to become what he knew it should be.

(This is a modified version of a piece that appeared at www.zocalopublicsquare.org.)

 

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MLK'S 'DREAM" GOT TOO BIG

 

According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this month died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent, a figure well above anything Donald Trump has been able to ring up thus far.

White racial resentment was still a critical factor at that point. But  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's unfavorable numbers were at least 25 points higher in 1968 than in 1963, and his faltering appeal over the final years of his life was also a consequence of appearing to fall behind his times in some respects even as he was leaping well ahead of them in others.

A day after returning home in December 1964 from a tour whose most important stop was Oslo, the Nobel Laureate for Peace joined a picket line at Atlanta's Scripto Pen factory, where some 700 workers were striking for better wages for less skilled employees  Though it was a remarkably humble gesture for someone who had received such a lofty affirmation, King's actions that day and his call for a nationwide boycott of Scripto products won him few friends in his hometown's white staunchly antiunion business community.

His picketing also foreshadowed a future in which King would move beyond the bloody battles against blatantly illegal state and local racial practices in places like Birmingham and Selma. Not content with the gains registered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he resolved to pursue a more expansive, aggressive, and (to white Americans, especially) unsettling socioeconomic and political agenda, one that would draw him into another fateful labor dispute some three-and-a-half years later in Memphis.

 

While still involved in the Scripto affair, King sat for a Playboy interview with Alex Haley, in which he endorsed a massive federal aid program for blacks. Its whopping $50 billion price tag was, he pointed out, less than annual U.S. spending for defense. Such an expenditure, he argued, would be more than justified in "a spectacular decline" in "school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils." Many poor whites were "in the very same boat with the Negro," he added, and if they could be persuaded to join forces with blacks, they could form "a grand alliance" and "exert massive pressure on the Government to get jobs for all."

King had made passing allusions to this possibility before, but a straightforward call for an active biracial coalition of have-nots was just as terrifying to white ruling elites, be they on Peachtree or Wall Street, as it had been when raised by the Populists in the 1890s.

King did nothing to quell these concerns when he later told David Halberstam that he had abandoned the incremental approach to social change of his civil rights protest days in favor of pursuing "a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values," one which would "look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation."

            That King's vision of a "revolution in values" was not purely domestic. In April 1967, he denounced American involvement in Vietnam, once at his own Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and once at Riverside Church in New York before 3,000 people, on April 4, precisely a year before he was killed.  He decried the hypocrisy of sending young black men "eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem." Beyond that lay the painful irony of seeing them join white soldiers, with whom they could "hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta," in "brutal solidarity "as they torched "the huts of a poor village." In this they were, however unwittingly, agents of a U.S. policy that destroyed and depopulated the countryside, forcing its former inhabitants to take refuge in cities teeming with "hundreds of thousands of homeless children" who were "running in packs on the streets like animals."

Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael observed that in this case, King was taking on not a hapless, wholly unsympathetic villain like Birmingham's Bull Connor, but rather "the entire policy of the United States government," as the. The consequences were swift and severe:  an outraged President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact with King.  And a majority of black Americans--including many old allies and colleagues from the civil rights years--also objected to his stance, fearing it could have devastating consequences for their cause.

King hardly fared better in pursuing his domestic agenda. It was one thing to capture public sympathy nationwide when pitted against the raw hatred and brutality that seemed the peculiar province of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line. It proved quite another to persuade whites outside the South to share their neighborhoods and jobs with blacks, or to support expensive federal assistance programs dedicated to helping blacks overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations.

King had a better grasp of what he was up against after his 1966 open-housing campaign in and around Chicago, where he confronted white mobs he described as more "hateful" than any he had seen "even in Mississippi or Alabama."   In this context, his own stern insistence on strict adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence met with growing disdain among a younger generation of black leaders. Tired of relying on the excruciatingly slow process of peaceful protest and tedious negotiation, some mocked King's ministerial oratory and called him "De Lawd."

 

It was impatience with King's doctrine of nonviolence that turned what would prove to be his last march, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 28, 1968, into a riot.  Some marchers quickly broke ranks to break store windows, and looting was soon underway.  An aggressive police response, complete with tear gas and billy clubs, led some protesters to retaliate with Molotov cocktails. By the end of the confrontation, one person was dead and some 50 others wounded. Feeling repudiated and ashamed by this failure to prevent violence, King had to be pressured  into returning to Memphis a week later for yet another march, one that a single assassin's bullet on April 4 assured he would never lead.

When Stokely Carmichael originally scheduled a press conference for April 5, 1968, he had planned to use it as a platform for demanding the release of fellow black militant H. Rap Brown, who had been stuck in a Maryland jail for several weeks. Instead, he devoted but a few sentences to the plight of "Brother Rap" before declaring that "white America made its biggest mistake last night" by killing Dr. Martin Luther King.

King's slaying meant the death of "all reasonable hope," Carmichael warned, because he was "the only man of our race...of the older generation who the militants and the revolutionaries and the masses of black people would still listen to" even if they no longer agreed with what he had to say. There would be no more "intellectual discussions."   Black Americans would now retaliate for the murder of one of their leaders by seeking their justice not in the courtrooms but in the streets.

 

And so they did, in classically Pyrrhic fashion. Younger, more militant black spokesmen who had spurned King's commitment to nonviolence and peaceful negotiation proceeded to stoke outrage over the slaughter of someone so un-menacing and well-intentioned. A week-long orgy of violence raged across more than 100 cities, leaving at least 37 people dead and many more injured and millions of dollars in property destroyed. This was a bitterly ironic sendoff for someone who had sacrificed his life to the cause of achieving social justice by peaceful means.

 

 King's view of the Vietnam War would approach the mainstream of American thought within a few years. And his condemnations of American militarism and gross disparities in wealth and opportunity still echo, though to little more effect than he was able to achieve fifty years ago.

 The basis for a current approval rating north of 90 percent could be captured succinctly in carefully cropped newsreel footage of  King's countless confrontations with vicious, inflammatory bigots and his magnificent oratory that day in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when achieving his "dream" seemed largely a matter of rallying his countrymen against institutionalized racial persecution in the South.  Overly narrow historical memories typically serve a purpose, and in this case it is far more comforting to focus on Dr. King's success in making a bad part of the country better than to contemplate the reasons for his equally telling failures to push the whole of America to become what he knew it should be.

(This is a modified version of a piece that appeared at www.zocalopublicsquare.org.)

 

A BRIDGE TOO FAR, AND FOR FAR TOO LONG.

Though the Ol' Bloviator has some qualms about wholesale destruction of flags, statues, and other honorific monuments to the Confederacy, he has been hollering for years that they have no place on state or local government property, as they imply a continuing affinity to the cause of white supremacy. It should follow readily enough then that no public highway or bridge should bear the name of Eugene Talmadge, one of twentieth-century America's foremost political fomenters of racial hatred and persecution. Even in these sad times, it seems difficult to believe that the powers that be in Georgia would resist an effort, by the Girl Scouts, of all people, to rechristen the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge in Savannah in honor of Juliette Gordon Low, a Savannah native who founded their hallowed organization. This recent New York Times report indicates that previous attempts to strip Talmadge's hateful moniker from the bridge that is effectively the gateway to Savannah have come to grief "in the backrooms and board rooms of Atlanta" and that some of the state's lawmakers claim that "over the years . . . Mr. Talmadge's relatives have warned legislators against altering the name of the bridge." These efforts apparently included intense lobbying and threats of political reprisal against anyone who supported renaming--"I'll raise $100,000 just to beat ya'" Most of the pushback against renaming the bridge seemed to come from the relatives and associates of Eugene Talmadge's son, Herman, who passed away in 2002. An arch-segregationist in his own right when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1956, "Hummon," as he was known hereabouts, was governor of Georgia when the bridge officially named for his father opened in 1954. Though members of the family were loath to speak on the record, Lynda C. Talmadge, Senator Talmadge's third wife and widow did allow that "if people looked into the history and the record and the contributions and the things that the Talmadges did, they'd see that it's warranted to be named Talmadge."

            Fair enough, Ms. T.  Since it's Gene Talmadge whose name is the focal point of the current kerfluffle, let's just have a look at his "history and record." In his three terms (1926-1932 as Georgia's Commissioner of Agriculture, Gene Talmadge was charged with violating a state law requiring him to deposit fees collected on fertilizer in the state treasury (rather than in banks owned by his friends, as he was wont to do). He was also criticized by a state senate investigative committee for paying himself and family members more than $40,000 in salaries and expenses, and using state funds to underwrite his annual trips to the Kentucky Derby. His tour de force, however, was a purported scheme to raise hog prices in Georgia by using state money without authorization to buy eighty-two rail car loads of hogs which were to be purchased at prices just under the going rate in Chicago and having them shipped there for resale. The hogs lost considerable weight in transit and other complications resulted in the loss of more than $12,000 in state funds. Resolutely defiant in the face of all the charges--and evidence--against him, Gene would go on to use accusations that he stole state money to buy the hogs to great political advantage.

A master manipulator of Georgia's infamously malapportioned county-unit system in which the total of 1,200 votes cast for him in three sparsely populated rural counties like Gilmer, Glascock, and Lincoln effectively canceled out the 26,000 votes for his opponents in Fulton,* Talmadge readily confessed to his loyal following in the countryside that he had sure enough "stole them hogs," before adding quickly, "But I stole for you!" This brand of politics propelled Talmadge into the governor's office in 1932 and 1934. During his first term, he distinguished himself by granting three times more pardons than the state prison board recommended, raising  reasonable suspicions that he was running a "pardons racket." When the legislature refused to approve cutting the price of automobile tags to $3 across the board, he achieved it by executive order, further endearing himself to the country folks, even as his action drained away desperately needed revenues for their local schools. Despite his promise never to do so, after textile interests contributed some $20,000 to his re-election campaign in 1934, as soon as the votes were in, he declared martial law and used the National Guard to break an ongoing strike, incarcerating the dissident workers in a hastily arranged concentration camp near Atlanta. He would soon  summon the troops again, this time to physically remove the state Treasurer and Comptroller General from their offices for denying him access to funds not officially appropriated by the legislature, capping this dramatic show of force by ordering the vaults cut open with blow torches and the monies removed.

Talmadge's disdain for the New Deal was obvious from the start, and his contempt for its architect only marginally less so, as evidenced by his scornful reference to FDR as a president who couldn't get out of wheel chair and "walk around and hunt up people to talk to." (If your thoughts are straying at this point to a contemporary politician occupying a considerably more critical post who is also given to bullying, strong-arm tactics and mocking the disabled, consider your analogy validated.) Such crudeness didn't appear to hurt Talmadge in Georgia that much, but in those days--as opposed to these--it seemed to affirm his unsuitability for  higher office, specifically for representing Georgia in the U.S. Senate, as his unsuccessful bids to unseat Richard B. Russell in 1936 and Walter F. Georgia in 1938 appeared to indicate.

Talmadge would be back for another gubernatorial go at it in 1940, however, and once in office, he would constitute what amounted to a one-man wrecking crew where higher education in the state was concerned. Vowing to purge Georgia's colleges of sympathizers with "racial equality," he inflicted mayhem to the max at the University of Georgia, particularly in his attacks on College of Education Dean Walter Cocking.  Cocking's ties to the philanthropic Rosenwald Fund, which in Talmadge's mind translated into "Jew money for n----rs," rendered him far too liberal for the governor's taste. When Talmadge's rampage was done, a number of faculty and administrators had been ousted, as had several members of the Board of Regents who were deemed less than totally comfortable with Talmadge's dictatorial tactics. Not surprisingly, an official finding of "gross political interference" in the affairs of the state's white public universities led to their immediate loss of accreditation and later to Talmadge's failure to win re-election in 1942.

Because gubernatorial terms had been extended to four years, "Ol' Gene" had to wait it out until 1946 to claim the office of governor for a fourth time, but claim it he did, in a campaign that left no doubt about the depth and ruthlessness of his racism. The Supreme Court had recently struck down the Democratic primary as a whites-only affair, meaning that in 1946, Georgia blacks would have their first chance since Reconstruction to vote in significant numbers in a race that actually mattered.

There had been little mystery about the racial attitudes of a man who freely admitted to horse-whipping a black man until he yelled "Sweet Jesus!" Racial tensions were ratcheted up with every Talmadge warning of a "nigra takeover" in the 1946 campaign, leading him to sanctimoniously counsel "wise Negroes" to "stay away from white folks' ballot boxes" on election day. This they largely did in his home county of Telfair, and even more so in Schley County where the state representative simply positioned himself at the polling place with his shotgun after vowing to immediately dispatch any black person with the temerity to show up to vote. In the end, though relative racial moderate James V. Carmichael claimed a majority of the popular vote, Talmadge amassed enough county unit votes to win his fourth term as governor, albeit one he would never serve.

The most tragic immediate consequence of the racially charged campaign came roughly a week after the primary when two black couples were gunned down in broad daylight by a mob of whites in Walton County. Several other reports of violence against blacks surfaced over the next few weeks, Talmadge's victory having signaled that, as one journalist put it, it was now open season on blacks "and every pinheaded Georgia cracker and bigoted Ku Kluxer figured he had a license." Meanwhile, Talmadge's health disintegrated rapidly, and suffering from complications of cirrhosis of the liver, he died without being sworn in as governor, a few days before Christmas in 1946. His unwitting bequest to the state was the fierce and altogether ludicrous struggle to claim his office that led to the notorious "three governors" controversy, which revealed Georgia politics at its most venal, benighted, and self-destructive worst, and thus offered a fitting conclusion to a sad and sorry chapter in the state's history.  Beyond striking a decidedly foreboding tone for the gateway to one of the nation's most inviting cities, any bridge that continues to celebrate so toxic a historical legacy as that of Eugene Talmadge is, in itself, an obstacle to overcoming that legacy.  

*Vote totals are taken from the 1938 senatorial primary in Georgia.

Some 35 years ago, the Ol' Bloviator published a book called "The Selling of the South," which chronicled the efforts of southern political and economic leaders to attract new industrial plants, employing a variety of subsidies, tax exemptions and other gimmicks, but focusing in by far the greatest part on the promise of cheap, nonunion labor. As the following piece, which appeared a while back at zocalopublicsquare.org, shows all too well, this practice has changed but little.


 

The recent crushing rejection of a United Auto Workers bid to organize a 6,500-worker Nissan assembly plant near Canton, Mississippi seemed to present the proverbial déjà vu all over again for organized labor's ancient and oft-thwarted crusade to gain a serious foothold among Southern workers.

This time, however, we are not talking about textile and apparel plants in the 1920s or '30s, but about a thoroughly globalized Japanese auto manufacturer, led until a few months ago by a French-educated, Brazilian-born CEO. What might seem to be no more than a classically Southern triumph of continuity over change is better understood as an example of continuity within change--one with implications ranging well beyond regional boundaries.

Cheap labor has been the mainstay of efforts to lure industrial employers into the South since the 1880s. By the 1920s, union agents venturing into the region could expect withering inhospitality, not excluding brutal beatings by local sheriffs or company thugs. With these shows of physical force came a powerful and cohesive propaganda barrage, courtesy of racist and sectionalist politicians who linked labor unions to the abolitionists of the 1850s and the "race mixing" NAACP of the 1950s.

According to one study of Southern industrial development, it was common practice to remind workers that unions were ruled by "potbellied Yankees with big cigars in their mouths" sporting names "even a high school teacher couldn't pronounce." From the pulpits came warnings that "CIO means Christ is Out," with editors and Chamber of Commerce types chiming in to make a vote to unionize tantamount to "endorsing the closing of a factory."

Between 1944 and 1954, all of the old Confederate states strengthened their anti-union arsenals with right-to-work statutes outlawing the practice of requiring all employees of union-represented plants to belong to the union or pay dues. The union membership rate in the South was 50 percent of the national average in 1939, and as of 2016, the Southern average had slipped to 43 percent of the national mean--particularly telling given that the national figure is now only 10.7 percent.

Since the 1930s, a steady proliferation of industrial enticements and subsidies, including free land, tax-exemptions, and low-interest bond financing offered by state and local governments has effectively made anti-unionism the sine qua non of Southern regional development strategy. Protecting these investments of public revenue and resources in private firms made it even more vital to keep the subsidized company union-free.

As the cost of these concessions soared, the South became something akin to a lavishly appointed gated community for industrialists, maintained primarily at the expense of their own workers. Not only were union recruiters sent packing, but even potentially high-wage employers like United Airlines. In 1991, the airline met with vociferous opposition from the Greensboro, North Carolina business community when it revealed plans for a maintenance facility that would bring 6,000 well-paid unionized workers to a well-known haven for non-union industries.

With Rust Belt employers already opting for the balmier business climate of the "Sun Belt," foreign industrial investment in the South got a huge boost in 1971, when the Nixon administration moved to boost exports by devaluing the dollar while simultaneously imposing a 10 percent surcharge on imported manufactures. At that point, exulted a British banker, industrial investments in the United States were "like getting Harrods at half price."

Excited liberals presumed initially that these foreign companies, coming from environments where labor enjoyed greater bargaining rights and prerogatives, would not insist on union-free work forces. Yet, many of them were drawn to the South precisely because it had neither the labor issues nor the leftist political pressures that they felt at home. Although they consistently offered wages higher than the local average, none of the South's new foreign employers like Nissan or BMW showed much inclination to lug along the high wages and extensive benefits that one German executive called "the social baggage we have back home."

This much became apparent in 1977 when the French tire maker Michelin, which had recently opened a plant near Greenville, South Carolina, joined forces with local development leaders to keep a large, relatively high-wage, but likely-to-be-unionized Phillip Morris plant out of the area. Thirty years later, developers were still reminding Japanese industrialists that because South Carolina's unionization rate was "one of the lowest in the nation" its manufacturing wage was also "among the lowest in the country." In the long run, emerging global competition for new plants made it all the more imperative for the region to hold down labor costs by continuing to resist the incursions of organized labor.

Nissan became the South's first major international auto manufacturer in 1980, when it agreed to open a truck plant near Smyrna, Tennessee. Toyota would follow four years later with a facility near Georgetown, Kentucky, and over the next 20 years an invading horde of foreign automakers including Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Kia, Hyundai, and Volkswagen would stake their claims in the American South. As the list of firms grew, so did the size of the subsidies offered. With the bidding for new foreign car plants in full runaway mode, Tennessee's initial $33 million payoff to Nissan seemed like pocket change compared to the $295 million show of affection that sealed its original agreement in 2000 to come to Madison County, Mississippi. Mississippi's subsidy guarantees to Nissan now exceed $1.2 billion, with the total for all foreign automakers with plants in the South topping $4.2 billion.

To this day, not a single production workforce at any of these heavily subsidized foreign auto plants has opted to join the United Auto Workers. Nissan's non-union Tennessee and Mississippi operations are the only such plants among its 45 production facilities world-wide. Like its international peers as well as the great majority of the domestic manufacturers preceding it to the South, the company has frequently reminded workers, state officials, and leaders of the affected communities of their stake in keeping it that way. In the struggle in Canton alone, Nissan has racked up eight NLRB charges of unfair labor practices in the last 36 months.

The anti-union onslaught in Canton over the protracted build-up to this month's vote had a ferocity reminiscent of many such campaigns in years past. This time, however, the stakes were much higher, not simply in terms of money and jobs locally, but in the future of what has long been Mississippi and the South's foundational development strategy of bringing jobs in by keeping unions out. Though the terminology and technology employed by both camps were different than they would have been 75 years ago, elements of race, religion, regional bias, and, of course, fear, were still part of the story this time around.

With blacks accounting for a large majority of plant employees, race came into play more subtly this time, as anti-UAW spokesmen pointed to the union's donations and close ties with certain black churches and civil rights advocates, while union supporters cited preferential treatment for white plant employees. There was ministerial involvement on both sides, with pro-union clergy concentrating on linking workers' rights to civil rights and pointing to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s advocacy of both. Meanwhile, instead of Satanizing the UAW, opposing clerics came closer to deifying Nissan for, as one put it, making "such a change in the life of the people ... The lights are on, the water is running ... Everything is fine. It is just superb."

Ironically, representatives of Yokohama-based Nissan cast the UAW as an "outsider" trying to disrupt the plant "family." Although the old-fashioned appeals to sectional bias were not apparent in official company statements, they lurked just below the surface among rank-and-file union opponents, such as the one who took to an anti-union Facebook page to condemn organizers as "21st-century carpetbaggers" and urge workers to "help these Yankee aholes pack ... and tell [them] to get back to Michigan and stay there."

Meanwhile, anti-union politicians were hardly less given to fear-mongering than they had been several generations earlier. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant warned, "If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we now know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions." Bryant's message echoed one in a video shown to workers from Steve Marsh, the plant's top executive, who pointed out that UAW workers at Ford and GM had "experienced significant instability in recent years," including, "many layoffs and plant closings." A representative of Kelly Services, which recruits temporary workers for Nissan, had warned more explicitly on Facebook that the Canton plant might close if the union came in.

In the end, Nissan's not-so-veiled threats of lost jobs were almost certainly critical to the roughly two-thirds vote against the UAW. An estimated 40 percent of the workforce are temporaries, who are hired at much lower starting wages, currently advertised by Kelly Services at $13.46 per hour. If they eventually join the regular workforce, these former temps come in at their current pay under a two-tier wage-benefit scale that caps their hourly wage at $24, roughly $2 per hour less than the average for a worker hired earlier on regular terms. Even so, a Nissan employee making $24 per hour would still be making as much as $385 more each week than the average for workers surrounding counties, including Hinds, which is home to the state capital.

With temporary workers ineligible to vote, the second-tier status of some 1,500 former temporary workers seemed more likely to support the union than their senior-coworkers, and a reasonably unified pro-UAW stance on their part might have swung things the other way. When it came time to vote, though, in a state that is down more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade, even an inequitable work situation was clearly preferable to flipping burgers or cleaning motel rooms. One former temp reasoned that even her second-tier paycheck meant that she could finally, "put food on my table without worrying about having to pay my light bill." 

The key to this and countless other union defeats in the South and elsewhere, is not the ignorance of those who vote "No," or their blindness to the potential benefits of union representation. Rather, it is the sobering, self-preservational realism of workers steeped in generations of unrelenting, sometimes unthinkable poverty. Although making some headway at long last, in an age of almost instantaneous industrial mobility they remain acutely sensitive to the ephemerality of even the incremental gains they are finally enjoying as individuals. It should not surprise us that they are given to far greater skepticism of the more expansive vision of progress they are asked to accept on faith by others whose lived experiences often differ dramatically from their own.

N.B.

Still juiced on the classic liberal notion that worker solidarity trumps all, a certain commenter on the OB's humble offering seems oblivious to radical changes in historical and economic context since the 1950s. As it so often does, this particular blind spot breeds impatience rather than empathy:

 This very interesting and historically enlightening article is seriously flawed by the last paragraph which is absolute nonsense. It is not "self-preservational realism" or any other kind of rational thinking that caused the Nissan workers to vote against their own self-interest. I don't know why they voted against themselves but i suspect that it is about intellectually unsophisticated workers succumbing to intimidation. I grew up in Detroit where first generation immigrant factory workers with little education like both of my grandfathers had the courage and insight to fight to unionize the auto industry.

While the O.B. readily doffs his beanie to this gent's resolute and courageous grandpas, he begs to point out that mid-20th century Detroit autoworkers had little reason to think that the factory doors were going to be slammed in their faces when Americans were standing in line to get them one of those Buicks with the new dynaflow transmissions.  Nor were the factories themselves going to be relocated at any great distance from the vital steel and rubber suppliers concentrated in the Industrial Midwest.

Suffice it to say, the world looks quite different today, not simply for workers in Mississippi but those in many of the former strongholds of organized labor throughout the old Manufacturing Belt. At 8.1 percent, Alabama has the highest unionization rate among the 11 states of the old Confederacy, while the rate in 7 of those states is under 5 percent. Meanwhile, across the entire country, the share of workers belonging to unions has fallen from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2016, reflecting a loss of 3 million members over that span.   Industrial outmigration, complaints about excessive wage and benefits demands, and a general anti-labor political backlash have factored heavily in this decline, which has produced serious political consequences, particularly for the Democrats, for whom "labor" has long simply meant "organized labor." It is one thing to say that reversing the longstanding overall decline in union membership would help to restore a much-needed balance and tangibility to American politics. It is quite another to draw on a sorely outmoded perception of the current realities of labor-management positioning to summarily declare that any worker in any setting who opts out of union representation is incapable of defining or assessing his/her "own self-interest."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ol' Bloviator has felt much like a meteorologist in hurricane season ever since last month's horror in Charlottesville, and is still suffering the aftereffects of what he can only describe as "Sudden Onset Relevance Syndrome," triggered by an unaccustomed spike in interest in his opinion among members of the Fourth Estate. Bombarded with requests for interviews and commentary on this monument mess, he has been pushed to the brink of exhaustion by a steady procession of demands requiring his mouth or keyboard to operate in sync with the erratic discharges of his alcohol-ravaged synapses. The O.B. has been talking to reporters on a fairly regular basis over the last 30 years or so, but the last few weeks have truly challenged his capacity for saying the same thing again and again while trying to make it sound original each time.  He will say, however, that his most recent journalistic encounters have in the main been both rewarding and stimulating. A case in point is this interview with the folks from the weekend version of NPR's "All Things Considered," where both his interrogator and the producer were kind enough to give him enough time to connect a few of his thoughts into a commentary that a generous sort might even deem semi-coherent. It was a bit of a different story in that respect with the folks over in London at the Financial Times, (Warning: Likely Pay-walled.) but if some 150 of the precious words out of the submitted piece that follows wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor, it must at least be said that they were excised as smartly and skillfully as any of the O.B.'s many bon mots that have met with the same fate. (The caption, on the other hand, reinforces the O.B.'s longstanding perception that the task of writing these is invariably assigned to the biggest dimwit on staff.)

 "Although the implications of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville Virginia are clearly national in scope, it played out on a stage set by the historic insistence of generations of white Southerners on defining themselves by a defeat visited on their ancestors more than 150 years ago. Historian Carlton J. H. Hayes could have cited the example of the American South as those of Spain and Serbia when he observed that "a people may be more united and nationalistic through grief over defeat than through celebration of triumph."

 Even before 1860s drew to a close, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking military leaders began to assemble an arsenal of historical documents "from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon." The carefully cultivated reverence for the valorous defenders of the South's" Lost Cause" ultimately made its biggest impact not in writing but the tidal wave of physical representations of Confederate heroes which swept across the South between roughly 1890 and 1910. Inscriptions on these monuments lauded the brave guardians of "Anglo-Saxon," (i.e., "white') civilization in a period  marked as well  by the rise of legally mandated racial segregation and the political disenfranchisement of  all but a tiny fraction of the southern black population. Not coincidentally, these years also witnessed the lynchings of approximately 2,000 black people, for the campaigns to strip away the civil rights of black southerners were fueled by highly incendiary racial scapegoating, some of it by staunch advocates of  plastering the landscape with Confederate memorials

. Meanwhile, measures like poll taxes or a literacy requirements for voting were critical not only in  restoring white supremacy but in determining which whites would be supreme because these suffrage restrictions sharply curtailed political participation by both poor whites as well as blacks, the two groups most likely to vote against the conservative Democratic establishment.  In the wake of disfranchisement, Republican turnout in South Carolina fell from 28% in 1880 to just 3% in 1896. Similar figures from other states suggest that the so-called solidly Democratic, white supremacist South was not born but made, and, if so, Lost Cause monuments and mythology were among the critical construction materials.  They are rightly condemned for their connection to slavery, which, Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens called the veritable "cornerstone" of the new nation, but such a narrow focus does not do full justice to their pernicious importance to efforts to re-subjugate black Southerners as comprehensively as the rest of the nation would allow.

 Sadly, that turned out to be quite a lot, as northern politicians quickly lost their stomach for efforts to aid and protect the former slaves in the face of surging interest in exploiting the investment potential of a rebuilding region now intent on rapid economic modernization. The northern push for "reconciliation" entailed not only foreswearing further interference in southern racial affairs, but swallowing the Lost Cause propaganda package at a single gulp. Both requirements registered as faits accompli in an 1890 New York Times report on the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, which declared that just as Lee's memory truly belonged to "the American people," the monument was "itself a national possession."  Noting a profusion of Confederate battle flags at the ceremonies an elderly black man seized on the true meaning of the occasion for him when he exclaimed "The Southern white folks is on top!"

 Surprisingly, the flag's widespread association with avowedly white supremacist organizations emerged only in the mid-1940s when rising trepidation that the destabilizing forces unloosed by World War II might undermine the entire Jim Crow system. The Confederate banner was both more emotive and much easier to hoist at a cross-burning than a bust of Stonewall Jackson, and it quickly became a fixture at rallies and marches, not only of the Ku Klux Klan, but a variety of postwar neo-Nazi hate groups, not mention a succession of fire-breathing segregationist politicians.

Despite the Confederate flag's highly visible presence at the most appalling scenes of violence and bigotry that erupted in the 1960s and not infrequently thereafter, many white Southerners clung desperately to the idea that it actually symbolized "heritage not hate." Ultimately, it would take the 2015 slaying of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by a young, Confederate flag-obsessed white man to shatter this long-implausible argument. The various furlings of the Rebel banner in the immediate aftermath of this atrocity augured a similar fate for their bronze and concrete counterparts, at least ten of which have been stripped of their prominent perches in the southern and border-South states in 2017 alone.

If there is anything affirmative to be salvaged from the wreckage of Charlottesville, it is that in descending on the city from all over the country and moving on to such far-flung locales as Boston and Berkeley, the rampaging alt-Right hordes may have finally vanquished the wishful notion that racial hostility in America bears the the imprimatur of a single region. At this juncture, certainly, the incalculable harm done by white Southerners and who persisted in trying to separate "heritage" from "hate," leaves us only to tremble at the prospect of four years under a President who seldom bothers even to make the attempt."

Despite all the vitriol elicited by conflicts over these monuments, the O.B. has had but little flung at him-- on this side of the pond, at least. On the other hand, the more than 200 comments affixed to the foregoing piece online, indicate that he has thrown a good number of the devoted readers of the FT into a state of high dudgeon. The trio that follow represent some of the O.B's favorites among many excellent examples of the fine art of disparagement. If there is any solace to be taken from such a mass of opinions masquerading as fact, it could be that, as a group, the Brits are almost as ignorant of American history as Americans are.

"The best comments I have seen, and there have been many good ones, are those that address surprise that the FT would publish an article like this, not only incendiary but ignorant of the American south even at a basic level."

"Don't know if the author ever lived in the American south but I expect not."

[And the O.B.'s personal favorite:]

"Apparently this guy actually wrote a book about the South. Imagine the poor sods who end up reading it."

Confederates in Concrete Are On The Move

 

 


forrest zocalo.jpg

(Coutesy Brent Moore/Flickr.)

The Ol' Bloviator has delivered so many truly mind-numbing disquisitions on controversies over Confederate iconography that something akin to this downright demonic representation of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest has begun to haunt his dreams.(Not for nothing was this ugly-assed sucker selected as one of the world's ten most terrifying statues.)  True to his nature and calling however, the O.B. refuses to let the fact that he doesn't have much to add on a particular topic prevent him from cutting loose on it yet again, particularly when he is asked to do so, as he was a few weeks ago by the folks at Zocalo Public Square. What follows is a dramatically revised and expanded version of that piece. 

 

The recent uproar in New Orleans over de-Confederatizing southern public spaces succeeded once again in bringing out the worst in those who are emotionally overinvested in concrete representations of the leaders and key figures who stood on the wrong side of history more than 150 years ago. Unlikely as it seems, the search for a useful parallel for understanding the historical and contemporary context of  events in New Orleans may take us from the banks of the Mississippi to the banks of the Tigris. (The O.B. knows he is asking his gentle readers to make a bit of a stretch here, but he makes that request out of sheer desperation to appear to be saying something new about this time- and tongue-worn issue, so cut him a little slack, will ya?)  When Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party came to power in Iraq in 1968, he undertook straight away to instill a sense of national pride and identity in his subjects by deliberately glorifying (and grossly embellishing) his own regime's accomplishments while linking them to the supposed glories of ancestral antiquity. Pursuant to this end, he demanded that writers and visual artists present positive and compelling representations of Iraq's past and present, stretching back all the way to ancient Mesopotamia and classical Islam, to be supplemented later by a variety of overpowering monuments such as the Arc of Triumph, formed by gigantic hands holding swords and designed to pay tribute to a claimed victory in the Iran-Iraq War. All of this was meant to instill nationalistic fervor as a means of securing support or at least tolerance of Saddam's tyrannical and reckless leadership.

Despite the differences in time and distance, there is a certain similarity between Saddam's tactics and those of postbellum southern leaders, who sought to instill a sense of quasi-nationalistic pride and purpose among white southerners by rallying them around a glorious if illusory past, embodied in the Lost Cause and its valorous defense of the genteel and aristocratic Old South. Tirelessly invoking this seductive imagery, politicians drew on it to rally whites behind their efforts to strip blacks of their political, legal and civil rights. The move to monumentalize the Lost Cause often went hand-in-hand with campaigns for segregation and disfranchisement that, replete with incendiary rhetoric, more than once fueled outbreaks of mass violence against blacks. An ex-Confederate and former North Carolina congressman Alfred Moore Waddell, worked tirelessly to secure monuments to the state's "fallen sons," while warning that the only real means of preserving their heroic legacy was denying black men the vote by any means necessary even if "we have to choke the Cape Fear [River] with carcasses."  These chilling words foretold Waddell's role as the  principal instigator of  the infamous Wilmington, N.C., riot of 1898, which left at least two dozen blacks dead.

 Likewise, guardians of a Jim Crow system that prevailed well past the middle of the twentieth century played on Lost Cause loyalties in making the defense of this sinister arrangement the litmus test of loyalty to "our forefathers" and to "the southern way of life," suggesting just how deeply the institutions of white supremacy had been embedded in the notion of a distinct southern white identity over the stretch of several generations. When the Civil Rights era finally toppled the formal barriers to racial equality, it was not surprising that white southerners who could not accept the finality of this result and fought to reverse the irreversible continued to cloak themselves in the Confederate flag and other trappings of the Lost Cause. Yet, even among the majority of white southerners who made their peace with Jim Crow's demise, there was a reluctance to go full cold turkey on their allegiances to the Lost Cause ethos, lest they surrender all that remained of what defined their cultural identity.

It took way too long, of course, but their insistence that continued affinity for Confederate symbols could be grounded in "heritage" rather than "hate" finally became blatantly untenable. Rebel flags and Confederate monuments had dominated the grounds of courthouses where such mockeries of justice such as the 1955 trial of the murderers of Emmett Till and the 1964 trial of the slayers of four civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi played out. In the aftermath of the grisly slaughter of nine black parishioners occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, it became inescapably clear that Lost Cause iconography and paraphernalia had been a central thread in a lengthy but tightly interwoven tapestry of racial oppression and injustice. The Charleston massacre forced many white Southerners at long last to weigh the abstractness of heritage against the concreteness of hate, leaving them little choice but  to withdraw, however grudgingly at first, from the active defense of Confederate symbols, largely leaving the field to an outnumbered, under-resourced minority for whom white supremacy was all that was left of their identity to defend.

Perhaps that is why, for all the death threats and precautionary measures that marked recent events in New Orleans, the proceedings gave off more than a whiff of fait accompli. It was particularly noteworthy that while the removal of the first three monuments was accomplished in the dead of night, the fourth and most significant extraction, that of none other than the iconic Robert Edward Lee, came in broad daylight and on a pre-announced schedule.  Make no mistake about it, this was no mere takedown of a another memorial to a Confederate general but rather a benchmark event, in that it was a high-profile removal from a high-profile location of a monument to the highest-profile Confederate of them all.

Lee's posthumous anointment as the symbolic embodiment of the Lost Cause was but a prelude to his acceptance into the national pantheon as well. As white America in general rushed to embrace the romantic vision of southern gallantry and devotion, Lee's star shone ever brighter in the national firmament as well, commanding the admiration of several U.S. presidents, including both Roosevelts and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who hung Lee's portrait in the Oval Office, and praised him for being "noble as a leader and as a man and unsullied as I read the pages of our history." Even as Eisenhower rendered this high compliment, however, "the pages of our history" were being re-written. Lee's aura of nobility and strength had insulated him from his undeniable role as leader of the fighting forces of a nation whose self-described "cornerstone" was slavery, but with historians and those who took them seriously finally ready to confront the reality that the Civil War was fought over the institution of human bondage, his pristine personal aura no longer loomed large enough to obscure his connections to a monstrous human evil. His name began to disappear from public schools, parks, and thoroughfares some twenty years ago, but monuments bearing his likeness have been slower to give way, as if he represented the final sacrosanct pillar supporting the crumbling infrastructure of Lost Cause mythology.

Though it drew more attention, the removal of Lee's statue in New Orleans actually conveyed less of a sense of finality than the decision to do the same in Charlottesville, Virginia, scarcely 100 miles south of his birthplace, where torch-bearing opponents of the move gathered recently to hear white nationalist Richard Spencer, sparking a candlelight counter protest in which a "Black Lives Matter" banner was laid at the statue's base. Legal action has guaranteed that the statue will stay put for six months, but if the ultimate failure of such efforts in New Orleans is any guide, General Lee and his storied mount, Traveler, will soon be on the move in Charlottesville as well.

Beyond these moves to evict Lee's likenesses, there are other reasons to suspect that, at long last, the days of Confederate monuments occupying well-known public spaces might be numbered. Since the Charleston massacre two years ago, at least sixty other Confederate symbols have reportedly been removed from such spaces. Confederate Memorial Day is no longer observed as such in Georgia, and the holiday is under fire in Arkansas and other states as well. There will be rear-guard counteroffensives, to be sure, as attention-seeking legislators seek to reinstitute Confederate holidays or impose legal restrictions on the removal of Confederate monuments, but the broad sense that symbolic tributes to the Confederacy will soon be much less central to southern representative culture is hard to shake.

If reaching this point in what has been a protracted and often agonizing process  has triggered a certain splintering of southern white identity then it is a small price to pay, compared to the benefits of forging a more just and inclusive society. Such a society had of course been the aim of those who succeeded in overthrowing Saddam in Iraq, and they quickly launched a radical and sweeping effort to de-Baathify the country by purging the government and its bureaucracy of former party members and erasing the cultural and architectural remnants of  the historical memory that Saddam had constructed in the interest of fostering national unity and pride. This zealous campaign soon raised concerns, however, including the specter of an unraveling social fabric across a population already marked by significant and contentious ethnic and religious divisions. The situation only grew worse when de-Baathification seemed set the stage for wanton looting and depredation of some of Iraq's most precious antiquities, some of it driven by a variety of lingering sectarian animosities. Iraqi art expert Nada Shabout conceded that "Some of the [Baathist] monuments were in bad taste and were ugly, and I would not be heartbroken if they were brought down. But... they were nevertheless part of the history of the country... So do we throw away the baby with the bath water?"

While the immediate consequences of de-Confederatizing southern public spaces are unlikely to prove even remotely as severe in this country, events in Iraq represent yet another addition to a list of particulars stretching back many centuries of the complexities and frequently unintended consequences of attempting to erase disturbing reminders of an imperfect past.

Monuments to the defenders of slavery are nothing if not disturbing, all the more so because they were also the instruments of the people who brought us the watered down version of slavery that was Jim Crow. Yet, in this respect while, like Saddam's memorials, they may no longer be acceptable as public historical symbols, they nonetheless retain a distinct and indelible value as historical artifacts. Placed in museums or other suitable venues where they can be appropriately contextualized, they might succeed in persuading whites that they don't belong on public property while persuading blacks that they should not be destroyed.

The spirit of an ambitious campaign by historic preservationists at the Atlanta History Center and elsewhere to properly contextualize Confederate monuments is embodied in a tablet affixed last October to the base of a Confederate monument on the campus at Ole Miss. While respectful of the idea of honoring "the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers," the tablet also cautions that such monuments "were often used to promote an ideology known as the 'the Lost Cause,' which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states' rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War." In addition to a reminder that the Confederacy's defeat "meant freedom for millions of people," the plaque also notes this particular monument's divisive legacy as "a rallying point for opponents of integration" on the evening of the deadly riot that marked James Meredith's arrival on campus in September, 1962.

Here, in and between the lines on this tablet, lies a truly compelling argument for preserving and fully articulating the origins and implications of these notorious pieces of concrete. Modest as it might seem, this effort might be a step toward the day when white and black Southerners not only find a way to share their common but traditionally conflict-ridden past, but to make it the foundation of a new and profoundly more representative regional identity. If this should indeed come to pass, the Lost Cause will have given way to one infinitely more inclusive and inspiring.

 

 

 

Bloviate:

"To orate verbosely and windily."

Bloviate is most closely associated with President Warren G. Harding, who used it frequently and was given to long winded speeches. H.L. Mencken said of Harding:

"He writes the worst English that I've ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the top most pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Cobbloviate dedicates itself to maintaining the high standards established by President Harding and described so eloquently by Mr. Mencken. However,the bloviations recorded here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the mangement of Flagpole.com,nor,for that matter, are they very likely to be in accord with those of any sane, right-thinking individual or group anywhere in the known universe.

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