The Burden of the South and Nation In Another Political Year

The Burden of the South and Nation In Another Political Year

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978, pp. 5-6

Southern politics has seldom offered an opportunity for hope or joy to the agitating Southerner. For those of us who bel eve that race and equality have not surrendered their central place in the life of the South, the scars and terrors of past political defeats have made us reluctantly more the observant than the participant. Perhaps, it has sharpened our ability to see clearly. Or, like the neighborhood wag sharing the tales of some highway accident, it may be that we’ve come to be satisfied with describing politics instead of engaging it.

Yet, this year of all years brings a hope for some Southern liberals that the nature of politics is changing, that the politicians’ views have improved, and that the nature of our problems has changed. As proof, it is noted that some of the most skillful masters of the old school of Southern politics are passing away from their places of political eminence. John McClellan of Arkansas, James Eastland of Mississippi, John Sparkman and Jim Allen of Alabama: none will sit in the U.S. Senate in 1979. Indeed, we are reminded that there has been no other year in the past twenty in which so many of the partricians of Southern heritage have relinquished their places.

A little more memory may also tell us, however, that there have been countless numbers of days when we’ve tried to find major societal movements in our politics overnight, and only a few of them have sustained a lasting, progressive influence Remember when some were excited that Southerners stuck with Roosevelt through three administrations as Democrats and then it all fell apart as they walked out as Dixiecrats on Truman and the civil rights plank. Remember the hope when John Kennedy carried much of the region in 1960 and the despair when Barry Goldwater did it in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 and again in 1972? There was a moment of euphoria the night Terry Sanford became Governor of North Carolina in the early 1960’s and more than a moment of sadness when Jessie Helms went to the Senate from the same state in 1972.

Political Symbols

In observing the present changes in the Senate, we must also recognize the limits of political symbols. Despite our excitement and enthusiasm during a campaign, Southerners have always known that politics carries a duplicity -not always intentional, but apparently inevitable. Thus, we must realize campaign symbols for what they are and are not.

When Governor Bill Finch kissed a Black baby in Mississippi in his race for the US. Senate, we know that an old social custom had been broken. But, we don’t yet know from that gesture how much Finch cares about the interests of ‘poor Blacks or even what he’ll do on legislation for poor children. And his campaign didn’t tell, at least publicly. After Alabama State Representative John Baker, seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate, attacked George Wallace for his 1963 stand in the schoolhouse door in a political telecast, we were assured that Baker, if elected, would not make a fool of himself this fall when Blacks register at the University of Alabama. But, we really have not been told anything about how a Senator Baker would vote on legislative proposals to desegregate the University of Alabama and other state schools.

Obviously, the art of political speech to say nothing and to say something at the same time doesn’t always have a Southern trademark. Still, our campaigners have commanded the technique so long and so well that we ought to resist on principle, as well as experience, the temptation to gauge the progress of our times by the symbols and illustrations of our political campaigns.

Lest we be overcome by me temptation to say that this year is the exception, we ought to remember also that each of the men who leave the U.S. Senate did survive all major political challenges in their careers and most likely would have done so once again if they had stood for reelection.

If we can’t learn from politics much detail about ourselves, perhaps we should look at the deeds of those already elected and the opinions of those who elect them to know how well we stand. And here, I am no more encouraged than I was on those late summer nights when I stared in disbelief at the election returns which crushed my hopes and my candidates for that year.

The State of Equality

For my view, there appears no question that the day-to-day support for the campaign to achieve equality in the South and the nation is more diminished today than at any other time in the past ten years. While freedom from irrational discrimination has been embraced by our laws and popular opinion, the means to achieve equality have not.

To be sure, past work in the South and elsewhere has moved an entire segment of people out of the bondage of constant fear, intimidation, and humiliation. No longer can Blacks as a whole be dispossessed of property, life, and culture by sham laws and capricious hatred. The law of the land and its enforcement do not prohibit that massive denial for most and offer individual protection for some. And importantly, the work of the past couple of decades for civil rights has inspired a renewed attempt by many other groups in society to strive for their own equal treatment.

Yet, as historian C. Vann Woodward reminded us ten years ago, “equality (is) a far more revolutionary aim than freedom…” The attainment of this goal does not always invoke blatant hatred and

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outrageous open cruelty. Instead, the work to achieve equality often involves the relationship of everyone in almost every corner of their lives. Perhaps for this reason, It is a difficult achievement and remains largely unachieved in Southern and national life today.

Promises Unkept

Of the more than ten million Blacks who live in the South today, about seven million live in counties where more than 20% of the population is Black. Yet, not more than two out of ten of these communities has had a Black elected official in the last 100 years. There remains almost 40 counties and three times as many towns in the rural South where Blacks represent a majority of the population but have never had a Black elected official. The obstacles to full, effective voting and candidacy by Blacks exist in the large part because of continued local resistance by government officials and the growing disinterest of the federal courts.

A recent survey of the employment practices of 16 Southern cities shows the continuance of a massive pattern of discrimination against Blacks and women. The results are shocking: almost three fourths of all Black males continued to work for the Southern cities in garage and maintenance. While nine out of ten of all the high-salary positions are held by White males, none of the cities has a Black female making $13,000 or more.

Another report recently revealed that in the last reported fiscal year, the Southern states refused to participate fully in federal programs offering social services to the poor. In a region where welfare is viewed mostly as a handout to the Black poor (a perception that ignores the fact that more Whites in the South are poor than Blacks) and where we have the largest number of poor in the nation, the 11 states of the Old Confederacy failed to spend more than $120 million of federal funds which were available to provide social services such as hot meals, crisis counseling, or day care.

The state of our Southern being is not exceptional, it appears. Similar trends can be found throughout the country. Perhaps, a poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News late last year shows clearly what is the heart of our troubles in the region and the nation. According to the poll, which didn’t ask which political leader is as popular as Walter Cronkite, three out of four Americans endorse laws providing equal job rights for Blacks, women, and the handicapped; however, an equal number–three out of four also opposes strongly any “extra consideration” for remedying past job discrimination. In fact, only Blacks as a majority favored any such “extra consideration” at any time.

It is important to note than one major source of opposition to “extra consideration” came from those very groups of Whites who once supported the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The poll evidenced that White liberals in every region opposed the idea of “extra consideration” to remedy job discrimination at a rate of more than two to one. An endorsement of the principle, but not the means to achieve it, it appears.

Another disturbing, non-political poll last year showed that more than four out of ten of all White churches in the country remain segregated and, that in the South almost six out of every ten prohibit Blacks.

No doubt, there will bean opportunity for some of us to shed a bit of our present despair about politics when a cold November evening in the South shows the final results of this year’s voters’ wisdom. As in the past, some good folks may be elected. More important than those results, however, will be the actual results which come from our own attempts to restore the nation’s faith in the importance of equality and to push the South and the country towards a future without the lingering burdens of inequality.

In that primary effort, we have no cause yet to voice our last hurrah.