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Not Tribal, Just Neighborly

“History, like God and nature, [has] been both generous and unkind to . . . the South,” wrote “Fugitive” poet Donald Davidson in a 1938 essay titled “Still Rebels, Still Yankees.” “Defeat had possessed [it] and had rubbed deep, into [its] wounds.” The rebelliousness of the South, the pain of a military conquest, occupation by an external foe, and rule by its former servants may have formerly defined the region, but its legacy is very different now from that original experience.

Once upon a time—and it was not so long ago—the conventional wisdom was that the South would never overcome its past. Between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, it endured about a century of alienation. The evidence was most apparent in government statistics: the South was poorer, less healthy, undereducated, less urbanized, more religious, and resistant to change. It was ruled by one political party whose politicians ran on a platform of racial exclusion and resentment of the rest of the country. “We have never wished to be like everybody else,” wrote Ben Robertson in his upcountry South Carolina memoir Red Hills and Cotton (1942), “We have tried all our lives to be ourselves, to be different if the spirit so moved us.”

The memories, obligations, and resentments of the Southern past formed a special culture, but it began to change in the twinkling of an eye. Though predominately rural on the eve of World War II, the region welcomed an influx of defense contractors, soldiers in training, and workers looking for jobs. After the war, urbanization transformed the once-unspoiled wilderness into a complex modern society connected by interstate highways. Though the physical geography of the region did not change, the population of each state migrated and shifted. The eleven states of the former Confederacy grew in population relative to the rest of the country: from 24 percent of the U.S. citizenry in 1950 to 31 percent in 2010.

At mid-century, half the Southern residents lived in urban areas, defined as a population of 50,000 or more. Today, three-quarters live in such places. Houston, Texas, is the fourth—and soon to be the third—largest city in the United States. Author Larry McMurtry summarized the feelings of many when he wrote, “one sometimes wonders if Bowie and Travis and the rest would have fought so hard for this land if they had known how many ugly motels and shopping centers would eventually stand on it.”

The South may be urban now, but nothing was more native to its legacy than agriculture. “Everything about the Americans is extraordinary,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville after his visit in 1831, “but what is more extraordinary still is the soil that supports them.” Agriculture defined the Southern life, on the plantation and then on the farm, and set it apart from the rest of the country. In 1950, about a quarter of the Southern workforce labored in farming, compared to less than 10 percent nationally. Today, the South has put the “forty acres and a mule” inheritance to rest; only about 2 percent of the regional population have agriculture as their calling.

In 1950 the South trailed other regions in economic attainment. At that time, the per capita income for the region was 74 percent of the national average; by 2010 it was 91 percent. A 1970 issue of Fortune magazine listed the location of the 200 largest corporations; only 9 had a Southern address. By 2003 43 of the top 200 companies on the Fortune list were in the South, including Wal-Mart at the top.

Ironically, Southerners embraced their racial past and, in doing so, reversed it. Scenes of racial conflict in the 1960s were changed into state parks in Alabama. The 2010 census found greater African American in-migration than out-migration. Majority white congressional districts in Florida and South Carolina elected black Republicans—the first since Reconstruction—to represent them in Washington.

In the rest of the country, diverse economic and social changes led to a more secular, liberal, postmodern outlook and a changed political culture. Some of that is manifest in Southern cities, but on the whole the South remains the most conservative region in the nation. It is still ruled by one political party, albeit Republican now instead of Democratic. After the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP dominated every Southern legislature but one; and U.S. House and Senate representation was more than two to one Republican. The South voted solidly Republican in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, but two states—Virginia and North Carolina—voted for Barack Obama by narrow margins in 2008. North Carolina reverted to red in 2012. The defense of established political, economic, religious, and social patterns in the culture is the very essence of conservatism, and it is still winning politics in the region. Why?

Two reasons abide. The first begins (as all cultural distinctions do to my mind) with faith. Christians in the South remained more devout, more churchgoing, and more likely to subscribe, even today, to the view expressed by Reverend James H. Thornwell in an address before the South Carolina General Assembly in 1854: “The best servant of the State is the faithful servant of God; and you would do more today . . . by consecrating each man himself upon the altar of religion, than by all your eloquence, prudence and skill.”

For many in the South, it was an article of conviction that social improvement came from individual conversion and regeneration, not popular movements, political programs, or causes. Many Southerners were Newtonians; they believed in absolute, unchanging laws of science—physical as well as moral laws. When Thomas Jefferson spoke of the “laws of nature and nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, he asserted a complete truth on which Christians and deists could agree. One hundred eighty years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the prophet Amos and declared, “Let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream,” he appealed to an audience that believed the same thing. In 1973 North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin summarized the Southern sentiment again. “The laws of God in the seventh verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians declared: ‘Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ ” Such was Ervin’s and many Southerners’ verdict on the misdeeds of President Richard M. Nixon, even though many had voted for him. God-given, absolute, unchanging laws revealed through scripture played an important role in the lives of both the black and the white communities.

Modern times beckoned with the biology of Charles Darwin, the philosophy of John Dewey, the economics of John Keynes, the “new” history of Charles Beard, and the physics of Albert Einstein. The rest of the country may have rushed to embrace the humanistic world, but in many places the South remains faithful to the old ways. Today the region has more mega-churches than any other part of the country, and more people regularly attend church there.

Nativity is the second reason for Southern social and political conservatism. Historically, the South has been called the most “native” region of the country. To quote short story writer Elizabeth Spencer, “There were Yankees ‘up there’ we said to ourselves . . . the other southern states, like neighboring counties, offered names that could be traced in and out among one’s connections and might prove acceptable.” Southern allegiance crossed borders, and kinship was strongest among eleven state cousins.

The 1950 census found that an average of over 70 percent of each Southern state’s population was native-born to that state, and another nearly 15 percent was native to a related Southern state. That meant that an average of three-quarters of each state’s population was “Southern-born.” Sixty years later, the percentages were reduced, but not by much. The 2010 census found the average percent of the population born in the state and still living there was down to 55 percent, but the proportion from a neighboring Southern state had not changed. As a result, today nearly 70 percent of each Southern state’s residents are from the region. Florida and Virginia have the least number of residents born in the state or another Southern state, whereas Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest Southern-born population.

The South is not tribal, it’s just neighborly. As North Carolinian Charles Kuralt said, “This is a different place. Our way of thinking is different, as are our ways of seeing, laughing, singing, eating, meeting and parting. Our walk is different, as the old song goes, our talk and our names. Nothing about us is quite the same as in the country to the north and west. What we carry in our memories is different too, and that may explain everything else.