Ku Klux Krazies *
March 8, 2021
“The past is never dead. It is not even past” -- William Faulkner 1951
I had cousins in Malvern Arkansas who I loved to visit, but I never realized they lived in a “sundown town” until my cousin’s Black guitar teacher was smuggled into the house one night so the neighbors wouldn’t see him enter. That was because, in 1962, Black people weren’t allowed in Malvern after dark. Apparently, unbeknownst to me or most Americans, another 25,000 “sundown towns” existed across the country that excluded or restricted Blacks, Native Americans, or Mexicans.
The South, however, was a region in its own malign category, characterized by systemic South African-style apartheid that was propped up by racist politicians and violent Ku Klux Klan militias. The giant region had seceded, was violently recaptured, but refused to free Blacks, in a legal or psychological sense, until the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Even after that, pockets of the Southern United States operated as “authoritarian enclaves” as they had done dating back to Reconstruction. On March 7, 1965, for instance, a march for voting rights by 600 peaceful people took place in Selma that led to the “Bloody Sunday” melee as state troopers and police beat and arrested them. This shocked the nation and became a turning point in the fight for racial justice, but closeted murder and mayhem, and discriminatory practices, have afflicted the South ever since, under the political cover of state’s rights or libertarianism. Racism still rends America.
The South, and remnants of its toxic culture, is America’s biggest problem because of its inordinate political influence. This is due to the cohesion of its leaders, combined with ongoing electoral and legislative manipulation. As of 2019, the 16-state Southern Region had a population of 125.58 million or 38.3 percent of the total. These 16 states have 32 Senators out of 100 and 168 House Representatives out of 435, roughly proportionate, in terms of population. But their real potency is due to the fact that they vote as a bloc and represent the majority of Republican votes that are available in both branches of Congress. (Of 211 Republicans in the House, 121 are from the South or 57 percent; and among the 50 Republicans in the Senate, 26 are from the South or 52 percent.) Put another way, Southern Republicans are the tail that wags the American dog.
This is why all politics in America are race politics. There are not just two parties, but a third one from “Dixie”, rooted in the South geographically and psychologically, which controls the Republican Party. This takeover began in the late 1960s when millions of White Southerners became Republicans after their leader, Alabama Governor George Wallace, and his bigoted American Independent Party fared badly in the 1968 Presidential election. Ever since, Southern Republicans have infiltrated and influenced the political agenda, the airwaves, the media, and the party, notably those who grew up inhaling the region’s toxic fumes and swallowed whole its version of history.
Obviously, not all Southerners were, or are, racist or revanchist. Presidents from the South such as Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton were from the region but not mired in its past. For millions, however, the cultural overhang persists and is characterized by a glorification of the Civil War symbolized by Confederate battle flags, historical revisionism, white supremacy, continuing commemoration of generals and leaders who committed treason, voter suppression, ongoing discrimination, and the wholesale and ongoing rejection of federal jurisdiction in the name of state’s rights.
This culture has been effectively hoisted and advanced by Southern government-stranglers such as Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, KKK David Duke, Libertarian Rand Paul and his late father Ron Paul, the late Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Lou Dobbs, Steve Bannon, Jerry Falwell Jr., Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and the South’s biggest advocate and New York opportunist President Donald Trump. Since his defeat, he has pledged not to start a third party but doesn’t need to. He already grabbed the Southern one that existed inside the Republican tent and continues to exert control through code words and racist dog whistles.
Consider and deconstruct his four most famous taglines and there lurks George Wallace’s ghost: “Lock Her Up” is a misogynistic version of lynching; “Build that Wall” carries the promise of creating a "Sundown Nation; “Drain the Swamp” is about dismantling the federal government; and “Repeal and Replace” is about destroying Obamacare, the first successful step by a Black President toward universal health care.
These beliefs, like sundown towns, are not simply restricted to the South but have surfaced in disparate parts of the country, in part due to the mass migration of millions of White Southerners to farms and factory jobs in the North after the Second World War. In The Southern Diaspora, James Gregory calculates that more than 27 million Southerners left their home region over the course of the 20th century. More than 7 million Black Southerners, nearly 20 million White Southerners, and more than one million southern-born Latinx Southerners participated in the diaspora, some leaving the South permanently, others temporarily.
I believe this Southern factor, which permeates the country’s polity, explains why America remains the only developed nation without gun controls, universal health care, or other social safety net staples such as paid maternity leave, decent minimum wage requirements, or public schools that are funded to provide the same quality of education in poor neighborhoods as well as in rich ones. People who despise minorities, do not want any redistribution of income, or social benefits, given to them, and certainly not by a central government they also deem to be illegitimate.
On the surface, the widening of the social safety net is fiercely opposed by Republicans on the pretext that it is unaffordable. That’s specious, given that this is the same party that goes out of its way to make social benefits unaffordable by handing out massive tax cuts to well-off White people and allocating to the Pentagon $740 billion a year, the equivalent of the GDP of Switzerland. As for gun controls, the logic is pure Deep South: Weapons allow individuals to defy or fend off an “evil” federal government and its laws or police and to keep minorities at bay.
America has a serious “South” problem. Legislative attacks to severely restrict voting rights have increased and are currently underway by Republicans in 33 states, excused as solutions to prevent the widespread voter fraud in 2020 that never happened. McConnell, Senator Ted Cruz, and eight other Republicans are also asking the Supreme Court to strike down a section of the Voting Rights Act that will cripple voting protection in all states. This Southern political cabal, and its donors and lobbyists, aim to disenfranchise voters, impede reforms, and arm the angry populace. This is a slow-motion sedition writ large.
Trump was their first “Southern” President who, like Andrew Johnson, tried to turn back the clock as Johnson did after the Civil War, in order to allow states to once again mistreat their Black and minority residents. Both were impeached, but not convicted thanks in large measure to Southern solidarity. The parallels are there: Americans remain enmeshed in a virtual civil war, a struggle that has prevented the country’s development into a mature, egalitarian democracy. The only path to a definitive victory is to legislate, litigate, and ensconce voting rights in all 50 states. Until that happens, the South will rise again and again and allow the few to staunch the power that constitutionally belongs to the majority.
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