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Democracy and the South

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

Democracy Works, By Arthur Garfield Hays. New York: Random House. $3.00. God’s Valley. By Wilison Whitman. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. After Freedom. By Hortcise Powdermakcr. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. Invisible Umpire. By Stanley F. Horn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50.

When two or more persons get together these days they are likely to talk about democracy. Next to democracy the topic of discussion, for many, is the South. But the South is not next to democracy in any vital or correlative sense. They have not come down through time together, though Thomas Jefferson did once try to introduce them to each other. They parted company, and one might ask, “How and by whom are they to be brought together?”

The South and democracy, however, have a particular point in common. They are both being criticized and challenged as never before. Democrats are criticizing democracy, and Southerners are criticizing the South, many of them constructively. If talk and writing about them will save them, salvation is sure, and it would be grand if the two renascent salvation processes could coalesce. The South has not raised up prophets of triumph, however, as has democracy, for instance, in Thomas Mann.

Arthur Garfield Hays, in “Democracy Works,” discusses faith and works, including his own. He is a liberal democrat, willing for radical friends to regard him as a conservative and for his conservative friends to regard him as a radical. Out of wide experience, reading, and observation as an active lawyer who has handled many cases for the underdogs and the underprivileged, he writes with an anecdotal concreteness in advocacy of the American democratic way of life as a healthy contrast to a dictatorship “security of barracks and jails.” He emphasizes time and again that we have elevated our standards of living under modern mechanical development, that labor has shared in these gains through collective bargaining, and that we have found it necessary to expand the role of government. He notes that we have made progress in the production or possession of things, leis-sure, and liberty, and he continues, “Only under democratic institutions can men attain satisfying standards of living.” He is for progress by evolution, not by revolution, though seeing that evolution may be accelerated into revolution without our knowing it. “Today we are speeding along highways that once were thought to lead straight to revolutionary terminals.” We have, he notes for instance, adopted and applied many demands of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, such as income taxes, free school systems, soil improvement and land planning, and restriction of the labor of children in factories. Hays gives us no airtight development of any theme or thesis, but just an interesting string of comments, largely personal and optimistic. He is old-fashioned enough to accept Lord Acton’s remark, “All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He does not want a war of ideologies, as that would be too bad for democracy, which, he fears, would come to embrace dictatorship in the process of lighting it. And he is for more democracy, not less.

Democracy and the South get attention in “God’s Valley,” in which Miss Willson Whitman writes with an earthy and folksy eloquence about the land, people, and power along the Tennessee River. She has caught the spirit of the past and the vision of the present of this valley of transformation. She goes back to the Civil War to explain the plight of the Godfearing inhabitants of the region. In 1863, she notes, “dam-yankees” came into this valley for destructive fighting. In 1933, “dam-builders moved down to save the Southern soil from floods and erosion,” and they split the Solid South, which the former invasion had produced. For the second group of invaders there is much to do, since there has been so much spoliation of the valley’s beautiful heritage and since it is a safe generalization to say “that the South as a whole is poor.” The T. V. A. brought employment, power, lights, planning, fertilizer, reforestation, human rehabilitation, and many other things to enlarge the way of life for mountaineers.

Miss Whitman has been able to get and to give a good lay view of the inner workings and technicalities of the T. V. A., including its well developed personnel system, its democratic manner of getting along with the valley people, its high record for safety of workers on dam projects, and the split at the top. She makes digressions into labor problems and C. I. O. tribulations in boom towns, especially Tupelo, Mississippi, but fits all digressions into the well knit story. She goes into the religious life of the valley, and indicates that justice has not been rendered the T. V. A. by some critics on this score. While giving major space and emphasis to the matter of human relations, she does descriptive justice to mechanical monsters.

“God’s Valley” is a book of substance and clarity. It surpasses most of the current flood of writings on the T. V. A., the South, and democracy.

“After Freedom” deals with a rural town in the delta region of the state of Mississippi, thinly concealed under the label of “Cottonville.” Dr. Hortense Powdermaker here writes about the same community which is treated in “Caste and Class in a Southern Town” by Dr. John Dollard. Both are concerned with race relations and racial attitudes, but Dr. Powdermaker moves from case to case with more deftness of interpretation and less subjective rationlization from preconceived theories than does the other scholar. She went far toward getting to the inside of Negro minds, and is able to portray their attitudes, both intraracial and interracial. Passing from a geographical, social, and economic outline of the local situation, she goes frankly into “Cohesion and Conflicts in the Negro Family,” “Religion and Superstition,” “Education,” and “The Negro’s Response to the Situation.” She analyzes Negroes as belonging to three classes: lower, upper, and middle, the last being large and divided between upper-middle and lower-middle. The small upper class, with more education and sophistication, is further than the other groups from the loose moral and family ties of slavery days, having taken on restraints from which the lower classes are free. Rut the author pointedly says, “The upper-class Negroes have escaped the checks imposed by illiteracy and poverty, but still suffer those involved in legal and social discrimination.” A candid investigation shows that there is a decrease in the sex relations between the races, partly through an increase in lax relations between the white sexes. The final chapter deals with the Negroes as “A Group in Process of Acculturation,” as gradually and increasingly taking on white patterns and standards, though with lags and changes, not to mention “rifts and tensions.” Dr. Powdermaker, an anthropologist by academic terms, ends her objective account with the observation, weighted with meaning, that the whole interracial situation is a breeding ground for conflict, deeply felt in the Cottonville community: “conflict of race against race, of class against class, of individual against individual, and of each individual within himself.” That puts the finger on a problem, a problem for Mississippi, for the South, and for American democracy.

“Invisible Empire,” by Stanley F. Horn, editor of The Southern Lumberman at Nashville, Tennessee, is a history of the days of the Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War. Mr. Horn has read widely and interviewed many persons on the subject. His moving story gives us a full and fair description of the Reconstruction-day Klan, from its origin through its heyday to disrepute and disbandment. But Mr. Horn fails to give us adequate interpretation. The Klan was the third move in a post-Civil War exchange of moves. The second, which Mr. Horn mentions, was the move of the Reconstruction radicals. The first, unmen-tioned, was the adoption in various Southern states of legislative “Black Codes” immediately after the War and before Congress got at its drastic job. These “Black Codes” threatened to put the Negroes back into slavery without the name, and they were a factor in provoking what followed.


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