Southern consciousness

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 13 17:23:17 MST 2001

Young Socialist Magazine, May 1969

"Southern Consciousness: Conscious of What?"

by Nelson Blackstock

Ever since the leaders of the Southern Student Organizing Committee began
to tell us that it is necessary to build a unique movement based on what
Steve Wise in the March 17 "Great Speckled Bird" [a now defunct
'underground' newspaper] calls Southern Consciousness (also known as
Southern Nationalism, Southern Chauvinism, or probably more aptly, Southern
Exceptionalism.) I have been following their arguments closely. But I have
had difficulty figuring out what exactly is unique about the South that
creates the basis for Southern consciousness.

It couldn't be the black struggle or the antiwar movement. Neither could it
be the current activity on college campuses or the struggles of working
people to build unions. Nor could it be that capitalists have exploited
working people and used the wealth of the land for their own profits. Wise
says that the Southern consciousness "is based on an impulse that
originates in the very depths of the Southern Soul." After a good bit of
soul searching, I have finally begun to get the picture, and Wise brings it
sharply into focus in the concluding paragraphs of his article.

What Wise finds ultimately unique about the South, upon which SSOC wishes
to create Southern consciousness, stems from the South's agrarian past.
Well, I see a couple of problems with this. First, agrarianism and the
consciousness produced by a society where "the relationship between the
land and the people was more direct and primordial" has not been unique to
the South or this country. The agrarian populist movement was based in the
West and the Midwest as well as the South. Russia also had its own populist
movement--the Narodniks. Another problem is the South has become a
primarily industrial society; consequently, the objective basis for a
Southern agrarian consciousness is dead. Shortly after WWI my grandfather
found that the land in Forsyth County could no longer provide a living for
him and his four children, so he moved to Atlanta to look for work. This
has been the story of the South for the past sixty years.

Wise concluded with a quote from John Crowe Ransom followed by a "Liberate
the South". It is significant that Wise has to go back to Ransom to find
support for Southern consciousness. For the uninitiated Ransom was among a
group of three-named Southern college professors who made up a minor
literary school known as the Agrarians back in the early thirties. They
were the Southern expression of a school of thought influential after World
War I which said that the solution to the problems of capitalism was a
retreat to pre-industrial rural societies, even feudalism. Victims of
excessive sentimentality, the Agrarians idealized the Old South, where
everything and everybody, including the black man, had its place. In a
collection of their essays entitled "I'll Take My Stand", Robert Penn
Warren, who later became an orthodox liberal, included "The Briar Patch," a
defense of segregation. I trust the South has been largely liberated from
this nonsense.

In this century, in fact, political appeals to things uniquely Southern
have almost always means a defense of the unique Southern institution of
racial segregation and the super-exploitation of the black man. Writing in
1937, John Dollard found "It is only when differing views on the Negro and
his status are brought sharply forward that the older attitudes toward the
North are reinstated."

After the Second World War, the majority of the American ruling class found
it expedient to begin to eliminate old-style segregation, since it wasn't
essential for the exploitation of the black workers in the big cities and
since it hindered the United States in its new role as champion of the Free
World. But the small proprietors and farmers who formed the base of the
Democratic Party in the Deep South had an economic stake in maintaining
segregation and the resulting supply of very cheap labor. In addition, the
years of indoctrination by their rulers in the South had developed a strong
racist ideology among a large sector of Southern whites.

These factors combined to produce a new wave of "Southern consciousness" in
defense of our sacred and precious traditions: i.e., segregation. Thus we
had the Dixiecrat movement in 1948. After the Supreme Court decision of
1954, we saw congressmen issuing "Southern Manifestoes." Marvin Griffin
changing the Georgia flag into a semi-Confederate flag, and Orval Faubus
comparing himself to Robert E. Lee. Meanwhile, the thinking of the big
money was being voiced by the Ralph McGills and the Ivan Allens [Southern
liberals]. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce folks, the original
segregationists, now found it financially convenient to let the old system

So in the real world today, not as some might like to be, abstract appeals
to Southern Consciousness and Southern tradition spell not radical
agrarianism, but racism. Wise tells us that SSOC has seen and continues to
see its primary role as working with white students. The most striking
thing about the current radicalization among Southern students is not
anything uniquely Southern, but its similarity to what is going on
internationally. Fortunately, the radicalizing student in Macon has more in
common with Danny the Red [Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the 1968 student
revolt in France] than John Crowe Ransom. Students are moving around the
big questions posed by the contradictions of the world capitalist system;
and the key political issue of the day, the issue around which it is
possible to mobilize masses of people, and the issue which is at the core
of the student radica1radicalization in this country is the war in Vietnam.
This is where Wise goes wrong in pushing the SSOC "Liberate the South"
proposal (a vaguely radical multi-issue mishmash, with Southern
consciousness thrown in as a unifying theme) as a substitute for what will
essentially be an antiwar action this Sunday.

SSOC is turning to Southern consciousness not because students in the South
are radicalizing around this question, but because it is seen as a means of
linking up with Southern white people.

SSOC finds that it cannot organize blacks, nor blacks and whites together
because of the growth of Black Consciousness, Wise writes. Therefore, he
reasons. SSOC must organize whites around the issue of Southern
consciousness, which he traces back to the populist era. But the radical
agrarianism of Populism was shared by both blacks and whites; why should
Southern consciousness be limited to whites? One might expect the black
people in the South, the must oppressed and militant section of the
Southern population, to develop Southern consciousness as part of their
struggle. Or could it be that Southern consciousness is almost synonymous
with White Consciousness?

The idea that Southern white workers are now, always have been and always
will be one homogeneous. reactionary, racist mass must be combated. But
SSOC’s Southern consciousness feeds these prejudices. Implicit in this
concept is a patronizing attitude toward Southern white working people. It
involves an attempt by student radicals to link up with white workers
around some lowest common denominator, including an unconscious adaptation
to the racism of whites. But what evidence exists to indicate that Southern
consciousness will play any role in moving white workers to struggle
against the system? Workers all over the country are affected by concrete
developments such as the inflationary rise in the cost of living,
governmental attacks on union organization and strikes, and the slaughter
of thousands of their sons and relatives in imperialist wars, There is
every reason to believe that class consciousness, not Southern
consciousness, will be the motive force behind working class radicalization
in the South.

A key factor behind Southern consciousness is SSOC’s leaders’ feeling that
they must somehow build something "uniquely Southern." This grew largely
out of SSOC’s need to carve out its own special niche in the movement which
differentiated it from other organizations, particularly SDS. The tendency
to see the South as a nation (implicit in Southern consciousness) involves
a mechanical application of the tactics, strategy and rhetoric applicable
to the struggle of the black people, who have a national identity, to a
situation where it really docs not apply.

It is important for those of us who tire trying to build a movement in the
South and in Georgia to study the history of our region, and in that
history we can find our true progenitors. Among those I would include: the
workers at Fisher Body who in 1937-38 helped to spearhead the drive to
build the UAW and CIO; the almost 8,000 Southerners who met in Thomson, Ga.
in September 1919 had passed resolutions denouncing the current witch hunt
and demanding withdrawal of American troops from the Soviet Union and the
Southern whites who founded the first abolitionist papers in the South and
started the Underground Railroad; the black slaves who continually rose up
against their masters, became leaders of the abolitionist movement and, by
organizing black regiments in the Union Army, gave the final push necessary
to defeat the slavocracy; the poor whites who retreated into the Georgia
mountains during the Civil War and fought off recruiters for the planters’
Confederate Army. Finally, members of the Young Socialist Alliance, which
is based on international revolutionary consciousness, count among their
progenitors hundreds of the best Populists both black and white who went
beyond radical agrarianism to socialism.

[Nelson Blackstock was a founding member of SSOC]

Louis Proyect
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