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The 2004 presidential election results were sobering for millions of Americans. The pundits say that “values” and “morals” were key to the re-election of George Bush and that the Republican rhetoric resonated with the Christian “values” of huge numbers of voters. For those of you not used to the hypocrisy of Christian Evangelical values and morals – welcome to the South. You had better start learning about southern history – it’s religious, social, racist and economic history – because the nation is now poised to become the South writ large. As writer Gavin Wright said in 1986, the nation was “coming to resemble the economy of the antebellum South when slave owners were ruthless and footloose because their wealth was portable.”
Most of what the GOP espoused has its roots in the South. George Bush, after all, has tried desperately to become a good southern boy and bow down to his Evangelical base. He likes his guns, he cares nothing about the environment, he wears his religion on his sleeve, he likes the death penalty, he’s born again, he lies, he’s deceitful, believes government money should be doled out to his friends. All of these are time honored traditions and values among the Southern white elite.
For years writers have intimated that the south was rising again. Little did we think this meant that the Southern mindset was to poison the entire country. For those who think that Southern exploitation has been exclusively racist, think again. The Southern plantation elite and its progeny exploit everything and everyone. They have used race as the primary trump card to control the southern electorate and the economy, but they have also used their Evangelical roots to bolster their claims. Let’s reflect a little about this because some of us in the south have a lot to say about the white elite in the region.
Let’s start with Southern Christian Evangelicals and their lies and distortions. No one can describe this better than the renowned black civil rights attorney, J.L. Chestnut, from Selma, Alabama. In the aftermath of the elections last week he says:
“When I opened my Selma law office in 1958, fewer than 70 blacks in the county were registered to vote. Potential black voters had to be vouched for usually by a white person. No blacks were employed anywhere in downtown Alabama except as janitors, barbers or delivery people. There were racially segregated schools, churches, theaters, restrooms and public water fountainsNot one black person in the state had served on a jury in 100 years, and white policemen did whatever, whenever to black people and no one asked why.
“Many white Southern Evangelicals who voted last week to reelect George W. Bush approved this institutional and racist depravity. Even while black men were lynched or jailed for not yielding a sidewalk or for being insolent, Evangelical churches had preached that Jesus ordained this inhumanity. These Evangelicals claimed that slavery was ordained in the Bible, and as I listened to the election returns last week I had a sinking feeling of “Here we go again!” As a black southerner who believes in Jesus, I have this sickening feeling about all this because I’ve been forced to drink before from that poison well.
“I know what Evangelicals can do in the name of Jesus. A white friend began to lecture me on love, as I spoke some rather harsh works about George Bush and the Evangelicals. It is not easy to love people who apparently approve to carry on in the tradition of their ancestors who raped my great grandmothers, killed their husbands, enslaved my ancestors, dropped atom bombs in Japan, killed off Native Americans, keep successive generations of my people cooped up in slums, invade Iraq and Afghanistan and then labeled the people defending their homes in Iraq as terrorists or insurgents.
“Michigan voted for Kerry, so did the Northeast and the West Coast. Yet, the one permanent third party in the country, the Confederacy, continues its attachment to the Republican Party and folks understand why.”
How about labor issues and the Southern working class? In his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” author Thomas Frank refers to working class and immigrant abuse in the meat packing industry and the growing income gap. He’s witnessed a deterioration of consciousness among Kansans. There was in the state a legendary populist movement earlier in the 1900’s that rallied against capitalist excesses and exploitation. This has changed to Kansans who now vote against their own economic interests. It’s “values” says Frank. The GOP is espousing “values” (gays, guns, ten commandments, school prayer) that resonate with the working class Kansans. When I first read his impressive book I thought “the Souththis is like the South.” While the Kansas GOP elite has recently used “values” to control the working masses, in the South the elite have used “race” coupled with “values” with similar results.
The history of the southern working class struggles for better wages and rights has always been one of a protracted struggle against the powerful white southern plantation owners who have controlled local, state and regional politics. After the Civil War, Georgia’s Henry Grady met with industrialists in New York and said, “Ya’ll come down!” We’ve got countless “100% Anglo-Saxon” workers waiting for a job. Don’t worry about taxes – we’ll give you land. Don’t worry about labor – we’ll pass laws to make sure labor rights are diminished. The southern states kept Grady’s promise and passed “right to work” laws making labor unions virtually impossible to organize in the region. In concert with this anti-labor philosophy, the white southern elite didn’t want just any business coming into their states. The business had to be non-union first and foremost.
Race has also always been an effective means of keeping unions out of the South. The white elite propaganda stating that black workers would control whites in union shops has always been effective and, of course, they cried threats of “race mixing”. The result of all of these low wage unorganized workers has been devastating for building a middle class in many areas of the South for both whites and blacks and for ending the grinding poverty in predominantly black areas such as the Mississippi Delta.
What about the South and its environmental record? Bush is renowned as being the worst environmental president in the past century and for turning back the clock on environmental regulations that took years to pass and implement. Environmentalists in Texas were appalled at his policies as Governor of Texas. His philosophy is “leave it to business to regulate itself.” He’s learned well from southern political traditions. Sorry folks! This is another gift we in the south are offering the nation.
Bush’s deregulation policies on the environment echo the southern record perfectly. The environmental policy to control business polluters in the South has always been “no policy” whenever possible. As a result pollution in the South is rampant and the raping of our natural resources is commonplace. Typically, business owners in the south get rich at the expense of everyone else and the environment and they get all kinds of help from politicians. Perhaps a prominent recent example of this is North Carolina with its huge factory hog farms – a state now known as the “piss pool of America”. The route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known as Cancer Alley for its excessively high rate of cancer due to chemical plant pollution. The Appalachian coal mining abuse is tragic where whole mountaintops are being lopped off resulting in run-offs into streams and extreme environmental ecosystem distress. The kaolin in middle Georgia is known as one of the highest grade in the world. Georgia gets no tax from the kaolin industry nor does the extremely destitute kaolin rich area benefit from this industry. These are just a few examples. The list is huge.
Bush is clearly well versed on exploitation. What is “compassionate conservatism” after all except at least to smile while you exploit. He’s learned well from his southern mentors and he’s now imposing these “ill-fated” lessons on the nation and the world. No doubt about it. He’s from the South.
So what is happening to the nation thanks to Bush and his political and economic agenda? Historian James Cobb at the University of Georgia in his book “Selling of the South” (1993) explains southern policies, its legacy and potential national impact best when he says: “Only by looking outward as well as inward can we begin to understand fully why, long after the plantation’s demise, the leaders of the New South persisted in their ill-fated efforts to achieve a developed economy at the expense of a developed society. Such an understanding promises a firmer grasp of the contradictions and contrasts that mark the southern economy in the 1990’s and, beyond that, a clearer sense of why in recent years the socioeconomic and political outlines of the nation’s future seem so ominously reminiscent of the South’s past.”
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.