After the Civil War, when the peace had been won and Reconstruction had begun, The Nation sent a writer through the South to report on the fledgling democracy. Both the heirs of William Lloyd Garrison and the new black citizens of Dixie understood that winning the South could mean a new America. Fifty years ago, when the South stood in the throes of a Second Reconstruction, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. filed reports on the civil-rights movement for this publication. King sought not only to document the South as it was, but to envision the nation as it should be. “Throughout our history, the moral decision has always been the correct decision,” he insisted. And the struggle for that moral decision, King added, was being waged in the South.
Fifty years later, it is easy for progressives to write off the South. Whatever flag flies over them, statehouses across Dixie harbor extremists who have gerrymandered voting districts and, now freed from the Voting Rights Act, have launched a raft of new anti-voting legislation. To many liberals, these George Wallace look-alikes are precisely what the South’s new Duck Dynasty deserves. In any case, the conventional wisdom goes, the struggle for the South is hopeless.
I beg to differ. As a preacher rooted in the Southern freedom movement, I find myself strangely hopeful at the beginning of 2016. Like Dr. King, I hold this hope as a moral conviction and a practical concern. But I, too, do not hold it without attention to the South as it is.
As in America’s First and Second Reconstructions, the South is crucial—and winnable—today. It matters not only because it is a region where American democracy has been envisioned, embattled, lost, and won for more than a century. It matters also because hard data, like those outlined in a 2014 Center for American Progress report, suggest that “registering just 30 percent of eligible unregistered black voters or other voters of color could shift the political calculus in a number of Black Belt states.” In North Carolina and elsewhere, black voters now turn out at percentages rivaling those of white voters, which is remarkable given the socioeconomic realities of the racial landscape. President Obama won North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida in 2008, and only narrowly lost North Carolina in 2012. Latino turnout rises every election cycle in North Carolina. And issues like healthcare, voting rights, and public education have sparked new “fusion” coalitions. If people of color in the South can learn to utter and understand new languages, a reshaped political landscape is possible through coalitions with Latinos, the LGBTQ community, labor, and religious progressives.
* * *
The question is not whether CNN will see this, but whether progressives themselves will see it. The patches of the fusion coalition in the South lie all around us: Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Equality Federation, Southerners On New Ground, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and progressive churches. But progressives and liberals must learn not to throw away the moral high ground and walk away from religious discourse. At the heart of faith is love, justice, fairness, and a measure of mercy for all people. Many people get to a social ethos grounded in love by way of ethical reasoning or political tradition. But we must not write off the millions, from Baptists to Buddhists, who get there by way of a myriad of faith traditions.