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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and we in South will once again have to endure the rhetoric about the glory of the Confederacy and invariably distortions of the truth. As memorials will be installed here and there to mark various battles and events in that dreadful conflict, we will yet again be forced to explore the various arguments about states rights and slavery, the infamous southern “Lost Cause” and, as always, white supremacy that under girds everything in the South.
When it’s all said and done, the South lost the Civil War and that was a good thing. All of us should be thankful for that. Forbid we should have continued with the unfettered arrogance of the Southern elite and its ruthless, greedy slaveholding society whose pathology seeped everywhere into the Southern culture and ultimately to the nation writ large. Unfortunately, we are not yet recovered from its legacy. In the nation as a whole the Tea Party seems a prime example of that southern elite arrogance and/or of white underlings who serve their interests.
The Confederate society was and remains a blemish on human history. It was a society of white supremacy, arrogance, intolerance, hierarchy, violence, control and narrow mindedness. It was closed and dangerous. We could easily describe it as the primary indigenous American terrorist society. The legacy of all this sickness remained in the South until, some 100 years later, it was somewhat diluted after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Social change, unfortunately, is painfully slow. The fact remains that the Confederacy was not something to fight for much less to honor.
Historians say that the southern slaveholders wanted to take slavery as far west as possible. They wanted to control all the major commodity production from cotton to sugar to coffee but primarily cotton and sugar. By virtue of controlling all this production and territory their empire would also, of course, control the U.S. government. We are blessed this never happened.
However, the fact that today we will yet again be confronted with the Civil War and its arguments, it might be relevant to take a closer look at the Southern culture and/or mindset.
Understanding the “white” southern mindset has been the subject of countless narratives by some of the south’s best historians and philosophers. Perhaps the most widely known and the master of them all is W.J. Cash. When I read his The Mind of the South (1941), I was astounded. He ingeniously destroyed the myths of the so-called “Lost Cause” philosophy that developed in the post-Civil War South.
With the Lost Cause philosophy, the Southern elite attempted to defend their way of life almost as if they wanted others to think they had been victimized by the war. Guilt and defeat will do strange things to the mind. The Lost Cause portrayed the pre-Civil War life in the South as one with gentile, aristocratic, cultured, educated and generous plantation owners who took care of their happy slaves.
Cash demolished the “Lost Cause” with biting and insightful sarcasm. In fact, ever since his book was published in 1941 it appears that virtually every serious southern historian has to refer to him. He unfortunately was not able to savor his contribution, as months after his book’s publication he committed suicide.
Cash wrote that the gentile aristocrat of the pre-war South was largely a myth. Plantation owners were generally neither cultured nor having attained higher education and most were just barely out of the frontier. He said that they were by and large opposed to new ideas and economic innovations or anything that might challenge their power. The elite wanted to control everyone in their wake from poor whites to slaves and resistance to their control was often met with violence, murder and mayhem. Control was maintained under the premises of white supremacy that was used by the elite with ruthless and cruel manipulation.
According to Bertram Wyatt-Brown who wrote the introduction to the 1994 re-issue of the The Mind of the South, Cash was the first to “explore and condemn” what he called “Proto-Dorian Convention” that prevailed in the south – historian George Fredrickson refers to it as “herrenvolk democracy”. This was a code that “subordinated the black race completely and also made the poor of the dominant color beholden to the master class.”
The model of black subjugation and poor white manipulation was not unique, according to historical sociologist Orland Patterson. Wyatt-Brown refers to Patterson’s writing in the 1980s that “throughout recorded history, owners of slaves have almost invariably required a non-slaveowning underclass to serve as spectator of their honor and power. Such a subordinate group of free people enhances the status of all those not stigmatized by the contrasting degradation of bondage.”
Wyatt-Brown also notes that both Patterson and Fredrickson likely owe their analysis of these unjust societies to Cash’s work.
The Southern elite, according to Cash, had always gone to great measures to maintain control. Poor whites, in fact, who challenged the elite’s control, were often the victims of lynching prior to the Civil War. Plantation owners were not about to murder their slaves unless they felt compelled to do so. They had invested huge amounts of money in their slaves who were largely controlled in the slave system. The lynching of blacks intensified only after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. The independence of blacks was obviously intolerable to the white supremacists.
Lynching, post Civil War, is often identified with actions of the Ku Klux Klan or poor southern whites. But Cash stresses that this violence was almost always protected and/or approved by the ruling elite. Often the poor were but doing their bidding. Many will say that the same applies today and that the KKK would never engage in activities without the approval of white community leaders.
Cash’s book is not perfect, however, as many reviewers will acknowledge. He was from the piedmont of North Carolina and had not had extensive exposure to, or association with, the Black Belt South so his depiction of blacks, as well as women, was lacking. But he was one of the first Southern white writers to recognize the importance of the black influence in the development of a “distinctive South”. He also challenged the myth of the “white woman” fetish and the need for their protection, which was an attitude imposed by white males. Cash said this fetish had nothing to do with women. It had to do with the masculine competition white males felt toward black males once they were freed.
A few years ago, while reading John Egerton’s book Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994), I couldn’t help but notice his consistent reference to Cash’s book. I wondered why he didn’t say more about it. I naturally assumed it would have had a similar effect on him. Then, in the second half of his excellent book, he mentions being in an Atlanta hospital after an operation and reading Cash’s book for the first time. He said that it felt as if a grenade had exploded under his bed and further that “Cash’s biographer Bruce Clayton said it well: ‘No one who reads William Joseph Cash is ever quite the same again.”
Below is Egerton’s summary along with a quote from Cash himself, of course:
It was the white masses that populated lynch mobs, he said, but it was the upper classes that inspired and protected them and the failure of this ‘better sort’ was the genesis of the South’s undoing, its original sin. The Old South planters, the textile barons, the politicians and bankers and cotton brokers who controlled the region and kept it in feudal backwardness were not really aristocrats but erstwhile dirt farmers just a step or two up from the frontier. The New South was really the Old South in spruced-up garb. The white ruling elite created the illusion of a class-free society by uniting all whites in dominion over blacks – and the lowly whites, out of a misguided sense of gratitude and superiority, were willing to fight and die for a social system in which they had no real stake. Cash saw through the rebel-rousing Old South myth perpetuated in literature and history; he saw the hand of the state and the church and the academy in it too, and Yankee acquiescence, if not outright chicanery. In Cash’s essentially tragic view of Southern history, the common mindset of the white south conformed to a “savage ideal” that bonded most of its citizens to a narrow interdependence of the past, the present, and the future. And there he left it (Egerton):
Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its action – such was the South at its best. And such at its best remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues. Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, about all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism – these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today (Cash).
Some writers are blessed with being able to articulate reality and you know it when you read it. Cash was definitely one of those. If you’ve lived in the South for any length of time you immediately recognize his genius. His was, in a way, a catharsis that he did not survive but his contribution was immense.
It’s also true that that South described by Cash in the 1940s remains in transition. White supremacy in the region is still palpable. Some will also say that by focusing on Southern racism that we inappropriately give the rest of the country a pass. Many will also say the while activists both black and white have always organized against the injustice in the South – and often resulting in significant strides – racism will often prevent strong alliances from being formed throughout the region. And that’s probably true as well.
The South, however, has yet to address, as through a South African style “Truth and Reconciliation” process, its crimes against humanity. It would be an important first step.
HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been a part of the food security movement for 18 years in Africa, Asia and the United States. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cash, W.J., The Mind of the South. New York, Vintage Books, 1991.
Fredrickson, George M., White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.