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Old Conflicts in the New South

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Whatever there is distinctive in the Southern character is little more than the regional expression of the typical American’s assumption that it is good business to get more out of land and man than is put back. Nothing has cost America more than the “bargains” Americans have struck from soil and forest, slave and immigrant, sharecropper and consumer.

The South, together with the rest of the nation and the world, now faces a choice between cooperation and coercion. Southern agriculture, with slavery as a background, has never achieved cooperation, and elements of coercion are evident in much of the South’s industry. When the rank and file of the people participate responsibly in community affairs, the basis of cooperation is being laid down. When the rank and file of the people are inarticulate recipients of practices and policies which they themselves do not determine, coercion is already at hand. The political organization of a people takes its character largely from the way they earn their living.

Plagued by deficiencies and blessed with potentialities, Southerners can continue to waste their material resources and to discount great blocks of their people, and fall as the frustrated victims of their own disharmonies; or they can set themselves seriously to the task of developing and using their physical and human resources, and share in a reasonably abundant life.

With an increasing centralized control of economic and political power, the nation begins to take on the feudalistic quality long regnant in the South. Forced by its own problems to look at itself realistically, the South divides into camps as solutions are proposed.

The old South already knows the answer to its race and class problems. Listen to the orthodox politicians, educators, churchmen, landlords, and industrialists. They are sure that the traditional answers to race and class situations grew out of the innate nature of the people themselves. The old South’s politician tells us that this is a white man’s country, that Negroes must be kept out of office and away from the voting booth, and that the poll tax protects the ballot from mediocrity. The educator, in state house and courthouse, assumes that the white child should have a better schoolhouse, more transportation, and a higher paid and better-trained teacher than the Negro child. The churchman, whether clerical or lay, defends segregation in the community and practices it in his religious organization. The plantation owner emphasizes the improvidence of the sharecroppers and wage hands, and insists that they will work only under close supervision, that they could not live without the advances of food and clothing to produce a crop, that they would starve to death if land were given to them outright. The industrialist of the old Southern type, native or not, has usually reflected the plantation philosophy—preaching individualism, practicing paternalism, and damning labor unionism.

In the camp of the new South, the politician is a Democrat—a democrat, too: he emphasizes the needs of the total population, champions civil liberties, works for the abolition of the poll tax, fears Negro domination less than Negro disfranchisement, and points to the one-party system as inimical to political health. The educator points out that ignorance is costly, among Negroes as among whites, and that the whole theory of public education argues for equal opportunities for states, counties, and races. The churchman conforms to racial segregation, but recognizes its cost to his religious ideals of fatherhood and brotherhood; and he makes it a point to keep in touch with the religious efforts among the poorer white and Negro groups. The plantation owner of the new South frankly acknowledges that dependence and improvidence are too expensive to be tolerated, as are also malnutrition, malaria, and hookworm; and that his best protection is to work out with his landless families plans for cows, gardens, screened houses, medical service—and that these can be achieved only by affording opportunities for the families to exercise more responsibility and to raise their standard of living. The industrialist of the new South, in competition as he is with employers who exploit labor through low wages, pays a wage somewhat below the national average, but above the Southern average; he deals with labor affiliated with a national labor union, and relies on conference and cooperation rather than espionage and coercion.

The new South grew out of the lack of realism in the old, Southerners began to see and hear things that would not fit into the old definitions. From newspaper, magazine, book, and radio came facts out of harmony with the dogmas of class and race. In labor movements, government programs, and community projects, poorer whites and Negroes appeared who clearly transcended the outer limits of the orthodox stereotypes. Most revealing of all have been the overstatements of the old South’s demagogues.

But the old South, still believing the demagogues, is sure that coercion is the only way, for it holds that the mass of Southern Negroes and the majority of the whites are incapable of directing their own affairs, much less participating responsibly in the production and distribution of goods. Many Southern leaders who talk loudest about the ability of the South to deal with its own problems believe that most Southern people must be kept dependent and servile. The dogmas of the old South rest upon the assumption that the great masses of Southern people are biologically inferior. The hope and faith of the new South are based on the assumption that each individual is of value within himself, and that the South’s problems are due to economic and cultural situations rather than to inferior biological inheritance.


The general assumption of biological deficiency is the greatest single handicap in the way of real programs for regional advancement. It ignores a score of potent non-biological factors. It does not deal factually with the effects of malnutrition and pellagra, malaria and hookworm. Nor does it take into account the relationship between a man’s performance and his general outlook, whether it be one of hope or fatalism.

Nothing could more clearly demonstrate that Southern people are teachable than the fact that such a large proportion of them are now improvident and without hope. They have learned well the lessons of the plantation, schooling them to accept disinheritance. The result is that improvidence covers the region like erosion. A good way to demonstrate that the South’s major problem is not one of biological deficiency is to note the rapid increase of landless farmers in the last decades. One-third of all Southern farmers were tenants in 1880; over half of them were tenants in 1935. In many banner cotton counties over ninety per cent of the farmers are landless. Between 1920 and 1935, there was an increase of three hundred thousand white farm tenant families in the South, and a decrease of over seventy thousand Negro tenant families.

The rate of tenancy among the white farmers in Georgia, for example, increased from forty-one per cent in 1900 to sixty per cent in 1935. During this period, the white farm tenant families in Georgia increased by nearly forty thousand and the Negro tenant families decreased by more than nine thousand—most of them dropping to the sub-tenant levels of wage labor and unemployment.

When landlessness increases markedly in a single generation within the economically and politically preferred group, the biological explanation of farm tenancy becomes ludicrous, If biological disintegration were occurring, its effects would accumulate only with the passage of generations. But the increase of landlessness among Southern farm people has been pronounced within such short periods as five or ten years, even in a single season, when foreclosures were numerous or plantation owners found it to their immediate advantage to shift their workers from sharecropper to wage hand status. The dynamic forces involved here are economic change, and not biological inferiority.

The record is clear that the white farm tenants of the South have their biological heritage in common with the most wealthy and cultured people of the region. One frequently finds in positions of influence Southern white people who are but one generation removed from sharecropper hut or mountain cabin. There is clear evidence, too, that the Negro group is handicapped not by biological heritage but by inadequate opportunities for personal and group development. The Negro has earned serious appreciation from the American public in the many outstanding people the group has produced—Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson of yesterday; George Washington Carver, Robert Russa Moton, W. E. B. DuBois, Charles S. Johnson, Paul Robeson, and Marion Anderson of today.


Seeing the disharmony between orthodox class definitions and the facts, sensitive Southerners are faced with a dilemma, There is no easy way to reconcile stagnant tradition and dynamic truth.

The only hope for achieving adequacy lies in programs of action that will release to growth the South’s disinherited masses, white and Negro—her poorer urban dwellers, stranded rural laborers, farm wage hands and farm tenants, and in many sections of the poor soil areas of the South, a considerable number of small farm owners. These families vote least often, have the shabbiest houses, lowest incomes, poorest educational opportunities, least adequate health facilities, and the largest number of children. Looked at from the national point of view, the birth rate cannot be said to be too high. More than a score of the wealthiest states have such a low birth rate that their population would now be decreasing except for the influx of migrants from the high birth rate sections. The so-called “surplus children” of the rural South are needed to maintain even a stationary national population.

To the nation, then, as to the South, these relatively large families in the poorer rural homes constitute a challenge to democracy. If the future citizens of America are to have good health and educational opportunities, it means that the resources of the nation, wherever they are, shall have to be made available to serve the fundamental needs of the children of the nation, wherever they are. Such a philosophy must be understood by the wealthier states before they can safeguard themselves against the incoming of costly migrants, costly because of their defective education, their poor health, and their lack of a tradition of community participation.

The crux of the South’s inadequacy is readily resolved to its rural, industrial, and racial phases—and the greatest of these is the last. “One of the most obvious reasons for the social and economic retardation of the South,” as stated by the Institute of Southern Regional Development, meeting at Chapel Hill in June, 1937, “is the unwillingness of the white man to face the fact that his own fate and the fate of the region as a whole are inseparable from the fate of the Negro.”

Scattered across the years, and across the map, a number of significant efforts have been made to deal constructively with the race situation. The earliest efforts were of an exhortative nature. Next came the stage of “doing for” the Negro. Another stage was the collection of information about the Negro and about the effects of racial discrimination upon the whole civilization. Then came a fourth phase, working with Negroes on specific community projects.

This fourth level of interracial endeavor readily convinced those participating that any program that hoped to be of lasting benefit to the Negro would include the mass of whites as well. It was the analysis of the rural Negro’s plight that led to the discovery, so to speak, of the disinheritance of the white tenant farmer. It became clear that wholesome relations between the races could be achieved only in a society in which justice and opportunity are real.

At the University of North Carolina, notable pioneer work has been done in this inclusive approach to the study of the South. Here and there in the South, at white and Negro colleges, research work, regular courses, special seminars, and field excursions emphasize the factors in Southern situations that must be dealt with if the region is to escape the high human costs of class and caste—of limited opportunities on the one hand and defended snobbishness and inhumanity on the other.

While people working with race relations were becoming concerned about the poorer whites, labor organizations began to see that all workers had to be unionized. In the Birmingham area, even before the emergence of the C.I.O., the white and Negro coal miners and steel workers, seeing themselves in a common economic condition, formed interracial unions affiliated with the A.F.L. Now the C.I.O. is gaining real footholds in several Southern communities in spite of rebuffs and slander. No small part of the opposition the C.I.O. has met has been due to the fear that its class and race definitions are not sufficiently orthodox. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the Delta Cooperative Farm further demonstrate that white and Negro workers can be made to understand that they compete with each other for work, and that they consequently must work together in labor organizations and cooperatives, lest their separate efforts be canceled by the traditional playing of race against race.

The initial meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare at Birmingham, Alabama, with more than twelve hundred delegates from a dozen states, was easily the most representative and diverse group of Southerners ever to spend four days discussing Southern conditions and programs for their improvement. The attendance, the nature of the discussions, and the active participation of the delegates suggest an awakening of Southern people to their situation and the need for unified efforts. From first to last there was evident a striving for democracy in the Conference. Everything was subject to adjustment in the light of the wide range of interests represented. Yet there was a remarkable degree of harmony, clearly resting on a broad spirit of tolerance and appreciation. Church leaders and politicians, government employees and professional men, community chest officials and relief workers, labor organizers and industrialists found evidences of a better South. From the outset it was evident that the South’s basic economic problems were tied up with regional and national politics, and that economic factors, illegitimatized by the racial nexus, lie at the root of the South’s political and social structure.

With hopeful dashes of frankness and democracy in their membership and programs, the Southern Sociological Society and the Southern Policy Association have stepped ahead in analyzing and planning for the South. Most promising of all the private agencies, it seems, are the current efforts of Howard W. Odum and his associates to launch the Council on Southern Regional Development, which proposes integrated programs of social research and action in the four divisions of race development and relations, agricultural development and conservation, economic development and security, and political development and public administration. Such a fourfold approach, based on regional studies, assures maturity and inclusiveness of program.

Southern people are beginning to talk about conditions as they are. Is the South “Economic Problem No. 1” or “Economic Opportunity No. 1”? Or is it “Human Opportunity No. 1”? Whether problem or opportunity, what about the region’s high birth rates and low educational expenditures? What of deficiencies alongside abundant resources? Discussion groups are springing up in many communities, while civic clubs, religious and educational gatherings, college and high school debates, and public forums find topics on the Southern situation popular. The factual materials presented in heavy books by Dr. Odum and his colleagues are beginning to find prominent places together with facts from current government reports in popular pamphlets.

The Citizens’ Fact Finding Movement of Georgia, now in its second year, represents a most helpful approach. Seventeen state-wide organizations sponsor it. From month to month, authoritative statements have been distributed throughout the state on such topics as agriculture, industry, education, prison conditions, and politics. Experts prepare the reports and, largely because of the nature of the sponsorship, the materials have been widely accepted. It is doubtful whether presentations of such facts would even be tolerated except under such a local and representative sponsorship.


Public agencies, too, are becoming more socially realistic in their activities. Free schoolbooks, revised curricula, statewide standards of training and pay for teachers—these represent real gain. Yet there is still a great difference between the urban and rural schools. And second-hand books for Negro schools and race differentials in salaries indicate how far from equitable the public school system continues to be. State health programs, too, are better than formerly, but far from adequate, particularly for Negroes and the poorer rural dwellers.

The state departments of public welfare, in cooperation with the national Social Security Board, are now providing public assistance to more than one-fourth of the South’s people over sixty-five, to a majority of the blind, and to nearly two per cent of the children under sixteen. In view of the greater welfare needs of the poorer rural dwellers and of the inadequate civic and social services rendered there by private agencies, it is encouraging to find that nearly two-thirds of those now receiving Social Security assistance live in rural areas, and that the proportion of Negroes being served in most states approximates their ratio of the population. But the Southern Negro’s old-age assistance check is smaller than the Southern white man’s, and the latter’s in turn is far below the national average.

Not without regional differentials as to policy and racial differentials as to practice, the W.P.A. provides employment for Southern people of both races at wages and working conditions that afford newly found security of a sort for hundreds of thousands of families. Its program of adult education and community recreation deserve mention with the many worthwhile community improvements it has made possible.

The National Youth Administration has been as nearly color-blind as a public service in the South can be. It has commonly followed the rule of administering its resources to each race on the basis of population, thus assuring quasi-equitable benefits to each. In matters of administrative personnel, too, Negroes have not been ignored.

The Farm Security Administration has also generally worked out its benefits on an equitable racial basis, though in some communities—particularly where there are big plantations—the national policy is not too obvious. But these gaps are being filled in as time passes, as plantation backgrounds give way to the more democratic philosophy of the F.S.A. with its rural rehabilitation program and land purchase service. With a cow and a garden and food for the table and for canning, the 125,000 “rehab” families of the South are able to use their cash crops to pay their debts, improve their standards of living, and increase their ownership of personal property. The proof of the soundness of this approach lies in the fact that over four-fifths of them are paying back their loans, some even becoming independent owners by their own initiative or through the tenant-ownership service of the agency.

The scattered farm communities of the F.S.A. in the South range all the way from the forty-acres-and-a-mule type to cooperative farms. The assumption is that all kinds of projects ought to be seriously tried in order to find which works best. Most of the community projects are set up on a racial or bi-racial basis, though one—in southeastern Missouri—is interracial. The families for some of the projects were carefully chosen, while for others the resident families of whole plantations were taken over. By demonstrating that the South’s landless people will respond to sympathetic assistance and scientific guidance, and that the money used in such programs is a public investment rather than a public expenditure, the F.S.A. is doing much to free the South of its greatest handicap—the lack of faith in its own people. Against the hopeful efforts which are being made in the South stands the barrier of race and class orthodoxy. At the Southern Conference for Human Welfare at Birmingham in the fall of 1938, it was the racial and class realism that attracted local opposition and more than a little outside attention. Despite the amity exhibited in the initial sessions of the Conference—and maintained throughout by the delegates themselves—the arbitrary enforcement of Birmingham’s race segregation ordinance, even in the churches, underscored the fact that though a new South was striving to emerge, the old South still dominates and relies upon race prejudice to dispose of any new economic and political forces that rise up to challenge it.

Though the old is still the dominant South, it is not the only South, for there are those who sense the dynamic relation between man and land, between agriculture and industry, between economic status and political efficiency, between race theories and human relations, between actual deficiency and underdeveloped resources—physical and human.

But becoming aware of the interdependencies and being willing to do something about them are different things. And today, while the enlightenment process is making hopeful progress, effective programs of action are few and feeble. Even among those Southerners who already concede that these interdependencies do exist, there is confusion as to what kinds of programs should be launched, how partial or inclusive they should be, and whether it is preferable to begin with local community or with federal policy. Here are opportunities for creative development.

The representative of the new South knows that the region is handicapped less by outside opposition than by inside complacency, less by the sharecroppers than by the heritage of the plantation system, less by the presence of the Negro than by the white man’s attitude toward him, less by the dangers of class uprisings and Negro domination than by fear of them.

But the South is not defeated yet, for she is beginning to understand the nature and extent of her difficulties. By integrated national and community efforts she may be able to pay the bills of yesterday’s exploitation of land and man, may be able to conserve and use her natural resources and so restore the region to its rightful place in the nation. These dreams of the newest South can be realized only as Southern people—all of them—are released to their full stature.


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