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The Chance-Taking South

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

A sleep in the arms of twenty-two-cent cotton the Southern farmer may think no dawn is coming. But come it will, and his beautiful lady will disappear or turn into his enemy. What the soothsayers are saying as they look at the postwar South is that artificial support of the South’s staple cannot go on forever. American cotton is going to have to stand on its own feet at last against foreign cotton and substitute fibers. The long business of a government-supported price and government disposition of surplus resulting from the price is going to end in one of two ways. It will end with cotton’s foreign and domestic markets destroyed by lower-priced competitors and substitutes, or it will end with the artificialities removed and a radically lower priced cotton, based on radically reduced costs of production, taking brilliant possession of markets. It is within neither the philosophy nor the power of this country to subsidize a vast cotton crop forever. But it is within the genius of this country to keep that crop vast by exploiting every economy and use available to it. Given the reduced production cost which machinery, diversification, rotation—and re-location—can provide, cotton would not only- compete successfully with rayon, for example, but it might become rayon. There is more logic in making rayon from an annually replaceable thing like cotton than from less quickly replaceable things like trees. The crop is mightier than the stand because it is less exhaustible, just as the stand, by the same token, is mightier than the seam, well, or deposit. We should make our synthetic rubber from wheat, not petroleum; our textiles from cotton, not wood.

Out in the fabulous Mississippi Delta where cotton grows a bale-and-a-half to the acre, and corn-high, and where they expect science soon to let them have four bales, prospects of change and new self-reliance find Southerners in good cheer. Thqy are of good cheer, too, on the infinite plains of Texas where big-scale farming is the thing and the mechanical cotton picker will be just one more boon to the booming. But a pity is that there is calm, too, if not actual good cheer, in other parts of the cotton South where it has no right, on the sick, eroded lands among the sick, eroded people, where half a bale does well for an acre, where there will be no place and no money either for the new machines, or heart for the human ingenuities that might lower costs a little but not much. Happy in war-time prices, with more money than ever before in their lives, the people of this South persuade themselves that when the war is over, God and the government will take care of them. But God and the government are tired.

The fact of life for the South is this cotton situation. And gathering opinion has it that the South must take a chance. Let cotton find its own level and place. Let the cotton farmer find his, too. If much displacement of man and land results, if many are driven from cotton to other crops and from agriculture to industry, trade, or the services, there will be no net loss in the end but shining profit, it is argued. Give cotton the prosperity and place that can come to it in new efficiencies and uses, and everyone within the royal radius will prosper indirectly if not directly. The South is capable of other great crops. It has developed a livestock economy that rivals cotton’s. Its industrial future is infinite. The South must take a chance on cotton, let it stand on its own feet and face the social, economic, and political consequences.

Taking chances is an old American custom. We forgot it in the era of doles, defeats, and dreary pensionings after the 1920’s of anarchy and foul play. But we are remembering it again as one more chance for the free way is won on battlefields and at the ballot-boxes. Liberty is a chance-taking game. Our returning soldiers are going to have to take a chance, and may no politicians bootlick them out of the idea. Our war-workers returning to peace employments are going to have to take a chance, and labor leaders who would have it otherwise threaten their own cause. Our merchants and manufacturers, even more, will have to take a chance, now that there is a Congress hell-bent to give them their free enterprise back. And, most of all, because they promise most and are most inevitable, chances will need to be taken by Southerners on the South.

I think there are seven that the South must take if it is to survive and shine as we who live there and love it want it to do. Cotton is one.

A second chance is on science, private and governmental, not only on what it will be offering cotton but on’ the whole gamut of offers in other directions. Not half the science that can help the South has been discovered. Not half of what has been discovered is in use. There are lethargies and dislikes to be overcome, nostalgias for ways that can no longer succeed if they ever did. Wherever science tells it to go, the South must go now or be left behind. When science says wiggle-waggle, the South must be willing to wiggle and willing to waggle. I believe that Southerners are in the mood to do this now, and by the very lateness of their coming to certain scientific usages they will have benefit of things more advanced than other areas which applied their science earlier. Hopeful, too, is evidence of a Southern will to do more of its own research. This promises scientific attention to special situations obtaining in the South. It promises, too, the patent rights and management and investment accretions that come to localities where discoveries are made. A recently organized Southern Research Institute, with some of the region’s major industrialists and bankers behind it, has opened a headquarters in Birmingham. A Southern Association of Science and Industry is associating educational institutions with business ones in the interests of research, and is now in negotiation with the Southern Governors’ Conference for a working agreement among business, education, and government.

Something Southern economic leadership must not overlook in its emphasis on science now, it is being pointed out, is that greater half which is not physical but social. Hitler rejected it and Colonel Lindbergh didn’t know about it, Unless the sciences of human relationship are found, all the others may be agencies of tyranny, poverty, or death. When the war ends the South will be possessed of more skilled workers than ever in its history, more techniques, more knowledge of its own resources, more determination to learn what chemistry and machinery can make of them. But unless the South masters, too, these social sciences which tell it how to make its civilization with its economy, its chances may be cancelled. The time has passed when Americans anywhere may hope to live on bread alone.

Another limitation on the Southern concert of science is a tendency among many businessmen to leave the federal government out. The Southern masses may be devoted to Washington so long as it is Democratic or Roosevelt is there, but among Southern industrial leaders there developed m the New Deal’s now completed course such bitter antagonisms that a hangover of hate clouds their common sense. They tend to oppose all things federal. That, I think, is a third chance the South is going to have to take—a chance on Uncle Sam. The New Deal is dealt. There isn’t going to be any more, and there isn’t going to be any major undoing of what was dealt. There may be Republicans again some day. Even as the South remains properly on guard against uncomprehending and rough-handed federal interferences in problems delicately its own, and even as Southern businessmen stand with other businessmen against tendencies of big government to encroach too much, the South cannot afford to forego what the federal government will be offering in all science and good will through the coming years, or what is already offered. The South is still in favor of a United States, still of a mind to have a federal government.

Especially will a South for which education is more than ever the answer need to take a chance on proposed federal aid to education. When you hear Mississippians vow, as I did recently, that their state must never risk the federal interfering that might come eventually of this aid, you witness an expensive gesture. Mississippi is spending on education a far greater proportion of her total tax income than any Northern State spends, but even if her whole tax income were used for that purpose she would not have as much per pupil as New York has. With more children to educate and less money for doing it than any other part of the United States, the South must take a chance on this federal offer, believe in the firm promise it includes to give the money and not interfere, trust its own genius to have the promise honored in future as it will be today.

One reason for a certain Southern large-handedness against federal aid to education now is the wealth of which Southern states and individuals are possessed as a result of the war. Like the farmer with his twenty-two-cent cotton, they are lulled by prosperity into a forgetting that it will not endure unless things are done with and about it. The South has money today for the first time since the Civil War. It needs to remember that it may not have it always.

And it needs to take a chance with this money on the South itself. That is a fourth chance suggested. Epochal investment of Southern money in Southern establishments is possible now if Southerners believe in their land and its potentials. An example is the new Southern industry promised in the making of newsprint paper from Southern slash pine. Experimental no longer, the process developed by the late Dr. Charles M. Herty, of Savannah, under the auspices of the American Chemical Society, is producing a paper equal in every respect to the product of Northern spruce, and at a lower cost. Only one plant has been set up thus far. It is located at Lufkin, Texas, and its output is not sufficient to supply any important percentages of national or even Southern consumption. But the mere existence of it has influenced the price of newsprint paper downward. Given enough of these plants and benefit of a water transportation promised many parts of the South now, this Southern product may one day dominate the continental market and make pine the equal of cotton in Southern economy. The present cost of a Southern plant is about $9,000,000. Obviously much capital will be needed for the development. There is no reason why it should not be Southern capital, or why many other new industries and operations in the postwar South should not be financed by Southerners, with benefits in profits, policy control, and multiplication of industry.

A fifth chance the South must take is on the Negro. For decency’s sake, for economy’s and society’s, the 10,000,000 Negroes who live there must be not only permitted but encouraged to continue advancements which have carried them far since the first World War. In an age of mass production which must have mass consuming if it is to succeed, it is in the economic interest of everyone in the South that Negro populations be given an opportunity to build their consuming power, especially as it begins to appear that the South’s greatest future market must be the South itself. In an age of increasing relationship and crowding it is in the social interest of the South that there be improvement in Negro health and habits. And in an age taught by bitter experience what tyranny and injustice can do, the South is bound to a more scrupulous concern for civil liberties and decencies to which its Negro people are entitled. A realization of these things exists now among millions of white Southerners in spite of bad feeling created by the war-time domestic servant situation. The shiftless, faithless, often dishonest, conduct of many Negroes in that service has hurt the Negro’s name with Southern whites who had liked him well, but it is being understood that the more characterful and competent Negroes had been attracted away from domestic service to war jobs or drafted to military service and that the conduct of those who remained is not to be taken as typical of the race. It is being appreciated, too, that it was human nature rather than just Negro nature which caused many to be demoralized by the sudden and unaccustomed wealth of war-time.

There is good will towards Southern Negroes among Southern whites today in measures untold—and unemployed. Out on the Pacific Coast the segregation lines which exist just as hard’ and close against the Negro as they do in the South, even if without benefit of law, are lines now of bitter jealousy and dislike (and lines which divide Gentile and Jew at Miami Beach, and in many another American center, are hateful too). But in the South, in spite of all the sinning against and by the Negro, there is long acquaintance, understanding, and a basic good will. Literally millions of white Southerners of intelligence and education wish the Negro well and believe he should be advanced in many directions as far as he can go. And it is not an ideology with these white Southerners; but mere decency, common sense, affection, self-interest. Their impulse in favor of the Negro is stymied, however, by a fear that something they do or permit or fail to oppose may be leading to a breakdown of segregation. The will of the Southern white against racial amalgamation is total. For that he is willing to filibuster, fight, play foul or fair, risk another Civil War. And the sign of this will is segregation. Publisher Mark Ethridge, of The Louisville Courier-Journal, is a radical on the Negro question in average Southern opinion. But nothing in his radicalism clouds his perception, and he has stated that “there is no power in the world— not even in all the mechanized armies of the earth . . . which could now force the Southern white people to the abandonment of the principle of social segregation.” Editor Virginius Dabney, of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, had to call himself off a few months ago when his proposal to have segregation abolished on buses and street cars in Richmond ran into a reaction more violent than any, newspaper can meet and survive (Mr. Dabney was quoted afterwards as of opinion that more than ninety percent of the people in the United States as a whole are in favor of race segregation). Right or wrong, the South is not going to have race segregation destroyed. To accept this as a fact and to understand at the same time the latent good will for the Negro which might be exploited among Southern white people if they did not fear a breakdown of segregation—is to know that the Negro’s greatest present hope of continued advancement in the South is on his side of an accepted line. His hope is not that the line will be abolished, but that it will be made more vertical and less horizontal. He cannot achieve a maximum of progress in the South now with the support of outsiders alone, or with the aid only of Southern liberals and Southerners who are radicals but miscall themselves liberals. He can do it only if he has the support of average Southern white people. Why should not the authority and prestige of the Southern governors be brought to a public reaffirmation of the principle of race segregation as inflexible in the South and at the same time to a program of state and community advancements and protections for the Negro on his side? Denying the propriety of a federal law against lynching, the South has come near to abolishing lynching now by its own will and hand. Opposing with all its votes and breath attempts at a federal law against the poll tax, the South is moving towards abolition of the undemocratic and useless monstrosity by the states themselves. In the same principle and circumstance why should not the Southern states set up fair employment practice committees of their own now for protection of the Negro, and civil liberties commissions, even as Southerners in Congress oppose the perpetuation of a federal Fair Employment Practices Committee which has proved its incompetence by associating fair employment with anti-segregation moves.

A sixth chance is one whose mention will stir in hallowed graves my own and many another set of ancestors. The South must take a chance on the Republican Party. Southerners who feel Republican (I confess that I can’t for the moment and that the thought is one of loneliness and abomination) must have the courage, the honesty, and the opportunity to vote Republican. In this increasingly political day the Southern states are under a multiplying handicap for want of a political competition which would make their votes more sought-after in the nation and more virtuous at home. The one-party handicap against which Southern statesmen seem so unwilling to act is at least as heavy as the freight-rate handicap against which these statesmen take wonderfully public setting-up exercises. The race question has been the bar sinister to Republicanism in the South, but it is, or should be, a bar no longer. With both parties seeking the Negro vote in the North now on a basis of concessions and favors the South opposes, there is no longer any more (or less) reason for voting Democratic than Republican on this issue. And it is the one issue which has held the South in Democratic solidarity. Obviously, many Southerners who are turned against the Democratic Party now (in their hearts if not in their votes) because of their dislike of the New Deal may be turning back again after 1948 when the party gets new lines and line-ups with the retirement of Mr. Roosevelt. But many other Southerners have been for years profoundly and basically Republican in their points of view. They vote Democratic only because they don’t want to waste their votes or because they are afraid to do otherwise. They should vote Republican, and Southerners of other persuasions should be glad when they do.

A bill introduced in the last Congress by Senator Guffey, of Pennsylvania, promised the South much in this respect, even if the Senator did not so intend it. The Guffey Bill, which was never brought to a vote and which died with the Congress, would have changed the electoral college system of Presidential election by dividing the electoral vote of each state on a basis of its popular vote. Without taking from any state its present weight in electoral votes and, by that token, without destroying the principle of representation by states as well as by populations, the bill would have given each candidate for President “in each state . . . such proportion of the electoral votes thereof as he received of the total vote . . . therein for President.” This would have given the Republican Party an incentive to more vigorous and sincere efforts in the South. In present circumstances such efforts are not worth while, since the entire electoral vote of each state goes to the party obtaining the merest popular majority in the November elections, and Republicans have no hope of majorities ordinarily in Southern states. Under the Guffey proposal, Republicans could hope for and seek electoral votes without having to poll a majority. If they polled one-fourth of a Southern state’s popular vote, for example, they would have one-fourth of its electoral vote. That would make effort worth while. At the same time, it would put an end to a present situation in pivotal states like Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania which gives Negro minorities a balance of power over the whole electoral vote of those states and, by that token, a mathematical importance in both parties exceeding that of the white man in the South. In addition, the Guffey proposal would make the electoral college vote more nearly and surely proportionate to the popular vote. The principle of equal representation of states in the United States Senate, which is the basis of the principle of representation partly by states in the electoral college, was so important in the sight of our fathers that the Constitution stipulates against any change in it without each state’s consent (Article Five). But nothing in the principle is served in the present practice of giving the entire electoral vote of a state to the candidate with a majority of the popular votes. The Guffey Bill, under a more soft and Southern name, would be an excellent vehicle for Southern chance-taking on a two-party system.

And seventh—on itself, its own people and products, the South must be willing to chance most, it seems to me. Not many Southern roads are named Tobacco, in spite of what aspiring novelists and playwrights say. There is light and increasing light among average people in Southern states, and it needs to be identified and followed. There was a time when progress in the region owed much to reformers from outside, but that time has gone. There was a time when Southern advance owed measures to reformers inside, to liberals and to those who called themselves liberals but were really radicals in the sense of proposing to go to the root of things and tear them up. They aroused the South from much sleeping. But many of these reformers today antagonize middle-of-the-road Southerners of light and good will against changes and betterments to which their own impulses are calling them. There is more hope in average Southerners now than in exceptional ones, in Southerners of intelligence and heart than in those burning with ideologies.

These average ones need to take chances on their own lights without fear of being carried too far or of the company they may have to keep. In too many instances, forward steps the South is perfectly willing to make have been postponed or stopped because radicals wanted them.

Believing in its people, the South will have to believe, too, in its products, in the output of its industries established and to come. With every part of the world bent today upon balancing agriculture with industry, every part is going to have to look more to itself for markets. There are, and will be, many famous exceptions, but new markets for the South will have to be sought in the South itself to an extent warranting major emphasis in policy. This will be no prison sentence. The wealth of natural resources in the area and the large populations make what is perhaps the greatest potential new market in the western hemisphere. Accepting the South as its own greatest future market, industrialists will have that for incentive against the old colonial policy that looked upon the region either as a raw-material one or as one whose finished producing must be done as cheaply as possible in order to reach markets far away, no matter how the home land was exploited and drained. If the South is its own great market for industry to come, the indicated policy of industrialists must be the manufacture of customers as well as of things to sell. They will be bound—as the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (U. S. Steel subsidiary) has wisely bound itself in recent years—to a policy of building up the Southern farmer, worker, Negro, and general consumer. On the other side of this picture of a South as its own greatest market, however, is the attitude of the Southern customer. He is going to have to be willing to buy Southern things where they are equal to things from other places. He is going to have to be willing to employ Southern services, patronize Southern institutions, rid himself of an inferiority complex about his products, a complex that went for so long, strangely, with a superiority complex about his people.

In Birmingham a cotton-gin manufacturing company which had developed a big market in Brazil was faced a few years ago with a critical situation resulting from the loss of its Brazilian outlet. Like every other land, Brazil is out to balance agriculture with industry. It has developed a cotton-gin manufacturing industry of its own, with a market among its cotton growers at home. But the Birmingham firm offset its loss by looking homeward, too. In its own South it has found a market for other kinds of machinery, especially coal-handling machines in Chattanooga. This is an example of the march of economic time which is going to make the South its own big market.

A chance on cotton, to face the world with its own merit and economy.

A chance on science, finding it and doing what it says.

A chance on the federal government, watching it but accepting its aids, especially educational ones.

A chance on Southern investment for Southern money.

A chance on the Negro, encouraging advancement on his side of a line.

A chance on a two-party political system.

A chance on the light in Southern people, on the merit in Southern goods, on the South as its own market.

Let the South accept these gambles and I believe it may come out of the competitive melee of postwar days with the hemisphere’s most balanced economy and immortal soul. Misspent in many respects, and often polluted, there are wellsprings of the human spirit in these states which age and sad experience have not dried. There is the nation’s greatest pool of religious faith. There are running waters of sociability that can swell to social-mindedness. Best of all, there is an atmosphere of eternity and continuity without which advancement is illusion and freedom is not real. Party lines of the 1920’s and 1930’s overlooked it. A South that continues to see itself living from generation unto generation is conditioned by the picture for all its seven chances.


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