Southern History Repeating Itself: Descent into Madness

The Old Redneck was born in the piney woods of SW Mississippi in 1944. He was born a Southerner, a Baptist, and a Democrat. Later, he learned to read.

He is still a Southerner and a Democrat.

For some years now, Old Redneck has been deeply conflicted concerning the course of his beloved South. He has swung wildly from pessimistic to optimistic. Now, he is profoundly pessimistic.


Faulkner

Old Redneck’s Diary

Written by Old Redneck for Daily Kos

In 1927, William Faulkner — a contemporary of my grandfather — submitted to his publisher a novel that he titled “Flags in the Dust,” a chronicle of the deterioration of the Sartoris family from a grand old planter family through three generations to dust.  The damnyankees at his publisher, not understanding the South, severely cut the manuscript and published it in shortened version as “Sartoris.”  Faulkner later paid for the full manuscript to be published and today “Flags in the Dust” can be found through sellers of old books.  The Old Redneck has a signed first edition thereof that cost damn near six months pay.

In “Flags In the Dust” Faulkner described the ethos of the Southerner when he wrote this, one of the most magnificient sentences in the English language:

“Then together they spent the afternoon going quietly and unhurriedly about the grazing meadows and the planting or harvesting fields and the peaceful woodlands in their dreaming seasonal mutations — the man on his horse and the ticked setter gravely beside him, while the descending evening of their lives drew toward its peaceful close upon the kind land that had bred them both.” – –  William Faulkner, Flags In The Dust

The Old Redneck was born in 1944.  As I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1950’s, when someone spoke about “the war,” they were NOT talking about WW II — which had ended only a few years before — or the unknown war in Korea that was going on.  No, they were talking about the Civil War.

My great-great-grandfather owned slaves — over 100 according to the 1860 slave census of Wilkinson County, MS.  My great-grandfather was a senior official in the county KKK.  I grew up working in my grandfather’s cotton gin and listening to tales told by Aunt Kitty — born a slave, now living out her last years in a little house behind my grandparents’ home.

At age 14, I had an epiphany while working in Granddad’s general store.  One day, a little black girl came into the store.  She was around 9-10 years old, dressed in rags, leading two younger children by the hands.  They were dressed each in a single old T-shirt — that’s it.  I recognized them as the children of a local sharecropped who “traded” with Granddad.  She had in her hand a dime.  I was working behind the meat counter.  She asked for “A nickel’s worth of pepper sausage and six soda crackers.”  We sold crackers each.  Pepper sausage was salami that came in long tubes which we sliced depending upon the order.  I sliced six thin slices of salami, weighing them to ensure they came to a “nickel’s worth.”  Those six slices of salami and six crackers were the only thing these three children had to eat all day. God only knows where she got the dime.

A few days later, the scene was repeated almost exactly.  Only it was an 11-year-old white boy with his baby sister in tow and a dime in his hand.  They purchased 10 cents worth of cheese and crackers and sat on the concrete steps in front of the store and slowly ate what to me would have been but a snack.

And suddenly it hit me:  There is no difference between the poor whites and the poor blacks.  They both are wretchedly poor.  Both suffer from malnutrition. Both drop out of school to work fields that long ago played out from too much of the same crop.  Both drag cotton sacks behind them in August, picking cotton until their fingers bleed, hoping they can get a bale an acre and pay what they owe the landowner for rent and furnish.  (What is “furnish?”  Here.)

To this day — I am now 66 — I marvel at the ability of the white power structure to keep poor whites and poor blacks from joining forces against them.  As I grew older and continued my education I realized that the true split in the South was NOT between black and white, but between rich and poor.  Elite and working class.  Sartoris and Snopes.

But white Southern politicians kept themselves in power by telling the white masses that the black man wanted their jobs, their land, and their women.  And the white masses fell for it.

As a college student in Alabama in the 1960’s, I marched in the crowd behind John Lewis and Martin Luther King in Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham.  For this, I was threatened with expulsion by the Dean of Students of the small Alabama liberal arts college I attended — and graduated from.

After graduation, I served 30 years in the Army, returning to my beloved South from time to time where I witnessed the agony of my grandparents and parents, friends, and relatives as they struggled with the changes wrought in the ’60’s.

After one visit home, I was optimistic that white and black in the South would move forward together.  On the next visit, I wondered if anything had changed from slavery.

When Ronald Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, to make his first speech as a Presidential candidate, I knew the South was marching backward and was being led by the Republican Party in its retreat into the Lost Cause and magnolias and crinolines — the never-never world of “So Red The Rose” and  “Gone With the Wind.”

Today, I feel now that the South continues its march backward led by demagogues cut from the same cloth as Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, the Kingfish, Orville Faubus, and Lester Maddox — all of whom appealed to the most base instincts of humanity.

From this vantage point, the Old Redneck looks at the lunacy that now grips his beloved South — Rick Perry; Bobby Jindal; Bob McDonnell and his Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli; Haley Barbour; and the barbaric horde of legislators who support them.  These demagogues prey on today’s white masses who are fuming over high unemployment, an influx of “Mexicans,” a black man in the White House, and Sharia Law, all of which is fueled by Fox, Beck, Limbaugh and the usual suspects.

In my native Mississippi, the schools are still segregated.  The public schools are all black.  White kids attend “academies,” most of the “Christian academies.”  I made the mistake last year of referring to the “academy” attended by my cousin’s children as a “private school” and I heard the most tortured explanation possible of why this is not really a “private school” and, well, it really is open to everyone.  But it’s lily-white.

I doubt if any Kossacks are familiar with Charles S. Sydnor.  He is a premier Southern historian whose intellectual and personal journey sounds a warning for today’s South.  Here is his story.

Charles Sackett Sydnor

Charles Sackett Sydnor, Southern historian, was born 21 July 1898 in Augusta, Georgia.  His father, a prominent Presbyterian minister, modeled the virtues of elite leadership which would in time inform the son’s scholarly themes. In the course of a tortuous intellectual quest, Sydnor progressed from his peer’s neo-Confederate apologetics to more insightful interpretations of the South’s social dynamics.

In 1918, Sydnor graduated from Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College and five years later earned his Ph.D. in history from Johns-Hopkins University. Following a brief tenure at his alma mater, he chaired the University of Mississippi’s Department of History from 1925 to 1936 and then taught at North Carolina’s Duke University from 1936 to 1954. One of his generation’s premier historians, he  was elected president of the Southern Historical Association in 1939 and appointed Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University in 1950.

Sydnor’s Mississippi years proved critical to his intellectual development.

His early historical works evidenced a comfortable scholar little inclined to challenge contemporary social values.

Sydnor’s textbook Mississippi History (1930) was replete with the Negrophobic, anti-Yankee tone typical of southern school literature of the period and his more substantial Slavery in Mississippi (1933) projected a paternalistic image of the peculiar institution.

Governor Theodore Bilbo’s attacks upon the University of Mississippi in 1930 altered Sydnor’s perspectives. A fiery leader of the state’s downtrodden masses, the governor challenged the school’s aristocratic traditions, firing its president and about one-fourth of its faculty. Appalled, Sydnor developed a keen sensitivity to the struggles between the South’s intransigent elites and the restive under classes which found voice in the demagogic Bilbo.

Influenced by these events, Sydnor produced his Gentleman of the Old Natchez Region: Benjamin L. C. Wailes (1938), finding in his subject an individual congenial to his own values.   Admiring Wailes’s promotion of education and cultural uplift in frontier Mississippi, Sydnor also appreciated his courageous stand for the Union in 1861. Just as Wailes had stood up to “reckless and unprincipled politicians” bent on secession, Sydnor determined to critique the roguish leaders of his own South. No longer confident of academic freedom at the University of Mississippi, he departed for Duke University’s more friendly environs.

Sydnor emerged from Mississippi a substantial scholar whose historical writings mirrored his growing concern that modern southern politicians and the system which bred them failed to serve the nation in general and the South in particular. In 1948, his The Development of Southern Sectionalism, 1819-1848 decried the qualitative decline of southern leadership from the nationalism of Washington and Jefferson to the unbending sectionalism of John C. Calhoun.

Sydnor’s historical writings had come to mirror his concerns with modern-day southern politics. Personally alarmed by the state-rights, segregationist rhetoric of South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, Sydnor turned next to an exploration of what he considered the more sagacious political traditions of colonial Virginia. His Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia (1952) was a thinly veiled allegory suggesting that Virginia’s cultured, well-educated elites combined the best of aristocracy and democracy to produce a political climate far superior to the destructive partisanship characteristic of the modern South.

On 26 February 1954, Sydnor spoke before the Mississippi Historical Society meeting in Biloxi. It was his unintended valedictory, hours later he was struck by a fatal heart attack, succumbing on 2 March.

Months before, Sydnor had written with disdain that the current “fad for displaying Confederate caps and flags” and appealing to “the ancient shibboleths of states’ rights, of race, and of Southern tradition” bode ill for his native region. Prepared as remarks before Louisiana State University’s Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures, they were never uttered. Death had stilled his call for Southern moderation.

Read that last paragraph again:

Months before, Sydnor had written with disdain that the current “fad for displaying Confederate caps and flags” and appealing to “the ancient shibboleths of states’ rights, of race, and of Southern tradition” bode ill for his native region. Prepared as remarks before Louisiana State University’s Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures, they were never uttered. Death had stilled his call for Southern moderation.

That was 1954.

And today . . .

“I’ve seed  de first en de last. . . .  I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.”   Dilsey to Frony in Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, April Eighth, 1928