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Democracy Is Bread

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

We talked in July, a long time over beer in an Atlanta hotel where they charge you more than they do anywhere else in the South and sneer at you for paying it. I watched a pretty woman light a cigarette, blow out the smoke, and laugh behind it. But we were very serious, we three men talking, the young Harvard Yankee who had come some strange way into the Southern labor movement, the economist who had been moving across the States making a study for a learned institution, and myself. We were serious because in Atlanta all of us saw, free this time of any circus trappings of klan, a cold-blooded and determined fascism in the South. It is moving now and its numbers and its power come from the very poor.

“To tell you the truth,” the labor man said, “I’m afraid. A lot of people might call me a defeatist. But we’ve been riding our luck too long. We’re getting organized all right. But I’m afraid it can’t last—or that if it does last it won’t mean anything. Something is about to happen. I don’t know what.”

And the next morning I got up and read that the South is Economic Problem No. 1. I am afraid it is more than that. I fear—I hope foolishly—that not merely in its executive offices, but out on the gullied hills, something strange, too native to be fascism, is breeding in the sun. I remembered what the economist had said the night before. Something, he said, had taken the place of epithet against Roosevelt. The hysteria was gone out of the anger. He had felt the new thing before he found it.

“I remember I went into a plant in a little town, one of those baked little places where the cottages in the village seem to be cringing under the sun. The manager had an air-conditioning unit in his office and it was nice. Not merely cool. He was pleasant. Some of the managers did not like my questioning. He wanted to hear the things I was discovering in Southern industry. He told me about his business and his workers. It became such a conversation that it seemed natural when he had Coca-Colas brought in. Then he got up, went across the room and shut the door. He came back very serious. ‘If you ever say I said this,’ he told me, Til say you’re a damned liar. But we’re through obeying these Washington laws down here. It’s over!’

“I put down my glass. I grinned at him. ‘How? This isn’t secession?’

“He didn’t smile. ‘Watch. But don’t expect any fireworks. There aren’t going to be any. We don’t need them this time.’ “

That small-town plant manager may have been a melodramatic conversationalist. There are such in the South, and such talk is a part of the pleasure in the long quiet talking afternoons and evenings. But the possibility of melodrama is a part of the pattern of the South; and under all pleasantness and despite all laws to lift and protect labor, there still lies the pressure of a hungry people on the barren hills who must come down on the towns to jobs or starve— and who, coming down, may pull all standards down with them.

Mr. Roosevelt has so often stood before the people, leading them or moving with their pressure behind him, that I wondered if, when he faced this South, he recognized the extent of this crowding upon the devices he had erected to protect some of the Southerners. I did not doubt his good will and good intention. No other President, I think, has ever done so much for the South and tried to do so much more against a reaction in the South which conceives of the region in terms of a rigid order that must break if it is altered. But I hope he has not seen this South too simply. That is a widely prevalent fashion.

Not the least of the appeal of the South for the romanticists, the reactionaries, and the reformers lies in that apparent simplicity. The same people inhabit the South who founded it. No strange new tides of immigration have altered them. Technical and industrial changes lie over a land still relatively rural and apparently simple. The smoothest roads run through even the jungle and the wasteland. Plowing somehow seems simpler than machine production. The mule and the man and the earth remain as first symbols of the South. And even the increasing machine production in the towns seems relatively less complex than in industrial regions elsewhere. There is room, or the illusion of room, for thinking and planning in the South in terms of old ideals of free men on their own land, even though for millions that has become only a possibility, a possibility that has grown remote. Too many see this South in terms of individual men and women subject to individual assistance. Of course they are the South; but in the South the collision of collapsing agriculture and rising industry is not merely private tragedy infinitely repeated, but also a spectacle which should be terrifying to America.

Since the New Deal began the program that has moved to the recognition of the South as Economic Problem No. 1, the safeguards for Southern labor have grown with the National Labor Relations Act, the National Recovery Act, and the wage-and-hour legislation. Labor is strong as it never seemed possible that it would be; sometimes, indeed, it has seemed to have acquired a portion of that arrogance which once belonged entirely to the masters of the mill towns. That was less of a transformation of the mouse into the mountain than may seem, for the masters and the men in the South are the same folk under their pocketbooks.

It is significant, however, that despite the recession, wages for labor are higher than they were before Roosevelt. Despite a widening after the collapse of N. R. A., the wage differential between the North and South is less—often considerably less—than it used to be. But I think the young labor man in Atlanta was right. The picture before labor is not any prettier. The pressures have not changed. The South remains a land where too many people fight over the division of too little for all. And where there is hunger to prompt the fighting, no administration in Washington can set up securely any Marquis of Queensberry rules in the struggle for survival.

It is not a new struggle. But I think it is the saddest one in American history. The truth is that the whole South (and America also) grew from the desperate moving of the unemployed or the unsatisfactorily employed laborers who so long ago took America instead of relief. Obviously neither America nor the South was filled by men secure where they were. They came because they had to. There was little more free will involved in the coming of the white men than in the coming of the Negroes. But in this earlier and adventurous counterpart of our relief, there was a hope; some have more accurately called it a dream—a dream of security and dignity and independence all together on the land. It flourishes in terms of lush Biblical images, of house and vine and fig tree and fat kine and milk and acres and honey. But it faded as quickly as any dream when we awaken. In the South, indeed, for millions it had faded altogether at the very time when romanticists were reporting the plantation system as the civilized ideal.

It was in 1848 that William Gregg, the South Carolina jeweler, set up his cotton mill as the New Deal has set up its sewing rooms, as a means of affording employment to the many thousands of white people in South Carolina who then, Gregg said, were living “in comparative nakedness and starvation.” And there never have been enough jobs provided to fill their bellies and cover their hides. There will not be soon.

That was exactly ninety years ago. But the Southern problem, economic or human, is where jeweler Gregg found it then, back on the worn-out farms, around the little half-dead towns, in the increasing armies of boys and girls who are determined, even if sometimes apathetically, to eat and live. This is certainly not news now. Long after Gregg, but long ago also, the regional planners at Chapel Hill pointed out that in the South the greatest human increase in America has been gestating without interruption in an agricultural economy which has been—and is—barely able to support those already there. The continuous result is that the young must move to live. And they have moved. Of the native-born population of the nation in 1930, 28,700,000 were born in the Southeast, and of these about 6,700,000 had moved, 3,800,000 out of the South entirely, and 2,900,000 from the rural districts to the Southern towns.

That is statistical history, but the process continues. It must continue, if the young are to eat. Furthermore, in recent years unemployment everywhere has sent those who left the South back to it by the hundreds of thousands, and they crowd the land again and increase the pressure upon the towns and the factories and the jobs. And, as Chapel Hill also showed, if the entire cotton textile industry of the nation, on the basis of its 1929 employment, were concentrated in the South, only some 200,000 additional jobs would be opened in this section, from which more than this number have annually departed in the past in order to find work and food. On the land from which these numbers come, wages and hours are something vastly different from standards which men would like to set in the towns. Six dollars a week is a scandalous wage in the towns, but three hundred dollars a year is not a rare income on the land for a whole family farming a whole year. Somehow the agricultural programs of the New Deal have failed to reach down to many of these people. Sometimes indeed they have seemed to dispossess rather than to serve them.

All this big moving hunger is behind the Southern worker in the factory. If he could look out of the mill through the painted windows which surround his job, the Southern worker could see in the fields all around him, on the roads all around him, closer to him in the streets, the boys and girls ready, even anxious, for his job. Always, every year and day, they are there waiting—and more of them by the thousands are born every year. It is their pressure, and not merely the pressure of employing greed, against which minimum wage laws are erected. It is their pressure against which labor unions must stand. Already that pressure has destroyed the security of the town worker where it was weakest. It has driven the Negroes out of the jobs which once were held to be as much theirs as the color of their skins. Now the barbers are white men; white girls have taken the places of the Negroes in the hotels and cafes. This summer I saw white men working to unclog a stopped sewer in the Negro section of a Southern town.

The change is everywhere. Much has been said about the Negro as a threat to the wages of white men. The Negro certainly must work for what he can get. Rut the threat, indeed the accomplishment, is against him, not from him. He had jobs in the South, perhaps more than his share. They are gone. But the once-called Negro jobs have not been enough to relieve the pressure of the white multitude. There are more men and more women waiting, pushing for all the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs of white workers in the South.

And I doubt that law or unions, even relief, is enough to hold them back. Old jeweler Gregg was honestly humanitarian when in 1848 he provided jobs for Southern women— the Southern womanhood of song and story—in his mill at fifty cents a long, aching day. We like to think differently about wages now in a supposedly different time. But even if all the little business men in all the little Southern towns are not humanitarians, there are still plenty of littler folk who would take jobs if the law would permit the business men to offer them at what we call sweatshop wages. The men in the South who have opposed unions, who have fought every barely won wage-and-hour standard, know that these people are waiting without any market for their labor, waiting to make a profit for business men, waiting to make a little more money to spend in the business men’s stores. And the law which separates them goads them like a mounting, unfulfilled desire.

This South of which I am speaking is not Birmingham and Atlanta; it is a realm of little towns. And such is the nature of government in this South and this country that government, despite increasing nationalism, remains the business of little towns. Law may be made in Washington but people are governed by it in places far-off and remote. The courts and the cops, the jurymen and the mayors, and those unofficial town meetings of the ruling oligarchy, the chambers of commerce, the Rotary clubs, the Kiwanis, and the Lions, belong to tight and determined worlds. And anyone familiar with the enforcement of labor laws in the small town—and the larger town, too—in the South knows that the best laws can be nullified. Indeed, this is not merely Southern or small-town. The prohibition laws remain in memory as evidence that in America law need not effectively

# intervene between the American and what he wants to do. Prohibition and Negroes and labor can all be lynched and with the approval, as in all such cases, of the “best people” in the land.

A Southern Governor told me, cryptically but clearly, that when industry came to his state, its owners could count on it—they would have no labor troubles.

A Southern Senator, who afterwards admitted that he overspoke himself, rose in the United States Senate to tell 1 of an incident that occurred in a town where he lived part of each year. He said: “I think there was a time when sixty or seventy per cent of the people in the county in which that city is located were on relief. A group of business men,

everyone of them known to me, not one of them worth over ’ twenty-five thousand dollars, and most of them not worth over five thousand or ten thousand—just fine young fellows in the town, with a lot of enterprise—looked into that situation, and they got a chance to build a shirt factory, and they did build the shirt factory.

“They rented it out to some company that would operate a shirt factory, but they furnished the factory. They got the thing running. They had one hundred and fifty women employed.

“They were learning the business, and they were learning rapidly. The business was doing very well. I do not say that the wages were high. I think the wages were low, but the people were happy. They were not on relief. They were not looking to the W. P. A. They got their pay because they earned it. They created the wealth that paid the wages. By and by, there came down to that little town two C. I. O. agitators. They sowed the seeds of distrust amongst those people. They put on a strike. The people in the town just did one thing: they got hold of those two fellows, put them on a bus and said, ‘You clear out of here; and if you do not clear out, we might need a lynch law down here,’ and they cleared out. Pretty rough of them, pretty strong of them, but sometimes you have got to do something when people come down to break up your civilization.”

And one of the most intelligent and vigorous of Southern labor leaders told me: “If labor in the South is going to get anywhere, we’ve got to do something about these tenant folks. The real threat to the American standard of living does not come from the coolie and the Jap but from the poor whites of the South. They are terribly poor and terribly productive. They must be given some sort of standards or no other standards in America will survive.”

But the threat is not merely to wages and standards. Here is the threat of fascism in the South, in the United States. Fascism? It is a foreign word for a foreign thing. And it is absurd to use a foreign term for a condition that was American before Mussolini was born. And the term leads us to false thinking: it leads us to an entirely false fear of a repressive dictatorship coming down from the top upon the little towns at the bottom of the land. The American process is entirely reversed, but no prettier for the reversal. In the South Huey Long and others have shown that these poor on their pathetic hills can be stirred. And why should they not be? For millions of them democracy has failed to give the least that men may hope from government or from an economic order. And, of course, they can be stirred in false furies. Southern lynchings represent not merely degrading cruelty but a wild outlet for despair. Demagogues have led them against Negroes when what they wanted, as other men in other lands have wanted, was bread. Tom Watson baited their hunger in Georgia with the Catholic and the Jew. They will strike at anything until there is something for themselves.

And until they are given some sort of standards, no protections of law or of union will make secure the wages, or the hours, or anything else, of men and women at work. They and not the sweatshopper, not the exploiter, not the small-town booster, not the developer of backward states, threaten the New Deal’s efforts to elevate the standards and lift the wages of the workers in the South.

The old threat implicit in their pressure continues despite all the law, despite all the successful efforts of the unions to organize the workers who now hold the jobs. And a new threat grows in the South: in some states, in some cities, in many towns, we may fear a new disregard of law.

That will be simple and ugly: not men and women but their wages and hours may be lynched. Civil liberties and legal rights may not withstand the pressure of the too many in the South on the too little in the South. The mob is moving and somehow my heart is not fixed against the mob. But I am terrified by it. Its members are not so much violent and destructive as they are hungry. The land behind them is sterile; the factories before them are crowded. The South can scarcely contain them; the North does not want them. But I think they lie at the bottom not only of the Southern problem but of the American problem. They are below what we too often think of when we say “labor,” but all the hope of labor as well as all its fears must reside in them.

No laws, no standards will make “labor” or any of the rest of us in the South secure while these country boys and girls are not. The salvation of the South is at the bottom of the South. We may all fear hunger and fury until these are fed.

This South may be, as the President says, Economic Problem No. 1. But National Problem No. 1 is to get down deep enough in democracy to make it serve where the hungry are. It will not be secure until that is done.


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