I Dream of a Progressive U.S. South: Social Justice in Dixieland
I have many dreams and hopes: for my family (including my wonderful daughters), for the global Church, for the health of my nation and the world. I’m a dreamer and my first decade of life (1962-1972) was an era that both nurtured such dreams and showed me the price that achieving them would cost–and that setbacks and failures are inevitable. Among my dreams that often seems delusional to others is a dream of a progressive U.S. South. How long will the poison that produced the Old Confederacy still produce its deadly fruit in the Southern U.S? (Geography for those readers not from these shores: On a map of the U.S.A., the “South” or “Old South” encompasses Virginia, West Virginia [which separated from Virginia because it refused to secede from the Union during the Civil War], North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.)
Even liberal friends tell me this is delusional? Hasn’t the South always been a bastion of conservatism, even regression? It gave fought to keep slavery when the rest of the country moved on. It committed treason and rebelled in a bloody Civil War mostly for the right to continue keeping slaves and to expand that right Westward. After Reconstruction, it produced an apartheid system known as “Jim Crow segregation” in which African-Americans were wage slaves and subjected to the most profound humiliations–and lynched by the hundreds every year. It pretended to “elevate” (white) women by placing them on pedestals–while depriving them of property rights, often beating them with impunity behind closed doors in marriage, “educating” them mostly for domestic life, and treating their brains as nonexistant. The South remains the most militarized, least educated (despite many fine universities), and one of the poorest sections of the nation. It is hostile to organized labor and, thus, wages are low and workers exploited. How can I dream of a progressive South, of a Dixieland in which social justice flourishes?
Well, for one thing, I have seen waves of reform sweep the South even in my lifetime–and know of other such waves in history. When I was born, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for Black Freedom and Equality against Jim Crow segregation, had already been underway for a decade. The decade that followed saw its greatest successes, some setbacks, and the end of legal apartheid in this country. When I was born, there were still many “whites only” signs across Dixie. Before my 10th birthday, they were all gone. The South fought the changes–but not all of it. Many of the whites involved in the Movement were Southerners–including my parents. The struggle to end the Vietnam War had many champions in the South–the region of the country with more military academies than any other and in which military service is practically worshipped. The women’s rights movement had numerous Southern chapters. The environmental movement, which flourished in the 1970s, had some of its strongest champions in the South–including Kentucky’s treasure, Wendell Berry. (Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, sparked the environmental movement, was from Pennsylvania and lived in Maryland, states bordering the South which are often populated by ex-Southerners, including Carson’s parents, who leave Dixie for economic reasons.)
The South gave us most of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement–not just the major African American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Cotton, Pauli Murray, and many others, but some of the strongest white leaders, too, including Myles Horton of Tennessee, Will D. Campbell of Mississippi and Tennessee, Clarence Jordan of Georgia, Ann and Carl Braden of Kentucky, Virginia Durr of Alabama, Glenn Smiley of Texas, and Bob Zellner of Alabama.
Even in electoral politics, the South’s record has not been one of unmitigated conservatism and injustice. Consider the following few examples:
- Ralph Yarborough (1903-1996) was a U.S. Senator from Texas (1957-1971) who was a leader in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He had run as an unabashed liberal for TX governor for years (1952-1956), coming close, but never quite winning that office, but won the U.S. Senate in a special election in 1957. He immediately refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” which pledged support for segregation. In fact, Yarborough was one of the few Southerners in Congress to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A veteran himself, he worked to strengthen and expand the G. I. Bill of Rights (one of the major pieces of legislation that expanded university education in this country beyond the monied elites). (Incidentally, Yarborough’s opponent in 1964 was George H. W. Bush, who attacked Yarborough for his Civil Rights votes and used racebaiting ads throughout the campaign. Yarborough was a true liberal, but he was also a tough politician and replied by painting Bush as a rich Yankee carpetbagger from the Northeast who was trying to buy a Senate seat. He also accused Bush (correctly) of being to the right of that year’s Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and (incorrectly) of cheering the assassination of President Kennedy! (Yarborough had been in the Dallas motorcade in 1963 and was saved from the assassination which killed Kennedy by Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. Yarborough announced Kennedy’s death at the hospital to reporters in tears with the words, “Excalibur has sank beneath the waves.”) Yarborough was a strong champion of LBJ’s “Great Society” domestic agenda, including Medicare, Medicaid, and the many programs of the War on Poverty, but he was an early critic of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Yarborough campaigned for Bobby Kennedy until his assassination, then Eugene McCarthey until his defeat in Chicago. When Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, Yarborough urged him to come out quickly for ending the war or risk losing the youth vote, and, thus, the election, to Richard Nixon. Humphrey waited far too long. In 1969, Yarborough became Senate Chair of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. Yarborough lost the 1970 Democratic primary to Rep. Lloyd Bentsen (the last Democratic senator from TX) because he was looking ahead to the general election rematch with George H. W. Bush. (Bentsen beat Bush.) Bentsen, a moderate on social issues, attacked Yarborough for his opposition to the Vietnam War and for not “earmarking” or steering enough patronage projects to TX, saying “it would be nice if Sen. Yarborough voted for his state once in awhile.” Yarborough attempted to make a comeback in 1972, running for TX’s other senate seat against John Tower (R-TX), but lost in the primary. He never again sought public office, but had been a key progressive voice from the South during a crucial time.
- Albert A. “Al” Gore, Sr.(1907-1998) was a Democratic U.S. Representative (1945-1953) and U.S. Senator (1953-1971) from Tennessee. Gore, Sr. began his political life in the New Deal tradition–progressive on issues of economic justice and reformer against establishment “machine” politics and for reform in keeping corruption and outside influence out of politics. He began as a moderate on issues of racial justice. He refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” upholding segregation (despite much arm-twisting by arch-segregationist, Dixiecrat, and, later, Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina), but he did not vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964–although he did vote for “cloture,” breaking the months-long filibuster and allowing the bill to be voted through on the senate floor. (For readers unfamiliar with the U.S. Senate, the “filibuster,” is a procedural move in the rules of the senate whereby a minority, or even a single member, can hold up legislation by refusing to yield the floor. It is probably unconstitutional, since the Constitution clearly indicates that legislation in both houses of Congress is to be decided by simple majorities, but the courts have been reluctant to intrude in the internal rules of the houses of Congress. In 1964, it took fully 2/3 of the Senate to break a filibuster and allow legislation to be voted on. The requirement was lowered in the ’70s to 60 votes, but in some ways the process is more susceptible to obstruction than ever since one no longer needs to be physically on the floor speaking, but just vote against cloture. In this way, in recent years, the Republican minority has blocked numerous pieces of legislation and uncounted presidential appointments by requiring that nearly every vote on every matter require a supermajority of 60! The modified filibuster is so overused today that the U.S. Senate is currently dysfunctional as a legislative body!) Gore, perhaps influenced by his children, did vote for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was also a loud voice against the Vietnam War. This made him vulnerable to the Nixon “Southern strategy” in which Republicans grew in the South by winning over whites who left the Democratic Party after LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Gore, Sr. lost in 1970 to Republican Bill Brock after Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew (later indicted for tax evasion!), traveled to TN and accused Gore of being the “Southern Regional Chair of the Eastern Liberal Establishment.”
- Claude Pepper (1900-1989), born in Alabama, worked in a steel mill before graduating from the University of Alabama and Harvard Law School. He moved to South Florida, served in the state legislature and was elected to the U. S. Senate as a Democrat in 1936 and serving until 1951. He was a left-liberal and a champion of the elderly. He was a New Dealer and a strong Southern ally of FDR. He pushed for Lend-Lease, which allowed the U.S. to ship arms to the UK to resist the Nazis. He was a progressive on racial issues, an early supporter of universal healthcare. He was lukewarm in his support for Harry Truman in 1948, telling Democrats they should nominate the (then-independent) Dwight D. Eisenhower, instead. (History might have been very different if Eisenhower had entered politics as a Democrat!) Pepper’s downfall in the Senate was his promotion of friendship with the USSR, which included some naive statements about Stalin. Defeated in 1950, Pepper was elected to the U.S. House of Reps. in 1962 and survived several redistrictings, serving in the House from 1963 to 1989, one of the very few modern Senators to serve in the House AFTER a senate career. In the House, Pepper was a liberal champion of international relations, human rights, and of the elderly, pushing successfully for several laws strengthening Medicare and Social Security. (Republicans joked that, along with Speaker Tip O’Neill, Pepper was one of the few Democrats who absolutely drove Ronald Reagan crazy–particularly because he often lost to them!)
- J. William Fulbright (1905-1995), born in Missouri was a Democratic U. S. Senator from Arkansas from 1945-1975. He was the longest serving chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright was a graduate of the University of Arkansas (1925) and a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University (Pembroke College) graduating with degree in comparative politics in 1928. He earned his law degree from George Washington University and went to work in the anti-trust division of the Justice Department, an ardent New Dealer. He served one term in the House of Representatives (1942-1944) where he promoted internationalism including sponsoring the legislation that would create the United Nations. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, Fulbright promoted a vigorous U. S. internationalism and worked for world peace. He created the Fulbright Fellowships run by the State Department to sponsor U.S. students studying around the world and international students studying in the United States, convinced that cultural and educational exchanges helped to promote international understanding and peace–and that U.S. isolationism during the 1920s and 1930s had been a major factor leading to World War II. Fulbright was not initially progressive on race issues. He signed the Southern Manifesto opposing the Suprme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and opposed the Civil Rights bills of 1957, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the events of the Civil Rights movement changed him, especially the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr. He went to King’s funeral and repented of his opposition to Civil Rights and came home to Arkansas and said so–even while most white Arkansans were cheering King’s death. Fulbright helped expand and renew the Civil Rights Act during the Nixon Administration (even gathering enough votes to override a veto) and led the successful opposition to 2 Nixon nominees for the Suprme Court (Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell) who openly planned on reversing Brown v. Board of Education. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, Fulbright was Kennedy’s first choice to be Secretary of State, but JFK became convinced he was too controversial to be confirmed. He was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and helped to defuse several global crises before they became wars. He opposed the influence of the John Birch Society in the U.S. military and, although he supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, he was one of the few American politicians to risk the ire of the pro-Israel lobby by denouncing the huge amounts of money Israel spent influencing American politics–and he was an early champion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
- Ruben Askew (1928-), 37th Gov. of Florida (1971-1979) was part of the “New South” of the post-Civil Rights era–and my favorite governor of my home state when I was growing up. Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, when his parents divorced, Askew moved with his mother to Pensacola, FL where he grew up, graduating from Pensacola High School in 1946. Because his father had been an alcoholic, Askew was a lifelong teatotaler. He went to Florida State University and FSU’s Law School and became involved in both houses of the state legislature. He was an early Kennedy supporter from the South and a civil rights proponent. When elected as Gov. of Florida in 1970 (defeating incumbent Gov. Claude Kirk (R-FL), he ran on a platform saying that “segregation was dead” and a “new South” must emerge which would light the world with equality. As governor, he supported the controversial use of bussing to achieve the integration of the public schools. Askew appointed Joseph Woodrow Hatchett as the first African-American on the Florida Supreme Court, appointed Athalie Range as Secretary of Community Affairs, the first FL Black since Reconstruction and the first woman ever appointed to head a state agency in FL. Askew also appointed Jesse McCrary, Jr. as FL Secretary of State in 1978, the first African-American cabinet officer in FL since Reconstruction. Askew signed numerous laws strenthening FL’s public schools and environmental protections. (Indeed, FL’s public schools rose to 12th in the nation under Askew–and have been falling in quality since the mid’80s.) Although Askew supported the death penalty in theory (he signed FL’s new capital punishment law after Gregg v. Georgia allowed the death penalty to resume), he thought it’s use should be rare and commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment in his term. No one in FL would be executed until Askew’s successor in office, Bob Graham. Askew was the first FL governor to serve 2 full terms until John Ellis (“JEB”) Bush. He was thought to be a potential future president and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984 and for U.S. Senate in 1988.
Other prominent Southern politicians since the 1960s who are at least partially in the progressive tradition include: Dale Bumpers of Arkansas (Gov. 1971-1975; U.S. Senator, 1975-1999); Jimmy Carter of Georgia (Gov. 1971-1975; 39th Pres. of U.S., 1977-1981; winner of 2002 Nobel Peace Prize); Ann Richards of Texas (1933-2006; Gov., 1991-1995); Doug Wilder of Virginia (Gov. 1990-1995; first African-American governor of VA and first African-American governor of ANY state since Reconstruction; currently Mayor of Richmond); Bill Clinton of Arkansas (Gov., 1979-1981; 1983-1992; President of U.S., 1993-2001) whose “3rd way” centrism frustrated many progressives (including me), but which managed to advance many progressive causes in a very conservative cultural atmosphere (the “culture wars” of the 1990s)–and mostly without a majority in Congress; Al Gore, Jr. of Tennessee (b. 1945; U.S. Rep., 1977-1985; U.S. Senator, 1985-1993; Vice President of U.S., 1993-2000; won the 2000 presidential election but denied office by the bought and paid for Supreme Court of the U.S; co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2007); Terry Sanford of North Carolina (Gov., 1961-1965; U.S. Senator, 1986-1993); John Edwards of North Carolina (Yes, he is a personal scumbag, but his politics were in the Sanford tradition); John Yarmuth of Kentucky (former newspaper publisher of the weekly alternative newspaper, LEO: Louisville Eccentric Observer, U.S. Rep. from KY’s 3rd District, 2007-current; donates his entire congressional yearly salary to charity). Others could be multiplied.
The South is also the home of many progressive social change organizations including: Highlander Education Center of Monteagle, TN (formerly, Highlander Folk School), founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton in the 1930s and playing pivotal roles in training labor unions and civil rights workers in nonviolent social change; The Institute for Southern Studies; The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy; The Southern Poverty Law Center (which bankrupted the Ku Klux Klan for a decade by successful lawsuits in the 1980s and ’90s); The Southern Center for Human Rights; The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC–the organization founded and led by Martin Luther King, Jr.) and many others.
Yes, the U.S. South is the center of labor repression, voter supression, a “business friendly” legal system that promotes ultra-low corporate taxes, weak (and weakly enforced) environmental laws, union-busting “right to work” laws, racism, sexism (including a continued war on women’s reproductive choices, not only abortion, but artificial birth control restrictions, too, in defiance of federal law); heterosexism and homophobia; militarism and uncritical nationalism (and nostalgic worship of a mythical version of the Old Confederacy); denial of religious liberty and promotion of de facto establishment of (certain types of) Christianity; and low taxes eroding public schools, public health, support for persons with disabilities, etc. But that is not the whole story. In every part of the South there is resistance to these trends, resistance that predates the U.S. Civil War. It works hard to unite across racial, religious, and gender divisions in common struggle.
Because of this, because of the continued presence in the South of those who “seek a newer world,” I continue to dream of a Progressive South characterized by Social Justice. I hope to live long enough to see this dream come true, but, if not, my children and grandchildren will. For them, the struggle continues.
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