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“The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance” By: Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker

“The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance”

Author: Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker

Publisher: New South Books

Pages: 165

Price: $25.95 (Hardcover)

Essays Assess the South’s Influence on the Nation

As students of Southern culture and history will realize at once, the title for this book is the subtitle of John Egerton’s 1974 masterwork, “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America.”

Egerton thought, as many of us did in those days, that the South as a separate political, cultural, linguistic entity was disappearing. Radio, the evening television news and so on would homogenize America, for better or worse. We would even all talk with the same accent.

The South would perhaps ease back on racism, xenophobia, and in time reap the material benefits of industrialization, modernization in general, even if diminished some by Yankee materialism, hedonism, corporate greed, acquisitiveness, etc. etc.

It has been 48 years and many things have changed in the South, for the better. The late John Lewis expressed many times his joy at the progress made in the areas of civil rights and the reduction of racism. There is clearly less abject poverty and better public health than 48 years ago. In those respects, the South is more like the North.

What did the North, “America,” receive in return? One might begin with televangelist healing and NASCAR, to be facetious or mildly humorous, but Gaillard and Tucker are not humorous.

The thesis of their book embodies Egerton’s primary fear: that the two regions might exchange what was “worst in each other.”

A back jacket blurb by Douglas A. Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name,” stakes out an extreme position.

He credits Gaillard and Tucker with revealing how the worst aspects of “the Southern Way of Life” have metastasized across the country.

“Metastasized” is not a word full of nuance.

In the course of their eight essays, two by Gaillard, two by Tucker, three by both, with the Introduction unsigned, the authors develop this theme.

They point to Lyndon Johnson’s sad but correct prediction that after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act the Democrats would lose the South for a long time to come.

Richard Nixon implemented his “Southern strategy “in 1968 and won the White House.

Reagan understood. Speaking at the Neshoba, Mississippi County Fair in 1980 he expressed not his grief at the murder of the civil rights workers but his firm belief in “states rights.”

These men, Nixon and Reagan, played upon what they knew to be the retrograde elements in the Southern population.

Egerton feared, and Gaillard and Tucker assert, that these elements were exported to the North.

This is debatable, I think. When George Wallace went to Michigan in 1968 and made a surprisingly strong showing in the democratic primary, he railed at liberals and “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

His blue-collar listeners knew his history on race and liked it.

Much the same can be said, sadly, about Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. That son of New York City, so warmly received in Alabama, liberated the xenophobia and racism that I think was already there in parts of the general American public and made it more acceptable.

Did the police of Milwaukee, St. Louis or Staten Island need the example of Bull Connor’s firehoses and dogs?

(I do admit that Georgia’s Newt Gingrich taught national Republican politicians how to stay on the rhetorical low road at all times.)

With Tucker and Gaillard’s assertion that at this moment our democracy hangs in the balance, I agree entirely.

The legislation to purge voter rolls, limit drop boxes, restrict mail-in ballots, intimidate election officials, and so on are definitely a threat. Again, the court case in Shelby County may have shown the way, but Republicans in Pennsylvania and Arizona are no slouches in these matters and did not need to learn from Alabama.

These essays are smooth historical summaries but for those already attentive to the nightly news, much of this book will be familiar.

The trick will be to get people not in the choir to read and consider these arguments.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.