I keep reading references to the New South. Yet in the years when I lived in Alabama, the Old South was still ascendant. White Alabamians were still figuratively standing in the schoolhouse doorway, waging a battle the forces of segregation had long lost. My elementary and middle schools had just begun busing in African-American students…in the mid-to-late 70s.
Even now, some wave the Confederate flag in a pathetic hope of resurrecting a long-moldering vision of the South. Witness the violence of Charlottesville. But emerging from that tragedy was hopeful vision of true New South, as embodied by Heather Heyer.
I haven’t been in the state for decades, but the Roy Moore/Doug Jones cage match shows Alabama hasn’t changed all that much. Increasingly, the Senate race has become a contest between Post-Reconstruction atavism and those who want to build a forward-looking Heart of Dixie. Though Moore’s teenage sexual predation put the seat in play, it may be those who want to join the future that emerge victorious.
Proclaiming that, “I can’t vote for Roy Moore,” Sen. Richard Shelby has publicly called on Alabamians to cast their votes for a write-in candidate, rather than voting for Doug Jones (as he himself has via absentee ballot).
Though Shelby is no progressive, his yearning to turn the page of history is palpable:
We are the Deep South. We are part of the Confederacy. My great-grandfather was a captain in the Confederate army, but so was everybody else. It’s a part of who we are. Yet there is a future out there.
What caused the changes? People want a better life.
Shelby himself used to be a Democrat, switching after the 1994 midterm election, as the crimson tide of Republicans washed over what used to be the Solid South for the Democratic Party.
Earlier in the same CNN interview, the senior senator took pains to contrast Alabama’s racist past with its future promise:
I think the image of anything matters. It’s not 1860. It’s not 1900. It’s not 1940. It’s not 1964 or 1965. It’s 2017. And Alabama in a lot of ways is on the cutting edge, on the cusp of a lot of good things.
The GOP has inherited the skeletons of Dixiecrat segregationists from the Democrats’ closet in recent decades. Indeed, we shouldn’t forget that Alabama’s infamous, racially incendiary governor George Wallace was a Democrat.
In his inauguration speech, Wallace defiantly (and fortunately inaccurately) declared:
“…segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
The need to appease the Dixiecrats’ gangrenous, Civil War legacy hobbled the Democrats, even as it padded their ranks and ensured congressional majorities.
It was one of these Southern Democrats, Lyndon Johnson, who pushed used his wheeling and dealing legislative skills to push through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Though he recognized the necessity of these landmark Civil Rights bills, Johnson predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation.
He was only off by the number of generations.
The hue of Southern Democrats had been dyed in the Post-Civil War era, back when the Republican Party was literally the Party of Lincoln. In Progressive Era of the early 2oth century, the driving force behind trust-busting and labor protection laws wasn’t the Democrats, but Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt.
How the elephant has turned.
Today, the Solid South is instead saturated a ruby-red. That’s has been liberating to the Democratic Party, shorn of the need to cater to racist elements in their ranks. And, in turn, the switchover has been a boon to the GOP majorities (aided by extreme gerrymandering).
Not So Sweet Home, Alabama
I didn’t fit into the culture of the Deep South when we moved to Alabama. As my teachers complained to my mom, I wasn’t a “Georgia Peach.” But for my peers, I think my worst crime of all was having a “Yankee accent.” I was picked on relentlessly.
Still, I had it easy compared to the black kids being bussed into my elementary school. As a good little, liberal-raised child, I idolized Martin Luther King. I was therefore shocked to see racial fights in the schoolyard, the N-word flying.
My own friend used that offensive epithet. I told her that wasn’t nice. Perhaps my objection surprised her as much as her casual use of the N-word did with me.
In our upscale suburban neighborhood outside of Birmingham, a black family moved in next door to us. Both parents were engineers with Masters degrees. They were therefore a stereotypical professional couple (though they probably earned less than white engineers would have).
I didn’t know this, however. All I knew was that some kids had moved in next door. One day, I saw them playing on their front lawn and I joined it. That’s what you do when you’re a child; any kids on your block become instant playmates.
Though I was raised to believe in the equality of races, I wasn’t striking a blow for universal brotherhood (or sisterhood). I didn’t notice that my other friend on the cul-de-sac weren’t playing them, as well. I was invited to stay for dinner a few times. I remember the parents as being really nice.
Yet our white neighbors had an entirely different opinion of them. While attending a Tupperware party, my mom got a disturbing peek into the everyday racism of the Deep South.
One family was selling their home. Others voiced concerns about falling home values and our neighborhood being running down by the “wrong people.”
Typically for my mom, she countered that the couple was highly educated. If they could afford their home they were like everyone else in the neighborhood.
She doesn’t remember being invited to any other Tupperware parties after that.
Fast-forward to today. People like our white nextdoor neighbors, who were also college educated, may be the deciding factor in the Senate race. These more cosmopolitan, outward-looking professionals are as rock-ribbed Republican as the rest of white Alabamians. Yet, they they’re tired of being embarrassed by their state.
And they know Alabama’s backwards image hurts its business climate. They look toward the future, not the regressive past. And they’re the voters most likely to stay home, write in another name, or — horror of horrors! — vote for a Democrat.
Doug Jones, too, represents the New South. He made his name by prosecuting the KKK members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist church, killing four young girls. It was one of the most infamous crimes of the Civil Rights struggle.
Though the perpetrators had long boasted of their atrocity, it wasn’t until 1977 that the first bomber was brought to justice. That was close to the time our white neighbors were up in arms at our yuppie black nextdoor neighbors.
Doug Jones, who attended that trial, eventually prosecuted the two remaining KKK terrorists in 2001 and 2002.
So, which Alabama will it be? Will a Moore victory signal a return to an illusory, George Wallace, 19th century vision of the South? Or will Alabama follow Richard Shelby’s lead into the 21st century?
Virginia has already taken the leap. Though North Carolina has turned Purple of late, gerrymandering has kept its legislature solidly Republican. It took business boycotts after a they passed a bathroom bill to narrowly sweep into office a Democratic governor.
Will a throwback demagogue who postures as godly, even as he lusts after young teenagers, drag Alabama back into the Wallace-era? Or will will finally see Alabama’s Crimson Tide make a shift toward the future?
Update: Sweet choice, Alabama. Real morality prevailed, and there’s an embarrassment no Moore.
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