Skip to main content

Captains of Southern Industry

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

What manner of men are these Southern captains of industry, that such conflicting opinions should rage about them? Epithets are flung at their heads, propaganda is sown at their feet. Reform organizations, zealous pulpiteers, pulsating journalists, inspired educators, hammer at them front, flank, and. rear. The engineers and accountants, on the other hand, and that materially-minded crowd which thinks in terms of factories, goods, highways, dams, and money, can marshal mountains of evidence to prove the mighty accomplishments of these selfsame industrialists. By the test of physical measurement, they have indeed wrought magic.

How shall we judge these men who have gone so far in one way, but who allegedly have fallen so short in another? In their appraisal the usual procedure is to take them as they are at the moment and contrast certain aspects of their behavior with those prevailing in other areas where the social and economic background is different. As is foreordained by the method, the comparisons are of course unfavorable. It is a method moreover which emphasizes differences without revealing the reasons for their presence.

If a correct ethical judgment of the Southern business man is sought, he must be viewed not in relation to that which is foreign to him, but in relation to the surroundings and circumstances which produced him. If he is to be tested, it must be through his success or failure in meeting the requirements which are unique to his own environment.


If we relate the Southern business man to his own origins, he becomes understandable. His reactions, his attitudes, his points of view are essentially those of the thirty million population to which he belongs.

A compact population group of such size does not look to the outside world for standards, but possesses its own. To its members, moral judgments that do not come from within are not applicable. The idea of the reprehensible may be attached to single individuals or to small groups merely because they depart from the prevailing code. But when the group expands to the point where it is in possession of its own machinery, for both social and economic jurisdiction it passes beyond the range of any ethical standards except those set up by itself. To be sure, comparisons with the outside will be made and individuals will always amuse if not enlighten themselves by drawing distinctions. But neither praise nor blame can attach to the differences revealed. The allocation of either assumes the use of standards, and standards in reality are not absolute or universal, but the transient product of a particular time and place.

There are many who will accept this principle of autonomy of large groups in the matter of social and economic standards and yet question its applicability to the South. They will insist that the South, which has been for so long an integral part of the nation, sharing from the beginning the common heritages and the common ties of blood and economic kinship, is not entitled to the classification of a separate group except in a meaningless geographical sense.

In reply to this contention, we too insist that the South meets all the usual tests which are set up to establish its complete submergence in the national entity. But for the purposes of treating the issues under discussion, we must use a subtler set of distinctions than those usually applied in ascertaining the degree of national unity. For example, there was a time when the South was in a position of national leadership, economically, politically, and socially. Yet a few years later, it plunged into fratricidal war to preserve the things which were unique within its own area. Whether the South as a component part of the nation has less distinctiveness in 1930 than it had in 1830 is probably debatable, because there has been much shifting of differences and similarities. It is certain that the South has not regained its former leadership, and that it has failed to retain its economic predominance.

But sectional identity, just as individual identity, is not made up alone of positive characteristics. Those which are negative may suffice quite as well to produce sharp differentiation. Hence the two types may be intermingled in depicting Southern individuality.

The population is unique for its place stability. If we except Florida, the states of the “Old South” have been almost untouched by the streams of immigration since reconstruction days. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the great majority of individuals live within two hours’ ride of the homesteads of their grandfathers.

Closely, akin to this place stability as an influence on the thought and behavior of the area is the equally pronounced racial homogeneity of the white population. The combination of the two has undoubtedly made more tenacious and solid the common mode of behavior and the generally accepted philosophies and institutions.

The presence of the Negro in such large numbers has been a chronic stimulus to racial and sectional self-consciousness and a never-resting irritant to the need for defensive mechanisms. It has forced the rationalization of policies and tendencies which otherwise would never have found roots. The Negro himself is not often a source of conflict, economically or socially. He is predominantly passive, accepting the tangible and the intangible reactions which his presence occasions. He knowingly initiates nothing, but if participating at all he does so as an agent of fixation. In this capacity he indirectly serves as the most powerful force of conservatism which the South or any other area possesses.

Added to the place stability of Southern population, its racial homogeneity, and its great percentage of Negroes, is a fourth underlying characteristic, negative in tone, but all-powerful: a predominantly agricultural economy. There are many other areas possessing the same characteristic, but it is of particular significance in the South because it happens to occur in conjunction with the other elements which we have mentioned and because it involves on so large a scale the tenant system. The breakdown of agricultural prosperity which the past decade has witnessed has brought about a frightful shrinkage in the capacity of the soil to feed and clothe this vast peasantry. Hence they have been disgorged in ever increasing numbers from field to highway seeking whatever occupation the gods may provide. As regards this uprooted citizenry„ whatever there has been of exploitation is not half so tragic as the much greater unexploitation.


Upon this groundwork of passive physical attributes a raucous industrialism has lately been planted. Now there is no intention of implying that there is anything unusual in a raucous industrialism. Its presence in the South is of special significance only, because of its comparative newness. It bulks gigantically in a section which intellectually and politically is not wholly adjusted to it. It is in the hands of a generation which still stands waist deep in the notions of a society which was close to the soil. This has created a situation in which business behavior in its technical aspects must be keyed to the performance of more advanced areas, and yet forced into harmonious companionship with social traits which are rooted firmly in a past that is deep, and which are more easily lacerated than supplanted.

Another element of the unusual is that this new industrialism has not permeated evenly throughout the South, but has piled itself up conspicuously in widely separated portions. It looms high in the Piedmont, in north Georgia, in north Alabama, in east and central Tennessee, in east Texas. In the vast interlying areas which are still all-powerful in political matters and in social sanctions the direct touch of the machine has not come. They have felt only the pull of the employer quietly but irresistibly drawing the more detachable parts of the population to the distant hives as iron filings are drawn to the magnet.

This uneven distribution of the industrial leaven is of double significance in that while subjecting certain areas to an imperative and arbitrary pressure toward a new order, its reaction elsewhere is scarcely more than negative. Thus among the masses there is no dynamic urge toward either comprehension or solution of the lately created problems. Even in the industrial centres, taking them as a whole, only a small percentage of those engaged at machine or desk are of the second generation, or to the manner born. They are essentially novitiates absorbed in the sensations of contrast, busy with the mechanics of change, mayhap enduring the pangs of disillusionment, or possibly revelling in a life more abundant than that provided by their former estate. If there is resentment, it is personal; if there is gratification, it is individual. So far as the new order is concerned, there is no attitude which is consciously mutual, no appraisal which is organized, no judgment which is collective. The social groupings of the new system are inchoate, indistinct, and meaningless to those who compose them. The individual still speaks the language and thinks the thoughts provided by his nearby native community.

It is true but immaterial that he has had other choices. New concepts have been brought to him, all that the older industrialisms had to offer. A complete array, finished to the last detail, temptingly displayed and backed by high-powered salesmanship, was offered free of charge in Gas-tonia, Elizabethton, Marion, Henderson. I do not make reference here merely to communistic doctrine, but include all that the trade unionists had to offer, along with the scholastic reformers and general run of uplifters. What they brought was accepted with wry faces and smitten consciences in the heat of conflict. In the calm of the ensuing peace it was flung with undisguised relief to the ash barrel, The same reaction was displayed both by the workers and by the community as a whole.

This seeming ingratitude does no violence to traditional Anglo-Saxon behavior, or for that matter to the behavior of any group as large and homogeneous as that of the South. England took many years of social and economic travail to evolve for herself the doctrines, sanctions, classes, and laws which represented her final adjustment to the machine age. New England was destined to the same experience and had it in full measure. If the South insists upon like procedure, it may be folly; but if it is, it cannot be judged in a day.


The progress of yesterday is often the reactionism of tomorrow. So perhaps the South on the threshold of a new era should not be harshly blamed for not passionately desiring a brand of liberalism that has been kicked around rather generally for half a century and which has fared somewhat badly in the process. To the eye which is not jaundiced by boundary lines, and which sees along with the major products the sometimes more important by-products of the recent programs of social and economic readjustment, there is but little in England or in New England whose absence from the South could be regarded as tragic.

The South would certainly cringe in horror from the class conflicts, the industrial restrictions, the regimentations, the group consciousness, the doctrines of hate, the general skepticism of human motives to which these other areas have fallen heir. Not that it actually does, because it probably doesn’t know so much about these things. But if it did? Without quite knowing it, the South probably at this time is showing a wisdom as deep and unerring as it is instinctive.

The South has not willed that its wage scales should be on the average from sixty to seventy per cent of the wage scales on the outside. In part the differential is offset by the fact that smaller expenditures are required in the South than in the North to achieve the same degree of material well-being. But this is not advanced as an excuse. There is no excuse in fact. But there is an explanation. The declining agricultural prosperity has meant a chronic spewing forth of excess workers by the South’s major occupation as well as diminished incomes for those remaining on the farms. There is the additional deadening drag on wages of the huge Negro population not yet wholly assimilated to the social and economic structure and destined never to be. Thus in the beginning, industry in the South from a human point of view is confronted with a far greater task than was faced by industry in New England, or in the East, or in the Middle West, or the Pacific Coast. Calling upon it to pay wages equal to those maintained in those areas is tantamount to demanding of it that it impart to the superabundant and untrained labor hordes of the South the means to a productivity which it has not the power to give and which they have not the power to exercise. It would assume a rate of industrial expansion in the South which has as yet been unap-proached in any portion of the earth.

Industrially, the South has scarcely gone beyond the frontier stage, It would perhaps be a fair statement to say that those industries which have made an impressive showing in the South are for the most part industries whose presence there is almost unavoidable. They are primarily industries which stem directly from abundant natural resources or which require a large-scale use of relatively cheap and untrained labor. It was not possible for it to be otherwise. In the long years of subjection to an agricultural economy, the channels of trade were established to move from the South or around it. All of the skill and man-made contrivances for the maintenance of a machine society were left to other sections.

So the South must win its way back, if at all, vicariously.

It has no choice but to give up prodigally of its oil; its iron and coal; its forests and quarries; its cotton and tobacco; the power in its rivers; the energy of its tenant farmers to mill and mine. As it pours these ingredients of its life so lavishly into the lap of the outside world and at exchange ratios which are frightfully low, one is privileged to see in the phenomenon consequences which are conflicting. If we throw the spotlight on wages and prices, the picture is depressing. If we center it on the profits of those who control the payrolls, the spectacle contains nothing of significance. But if we view it in the large as one of the vast processes of civilization we recognize its ultimate meaning as the bid of thirty million people for a modern industrial society.

So long as the major part of their output is bulky staples and practically all of the remainder only semi-processed, they are at a great economic disadvantage. It is a relationship with the outside world which breeds three great evils: a chronic under-pricing of the things sold as compared with the things bought; a condition of extreme instability, since the most violent reactions to the forces of the business cycle are centred in the markets for staples; and, finally, a lack of alternative occupations at home which intensifies the problems of employment and wages. Other areas of similar though worse plight are Brazil with its coffee, Cuba with its sugar, Australia with its wool, Argentina with its grain and cattle, Malaya with its rubber, Canada with its wheat and timber products. These have consistently paid tribute to the sections whose industries are integrated, diversified, and highly mechanistic.

The industries of the South are too few. They bulk gigantically and are inferior to none of like type, yet they, stand far apart, isolated like towering pinnacles, unbut-tressed by the multitude of allied, subsidiary, and complementary industries which should be present to constitute a well-rounded economy. It is the experience of every highly developed area that the latter type of enterprise awaits the maturity of the former and comes but slowly. In the meantime the limitations of which we have spoken will prevail.


But the fact of supreme importance in this discussion is that the South is a changing South. The greater portion of the distinctions which set the South apart are not the crystallizations from olden days but the innovations of the new. It is a situation which makes possible the advance of individual thought and action beyond that of the masses. The Southern business man as the director of economic enterprise is of necessity, in the front rank of those who formulate judgments and make choices in response to the forces of change. Hence, however restrictive his environment, he is not wholly conformative, and cannot be. He may always be counted on to be either a hastening or a retarding influence. As a class, he is now more apart than any other, extremely self-conscious; and at least for short periods he is definitely self-controlling. In Southern civilization he is for the moment the man of destiny, more achieving, more respected, and more followed than preacher, politician, teacher, journalist, lawyer, or technician. In the rising machine order he is building the foundations upon which all these others will stand and function and adjust themselves. Not that he knows better than they what sort of structure will eventually materialize. But he has from day to day a certain power of selection which he exercises with due and reasonable deference to the philosophy in which he was nurtured. He may not be aware of this philosophy as a formal doctrine—few men are—but, nevertheless, he will not be stampeded into relinquishing it.

It is not necessary, to go back to the Civil War or to Reconstruction to find the influences which still live in his behavior and notions. He is more definitely a product of the intermediate, the “lost” generation. Of the present generation of Southern business men most of the older and still dominant members were bred in rural communities or in hamlets any roof of which afforded a view of where the houses ended and the cotton rows began, In these communities poverty may have been and usually was almost universal, but it was never condoned. Private property, however scarce, was sacrosanct and wealth was glorified. Toil was not loved but achievement was canonized.

Throughout the region generally, evangelical religion and militant politics united to establish the doctrine that the chief moving force in society was the individual. To the individual rather than to groups or situations were assigned all the dramatic r61es. Aspiration was accorded the highest place among the virtues. But it had to point toward performance that was conspicuous. An ideal career was one that exemplified the passage from low to high estate, from the “log cabin to the White House.” Such achievement was considered highly individual and personal, and failure to attain it was likewise individual and personal—due to lack of ideals or absence of God-given ability. There was no philosophical basis for criticism of a “system.”

Although it was a region in which most men were common men there was no doctrine of the common man. The common man, per se, had no voice that was identifiable. He was on no program. He was not even a concept. Society in this area had not viewed itself in cross-section. There were only the individual and the “people.” In the generally accepted scale of values there were, therefore, but few gradations and these were purely objective. There were no finely drawn distinctions about abstract rights and privileges of so-called groups, because the population did not consider itself composed of groups. So resulted the appearance of hardness in social attitudes which was in reality only an absence of social attitudes.

Not by way of offset, but because it was a more logical expression of human behavior in such a setting, was that luxuriant flowering of the softer elements in individual relationships for which the South became famous. If there was indifference to relationships in the large and ineptness in the provision of man-made devices and aims for impersonal applications, there was a deference to the individual and responsiveness to the personality that knew no formal boundaries and evoked no sense of generosity. There is no occasion for surprise that the South rested so easily in the arms of “paternalism.”

It was an environment which gave emotional encouragement to ambition and rewarded success with community admiration, which centred responsibility for success or failure upon the individual, which knew no class conflicts or doctrines of exploitation, which approved power and wealth, which found its social unity in individual supremacy, and its softer attributes in personal relationships.


The budding industrialist a decade and a half ago had no business schools to inform him of the structure of corporate organization and the procedure of personnel management; no daily trade journals to reveal the status of the markets; no connections with strangers in distant areas who might acquaint him with complicated techniques. He merely knew that in the outside world there were factories creating wealth and power and cities and payrolls from the same materials that lay outside his own door, and everything in his philosophy and his environment challenged him toward similar undertakings. With the courage that is distinctive of all pioneers he attacks the distrust of the small encircling group which must supply the meager capital; he searches out and wins the support of those who provide machinery,; he wheels the engineers into action; he gains the interest of bankers; he solves the mysteries of the markets, and learns the mechanisms of administration.

He spends his days arguing with unconvinced backers or conferring with technicians, or puzzling over strange formulas, or pondering unfamiliar price movements; he lies awake by night thrilling to exorbitant hope or harassed by fear. He learns what it is like to be victimized and what it means to bungle.

Finally there stands before him the incarnation of his dreams. For the first time, he sees a spindle and at the same moment becomes master of fifty thousand of them! Or perhaps it is not a cotton mill at all, but a manufactory of cigarettes or of furniture or fertilizer. Mayhap a gaping quarry where once was a landscape of futile boulders, or an oil gusher where before was desert sand, or a gigantic power dam where an unharnessed river had squandered itself for a million years. Not much of skill in the achievement, but sublime courage.

He becomes a dispenser of work and a builder of houses to hungry recipients who come clamoring from the hovels of cove and cotton field. He provides the community with a payroll. He sees a village spring up and thrive. He has brought a new economic life of money and machinery to replace barter and the hoe; food and society to replace hunger and isolation.

If for him there is a big house on the hill, a command over the amenities of life, a new prestige for his family—that is just and a natural reward, and moreover is incidental. The big thing is his achievement, and he has performed it in line with what his religion, his philosophy, his society have stipulated.

The fruition of his enterprise and the consummation of his life are as one. How can he then detach himself from his handiwork and view it objectively, not as something which is part of him but as something which belongs to society? How violent must be the mental wrench which makes way for a concept of paternalism as a reprehensible thing when without this paternalism the achievement itself would have been impossible! In the light of such a history, how can such a thing as a “survey” be regarded as other than a personal thrust with all the insinuations of incompetency and turpitude? What gross impertinence in the suggestion that personal control should be surrendered to a hostile and dictatorial trade-unionism! That outside agencies of any sort should invade the little world which he has built and have the temerity to prescribe how long the wheels should run and what should constitute a week’s pay!


In his attitude there is involved no question of right and wrong in a moral sense, and the issue of objective efficiency is scarcely touched. It must be taken therefore as the expression of an historically developed point of view, the natural fruit of a social heritage; it is a sequel to unnumbered events which have gone before. Explaining him thus is not to cloak him with immunity, or free him of all responsibility. If he is being borne along on the tide of his own ocean, he is still under the necessity, of dodging the rocks, regardless of any predetermined course.

Before the war the chief ingredient of success was individual initiative. What with the cheapness of materials and labor, given a fair amount of capital, there was no problem whose solution required more than the application of energy and courage. Since the war, and particularly since 1923, this type of procedure no longer succeeds. In textiles, ir? oil, in lumber, in mining, in naval stores, the markets no longer take uncomplainingly all that is offered. For the first time the miasma of overproduction refuses to be dissipated. The individual enterprise cannot fight it. The business man singly is helpless. He is being pushed into group action. He is being compelled by the impersonal forces of industry to turn collectivist.

He is learning to keep step with his fellows in the ranks of trade associations. He participates in group effort at production control and in cooperative selling policies. He affiliates actively with industrial “institutes,” and joins hands with competitors in the fostering of regional economic conferences. He subscribes to membership in Kiwanis clubs, chambers of commerce, and merchants’ associations. He acknowledges that the problems of individual enterprise cannot be dissociated from the problems of the industry to which it belongs; and that the success of an entire industry in turn is inseparable from phenomena which are nation-wide or world-wide in scope.

This new consciousness of dependence, this novel sense of mutuality, though arising from material causes, removes the psychological bulwarks of the traditional individualism in social relationships. The familiar simple notions of the employer-employee relationship are making room for the broader, more complex and impersonal notions that attach to the concept of capital versus labor. The significance of this is evident in many ways, but it does not necessarily mean a spiritual preparation for the reception of trade unionism. In the South trade unionism must fight its battle with the masses before it can join issue with management. Much more clearly can we see a breakdown of the old doctrine of personal responsibility in the easy acceptance of such principles as that of workmen’s compensation. Allegiance to the gospel of freedom of contract is visibly and rapidly being modified by voluntary cooperative action in the limitation of hours, in the restriction of night work, in the diminishing employment of women and youths.

But the South is no more than ever disposed to accept ready-made programs of social and economic reform. Before it finally emerges into the green pastures to lie down beside the still waters, it will have taken its own good time to traverse the mountain ranges of experience. And it is well. It may find something there that others have overlooked.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading