New South Creed: Looking Backward, 2001-1970
By Paul M. Gaston
Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 pp. 17-18
An Excerpt from the Afterword to the New Edition of The New South Creed:
Thirty years in the life of a book, not to mention in the life of a book writer, rush by swiftly. The New South Creed, conceived as the tumultuous 1960s were about to begin, was completed as they were about to end. Or almost completed. The manuscript submitted in the fall of 1968 ended with chapter six, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I had no intention of following the creed’s trajectory in the twentieth century, a risky undertaking at best. My editor, however, persuaded me to take the risk. The result was the epilogue, “The Enduring Myth.”
That epilogue has been a persistent magnet, regularly drawing my thoughts back to the unending ways in which societies thwart their own best natures, justifying their undemocratic actions and ideologies by the myths they let envelop them.
At the end of my pessimistic summary of the legacy the New South movement bequeathed to the twentieth century, I wrote that ‘I could record no solid achievements, only a “widely spread image of its success, a mythic view that was as far removed from objective reality as the myth of the Old South.” My reflections then on what in fact followed included some heartening material progress along with substantial loosening of Jim Crow’s grip on the region, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement’s revolt against the values of the New South creed. Now three decades on I would have to add that the escape from rust-belt stagnation coupled with mounting disappointment in the promise of life “up South” sent whites and blacks alike to glimmering (and air-conditioned) sun-belt cities and their surrounds to join in unprecedented Southern boom times.
To sort out the complex interacting forces underlying the reactionary mood of the past thirty years will be no easy task for future historians. Among other things, they will have to explain how manipulations of the history of the Civil Rights Movement have served to justify reaction. At the center of this will be the image of the mythic Martin Luther King, Jr. It will be equally important, perhaps more important and likely more difficult, to capture the ways in which the transformation of the political and demographic worlds of the South and the nation engendered both material and psychological needs for mythmaking.
At the beginning of the 1970s the Southern political scene appeared to some observers to be on the verge not only of accommodating the liberating changes brought by the civil rights movement but of actually expanding them. The confessional remarks of South Carolina’s Senator Hollings, which I quoted on page 220 in the Epilogue, showed that the region’s leaders could admit that poverty and racial discrimination had resulted from conscious choices that could and should be undone. The decade then opened with the inauguration of a series of progressive governors–Linwood Holton, John C. West, Jimmy Carter, Reuben Askew, and Dale Bumpers–who brought fresh hope. Governor Holton, the only Republican among them, courageously stood up for integration in a way almost never seen in Southern political leaders. For that he was stripped of further influence in his party, a clear posting of the Republicans’ invitation to wavering Southern Democrats to join them in forging a new party of resistance. The invitation was accepted, thus snuffing out the brief hope of a decisive break with the rock-ribbed conservative past. In time the promise of a new era of prosperity, national reconciliation, and racial harmony, voiced at the beginning of the decade by the New South governors, was appropriated by the transformed Republican Party in ways that reminded one of how the Redeemers had embraced the New South creed a century earlier.
Composed primarily of ideologically committed white males, leaders of the emerging Republican Party, generally wealthier than their fellow citizens, encouraged and profited from the civil-rights backlash. Their task was made easier, as Dan Carter puts it, by “the general increase to the region’s suburban population.”
Among the migrants from the cities to the suburbs were many of the moderate whites who had earlier won plaudits for saving the region from the worst excesses of Massive Resistance, staring down the hard-line segregationists who threatened to privatize the educational system. Once public education was saved, however, they let pass by the opportunity to create a genuinely integrated school system (in fact few of them ever had such a commitment), let alone an integrated society. Instead, they endorsed so-called “freedom of choice” and other schemes that soon became the favored means of maintaining token integration. The mass exodus that followed then separated white Southerners from the deeper and unresolved issues of the Civil Rights Movement and furnished the environment in which they grew increasingly comfortable with the gathering force of the counter-Reconstruction sweeping across not just the South but the nation as a whole.
It was in the suburbs that the new constellation of prosperity, moral innocence, Southern redemption, and national reconciliation was seen most brightly. There, as Matthew Lassiter writes, Southerners “became the architects of a “colorblind” discourse that gained national traction as an unapologetic defense of residential privilege and suburban spatial boundaries.” The gated community symbolized the new suburban society, distanced both spatially and ideologically from the city. Well-guarded out-of-reach property values insured the perpetuation of a homogeneous society of middle- and upper-middle-class families, thus helping to insure a new form of segregation.
As this separation was accelerating, class now joined or even supplanted race as the primary dividing line. Both the South and the nation grew more prosperous while the gap between rich and poor widened. Henry George’s century-old identification of the association of poverty with progress as the. nation’s great enigma once again called for acknowledgment and resolution. The Southern economist and one-time Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, was among several who answered the call. He concluded, a 1992 study with the finding that the United States “now ranks last among the industrialized democracies of the world in achieving, as a whole, the goals of a democratic society.” Martin King would have understood for he had come increasingly to see that his country’s goals were too heavily tilted toward the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism and individual greed. Marshall’s conclusion that “inequality as extreme as ours destroys democratic institutions,” however, seemed perverse and alien in the suburbs.
I wrote in the 1970 epilogue to The New South Creed that “wars commonly redefine the nature of domestic concerns and cause old issues to be shelved.” The Vietnam war, then approaching its end, had a profound effect on American self-confidence for a while, seeming to undo the nation’s historic sense of invincibility and exceptionalism. With wars as a shaping influence, much of American history since then has been the story of reasserting old claims to the twin virtues of innocence and invincibility. C. Vann Woodward believed the felt need for such comfort had led to an escape in the 1980s from Vietnam malaise. “Not only was the pulse of self-esteem strong,” he wrote; “it pounded with self-righteousness. A fatuous complacency quieted the rigors of guilt, and innocence was restored by fiat.” The subsequent military ventures in Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe called in various ways upon the mythic view of the nation to sustain and justify its actions. In the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans turned for succor to the myth as never before. Once again, as if by executive order, bonds of community were declared to be strong and enduring, the divisions and contradictions within quieted by the uniquely menacing threat from without. None of this augured well for deconstructing the values by which Southerners and’ other Americans lived or for understanding the legacy bequeathed them by the architects of the New South creed over a century earlier.
Paul Gaston is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia, where he taught southern and civil rights history. He is a Life Fellow andformer president of the Southern Regional Council as well as a contributing editor to Southern Changes.