Friday, November 19, 2010

Integration in shades of gray

James C. Cobb depicts a Dixie as American as . . . Lynyrd Skynyrd

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Is the South -- still -- a place apart? Thirty years ago, in Place Over Time, Carl Degler argued for the persistence of a distinctive regional identity notwithstanding the successive waves of modernity that followed the "New South" of the post-Civil War era. Earlier in this decade, in Still Fighting the Civil War, David Goldfield argued that many Southerners insisted on seeing themselves as apart from the of the Union. Meanwhile, an array of scholars from Bruce Schulman to Michael Lind see recent American history as essentially a process of Southernization. In this ably written synthetic account of the region, veteran University of Georgia professor James C. Cobb shows how all these views can be seen as credible in a narrative trajectory that moves from that of a backward, isolated region to an assertive national presence. But for Cobb, the region and the nation have always been deeply intertwined.

The first half of The South and America moves at a brisk pace, describing the quickening effect of the Second World War on the region, the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, and the emergence of a steady -- and increasingly sophisticated -- strategy of resistance to it. We meet a familiar gallery of characters, from Gunnar Myrdal to Emmett Till, and a political spectrum that runs from the daring novels of Lilian Smith to the whites who said of their returning veterans, "Our heroes didn't die in Europe to give Negroes the right to marry our wives." (Those Negroes, for their part, had their own ideas about what they were fighting for.)

Cobb pays particular attention to the economic dimensions of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath. He notes that the business community was anxious lest segregationist intransigence interfere with commerce, and that this concern played a factor in the willingness of many whites to accept, though not embrace, what was ultimately seen as an inevitable move toward racial integration.  It did not take long, however, for corporate leaders to conclude that the new status quo was not only acceptable, but necessary for the maintenance of a low-wage, low-regulation economic climate. A full-throated liberal, Cobb is insistent -- and convincing -- in tracing a persistent double standard on the part of white Southerners, who disproportionately benefit from federal spending while remaining reluctant to tax themselves, and warning about the corrosive effects of welfare for the poor while distributing lots of pork to the rich.  This hypocrisy is not unique to the South, but notably widespread there.

The second half of The South and America takes more a thematic approach, covering cultural, gender, and racial history. What this part of the book lacks in cohesion it makes up for in useful segmentation. It is also notably up to date, covering topics like controversies over the Confederate flag, gay rights, and the growing Latino presence in the region. Cobb occasionally betrays his generational roots (he's much better on pop music of the fifties than later, for example, omitting what would seem to be a necessary discussion of soul music, though OutKast does make a cameo). But there's plenty of grist for an undergraduate mill here. Cobb also shows a sharp eye for the resonant detail. It's moving for example, to learn that while supporters of the vicious segregationist U.S. Senator James O. Eastland could not raise the funds for his portrait to hang in the U.S. Capitol, the once obscure Fanny Lou Hamer is rightly lionized as one of the true heroes of American history (there's a Bronx high school named for her a few miles away from where this review has been written, where her legacy -- and the social inequality that made her labors necessary -- live on).

By this point, the discourse on the place of the South, in the broadest sense of that phrase, is vast. Indeed, Cobb has spent the better part of a lifetime mastering it. The South and America is a useful place for the neophyte to begin.