The Two Faces of Southern Populism

The Two Faces of Southern Populism

By Dan T. Carter

Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, pp. 1-3

With the strong showing of David Duke, the racism of the Jesse Helms and Guy Hunt campaigns and the nation’s general mood of political dyspepsia, George Wallace’s “populist” crusade of the 1960s and 1970s is back in the news. The resurgence of cruder forms of race-baiting, not to mention the more generic cry of “throw the bums out”–we are reminded–is not without precedent in our recent past.

Racism there is. Guy Hunt’s campaign in Alabama was a relatively soft-core version of the politics of race; David Duke and Jesse Helms practiced the old-time religion: “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”

Helms has been crawling out of these sewers since 1950 when he joined Willis Smith’s race-baiting/red-baiting campaign against North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham. With his appeals to hatred against homosexuals and blacks, his last campaign is a depressing reminder of his powerful mastery of the witchcraft of scapegoating.

In the long run, however, demagogues like David Duke may be even more dangerous than Helms. For Duke has understood that he is operating in an increasingly subliterate world of television in which each new day begins afresh, without past, without future. Thus he can nonchalantly dismiss his past history as a neo-Nazi/Klansman, concentrating instead on having his face made over by a first-rate plastic surgeon. As the nation’s political culture descends past Oprah Winfrey

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and Phil Donahue through Newt Gingrich’s lexicon of campaign slogans and downward toward the level of plants and minerals, appeals to glandular reflexes (“quotas,” “parasitic underclass,” “tax and speed”) are infinitely more accessible then complex discussions of budget deficits, income maldistribution or economic exploitation.

And all three men are the beneficiary of a Republican Party’s quarter-century flirtation with soft-core racism. George Bush may try to hang a leper’s bell on Duke, but it is difficult to take him seriously when he trucks off to North Carolina to embrace Helms, whose campaign has been as squalid as anything David Duke could have imagined. Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy; Ronald Reagan’s amiable harangues against [black] welfare queens; George Bush’s Willie Horton commercials and his politically inspired veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990; and now the campaigns of Hunt, Duke and Helms; it’s not a pretty sight.

But I am not at all certain that Duke or Helms or Hunt can be explained as reincarnations of George Wallace; nor do I believe they are the authentic voices of a resurgent wave of working class racism.

After Wallace became the high priest of racial segregation in the early 1960s he brought to his state a level of rhetorical vindictiveness that left wounds still unhealed. And in his presidential campaigns through the 1960s and 1970s Wallace gave voice to some of the darkest fears and hatreds in American society.

What is easy to forget, however, is that George Wallace began his career in 1946 as a down home social democrat with little enthusiasm for the race-baiting that often marked Southern political campaigns. And when the number of black voters in his state passed the 300,000 mark in the early 1970s, the Alabama governor reversed directions and welcomed black voters and politicians into the Wallace tent. Political opportunism is not an edifying spectacle; when compared with the unwavering racism of David Duke it has its charms.

George Wallace’s convoluted career should remind us that there are other, more humane populist traditions which come out of the Southern experience. Wallace himself learned his lessons from an altogether different kind of Populist, James E. (“Big Jim”) Folsom.

Through two terms as governor and forty years of campaigning, Folsom resumed again and again to four texts: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and–most of all–Jesus’s

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Sermon the Mount. And from these familiar texts he evolved his political catechism:

That governmental laissez-faire inevitably allowed the powerful to prey upon the weak; that adequate welfare programs were the “fundamental obligation of a democracy to its people in order that the unfortunate may feast on more than crumbs and clothe themselves with more than rags;” that women were not chattel, but citizens who should be given the same rights as men; that the black citizens of Alabama were entitled to equal justice, equal opportunity and a “full share of democracy;” that there were no problems which could not be cured by a “good strong purgative of pure and unadulterated democracy.”

In the end Folsom’s personal failings (too much whiskey, too many women, too few honest friends) were as conspicuous as his six foot, eight inch frame and his size sixteen shoes. His challenge to Wallace collapsed in the 1962 governor’s race when Folsom appeared on statewide television, too drunk to recognize his own children. When he ran for governor against Wallace in 1974, he got less than five percent of the vote.

The racists he had fought, the “Big Mule” industrialists and the old reactionary planter class of the Black Belt seemed to have the final word.

And now as the economy falters and the bills for the Reagan fantasies come due, those voices are returning to join the David Dukes. The “liberal politics of victimization are over,” we are told. Now black Americans can once more take their historical place as the scapegoats of a troubled society.

Folsom had seen it all before. The Ku-Kluxers, the race-baiters, and “some of the selfish interest groups” would always be present, he warned in 1949, “spreading their filth, their lies, their old and ancient hatreds … trying to boil up hatred by the poor white people against the Negroes … trying to keep the poor white from progressing by keeping the Negro tied in shackles.”

Still I take heart from the only conversation I ever had with James Folsom. He was nearly blind and occasionally confused as we sat and talked in a truckstop diner outside Cullman, Ala. But he retained an almost child-like faith in the decency and ultimate judgment of the same voters who had rejected him. The working people of this country- “the farmer, the factory worker, the mill hand, the school teacher”-would eventually see through this “blasphemous smoke screen” of racial hatred, he had predicted. And they would understand that the promise of this nation lay in the challenge of guaranteeing equal justice, equal opportunity and equal freedom for every man, woman and child.”

That’s a far cry from the “populism” of Jesse Helms or David Duke.

Dan T. Carter is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History at Emory University. He is writing a biography of George Wallace.