Southern Progressivism

Southern Progressivism

Reviewed by John Egerton

Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 23-24

Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition by Dewey W. Grantham. University of Tennessee Press, 1983. 502 pp.$34.95 cloth, $16.95 paper. paper.

The Progressive movement that spawned a succession of far-reaching social reforms in the first quarter of this century is most directly identified with two maverick northern Republicans–Theodore Roosevelt, who went to the White House from New York, and Robert M. La Follette, who went to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin.

As the twentieth century began, corrupt political machines and rapacious corporate giants were stealing the nation blind. In reaction against those intolerable excesses, many of which were dramatically exposed by muckraking writers, local and state reform efforts sprang up and eventually became national in scope.

The catalog of improvements resulting from these efforts was and is impressive: regulations of railroads and other corporations, more equitable tax structures (including a federal income tax), correction of child labor abuses, health and welfare legislation, wage and hour laws, food and drug standards, conservation of natural resources, women’s suffrage, and a number of election reforms, to name a few.

We remember Teddy Roosevelt, the raging “Bull Moose,” and “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and perhaps because of them we think of Progressivism as a northern phenomenon. The West entered the picture too, and the Midwest, but somehow the South seemed distant and uninvolved, like a foreign colony–which in truth it was. The South in the first two decades of this century generally is pictured as an agricultural backwater infested with poverty, ignorance, racism, and despair; that Progressivism might have taken root and flourished there seems as improbable as azaleas blooming in Buffalo, or magnolias in Madison.

And yet, as Dewey Grantham shows us in this painstakingly thorough and comprehensive study, the winds of change that swept from the East Coast to the West also reached into the farthest corners of the South. Grantham’s masterful synthesis of a voluminous and diverse record results in a portrait of the South–and of Progressivism–that is surprising, provocative, complex, and original.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the South tried just about everything–slavery, war, reconstruction, white supremacy, “New South” myths, “Old South” memories, economic depression, agrarian populism, urban development. Nothing worked very well. By 1900, still traumatized and preoccupied by the indefensible evils in its racial history, the region was struggling desperately to create yet another “final solution”: legalized segregation of blacks under the guise of “separate but equal” development.

In the interest of maintaining firm control over the black population, southern whites looked first to politics and applied a series of “social reforms” that included poll taxes, literacy tests, white primaries, and other measures aimed at disfranchisement of blacks. This, they reasoned, would reduce “irresponsible” behavior by the former slave class and bring stability, peace, and progress for both races. A similar argument was sometimes used in the field of education: reformers contended that schooling for the white masses would make them more tolerant of blacks.

Thus did the South belatedly enter an era of social charge that resembled what was happening elsewhere in the country. A strange assortment of conservative reformers and Progressive–demagogues, racists, religious fundamentalists, moralists, social-gospel Protestants, gentle visionaries, social scientists, club women, feminists–found a variety of ways in the first twenty years of the new century to change institutions, laws, practices, beliefs. Some of what they did only worsened the racial cancer that had afflicted the South from the beginning of its history, but other reforms inched the region toward genuine progress and improvement.

States–and in some cases local governments–entered into the regulation of railroads (all northern-owned), banks, and insurance companies; the licensing of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals; the reform of prisons; the prohibition of alcoholic beverages; the passage of child labor laws; establishment of juvenile courts and reformatories; the spread and improvement of public school systems; the creation of institutions for mentally and physically handicapped people; the enfranchisement of women; the modernization of municipal services and administration; improvements in public health, occupational conditions, and agriculture; and even some timid and halting steps toward improving race relations.

After an absence of fifty years, the South returned with Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson to an influential role in national politics. The Wilson years and the First World War stimulated Progressivism and national unity in the South,

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and the more optimistic of the region’s reformers predicted continued improvement.

But by 1920, the South was still mired in poverty, trailing ever farther behind the rest of the rebounding nation. A post-war rash of violence against blacks–an ominous portent of the bitter decades to come–overshadowed continued improvement in schools, highways, health, and economic opportunity. The Great Depression was yet to arrive, but the South was long since a depressed region, a threadbare stepchild too poor to maintain a single society of even minimum quality, yet insanely committed to the myth of separate but equal development for its two races. And through those crucial years, few leaders outside the South–including the reformist Progressives–seriously challenged the region to change its segregational ways. Instead, the nation as a whole tended to accommodate itself to the South’s racism–and to deny its own de factor afflictions.

This sprawling, complex story is unfolded with great skill by Dewey Grantham, who in his thirty year career at Vanderbilt University has earned a national reputation as an eminent historian of twentieth-century America, particularly of the South. It would be a rare scholar who could absorb and blend such a vast body of recorded material as this book required; it is even rarer when the resulting synthesis flows smoothly and clearly.

The southern Progressives, Grantham concludes, “were able to function both as agents of modernization and as guardians of southern tradition.” They wanted a new order, not to replace the old but to fit snugly and comfortably around it. It took them another half-century to learn that such a dream was not only wrong but impossible.

John Egerton’s most recent book is Generations: An American Family (University of Kentucky Press, 1983).