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Let’s Join the United States

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

Sir, there are two Souths. The South! The Glorious South! The land of noble families, illustrious traditions, of magnolia blossoms and beautiful poetry—of Old Black Joes bowing and scraping to their cultured masters who always treated their Negroes just exactly as Nobody Else Knows How. Then there is the region of poor whites and underprivileged Negroes; of the worst labor conditions in the United States, of unstable business and agriculture, of the lowest standard of living; of lynching bees; of the lowest production in dairy products and green vegetables, the worst housing and the lowest wages anywhere in our country.

One of these pictures is fancy, and the other fact. But it is true that the South is the crucible of America. The burning-hot metal of social and economic problems is constantly boiling over on the rest of the nation.

When the President said the South is the “Nation’s Economic Problem No. 1” it really wasn’t news. We have known that since the brave soldiers of General Lee’s army hopelessly shuffled home with their sore feet and pained bodies. What we must do is to ascertain the historical reason, make necessary contemporary comparisons, and do something about it. The past, present, and future of the South are not alone important to the South itself, but its conditions bear an exact relation to conditions of the rest of the United States.

The South actually works for the North: mortgage, insurance, industrial, and finance corporations pump the money northward like African ivory out of the Congo. Few, much less than 10 per cent, of the money-service corporations which operate in the South are located in the South. Therefore, the South, as much as any British colony of old or today, is a colony, with headquarters in New York. There live the Privy Lords of Trade and Plantations, who pull the strings, send out the propaganda, make the decisions, and through economic, and consequently political power, govern the South by remote control.

Indeed, the South’s leading citizens — lawyers, business men, doctors, clergymen, public officials—either consciously or unconsciously serve the Lords of Trade and Plantations. They are a part of the system; they are dependent upon it. They therefore work for a continuance of the system. They control opinion, they serve on school boards and grand juries, act as university regents; they are state legislators, congressmen, and members of public utilities boards, officers in the National Guard, governors, lieutenant governors, and gentlemen-in-waiting. (You have seen them waiting around state capitals, ready to use their “influence.”)

Because of the historical conditions which create this colonial aristocracy, few face the truths of Southern problems. Newspapers are either gagged or they gag themselves. Universities and schools do not teach the history of the South. Magnolia blossoms are given students seeking facts: the cruelty and obscenity of the slave institution, and its definite effect to this very day, are glossed over. The present economic condition of the South and the degraded condition of the great masses of white Southerners are passed to another day. Of Southern universities, I know of only one which teaches much truth worth knowing about the South: the University of North Carolina. There may be others, but travel and diligent search have not convinced me there is another.

Possibly I should have known it, but not until recently did I learn that somewhere around five-sixths of the Southern whites were not slave owners at the outbreak of the Civil War. In Congress just these last four years, and being a good, or at least born Southerner, I was shocked to learn that the overwhelming sentiment of the white South wan against secession in 1861.

The controlling class—merchants, militia officers, public officials, newspaper owners, congressmen; all of the slave-owning class—pushed the poor whites into the Civil War and on the Southern side against their own will and certainly against their own interests. A similar situation of a similar controlling class today, an outgrowth of slavery, made worse by debt and other factors, still adversely affects the welfare of the South. But such a fact is only one of many. There are literally hundreds of misconceptions about Southern history, indulged in both by Southerners and people from other parts of the Union.

Educational institutions do little to dispel this ignorance. Even so, Southern legislatures have bombed their universities about “communism” and “radicalism,” until most of them have adopted outright the magnolia-blossom method of education and have blacked out the facts for fear of more air (or wind) raids. For this reason, new batches of leading citizens are always ready to support and reinforce the civilization that curses and damns the South. The youngsters leaving universities either live to carpetbag at home, or stay home and stay poor, or else, in disgust, they leave for the East and the West in order to make a living.

But before we appraise the present-day situation, let us take a look at history. Let us get the background. For indeed, from the historical and the present-day point of view, facts will prove that the South owes its desperate status principally to the Negro. It is either the Negro in actuality, or in symbol.

Already tied to the South, slavery was nevertheless becoming unprofitable even before the Revolution. People, North and South, were ashamed of the institution. Soil of the Piedmont states was being destroyed by Negro slaves and too much tobacco. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he recognized this and inserted a clause denouncing the slave trade, hoping the infant nation could begin its life with both the trade and the institution abolished. But the clause was voted down, and the nation began its life with slavery clamped upon all its southern region.

At the Continental Congress, traditions began to be built up about the lawyer and plantation delegates from the South. Representing slave colonies, they were dignified, able, reserved, and somewhat haughty. Virginia undoubtedly sent the ablest. The tradition—or the myth—of high and noble Virginia blood was already getting the big build-up. So Virginia early became a model for the South. Leaders of other Southern states copied her high and mighty manners. Even now, if one must show good blood, a Virginia family tree must be pulled out of the bag. I have checked some of the so-called noble family trees. Most of them were really good, plain people, but not “noble.”

This is not a reflection upon the South or upon Virginia, For when the new people came to the virgin continent and had a chance, they worked hard and did well, establishing good and honorable names. But it is important to puncture the imaginary coat of arms, the veins of noble blood, so people will not be underprivileged, and at the same time reactionary and blind because of it. People must be able to look at the problems of the South with realism and truth.

In 1794, eighteen years after Jefferson had attempted to lay the foundation of destroying slavery, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. It had an almost immediate effect on the economic structure of the South, because it made slavery profitable. It thereby became the “peculiar institution” around which the religious, political, and social theories of the South were built.

In the development of these institutions, the lawyers, most of them followers of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, proclaimed that all sovereignty was vested in the State; that the nation had none. The teachers and thinkers of the day, though they did not call it economics, showed that slave labor was necessary for cotton, and cotton was the only way for the South to exist; ergo: slavery was proper. The clergy of all denominations proved slavery was a divine institution, created, maintained, and blessed especially by God. Thus by legal symbol, professorial logic, and Holy Scripture, slavery was “peculiar,” but nevertheless perfect. In any event, by the time of the Civil War, slavery was part and parcel of the life, institutions, and psychology of the South. Whether it was good or bad, is not the question.

The psychology of that period is of great interest today, as showing the thought of a dominant group in society. The main cry of the slave owners, the Big Business Men of the South, was to be “let alone.” Damn these troublesome abolitionists I The Big Business Men wanted no interference in their business; they knew best.

When the Civil War came, the Southern lawyers wrote the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, and it was a perfect expression of the slave-owning interest of the day. It is important because it represents as well the industrial psychology of today—not, of course, as to slavery itself, but as to general principles of government.

Little study and research have been made on the Confederate Constitution. More should be made, because it is an important document in American history. I here insert the preambles of both constitutions, showing the differing portions in italics:

United States We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Confederate We, the People of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a pennanent Federal Government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—invoicing the favor and guidance of Almighty God—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

In the United States Constitution we see union, which the dictionaries define as “that which is united or made into one,” while the Confederacy made it plain that theirs was merely a federated group of separate, sovereign, and independent states, really so many nations. More, the Confederate Constitution entirely omitted the general welfare, and this was done purposely, so that the government would have no such foolish and immoral purpose as promoting the welfare of the people.

The Confederate Constitution also provided that the powers of the Confederate states were merely delegated to Congress, and not granted, as in the Constitution of the United States. Slavery was everywhere protected and to be made perpetual.

Subsidies, bounties, and “internal improvements” were prohibited. They were prohibited to a certain extent because of the tariff, which then, as now, was unfair to the South. But the real reason was to have a skeleton government, with no spending for improvements such as roads— which might be of general benefit, and thus improve travel, education, and the masses of the people, poor white and black slave. This same attitude is held by many today who believe that the government should not spend money on relief, W. P. A., and agricultural subsidies.

Smug, powerful, backed by plantation police of their own, reinforced by the soft words of the clergy, the slave owners proclaimed “local self-government,” “States Rights”—that is, the right to have absolute power over the human beings whom they controlled. This again bears comparison today with much of industry; it is only necessary to substitute “plant police” for “plantation police.” And the abolitionist was the labor organizer of his day.

The comparisons are also worth noting because, in government, certain patterns may recur, and for the same reasons. In the present analogy the cause is the same: the concentration of economic power.

After the war, the people of the South were flat broke, and beaten down into a pulp. A horde of ignorant black slaves was turned loose on a helpless white people. Added to this were the Yankee troops and the carpetbaggers. This completed the destruction of all classes of the South.

The poor whites, who had been drafted into the Southern armies, and who had fought only to make their own conditions worse, began to build up mental escapes for having fought for the Confederacy. They had never owned slaves, and had never approved of the Southern cause, but now they began to see the menace of carpetbag and black control. And so out of the economic and political conflict there was born a race prejudice even greater than existed before the Civil War. Sectional emotion of all white men was built up. Because of the destruction of the South, the conditions of the poor whites became increasingly worse. From then until now, the poor whites lost more and more of their lands. Over the years, until today, the South has become more and more in debt to the North.

Sharecropping and land tenantry hold from fifty to eighty per cent of the agricultural population, whereas there was little or none of either before the Civil War. Before, a poor white owned his own farm, though the land was often hilly, barren, and of the poorest type. What is worse, the landowners today are slaves to the same system. Most of them cannot be blamed for the onerous conditions they place upon sharecroppers and tenants. On top of this, conditions force the poor white to compete with the Negro and lower his standard of living to do it. It is therefore of no avail to the South to denounce the landlords or to weep over the tenants and sharecroppers. It is a system holding the whole South in its grip.

Colonialized as a whole region, it has been difficult for the people of the South to survive. Only those inheriting money and the most astute have come to the top, or have survived with a fair standard of living. Of those ground to the bottorn, millions, black and white, have fled from the South as though pursued by the plague or by a murderous army. Others, too poor or diseased to get away, remain. This overburdens and weakens the South, because the South must pay the cost of rearing and educating the children who then leave. This has produced a strange psychology upon the present ruling class in the South. For these classes, hard-pinched to hold their own, most of them working directly or indirectly for the interests of the East and North, feel sure the masses are incapable of progress. This is true of the lawyer, the business man, and the landlord.

For anyone to speak lightly or vindictively of the soul-breaking problems of the South would be vicious and mean. It was not originally the “fault” of the South itself. I am not trying to express moral indignation; I merely try to state a condition. And I do not believe the problems will be solved by some idealistic plan, or by anti-lynching bills enacted by Congress. Nor, again, will anything be solved by months of filibuster and horrified orations against anti-lynching bills. Such efforts do not touch the real problems one way or the other.


What is the general effect on the South of all its accumulated problems? It has been to make of the South and its people an irritated, chip-on-the-shoulder minority. For straight thinking upon our own problems, we have substituted romance, and for answer to questions we have substituted the dare to fight for the dear old Southland.

Of those who have been washed to the top, the leaders have usually done so by working for the utilities, natural-resource corporations, textile plants, insurance companies, and mortgage concerns owned by Eastern capital. Of the lawyers, many reach the state legislatures and the Congress of the United States. By the time most of them reach Congress and the top of their ladder, they have long since become reactionary and opposed to all the average interests of their own Southern people. A study of Southern congressmen and Southern politics is a job of analyzing a psychology in reverse. For indeed many congressmen of indubitable honesty and great ability, conscientiously and with great eclat vote against the South at every turn. Back of them is the ruling class of the South, which elected them, and of which they are a part. Back of them, also, is the poll-tax law, originally enacted to disfranchise the Negro, but which now disfranchises millions of white men and women. Thus in many districts voters consist of from ten to forty per cent of the number in Northern and Western districts of comparable population.

Should any such representative have an inclination to be liberal or progressive, this is soon bludgeoned out of him. It is accomplished by telling him he must not be “a traitor to the South.” I have heard that expression often. When minimum-wage legislation was before Congress I often heard Southern men who had come there as progressives say they could not vote for such legislation because they could not be “traitors to the South.” I never did quite understand where the treason came in. If any part of the nation needs protection against low wages, it is the South. But the great majority of Southern congressmen voted against this very law, and they generally vote against legislation directly beneficial to the South.

As in almost every other Southern question, the Negro was a long black shadow. It was frequently argued in private that the minimum-wage system would raise the wages of Negroes in industry to the phenomenal wage of $10 per week, which was more than a Negro should have—and he would waste it, anyhow. It was also argued that such a wage scale, even for white people, would destroy the South. More, solemnly orated a Southern senator, in the soft and balmy climate of the glorious South, a family could live well on fifty cents a day. Of course no Southerner, including the senator who made the statement, believed a word of this.

Many liberally inclined congressmen felt these kinds of apologies were not only the bunk, but malicious nonsense. But the leaders back home, representing sweatshops and outside capital, wanted this kind of “communistic” legislation defeated—and besides, anyone voting for it would be a “traitor to the South.” A traitor to whose South?

The effect that the Negro has on political thinking runs from the naive and comic to the bitter and tragic. Once I was talking to a very intelligent Southern colleague in the House of Representatives about slum clearance. He represented a rather fair-sized city. He assured me his only interest in the subject was academic, that he had studied sociology in the university. He said that he would be glad to vote for slum clearance, but that in his city there were no slums at all and no slum problems.

“What! No slums?” I said.

He assured me there were none, and was quite sincere about it. Yet, I had just passed through his city and I knew there were slums. In more than half of his town were terribly poor, unsanitary Negro shacks. I called that to his attention.

“Oh, I knew that,” he said. “You mean those nigger shacks?”

It suddenly dawned on him that there were slums in his city. To realize that there were slums in his city was painful; his Eastern university had taught him slums were inhabited by poor Americans, Bohemians, Italians, Jews not yet rich, and foreigners in general, with a good deal of vice and crime mixed up in the combination. That Negroes could be in slums had never occurred to him.

Another time during the discussion of a tenant bill, one of my colleagues who had one of the highest percentages of sharecroppers and tenants in America, took no part. I asked him why. He assured me that poor whites were a sorry class of people and didn’t have sense enough to farm, and besides, if we passed any such bill, we would have to let Negroes have the farms just like white people. That, he said, would cause “trouble.”

From all this we can gather that the Negro stands like a Black Colossus in the middle of every Southern, and hence every American, problem. He is both a symbol and an excuse for reactionary voting. But there is not much use in setting out problems unless we try to do something about them. So as a starter, certainly a unanimity of opinion should demand that the Negro obtain economic justice, that he should have the right to jobs, the right to own homes and farms, to have food and education. More, since the Negro is greatly subject to disease, he certainly should have the opportunity of benefiting by preventive medicine and public health measures. Or at least he should be allowed to earn enough to have doctors.

I do not present this as a charitable or humanitarian proposition for the Negro. It should be considered as largely selfish for the protection of the white people themselves. With white men constantly competing with the lower standard of the Negro, there must always be a constantly diminishing standard of living for all. With the health of Negroes bad, this can have and does have its constant effect on the white population. It has been only since the W. P. A. that the practice of requiring health certificates from colored domestic employees has been even partially adopted. The prevalence of disease has been alarming.

It is a simple proposition: the Negro should have a right to make a living; let us say not altogether for his own sake, but to keep him from being a drain and drag on the community. If the Negro’s economic status is improved it will solve many other serious and complicated problems concerning the races. For the sake of the South and the nation the problem of the Negro must be approached with more light and less heat. And the life of the Negro must be protected, and he should be allowed to feel secure.

There are a number of other things the South should do, such as breaking the financial domination of the North, establishing the protection of labor conditions, and backing the promotion of Federal projects—including conservation, slum clearance, and low-cost housing. Plainly, this must be through state action as well as national. From a state viewpoint, the constant outgo of capital can be halted by requiring certain investments in the state. Texas did that in insurance laws, and they were very successful; the only reason such laws have not been effective is that there have not been enough of them.

From the national point of view, the South must co-operate with national measures, including spending from a national viewpoint—of which a majority of Southern congressmen disapprove. The consciousness of the South still deeply resents the decades of persecution through the tariff, and is thus suspicious of national measures. For historical reasons, too, the South continues to sectionalize itself.

However, my point is that only by the firm and progressive action of each state, plus national co-operation, can the South be in a position to force correction of its drawbacks. Otherwise the South will remain not only an irritated minority, but an isolated minority. It may give mental satisfaction to belong to the “Solid South,” but to be in a minority and always to get beaten will not result in any solid satisfaction. The South must be in position to demand better freight rates and fairer tariffs. In short, if we use our heads, we must play ball with the rest of the nation to get what is good for the South.

There is one thing the South can surely do, and that is to require industry to pay fair wages and to offer decent and healthy working conditions. Instead of that, some Southern states give the most astonishing inducements—free factory sites, long periods of no taxation, and free water. Side by side with state protective legislation, the South should of course co-operate with the rest of the nation in labor laws protecting minimum wages and collective bargaining.

To a much greater extent than anyone realizes, the South has extensive slum areas. These areas are in the country as well as in the cities. They are not just Negro slums, either. Where an average home of a farmer in the North costs anywhere from two thousand to four thousand dollars, the average house for a farmer in the South costs from two hundred and fifty to a thousand dollars. In fact, a fair average farmhouse in the South is valued at between five and six hundred dollars. Many of the houses of the Negroes and of white sharecroppers are of no value at all, and could be replaced for less than a hundred and fifty dollars.

Certainly, also, the poll-tax laws of the South should be repealed. These laws were originally enacted to prevent Negroes from voting. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has held that a Negro can be legally prevented from voting in a Democratic primary, that asserted reason no longer applies. For, indeed, the only result of the poll-tax laws is to eliminate several millions of white voters. In many Southern districts only a very small percentage of voters get poll-tax receipts.

The political problem confronting the South is that many, probably a good whacking majority, of its senators and representatives are the very worst enemies of the South. As long as they are “safe” and “conservative” they will have strong backing in the home district. But the people of the South are the ones who get the worst of it; these members of Congress bombinate about the Constitution, about Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers, Southern Womanhood, White Supremacy, and the courage of Lee and Jackson.

This solves absolutely nothing. It increases rather than diminishes race antagonisms. Wages certainly don’t go up, sweatshops do not close, houses are not built, tenants and sharecroppers are not better off, and no lands are saved from further erosion and destruction.

The picture I have painted is certainly not very pretty, and not very encouraging. But in the universities I begin to see faint hope. The number of students attending the universities is enormously increasing. The students who attend are serious-minded, and they are spending less time on foolishness and carousing than those of twenty-five years ago did. They also have fewer prejudices.

Many of these students are sons and daughters of restaurant keepers, owners of small stores, farmers, tenants, and factory workers. They come from poor white and “foreign” families, and they cannot claim to be descended from the Lees, the Randolphs, and the Peytons.

These students have an entirely different viewpoint from those of the Old South. Their viewpoint affects the good and worthy sons from the Old Families. And there are so many students that the state legislatures cannot track down all the ideas; with the large number, someone is bound to learn something, use it for the benefit of the South and his country. Thus we can gather some courage from the students of today, who will be the congressmen, the lawyers, the doctors, and business men of tomorrow.

Something, I think and hope, is going to happen in the South and to the South. Possibly the white Southerner will rise and ask his place under the sun. Possibly he will say, “Here! There is enough for us all to live with a fair standard, let’s try doing it. Let’s conserve our soil, preserve our civil liberties, and begin to live like dignified human beings.”

Yes. The South may rise, but if that is to be done, let us leave the magnolia blossoms on the trees, and use the brains in our heads for thinking, rather than for emotions and escape complexes. Let us say the condition of the South was forced upon us by the slave shippers of New England, and that New England stole the slaves away; let us lay it on those who destroyed us in the Civil War, and then kicked us down under the heel of Eastern exploitation. But let us agree that this is merely history, and solves nothing for the future. Let us resolve that from here on out we are determined to free ourselves. If we do not, this time it will be our own fault.


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