Many Americans think of the South only in terms of two events: the Civil War and the civil-rights movement. This has also been buttressed, since the 1960s, by an interest in the “Southern strategy” that the Republican Party began to pursue with Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and that reached an apex with Richard Nixon’s mastery of racial code words (“states’ rights,” “law and order”) in the 1968 presidential campaign. A new history by Anders Walker, The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America, touches on many of these events and their lingering legacies, but Walker directs our attention elsewhere: to those intellectuals who, in the second half of the 20th century, sought to save some of the unique qualities of Southern culture.
The South, Walker argues, did more than offer heroic moments of black auto-emancipation and shameful moments of white supremacy; it also served as the arena for an ongoing debate over multiculturalism. This might seem like a strange assertion at first, as the politics of multiculturalism are usually framed in the context of the late 20th century, when conflicts over how to define a country’s cultural identity exploded in Europe. But Walker’s provocative thesis is this: Beginning in the 1940s, black and white writers—from Zora Neale Hurston to Robert Penn Warren—began to worry about what might happen to the South’s culture in the wake of integration. These writers were not defenders of segregation; in fact, most were active in helping tear it down. But they feared that the region might also lose some of its cultural heterogeneity: In particular, they worried that it might lose its distinct white and black cultures and become flattened into the more homogeneous culture found in the rest of America.
One might argue with this thesis on a variety of accounts. Thinking of the South as having two distinct cultures, one white, one black, as opposed to one culture that was a mixture of the two, is already highly questionable. For that matter, it is unclear if the rest of the nation was truly as monocultural as some of the intellectuals in Walker’s book seem to believe. The work of historians like Jon Lauck, for instance, reminds us that the Midwest has its own rich literary and cultural heritage—to say nothing of the significant racial and ethnic cultures that permeated other regions of the United States outside the South.
Even so, Walker has opened up a fresh way of thinking about the intellectual history of the South during the civil-rights movement, and he also asks some tough questions about how we should remember its legacy. A professor of law at Saint Louis University, Walker focused his first book, The Ghost of Jim Crow, on the white Southern moderates who, under the guise of promoting gradual progress and “respect” for African-American culture, tried to slow the implementation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the late 1950s. In The Burning House, we get a different set of ghost stories about the afterlife of Jim Crow, but it’s a book that follows the same line of reasoning, showing how the multicultural arguments made by intellectuals who wanted to sustain the South’s cultural heterogeneity had their own unintended consequences, ending up being used by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in his effort to undermine affirmative action’s constitutional standing.