By Steve Suitts
Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 4-8
This year, Southern Regional Council marks the fortieth anniversary of its founding. Today, as in the past, the Council’s vision of the South’s future radiates from a belief in democratic principles. From its beginning, the Council has affirmed the nation’s democratic values while at the same time holding them up as a standard by which to measure and change Southern realities. Thus it has analyzed, exposed, and helped to remove many of the cruel ways in which democracy has been thwarted by segregation, disfranchisement, and the denial of hope and opportunity to the region’s people.
As the South’s olderst biracial organization, the Council’s uniqueness lies in its ability to help others turn knowledge and vision into tools for constructive change. Over the past four decades it has played a major role in reconstructing the South. It challenged the all-white primary system and then helped to lead the way to enfranchising and registering formerly powerless blacks. In recent years it has helped to increase the effectiveness of legislators who represent blacks and the poor. It has persistently analyzed, exposed, and found means of opposing racial violence. It has helped to free many of the South’s workplaces of low wages and discrimination. It has helped to integrate the federal courts. Thirty years ago, when the Brown decision was handed down, the Council was already in the forefront of the attack on segregated schools and it has remained a watchful advocate of equal educational opportunity. Perhaps most important of all, the Southern Regional Council has cast a vision of what a humane and democratic South might look like.
Many of the Council’s objectives have been achieved, but its work continues to be vital to the South. Indeed, the very achievement of many goals has had the ironic effect of disguising new ways in which opportunities are blunted, the disadvantaged abused, and democracy denied.
Now, as in the past, the Council’s task is to provide research, information, and technical assistance to individuals and groups who are able to bring change and to provide forums for Southerners of good will to think and act together. In a new era aptly called the “Age of Information,” the Council is uniquely suited to use its skills and “data bases” to shape the region’s future for the better.
No facet of Southern life ought to escape the Council’s ,attention, but the agenda for the future has been drawn up around the following broad concerns where democratic principles must be affirmed and extended: (1) the ballot box, (2) the workplace, (3) the schoolhouse, (4) the courthouse, (5) the marketplace of ideas and information, and (6) the uses of technology and information.
The Ballot Box: More Democratic Governments in the South
No more important task lies ahead for the region and the Council than assuring that government in the South at all levels becomes truly democratic. Almost twenty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act the promise of democratic government remains elusive, often obstructed by the way political power is allocated through the drawing of district lines for Congress, state legislatures, county commmisions, city councils, and school boards. As the US Supreme Court has said, redistricting is a primary means by which “racial and political groups have been fenced out of the political process and their voting strength invidiously minimized…”
For almost four years the Council has been drawing model redistricting plans designed to promote democratic government and to prevent the dilution of minority voting strength. It has drawn more than three hundred model plans, for jurisdictions at every level, which have been used by lawyers, government officials, and community leaders. But much more remains to be done. There are more than a hundred congressional districts, eighteen hundred state legislative districts, and almost ten thousand local government districts in the region for which political boundaries must be redrawn after every census. Since 1980, community groups and citizens’ organizations too often have been unable or unprepared to critique, adequately, proposed redistricting. While progress is being made and plans continue to be challenged and redrawn, redistricting in this decade is already a missed opportunity because so few historically disfranchised groups were prepared to participate effectively in drafting, assessing, and proposing fair redistricting plans.
To make matters more complex, local and state govern” meets have begun to employ sophisticated means of drawing plans using modern computers and other related technology. Because of a lack of access to data and expertise in computers, community goups have been and will increasingly be at a disadvantage.
The Council proposes to help here by continuing to assist local groups to draft model reapportionment plans and to begin to prepare for the reapportionment of the 1990s. Our continued work will require the development of sophisticated bases of data, improved uses of computers and computer programming, and strategic technical assistance to local groups and organizations in the use of data and computers. Already the Council has prepared perhaps the only computer programming for micro computers that will develop adequately fair reapportionment plans of local governments. This work and the increased the use of accessible computer technology in this field must continue.
The Council will also extend its research and technical assistance to assure that the Voting Rights Act is fully enforced. By helping local groups participate in the administrative review of voting changes in the South and by monitoring the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, the Council can help to assure that all stand equally at the ballot box.
The work in both redistricting and enforcing the Voting Rights Act can be effective only if there is a systematic collection and analysis of the major indicators of political participation and political effectiveness. In the South today, there is a dearth of reliable, timely information on the level of voter registration, voter turnout, voting trends, voting records, and other demographic changes in government jurisdictions. Historically, Southern segregated governments have had considerable self-interest in refusing to collect such information and in denying it to others. In this way, they could evade detailed evaluations of the full level of political participation which they were impeding. Today, much of this information remains uncollected by the states and scattered in many different places. Without hard, reliable data collected and easily available, the tests of how political participation can be increased for all are almost impossible.
The information that is available is usually collected today at the county level–making it woefully inadequate in judging accurately the current levels of political participation and the effective methods of increasing it. Data on the major indicators of political participation must be collected and analyzed on the precinct level; this level of information can enable real assessments of the problems and barriers. Without this information there simply cannot be a systematicc analysis which indicates where scarce resources and activities should be placed.
The final focus of our work in this area will be our continued research and technical assistance, by request, to
State legislators on issues relating to the poor and blacks. In the last several years, state governments have become increasingly important in deciding the fate of both state and federal programs that aid the disadvantaged. At the same time, the opportunity for state officials in the South to address, on their own, the problems of poverty and discrimination has noticeably widened.
Since 1979, the Council has provided state legislators in the Deep South with research, analysis, model legislation, and current information about issues relating to blacks and the poor. This work has remarkably improved the ability of state officials to address the historic needs in the region and it is setting a standard by which state governments can become more effective and more representative by their improved use of information and research. It must continue if democratic governments are to serve all Southerners.
The South is now moving into its second generation of democratic government unbridled by segregation. If the region is to travel from the end of segregation to the presence of full democracy, a journey that can benefit both the region and the nation, the Council’s efforts to assure the democratic promise of the ballot box will be essential.
More Democracy in the Workplace
Attracted to the South’s low-wage, non-union labor–lower wages than anywhere else in the country–and its cheapened land, both resident and newcomer companies created an unparalleled number of jobs during the last decade and, with the aid of the climate, earned the area the name of the Sunbelt. The sun by no means shines in all Southern backyards however, and in fact a storm of clouds appears on the horizon. Almost forty percent of the growth in jobs and personal income for the South in the last ten years has been concentrated in parts of Florida, Texas, and Virginia. Three Southern states lost as many jobs in the last five years as they had gained in the first five years of the 1970s. Unemployment in the region as a whole remains above the national average.
The Sunbelt fascination may turn into an extended disaster. The economy of the nation and the region is increasingly becoming international and this trend surely limits the future prospects for jobs in the South so long a’ low wages and cheap land are its major attractions Corporations already threaten Southern workers and communities with relocation to Central America, Africa or Indochina where wage scales are abysmally low. In the absence of workplaces in which meeting the needs of the region’s people is as important as maximizing profits, the South’s hopes and the Sunbelt’s glitter soon will be eclipsed.
The Council hopes to address many of these issues with its recently created Southern Labor Institute. The Institute will bring together representatives of labor unions, business civil rights organizations, environmental groups, govern meet, education, and other interests to help create common agendas for the region’s economic development. It will also carry out research to monitor and assesses the South’s development of industrial relations and policies that promote the welfare of workers.
In the next few years the Institute will develop a sound, alternative economic development strategy for Southern states and local governments–a strategy that avoids the heavy reliance upon cheap land and cheap labor. At the same time, the Council will recognize the problems of capital formation and need for marketing expertise by small, minority-owned, worker owned, and local businesses in the South’s increasing service-oriented economy. Work in this area will include: (1) monitoring and encouraging governmental and private practices of equitable, accessible capital formation, especially among religious groups, churches, and labor unions, and, (2) establishing a network in which marketing expertise and product development can become available to a larger number of minority, worker-owned small businesses.
Also, today, more than seventy percent of the land of the South is served by ostensibly democratic, economic institutions–the electric utility cooperatives which by law are controlled by their customers. Through years of neglect and a history of segregation, these economic institutions with six billion dollars of assets in the South, have become unresponsive to needs for job creation, a balanced ecology, and prudent use of energy in their own communities. This essential industry in the South will continue to be a central concern of the Council’s research and technical assistance in an effort to improve democratic decision-making, promote jobs and protect the environment.
The Schoolhouse: Equal Opportunity to an Excellent Integrated Education
The goal of excellence in education has little, if any, opposition in the South or the nation. But controversies do arise over how to define excellence and how to make certain that no students are denied a full opportunity to achieve it. Following its long-held views, the Council will increase its work in this area in the years ahead in order to assure that citizens of all races and incomes have an opportunity to find the agreeable means by which everyone has the opportunity for an excellent education.
The involvement of local community groups and parents in the decision-making in schools was instrumental in the resolution of many problems encountered in dismantling the legally segregated school systems of the South and that involvement is essential for any equitable agreement on the
means to achieve improved education for all. The Council will encourage local and state groups to develop agendas and define ways of improving the administration and quality of educaion, regardless of race or income.
The Council will also continue its research and analysis of trends in the South relating to equal opportunity in education and its assessment of the effects of different means which federal, state, and local governments can choose to accomplish this goal.
Of particular importance, especially in the rural South, is the continued existence of tax-exempt, segregation academies. These private discriminatory schools have an influence not only in keeping white children away from public schools but also in influencing local and state public policies concerning school administration and school finance in both urban and rural areas. The Council will examine this area of education and especially the effects of segregation academies on education in the region.
The Courthouse: Just Men and Women in the Institutions Of Justice
Few institutuions have been as important in shaping the future of the South as its institutions of justice. The federal courts have had a central role in shaping the region’s future and while that role has diminished in recent years, the courts remain a strategic influence upon the course of the South.
For much of its history, the Council has been concerned about who are the men and women who occupy important positions in the institutions of justice. That concern will continue in the future. It was not until 1979, after the release of an SRC report, that the federal courts adopted an equal opportunity plan for employment. It has also been only: recently that civil rights lawyers, blacks, and women have had an opportunity to be appointed to the federal bench. At the state level, surveys by the Council in the late 1970’s showed that most judicial and quasi-judicial administrative agencies remained predominantly white and too often entirely segregated.
Through research and technical assistance, the Council will continue to monitor, study, and prod the courts to be fully integrated and fair institutions.
More Democracy in the Marketplace of Ideas and Information
As it continues to help shape public policy options, the Southern Regional Council will also continue trying to reach the hearts and minds of Southerners, to make human relations and government more democratic. Its public education work has involved assistance to the news media, conferences, the publication of magazines and special reports, and, most recently, radio and television production. In the future, the Council will increase its efforts to reach a larger number of Southerners who in the decades ahead can share a vision of the region.
The use of mass media by the Council will continue to branch into new areas as we try to diversify the marketplace of information and ideas. Already, the Council is preparing radio programming for distribution to public and commercial radio stations across the region and exploring ways of establishing syndicated programming to different stations throughout the area. This programming will provide information, education, and a sense of history about the region in lively and entertaining formats.
In television, the Council also has begun efforts to reach a larger audience. With the Atlanta Media Project, the Council recently established the Southern Network, where it produced each weekday two hours of non-partisan programming for nine weeks about the presidential candidates in the South. This programming was distributed by cable systems to more than one million households in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The Council’s first venture into production of programming will be followed by a cooperative venture of groups across the region, and perhaps the country, to provide by cable a link among people and organizations of good will.
As it has for more than forty years, the Council will continue to provide information, consultations, and advice on regional isues to the regional, national and international news media. This informal service helps to illuminate problems and opportunities and to guide the coverage of issues by the mass media. A formal part of this assistance to news media may be a yearly press institute where bureau chiefs, editors, and reporters meet and discuss the major regional issues.
The Council also hopes to improve its services to the news media by providing a subscription service of microfilmed newspaper clippings. This collection covers more than thirty years and contains more than 1.3 million newspaper clippings about people, places, and events of the South’s recent history. For subscribing news media, this microfilm service would be available in order to provide background on issues, place, or people through computer retrieval. This service will also be used to improve the Council’s general use of an increased “data base” in research and technical assistance in other areas.
Although the Southern Regional Council intends to move further in reaching a larger audience through mass communications, it also intends to maintain its own modest journal of opinion which is a tradition as old as the organization and as important as free thought. Now named Southern Changes, the Council’s magazine provides a
means for covering emerging issues and helping Southerners to think critically about the region as a whole. In the days ahead, the Council hopes to begin to syndicate some articles in Southern Changes to daily and weekly newspapers around the country in order to enlarge its readership and to provide a regional perspective on current events which is seldom available elsewhere.
As the Council reaches out to new eyes and ears it will also need to understand better the currents of opinions in the region. Complementing other aspects of its work, the organization will begin periodic surveying of the opinions of the public (and different segments of the public) in the South. Private and public leadership will also be surveyed on major issues and concerns from time to time. This polling should permit the Council to perceive better the public understanding of issues and its own need for additional public education and research. Surveying will also be used as a tool in other areas of the Council’s work for assessing opinions on education, understanding patterns of political participation, and aiding in testing marketing concepts for emerging worker-owned and minority businesses.
More Democratic Use of Technology and Information
In this age of information, new and alternative technologies–some very simple and others very complicated–are shifting radically the manner in which services are provided and decisions are made. In this dramatic shift, no sector of society appears less equipped to master the changes than the long-standing comunity groups who represent the historically disfranchised of the South. Computers, telecommunications, health care technology, solar technics–these and other developments of recent years must be understood and mastered by community leaders in the days ahead if their constitutencies are to be represented adequately.
In the future, the Council will explore ways to help community groups and non-profit organizations in the South find useful applications for new technologies. This area of work will be done in very practical ways and as an extension of SRC’s ongoing work.
By increasing its own capacity to use new technologies, the Council will share its technical knowledge, computer programming, and practical applications with others across the region so that there can be more democratic access and use of the technology and information on which the region’s future will be built.
“A Bunch of Renegades”
In dealing with the old or the new, no region of the country has experienced greater and more rapid change than the South. In that fact lies the promise of even greater change for the region and the nation. It is the promise of democracy: that people can change themselves, their institutions and their government for the better. To that simple notion, so precious and fragile today as in the past, the Southern Regional Council has devoted its energies. With increased capacities the Council will continue, as one of its founders, Ralph McGill, said, “to be a bunch of renegades who insist upon telling the truth.”
Steve Suitts is the executive director of the Southern Regional Council.