Revised Draft Statement on Southern Oppression the USA

Although individual southerners may be as different from each other as they are from non-southerners, there are both positive values and distress patterns in southern culture which contribute to a unique, distinctive experience for southerners.

These positive values and distress patterns seem to affect almost all southern people, although there are variations due to class, age, sex, race, and different regions within the South.

There are many strong, human qualities in southern culture: 

1. We treasure our land. In spite of rapid industrialization and urban growth, we have maintained a deep appreciation of our mountains, creeks, hillsides, thunderstorms, hot afternoons, lowland fog, and newly-turned soil.

2. We have a strong sense of identity and connection to the region and its history. This identity with the South gives us an anchor to our past, to our families, and to the preservation of what is good and human in our traditions.

3. We have a deep appreciation of our families, our kinfolk, and our roots. The extended family, the value of community, and rootedness to hometowns are still encouraged through community picnics or fish-fries, church socials, neighborhood cookouts, Sunday-dinners-on-the-ground, etc.

4. Music is an important part of our culture. The South has played a key role in the origin and development of blues, jazz, country, folk, gospel, rhythm and blues, ragtime, bluegrass, Cajun, and old-time mountain music. Each of these musical forms has been carried from the mountains, flatlands, or deltas of the South into many other regions and cultures around the world.

5. Southerners appreciate good food. Although many of the traditional southern foods have been “poor people’s food,” made from poorer quality meats, southerners have created tasty dishes out of it. There’s a strong value placed on “good eating,” meaning fresh vegetables, home gardens, and home-raised meats. 

6. Folk arts and handicrafts are a living part of southern culture. Southern art has avoided much of the classism that prevents art from being available to working people, and southern folk art has always combined beauty with practicality. There is also a strong literary heritage in the South, with many skilled writers and poets.

7. Southern hospitality is legendary. Although this has sometimes been caricatured as an oppressive, phony quality, the fact remains that, in general, southerners are friendly, considerate people who care about helping others. Also, southern people are willing to take time to enjoy and appreciate the “little” things in life: friends, stories, natural beauty.

8. Southern accents, which vary from one part of the region to another, are beautiful. We can be very proud of our way of talking.

The negative elements of southern culture arise from the oppression of southern people, and internalized oppression among southerners.

Southern people are oppressed specifically as southerners, in addition to being oppressed because they belong to other oppressed groups (young people, blacks, women, Jews, working class, etc.). The oppression is systematically imposed on all southerners, although differences may arise among different classes, races, ages, and so on. The basic message of southern oppression is that southerners are slow-witted, slow-moving, slow-talking, stupid, backward, unsophisticated, close-minded, poorly educated, rawboned, unmannered, lawless, fanatical, mean, and spiteful. The oppression contradicts everything that is true about our essential humanness.

It’s important to understand how southern oppression developed historically. During the 1700s and 1800s, the first white settlers in the South fought a series of bloody wars against the Native Americans who owned the land, and by 1850 had killed or driven off many of them. During that process, two distinct white economies were established: a plantation-based slave economy, and an economy of small, independent farmers, trappers, fishing people, craftspeople, etc. In 1790, there were 500,000 black slaves in the South producing 1,000 tons of cotton per year. By 1860, there were four million slaves, and they produced one million tons of cotton annually.

Southern slave-owners were a dominant force in the early leadership of the fledgling United States government (Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison were all southern slave-owners). But by the 1830s, political and economic conflicts began to increase between rising northern capitalism and the southern slave economy. Northern capitalists wanted economic expansion, free labor, and high protective tariffs for U.S. manufacturers, thus they opposed the expansion of slavery into new U.S. territories. Southern slave-owners needed new land for the cotton-based economy.

As these conflicts intensified, stereotypes and misconceptions about white southerners began to appear regularly in northern newspapers, textbooks, sermons, and speeches. Besides attacking the white slave-owners, who represented at most twenty percent of the population, non-southerners portrayed working-class southerners as ignorant hillbillies. This served to divide the northern and southern working class.

The general anti-southern attitude in the north extended to southern blacks as well. Despite the rise of the abolition movement, racism was very prevalent in the north. Southern blacks were stereotyped as backward.

Within the South, growing numbers of blacks began to rebel against slavery, either through armed uprisings or escape to the north. The fear of black rebellions led to an increase in racist mistreatment, and an intensified propaganda campaign to prevent any kind of contact or alliances between working class whites and blacks.

The conflicts between the southern slave-economy and northern capitalism resulted in the Civil War. The years of ridicule of southerners by the northern press made it easier for southern plantation owners to convince white workers that a fight to defend an obsolete slave society (which oppressed white workers by forcing them to compete with slave labor) was actually a fight “to defend the homeland.” It was the ultimate trick. Tens of thousands of white southerners marched off to die in the slave-owners’ war. Had they won, they would have insured themselves of a future impoverishment that was almost as great as that of the black slaves.

The anti-southern stereotypes also slowed the process of southern blacks leaving the plantations and throwing their economic and military support to the Union army. Racism in the north led to attacks against escaped slaves. As the war deaths mounted, some northerners blamed southern blacks for the war. However, after the Union suffered repeated defeats in the first three years of war, northern political leaders realized that the war could not be won without the support of southern blacks, and so President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which applied only in areas already controlled by Union troops).

Thereafter, the war was increasingly perceived as a “war of liberation,” and thousands of blacks fled the plantations. Two hundred thousand blacks fought in the Union armies. Their defection to the Union army was one of the major factors in the northern victory.

Also, more and more white workers began to desert the Confederate armies, and there were anti-draft riots and armed uprisings against the Confederacy in every southern state. There were places, particularly in the mountain regions, where Confederate army recruiters were shot dead on sight.

The Union army’s almost complete physical destruction of the South at the end of the war (General William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” being the most infamous example) was more easily justified in the North because of the decades of portraying southerners as less than human. The destruction of the land, devastation of the economy, and demeaning of southern people left distress recordings of hopelessness, despair, isolation, and humiliation which are still present today.

After the war, the Reconstruction Era brought a number of important steps toward equality for black and white southern workers, such as the establishment of free public schools in many parts of the South for the first time. However, these progressive steps were quickly reversed by the Great Compromise of 1876. This deal solved a disputed presidential election by giving the election to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes (who received a smaller popular vote than the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden), in exchange for removing northern troops from the South. The actual heart of the deal was to return political and social control to the old plantation owners, while northern industrialists (J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, etc.) took the South’s timber, textiles, railroads, and other natural resources.

Following Reconstruction, most black and white workers were entrapped in a feudal, sharecropping economy. The sharecropping system, on one hand, and the political stranglehold of the old plantation owners (enforced through the use of the “black codes,” the Ku Klux Klan, and other vigilante groups) drove them deeper into poverty and despair.

Nevertheless, there have been continual waves of protest against this economic and political oppression. Much of it has been waged by blacks and whites, side by side. Despite the use of violence and terror to keep whites and blacks apart, some of the greatest unified struggles by blacks and whites in U.S. history occurred in the South. This is as much a part of our history as the lynchings and race-hatred, and must be proudly proclaimed.

In the 1880s and 1890s, there were dramatic surges of black-white unity in farmers’ organizations such as the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party. Labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and various CIO unions in the 1930s and ‘40s, took progressive steps towards black-white unity, although racism eventually eroded most of them. Jim Crow laws, lynching, and “waving the bloody shirt of race hatred” prevented these movements from being successful within the South.

Today, racism continues to be the major stumbling block to building successful movements for social, political, and economic justice in the South. Also, the continuation of southern oppression still makes it difficult to build alliances with workers outside the region.

By the 1950s, rapid industrialization had gradually replaced the sharecropping economy and forced thousands of southern workers off their land and into low-paying jobs in factories and mills. The economic exploitation of the South continues today. The “Sunbelt” is undergoing major economic expansion, as “runaway shops” from the North pour into the region, seeking lower wages and a “union-free environment.” The booming growth has inspired new struggles to control the rampant growth, protect the natural environment, and preserve southern culture and traditions.

Despite the economic growth, the South is still the most economically depressed region of the country, with generally lower wages, less unionization, and less progressive tax structures than other regions. This is reflected across the board, in the level of housing, medical care, schooling, and job opportunities that are available. Northern conglomerates still own or control major portions of southern industry (some modern historians have suggested that the South has been a “colony” of the North since the end of the Reconstruction), and the benefits of southern economic growth are received by a small fraction of the population.

To correct these problems, all southerners must acquire their pride in being southern and regain correct information about our history and culture, of which there is much to be proud. Shame, guilt, or attempts to hide or disown our southern roots must be firmly contradicted.

We must use the positive values of our culture to build unity among southerners of every race, region, class, and experience. We must commit ourselves to never again allowing ourselves to be divided against each other on the basis of race. We must never allow the smallest slight or ridicule of southern people, traditions, or culture to go unchallenged. We must also build allies outside the region, with the working people in other sections of the country who are our natural allies.

Finally, we must discharge the hopelessness, powerlessness, and despair that have been ground into us as a result of the oppression, and develop a program to take back control of our native homeland.

Non-southerners need to learn the truth about southern culture and history, discharge their oppressive attitudes toward southern people, and interrupt any oppressive stereotypes or actions towards southern people.

Ben Green
Tallahassee, Florida, USA

Last modified: 2014-10-06 18:56:49+00