Facing History, Changing the Future

Tumultuous transitions

The tumultuous late 1960s, followed by the disruptions of the early 1970s, put the American South on edge—and on the move. It was a time of transition, of economic progress mixed with social backlash, of new opportunities arising alongside ancient anxieties.

For more than half of the 20th century, powerful white Southerners had imposed—and persistently defended—systematized racial separation known as Jim Crow. In addition to legalized segregation, the region was defined by rampant poverty, one-party politics, and an abiding ruralness. A stultifying stratification—economic, cultural, racial—defined how Southerners would “belong” and whether they could thrive. Efforts to sustain the fault line of race dominated the governance of otherwise diverse Southern states and communities.

What the historian C. Vann Woodward termed “shocks of discontinuity’’ at last brought about racial, economic, and political change. Black Southerners organized the Civil Rights Movement. Jim Crow structures crumbled under the weight of both court rulings and federal laws through the ’50s and ’60s. The movement bore fruit in laws expanding political participation and educational opportunities.

As the 1960s waned, those stark old signs demarking “white’’ and “colored’’ came down. Racist attitudes, of course, remained, but the South then turned several pages to write new chapters in its history. By late 1967, when MDC was founded, the South was exiting the era as the out-of-sync, isolated region of the United States. It had entered a period of disruptions of its old, ingrained ways of living and working.

A stultifying stratification—economic, cultural, racial—defined how Southerners would “belong” and whether they could thrive.

Progress also resulted from newly elected black office-holders, ministers, and grassroots organizers who engaged in the democratic process—and continued to protest. They used the levers of the political parties and of Congress, state legislatures, and local school boards to push politicians to respond to the needs and aspirations of Southerners who had been left behind. For employment, the South grew less dependent on agriculture and more on manufacturing. The dismantling of legalized racial discrimination helped position the South for a quarter-century of robust population and job growth—growth that, in turn, had political and cultural ramifications. 

But forces of resistance and retrenchment were still at work. Lingering racial resentments found a political voice that limited public investment in public institutions. What’s more, an era of economic shifts made life more vulnerable for one-industry small towns, and adults without education beyond high school.

Southerners saw their public lives shaped, and personal attitudes tested, not only by regional change, but also by events across the United States and the globe. The fraught 1960-70 transition period was marked by the escalation of fighting in Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, the landing of men on the moon, the women’s rights movement, the emergence of counter-cultural communes, and advocates of black power. In the summer of 1967, civil strife broke out in major cities, North and South, while the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 shook the nation. 

Amid the civic tumult, MDC was established as the North Carolina Manpower Development Corporation, a spin-off from the North Carolina Fund, a pioneering anti-poverty effort of the mid-1960s. MDC’s original mandate was to assist its home state in making the transition from agriculture to industry, and from a segregated to an integrated workforce.

MDC was founded during a period in which the South was changing, in part, under the duress of federal power and, in part, potent economic forces. But change also came about through the efforts of black and white residents who stepped up to exert leadership in their states and communities. In both real and symbolic terms, the establishment of MDC as a nonprofit research organization focused on workforce and communities serves as an expression of a strong impulse in the South during those years to shape change, not resist it, to bring about a better region through expanding the opportunity for participation and prosperity.

Uneven progress

 

Nearly 50 years later, looked at from the perspective of Southerners who knew their region as the home of segregation, poverty, and injustice, the South appears better off, having made progress in reducing poverty, diversifying the economy, and improving educational attainment. Some advances resulted from civic leaders who sought to chart a post-Jim Crow future of inclusion and economic advancement by turning their attention to eliminating illiteracy, recruiting industry, and managing government to solve problems. 

The South of today is a different place than the South of five decades ago. Through the last quarter of the 20th century, Southern commentators often remarked on the Americanization of the South—and the Southernization of America. Today, even with its enduring distinctiveness in music and food, as well as cultural attitudes, the South is more like the rest of the United States than ever. The region has more affluence, a more diverse economy with a potent corporate sector, a stronger middle class (blacks and Latinos as well as whites), better schools, health care, and transportation than it did 50 years ago.

And yet its greater-than-ever prosperity is not widely or evenly shared. Though the gap has narrowed, poverty rates still exceed that of the nation. Too many Southern people and places fail to flourish. Sharp racial disparities in poverty, wealth accumulation, and education remain. There are widening gaps between those who are able to climb the ladder of economic mobility and those who aren’t. From the perspective of where we want to be, we are not moving ahead fast enough, and in some ways, we’re moving backward. And new challenges demand responses: immigration, climate vulnerability, mass incarceration, and de facto forms of Jim Crow.

For many Southerners and their communities, economic disruptions intensified stress as the old, stratified society gave way to a more fluid and dynamic world. The disappearance of middle-skill jobs and the erosion of middle-class earnings spread anxiety. Income inequality widened, and even major metropolitan areas failed to propel upward mobility among young, low-income people.

We are not moving ahead fast enough, and in some ways, we’re moving backward.

Social and demographic change exacerbated anxiety and the fault line of race that may have narrowed but didn’t vanish, even as more Hispanics and Asians made their homes in the region. Many African Americans were still disenfranchised. And many white Southerners felt that their world had eroded under them; as Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in capturing the theme of her book about South Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land, “the shifting moral qualifications for the American Dream had turned them into strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced, and dismissed by the very people who were, they felt, cutting in line.” The South’s history, and current state of economic inequality, environmental devastation, and racism have contributed to the entrenchment of deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about who deserves which socioeconomic position, and who deserves support along the path to success.

The South’s public life suffers, as does the nation’s, from polarization between political partisans, between big cities and small towns, between class and racial segregation of nearby neighborhoods. A survey released in fall 2017 by PRRI, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on religion and public life, took a special look at the Southeast and Southwest. Its findings point to dramatic differences in perceptions across racial lines during the 2016 election year and afterwards. 

“Close to half (48%) of Americans living in the Southeast and Southwest regions say they feel like a stranger in their own country,” says the PRRI report, echoing Hochschild. “A slim majority (51%) disagree… A majority (54%) of black residents and close to half of Hispanic (45%) and white residents (49%) report feeling this way.”

The South’s history, and current state of economic inequality, environmental devastation, and racism have contributed to the entrenchment of deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about who deserves which socioeconomic position, and who deserves support along the path to success.

Civic discourse has coarsened, leaving us inadequate mechanisms to bridge the fault lines of race, class, and ideology. With the rise of social media and instant communications, people left behind have been able to speak up, be heard, and mobilize in a way not seen since movements of the 1960s. But so have the successors to those who opposed the South envisioned by those movements.

“The issue is not whether hate is back,” says James A. Joseph, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and President Emeritus of the Council on Foundations. “It is whether we have allowed a few loud and angry voices to assume that it is socially acceptable to use hostile and demeaning public rhetoric to destroy the dignity, deny the humanity, and de-legitimize those with whom they differ. Those of us who worked in the Civil Rights Movement and the public life of our nation in the 1960s learned that violent rhetoric can lead to violent consequences.”

Developments over the past decade seem to have sapped the wherewithal to continue advancing and the will to extend to all Southerners the benefits that some allow some—but not all—to belong, thrive, and contribute in our region. We need to examine formulas for progress and equity that apply to today’s conditions. By asking why progress has stalled, Southerners can begin to apply their civic energy and entrepreneurial spirit to rebuilding state and local capacity to address inequities and economic distress.