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Speaking over a year ago at Duke University, Congressman Andrew Young of Georgia made the far fetched prediction that the next President of the United States would be a Southerner. All of us at Duke thought that he was speaking of Terry Sanford. Young was speaking of his friend from Georgia.
I was reminded of his prediction as we listened to Georgia peanut farmer and then presidential aspirant Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Convention delegates sat in awe as Carter made promises to the “EYE-talians” and the “DEE-prived” of America and “Miss LEE-yun” Carter reminisced about the night Jimmy came and told her, Momma, I think I’m going to run for President.” (To which Miss Lillian responded, “President of what?”) Well, Jimmy made it.
In the speech of the Democrats, Kennedy Bostonese seems to be out and Carter Southernese seems to be in. Indeed, I noted that it was the Southerners who captured the few highlights at the rather humdrum convention. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan displayed the masterful style which she inherited from her Texas Baptist preacher father. Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, both native black Southerners, showed that Southern black oratory is still capable of powerful motivation. From the opening words of white Southerner, Robert Strauss, to the closing words of black Southerner, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., there was much evidence that the New South has assumed a new notoriety.
I find it interesting that the nation is turning to Southerners like Carter at this particular point in time. A number of commentators have speculated on why Carter’s political star has risen so rapidly this year. Granting the efficiency of his campaign organization, the appeal of his toothsome grin, and the power of his hard nosed political maneuverings, I feel that Carter’s national popularity has deeper roots.
Carter’s critics accused him of being fuzzy on the issues, or (to use Ronald Reagan’s phrase) “riding high on the straddle.” But I think he hit squarely on the main political issues of 1976: the restoration of faith not only in government but also faith in ourselves, the need to curb the elitist and inhuman character of big government bureaucracy, and the search for trustworthy leaders who represent our highest aspirations. Whether Carter in fact fulfills these needs, I contend that Carter is able to speak to these needs in large part because of his Southern identity.
While Carter’s Southern Baptist pious, down home background has been the subject of some derision in the press, I would agree with Abe Ribicoff that this is more a commentary on the narrowness of contemporary secularism than on the weaknesses of Carter’s religion. His credentials as a full-fledged liberal have been questioned by some. I would agree with Andrew Young that this is more a commentary on the narrowness of knee-jerk liberalism than on the shakiness of Carter’s political commitments. It is Carter’s Southern identity, that peculiar regional heritage which he brings to the contemporary political scene, which I would like to explore.
Why did Andrew Young so astutely predict that we would be looking to the South for our next president?
Reinhold Niebuhr (whose works Carter says he has read) once remarked that the American South was the only part of America with a “significant history.” By this Niebuhr seems to be noting that the South (1) is the only area of the U.S. to have so fully rebelled against the dominant American ethos, rebelling even to the point of Civil War, (2) has the burden of having participated and defended that “peculiar institution” of slavery, (3) is the only area of the U.S. to have been bitterly defeated in war and subjected to military occupation.
The Yale historian, C. Vann Woodward, in a brilliant essay entitled “The Burden of Southern History” (1960) expanded Niebuhr’s observations and speculated on what factors have made the South a distinct region in our nation. I see these marks of Southern distinctiveness in Carter, Barbara Jordan, King, Jackson and other contemporary Southern leaders and I see them as part of the reason that we find ourselves as a nation attracted to these leaders at this time.
Woodward first cited the South’s “very un-American experience with poverty.” In 1880, the per capita income in the South was $376 as compared with $1,186 in the rest of the nation. When Roosevelt launched his New Deal, he called the South the “Nation’s Economic Problem Number One.” Recent years have shown great economic development in the South (median family income in the South was $8,105 in 1969 as compared with just over $10,000 for the rest of the nation). But the South still lives a bitter heritage of black and white poverty. The term “red neck,” applied to that often overlooked white minority, is as degrading a term as “nigger.” Carter came from such stock. Carter makes much of the fact that he grew up in the poverty of the Depression. Miss Lillian thinks he makes too much of it (“I knew of lots of people who were worse off than we were.”). The myth of American affluence and the dream of an industrial cornucopia have not been part of the Southern experience. The “Soul Food” of black and white Southerners is the food of dire poverty.
Related to the unique American experience of abundance is the unique American experience of success. Dr. Woodward says, “American history is a success story.” We nurture the conviction that nothing is beyond our power to accomplish. We win every war and solve every problem. Success and victory are national habits of mind. As a German friend of mine observed, “You Americans are so adolescent. You don’t know what it means to be wrong and you don’t know what it means to fail.” Richard Nixon knew this as he promised us an “honorable peace” and no defeat in Vietnam. We had to claim victory for we do not know how to accept defeat.
As for the South, in its acquaintance with defeat, it shares something important with the vast majority of humanity, something the rest of the nation (except for the notable exception of some of our ethnic minorities) has yet to learn. The South, in its better moments, has seen that one can be wrong and be defeated and still survive.
Third, Woodward notes that American myths of opulence and success combined to give America another dangerous self-image: “the legend of American Innocence.” We are the “City Set on a Hill” that carved something new and pure out of the New World. While the South heard a confident new nation of Chosen People singing the rhetoric of self admiration and moral perfection, it was not joining in the tune. The South lived intimately with the great evil of slavery and its aftermath. The slave runners and the textile mills of the North could forget about the “race problem” after they made their profits and washed their hands of the sin of slavery. They could blame the sin on the South and call it the South’s problem. The South did not have this luxury of moral purity. It lived in close proximity to the evil of racism. Its religion and literature became preoccupied with guilt rather than innocence, with the reality of evil, not with naive dreams of human perfection. For these reasons Woodward says the South participated only halfheartedly in the American doctrine of human perfectibility, the belief that every human problem has a political, social, or economic solution. The Gospel of Progress has always had its skeptics in the South. The South has remained basically pessimistic in a basically optimistic nation. Human bondage to sin and ignorance, the mixed motives behind even our best intentions, the darker side of human nature, became obsessions in a culture that found itself trapped with a sinful social system that it could not rise above. I have never met a Southerner who did not believe in original sin. The somewhat austere Southern Baptist religion of the South is not a mere shallow brand of saccharine pietism. It has its roots in the Southern conviction of sin and guilt.
Finally, in a number of essays Woodward has noted the South going “against the grain” of American economic thought in its suspicion of capitalism. Antebellum Northerners lamented the laziness, the lack of regimentation, and the agrarian stupidity of both white and black Southerners. Many antebellum Southern writers criticized the “wage slavery” of Northern sweatshops as being more inhuman than black slavery. Their proslavery theses were, of course, of questionable intent. But they illustrate a basic Southern uneasiness with capitalism. Southern slavery was essentially a non-capitalistic economic system, perhaps the only one we have ever had. Capitalism depends upon a fluid labor force which is tied to the supply and demand of a free market. Slavery consisted of a permanent labor force composed of many laborers who were too young or too old to work and thus were dependent on their owners and not subject to market fluctuations. It was a feudal system, not a capitalistic system.
The South has also been the victim of some of the economic inequities brought about by the concentration of capital in the industrialized North to the detriment of an underdeveloped South; a victimization somewhat akin to the plight of most Third World countries today. As far as Socialism is concerned, the South has undoubtedly been the major beneficiary of the nation’s non-capitalistic social programs from the New Deal to the Great Society.
A southerner from Virginia first voiced our national aspirations for us two hundred years ago. I do not rate Jimmy Carter on the same plane with Thomas Jefferson, but I do see possibilities for a renewal of national purpose in the voice of this farmer from Georgia, principally because he is a farmer from Georgia.
Having participated in the “significant history” of a region that has been at variance with many of our national myths, perhaps these new Southern leaders like Carter will be able to lead us in a reassessment of ourselves as a nation and a redirection of our national goals. I see us turning to them because we sense they can give us something we desperately need.
The wounds of Vietnam can best be healed by our first admitting that we were wrong. There is grace and freedom in not always having to be right. The thing that bothered me most about McGovern, aside from his rather cold, elitist manner, was the fact that he seemed woefully innocent about the use and abuse of power. He seemed convinced that the world was made up of evil people and good people and that, if the good people got elected, evil would be banished. Perhaps people from North Dakota can believe that. I hope that Baptists from Georgia have more difficulty believing that.
Carter seems uninterested in harping on the sins of Watergate or punishing Ford for the Nixon pardon. Carter seems to accept the reality of such problems of power and hope to avoid them. Mondale, the Minnesotan, finds it more difficult to forgive. For him, sin is cured by punishment. Perhaps Carter knows it is not so simple as that.
I also see Carter showing the nation an easygoing familiarity between blacks and whites that is true of the South at its best. The thing that impressed many Northern visitors to the antebellum South was not the separation of the of the races, but their proximity. Oftentimes it was a perverted closeness, but it was there. Perhaps the greatest source of our racism is our ignorance of different races, our abstract, idealized, and distant images of one another. Many white liberals are perplexed to find blacks rallying behind Carter. I suspect blacks may see in Carter not a perfect white savior of black people (that’s what many white liberals still think black people are looking for), but a fairly trustworthy man who knows black people firsthand, who has grown up with black people, as friends and fellow workers first and as political allies second. The first step towards reconciliation is to view one another as people, in close concrete relationships. The modern Civil Rights movement was born in the South and (if the agony of South Boston is any indication) may have influenced the South more than anywhere else.
Along with its special experience of the realities of sin and evil, its firsthand awareness of racism as our number one national problem, the South could also give us a much needed reappraisal of our national mythologies of success and opulence. It can remind us that raw capitalism is not our only national economic option and that direct bureaucratic government intervention is not the only option for the cure of our social ills.
Of course, our perceptions of Carter may be wrong. Carter may have learned nothing from his Southern heritage and he may have no new vision to give us. But whether it be Carter now or Barbara Jordan or Andrew Young later, perhaps these Southerners can, by their unique perspective on the tragedies and triumphs of our American experience, lead us where we want to go. By being true to the lessons of their region’s “significant history” can they best serve the nation as a whole.
William H. Willimon