In the past few months, discussions of racism and how it permeates our everyday lives have seemed to bubble to the surface. After years of screaming about injustice and inequality, it seems the movement is finally heard. Change seems to be just around the corner. Among these discussions, though, many views are being reassessed–one of which is progressive America’s view of the South.
Considering the long history go bigotry in the South, it’s not hard to understand why. When I was in high school, young, queer, and desperate to run away to California or Seattle, the South felt like an inescapable prison. I’d spent the entirety of my life in between rural Tennessee and Alabama. I felt disgustingly aware of my region’s politics. In my mind, the only hope for happiness lied in reaching a blue state and leaving the entirety of Dixie behind.
This sentiment seems to be echoed by a lot of the more “liberal” side of the country. The South has, for decades, been dismissed as “just like that.” It’s been condemned to a fate nothing more that rednecks, Republicans, and racists. I’ve even heard jokes about how we’d be so much better if the South would just take another look at secession. Very rarely, however, does someone say, “why?” Why is the South like this? Is this dismissal deserved?
This article will attempt to answer those questions, as well as provide a dive into how we think about the South, and where those views might come from.
The history of “rednecks”
The term “redneck” wasn’t always just another way of saying “hillbilly” or “trailer trash.” In fact, it used to be a badge of honor and unity. Back in the 1920s, worker’s rights were near nonexistent. Child labor wouldn’t be banned until 1938. Despite a booming economy, factory workers continued to be paid unlivable wages, despite working in incredibly unsafe conditions. Coal mining in West Virginia had a higher mortality rate than World War I soldiers.
Tired of their mistreatment, workers began to fight back. Strikes lit up across the country, each one inspiring more after it. Black and white workers all stood against the ruling class of capitalists and demanded fair treatment. You probably learned about this in history class. What they didn’t teach is that things got bloody fast. Strikebreakers were hired by companies, almost like a private police force, to intimidate strikers and ensure a quick return to the factories. Violence was allowed if necessary–after all, uncooperative workers could be replaced.
Often times, black workers were sent into the workforce in order to break up strikes, in hopes of creating more infighting and less organization among workers. This didn’t work for long. In fact, the United Mine Workers of America required all members to perform an anti-discrimination oath, becoming one of the first desegregated unions in America.
In order for coal strikers in West Virginia to be able to identify each other in the chaos, they began to wear red scarves around their necks. They called themselves the “Redneck Army.” They marched in the bloodiest labor strike in American history and faced off against the corrupt Sherrif, federal troops, and private mercenaries, prepared with bombs, planes, and guns. A multiracial, united front.
So, what happened? It’s hard to trace exactly when the term began to be used as an insult. But many other terms, like “hillbilly,” “white trash,” or “clay-eater” have sprung up to accompany it. They all have the same modern connotation: a poor, unintelligent, racist white person, likely with a drug or alcohol problem. This hypothetical person is also, in many ways, the unofficial mascot for the South.
The Southern strategy
The night the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, Lyndon B. Johnson told his assistant, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Prior to Johnson’s election, the South had been staunchly Democratic. Their main concern was worker’s rights, siding with the party of unions, welfare, and social security. They hated the Wall Street corporations, which reminded them of the tycoons and barons they’d fought in the past. Even environmental protection was considered a Southern issue. All in all, the Southern Democratic party hated classism above all else–except, maybe Lincoln.
Another reason for the Democratic unity among the South? The Republicans were Lincoln’s party. The way Southerners saw it, Lincoln had freed the slaves, and, in turn, wrecked the Southern economy. So when their Democratic president signed an act giving the children of those slaves even more rights? It was a betrayal. Republican politicians quickly took advantage of this anger, proudly brandishing their status as the anti-integration party, and Dixie Democrats ran into their open arms.
Once again, racism had been strategically used to destroy the working class from within. This time, it was successful.
Racism in the South (and out of it)
It’s impossible to ignore the South’s legacy of racism. Slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation–all these things tell a dark story, and these injustices still leave their mark. Racism is definitely still very prevalent below the Mason-Dixon line. Whether it’s the ridiculous amount of confederate flags or the prevalence of modern-day “sundown towns”–the South has a long way to go.
The Southern Strategy, which led workers-rights obsessed southerners away from the Democratic party, was entirely dependent on the South’s racism. There was never a time when the South “wasn’t racist”–but neither was the rest of the America.
This is where one of the biggest issues of liberal condemnation of the South arises. It becomes hard to recognize the racism outside of the South. When blue states think of themselves as superior to the South, pointing out their own flaws can just seem trivial–after all, at least we’re “not like them.” It’s easy to forget that slavery, the KKK, and segregation all also existed in the North. They may have ended earlier, but that does not make them irrelevant. It just makes it easier to ignore.
Why we can’t dismiss the South
The “good enough” mentality isn’t the only problem with America’s hatred of the South. There are also many real, material consequences of this rejection. The reality is, the South is not some sad, empty landmass that must be faced every four years on election night. It’s not just an inconvenient setback to the Democratic party, as some card in the electoral board game that says “The South’s racist! Lose 155 votes!” The region is home to 37% of United States residents. Many of these people, especially queer, immigrant, black, brown, and indigenous communities, are fighting for change daily. They cannot afford for the South to be viewed as a “lost cause.” Their struggle against oppression will not end as long as it’s viewed as hopeless.
As much as liberals like to pretend the South is irrelevant, it is not. The region that gave birth to MLK, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and so many other activists and visionaries is not something that can be pushed under the rug. The South cannot, should not, and will not be treated as something permanently lost to bigotry. Instead, it should be viewed as what it is–an opportunity.