Week 11 Notes

This week we continue and expand on the discussion we began in the first hour of our Week 9 meeting, when we talked about the resurgent evangelical movement and its growing political influence, north and south.

Gregory (after a nod in the direction of the southern liberals whose exceptions prove the conservative rule) considers contributions of white diasporans from the 1920s through the 1970s and concludes, mostly, that while southern whites provided “symbols” and “catalytic leadership” to the race-based politics of the period, it’s wrong to see them as originators or instigators of northern racism. This supposition was and remains widespread, and may have proved advantageous, in an oblique way, to northern civil rights advocates. Blaming southerners enabled both black and white liberals to work against northern racism without ruffling too many feathers – northerners were able to feel they they were not being targeted.

Gregory sees the pre-World War II white supremacist organizations, exemplified first by the Ku Klux Klan and later by the Black Legion and others, to have finally hurt their cause. Their extremism, he argues, caused a “backfire” which in effect began to give bigotry a bad name, and may have contributed to the mass media’s increasing inclination (which Gregory treats in detail later in the chapter) to treat minorities better, and to be less afraid to portray whites as at fault in racial conflicts. Backfire or no, Gregory makes a strong case that these white supremacist groups did little to gain them a wider audience in the north.

But things would be different one the 1960s arrived. Gregory looks at three areas in which “Southernization” had a major impact on northern politics: the first was the ability of Governor George Wallace to extend the language of southern populism above the Mason-Dixon Line. He accomplished this by toning down the racial aspects of his message (although, as we’ll see from one of his campaign ads, his coding was anything but subtle) and instead emphasizing the working class’s sense that its way of life under siege. Welfare queens, bearded professors, and tax-and-spend politicians made up part of the menagerie of villains victimizing Wallace’s hard-working constituency. Wallace ripped the longstanding rift in the Democratic party wide open: social conservatives now had somewhere else to go, and go they did.

Next Gregory looks in some detail at the politicization of country music during this same period. Country music was losing market share to the rock and roll and easy listening genres: hillbillies and cowboys weren’t making it anymore. So the industry positioned itself as purveyors of an “all-American” sound, emphasizing patriotism and good old-fashioned American virtues. This got them a sizable audience from the same blue-collar groups to which Wallace appealed, and for many of the same reasons. It was first and foremost music that affirmed their values: these new fans worked hard for what they had and resented those who they felt were getting something (an education, a welfare check) for nothing. There were no end of songs (both Gregory and Malone name a bunch) that told them what they wanted to hear, and the music helped define and reaffirm their values.

Finally, Gregory hits the topic we looked at in Week 9, religion. His focus is on the impact of the Christian Voice and Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Baptist-centered Moral Majority. These organizations laid the groundwork for the later, more powerful interdenominational coalitions that became known as the Christian Right. They developed and honed many of the tactics that were to be used by the bigger groups later (much as northern civil rights activists paved the way for the successes of the southern movement). Catholics played a role as well: their activism was centered around the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade, but extended into the same social issues that worried fundamentalist protestants. Many Wallace supporters were ethnic Catholics, and mostly for the same reasons.

We’ve got one reading this week for each of these three topics: Wallace, country music, and religion, and another that I hope might serve to tie them all together. Dan Carter’s description of the appeal of the Wallace campaign gets it, I think, exactly right. Wallace was a crude precursor to the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and the later work of such political strategists as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, who turned Wallace’s instinctive art into cold science.

Bill Malone has written many books on country and southern vernacular music, and in this excerpt from Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ he presents a more nuanced picture of the relationship between country music and working-class populism than Gregory is able to in his limited space, and by bringing the story a little closer to the present, Malone introduces some artists (see my playlist!) who display that relationship in all its complexity.

For the religious angle, we turn to Darren Dochuk, who describes how the combination of Jeffersonian democracy and Christian evangelism prevalent in the Upper South made those who migrated from that region to California into crusaders, determined to bring their brand of  community to a new frontier.

Finally, here come Peterson and DiMaggio, who propose categorizing people in terms of “culture classes,” defined by shared patterns of culture consumption. Each unit of culture (religion, music, political view) helps constitute a worldview, and culture classes are made up of those who share some critical mass of similar cultural units. The units’ transmission from one person or group to another (and so the formation of a cultural class) is not a necessary result of contact by migration or “massification,” but instead is determined by a person’s individual affinity for that particular unit: as DiMaggio and Peterson put it, “a new trait would be adopted only by those elements of an indigenous population for whom the trait fits with their lifeways.” So we end not with a “Southernization” of the north, but a selective adoption of southern lifeways, allowing George Jones and Frank Sinatra to reside on the same jukebox, and George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey to compete votes in the same ward.

For today’s video, I give you Emmylou Harris, whom I could not fit on any of the playlists. She’s been an immense influence on a whole generation of American music, but that, as I sometimes say, is another course. This is Emmylou in 1983, singing Rodney Crowell’s (he’s on acoustic guitar) Till I Can Gain Control Again. That’s Rosanne Cash (then married to Rodney Crowell) sitting behind Emmylou. Please enjoy!

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