“The South is not, today, one whole.”
Those words, uttered by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in a March 30, 1963 essay for The Nation, are as true today as they were then. In that statement, Dr. King invoked the dedicated minority of progressive Southerners who were determined to bring racial justice to the region, while simultaneously putting pressure on the equally-dedicated majority hell-bent on maintaining the status quo.
Indeed, if anything is true of the curious collection of states commonly referred to as the “American South,” it is that things never seem to change. Or, at least, that was the story told in a recent Politico Magazine article by Michael Lind that claimed the South is simply deadweight on the rest of the nation.
Lind harps on some themes that we Southerners, and particularly progressive Southerners, are all too familiar with: our soaring economic inequality, our propensity for violence, our pitiful progress in advancing racial justice. In making all of these statements, Lind is by no means incorrect, yet the focus is wrong.
Lind commits a common error often repeated in America’s history. That is, he lifts up the tired narrative of the majority’s failures, rather than the more noble narrative of the minority’s heroics.
Lind imagines a United States freed from the “burden” of the South. He does not imagine a different, better South. But indeed there is one, if only we would give voice to it.
There has long existed a passionate and driven community of Southern progressives who have pushed not only the region but the entire country toward the realization of racial justice and true economic opportunity. When the nation lent its ear and sword to these individuals and organizations, they fundamentally altered history.
Think William Faulkner, Ella Baker, John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of course King himself and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While there is no question that a healthy disdain for the South’s violent segregationist tactics helped these beacons break onto the political scene, it alone was not enough. Those fighting for change needed their voices amplified. And eventually, the leadership and insight of these historic Southerners, together with America’s willingness to lend support on these issues, finally moved the needle on civil rights not only in the South, but across the country. Unfortunately, we seem to have stopped listening to those who can bring progress to the South, in favor of using it as a scapegoat for the nation’s larger racial and economic woes.