The South gets a bad rap. People around the country think that we’re a bunch of dumb hayseeds. One particularly benighted soul I knew in college was genuinely surprised to learn that we have colleges and universities in Arkansas (She was from California, by the way). But that reputation is undeserved. Except for a brief stint in New York City when I was 22, I’ve lived here my whole life and have seen enough of the country and the world to know better. Our contributions to American culture are many and great.
You ever read Truman Capote? William Faulkner? Harper Lee? Flannery O’Connor? Zora Neale Hurston? Those are all Southern writers. I think that the American literary canon would be profoundly impoverished without them. Ever see a play by Tennessee Williams or watch a movie based on one? Come on. Tennessee is right there in his name.
We can claim Southern cuisine in all its glory. I’ve yet to introduce a non-Southerner to fried catfish, be they from Arizona, Romania, or China, and not have them like it. I’ve met people who don’t like sweet tea, but all have fallen short of the glory of God in some way, as Saint Paul teaches us.
Everything good about New Orleans belongs to us. That’s a column in itself, though. I love that town.
We have given the world the Blues and Bluegrass, and, I’d argue, Rock n’ Roll itself. You can’t have Rock n’ Roll without the influences of Blues and Southern folk music. The King of Rock n’ Roll was one of us. And though not a rocker, Johnny Cash was, too.
And now, having defended the South as a fountain of cultural gifts to humankind, let me get more serious. I meant what I said before, and I was adding humor for good measure. But this part of the South’s reputation is something no one should laugh about.
I have heard it asked lately what Southerners have to be proud of. Much has been said about the evils within Southern history, from slavery and its defenders to Jim Crow to lynchings to the race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Elaine, Arkansas, and other places (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look them up.) Anyone who takes an honest look around must concede that the legacy of those things is still with us.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying that nothing has changed. Things aren’t the same as when my parents and grandparents were young. I’m saying that those things cast a long shadow in which we still dwell. And contrary to the opinions of some, that shadow does not go away just because we don’t talk about it.
All of that is, indelibly, part of Southern identity. It is the darkest part of the Southern soul. But it is not the only part and, I believe, not the greatest.
For all of its sins, the South also contains and has sewn the seeds of its own redemption. That redemption is far from accomplished, but I believe it has begun.
Although people from all over the country supported and participated in the Civil Rights Movement, ground zero for that struggle was the South. The supply lines ran west and north, but the battles were fought here. Though many of its organizers came from other parts of the country, Southern folk made up the bulk of the rank and file of the movement and did a great deal of organizing ourselves. Dr. King was from Atlanta. John Lewis (God rest his soul), who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was born and raised in Troy, Alabama. Alone among Southern governors, Arkansas’ Sid McMath was a civil rights champion who defied the Dixiecrats and made sure that Harry Truman, not Strom Thurmond, secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1948. Governor McMath was a native of Columbia County, Arkansas. He was pretty much our neighbor.
My point is this. We have it in us to overcome our past. I believe that wholeheartedly. That belief comes from my study of history, the racial attitudes of many of the people I know today, particularly of my own generation and the one coming up after us, and because of the things my folks taught me. I believe it because of the peaceful protests in which I’ve participated over the past couple of months and the many, many others I hear about from friends and acquaintances around the country that don’t make the news. Many of them have taken place in small towns like ours.
I believe it because of people like my maternal grandfather, who found it in his enormous soul to tell a white shopkeeper that his “Whites Only” sign needed to come off the wall. That was in Ruston, Louisiana in the 60’s.
That is part of the Southern soul too. And as I said, I think it is, ultimately, the greater part.
‘Til next week.
Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]