The Southernization of America, explained

Where does the South end and the rest of America begin? Is the South being Americanized or are we watching Southern influence spread to the rest of the country?

That’s a topic tackled by Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker in their new book: “The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in Balance.”

Frye Gaillard is an Emmy award winning journalist and was the longtime Southern editor for the Charlotte Observer. He’s a keen observer of Southern culture and history and has written more than 30 books on the subject. For this book, he was joined by Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize winner as a columnist and editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

From Atlanta, Charlotte and Alabama, they’ve watched the South transform over the past few decades, in ways good and bad. They’ve seen national politicians like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and Joe Biden find their political fortunes in the South. And they’ve witnessed Southern politicians like George Wallace, Jimmy Carter and Stacey Abrams alter the national political landscape.

On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview, we discuss Southern influence on American politics, the ways that politicians from other parts of the country have inflamed some of the worst impulses in southern voters, why we keep having the same fights on topics like education and history and how some Southerners offer a path of hope for the country while others offer a warning.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

Sign up for the Reckon Interview on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out on future episodes.

And sign up for The Conversation, our weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.

Reckon: You have a new book out “The Southernization of America,” which, as you say in your preface, was written as a response to or a continuation of thoughts that were laid out by John Egerton in his book, “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America.”

He wrote that book in 1974. And in it, he argued that the South and the nation were not exactly exchanging strengths as much as they were exchanging sins, that they were bringing out the worst traits in each other. Your book demonstrates some of the ways that that’s been born out in the last five decades, but also the ways in which people in the South have maybe shown an alternate path, a more hopeful path.

We’re going to spend some time unpacking a lot of the ideas that you all set up here. But first of all, just what inspired you to write this book right now and write it together. And in short, what do you consider the Southernization of America?

Frye Gaillard: So I have written several books for New South Books in Montgomery. It’s a fine independent publisher, very high-minded. Deals with a lot of issues that I think are important. And so I’ve had a long working relationship with them. And gosh, sometime early in 2021, I guess, Randall Williams, the editor-in-chief, called me and he said, do you have 20,000 words in you on the topic, the Southernization of America?

And I said, yeah. You know, it’s something I think about all the time. I said, but it might be more than 20,000. And I said, but what if we made it a collaboration between two Southerners, one African-American and one white, both from Alabama. And I suggested that we get Cynthia to join the project. It never hurts to add a Pulitzer Prize winner to something like this.

And Randall thought that was great. So that’s really how it started with his idea. The funny thing was that I thought about it. This doesn’t happen often for me, it was almost like a rough outline of the book. The trajectory of the book kind of fell from the sky and I ran it by Cynthia and we modified it some and she added to it. And then we kind of knew what we wanted to do. Ran the basic idea by Randall, he thought it sounded good. And so we divided it up and started writing. Is that right? Cynthia? Is that how you saw it?

Cynthia Tucker: That is how I saw it. And the timing was perfect for me because we were in an election year when I believed and Frye believed that democracy was in the balance. Trump had already shown authoritarian tendencies.

He had the Republican Party in his sway and writing actually helped me process a lot of what I was seeing, not only around the South, but, quite frankly, around the country. And I think that the audiences we’ve spoken to so far also see something in the timing. People are eager to talk about this at this moment.

Reckon: There’s a part early on in the book where you referenced a rally that George Wallace was having somewhere in the Midwest and he referenced the possibility of shooting Black protestors, or rioters as he called them, in the South. And the crowd roars with approval and the TV anchor says, “they all hate Black people, all of them. Great. God, that’s it. They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.” And it does kind of beg the question, when did Southernization start?

You know, was it with Thomas Jefferson and Southerners who were writing the founding documents? And then James Madison. When do you point to as where you wanted to start your project? Because I know it mostly looks on what’s happened in the last few years with Trump, but you’re also reaching back and pointing to things that happened with George Wallace or pointing to things that happen during Reconstruction. So where do you kind of start to ideate where the Southernization started?

Gaillard: I think it’s all of the above, John. I mean, I think some of the best and the worst of the country, you know, Southerners have given voice to that for a long time. I mean, Thomas Jefferson being a good example. You know, the founding documents that give us hope to deal with some of the divisions and the flaws and the sins of our founding, they point the way toward the solution. Right? All men are created equal.

You know, certainly during Reconstruction, the South—the white South—modeled the anti-democratic, principles nascent in the whole country. And then, you know, we think with Nixon’s Southern Strategy going forward from there through the cynical organizing of political operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

And Cynthia wrote a lot about Newt Gingrich almost dehumanizing of the opponent. Demonizing, certainly, of the opponent. That sort of deepens divisions in the country. I mean, all of those things and then continuing on, we believe, with the election of Trump. So it’s a long historical trajectory that has become more and more intense and focused in recent years.

He was a Southerner obviously. And those twin notions have been part and parcel of the nation’s founding. And the racism has been, as Frye likes to put it, the South as the part of the nation that broke away from the federal government for the right to hold people in bondage was the epicenter of that racism. And unfortunately, that has continued to spread throughout the rest of the country. Now that’s not to say that other parts of the country didn’t already have some of that same instinct, but unfortunately the South modeled it best.

Reckon: And you also write about how politicians from both sides of the aisle have found their political fortunes in the South, whether it’s Joe Biden in South Carolina and Georgia, when he was kind of dead in the water. Or perhaps more instructive to what we’re talking about right now, Ronald Reagan coming to Philadelphia, Mississippi, and invoking the language of state’s rights or Donald Trump’s speeches in Mobile where y’all are both based now. And elsewhere across the South. And for a long time, politicians tried to code some of that language in language like state’s rights, but y’all write that Trump kind of ripped off the band-aid and he went full force authoritarian, outspoken racist, like George Wallace. And in ripping off that band-aid, he exposed a lot of problems that were underneath.

And so let’s talk about education, in particular, because it does feel like once again, we’re in that fierce fight about what’s happening in public schools. Cynthia, in one essay, you point out that many times the efforts to enshrine Confederate iconography were coming in response to changes that were happening in schools.

Can you explain that connection for us?

Tucker: Well, it is fascinating to think back over the history of public education in this country. And public education has been one of the best things about the United States of America. It is one of the building blocks that has assured a healthy democracy and, quite frankly, economic growth. But cultural change also shows up early on in public school classrooms and the desegregation of schools after Brown v. Board was one of those times when that cultural change was most evident. Was a shock to many people, not just in the South, by the way, but also in other parts of the country. And that’s when you began to see some of the fiercest resistance. It strikes me, I talk to elementary schools and high schools sometimes now as Frye does. And when you’re talking to kids about the fact that 50, 60 years ago, you would not have been sitting next to your Black or Brown or white classmates in the same room, they look at you kind of strangely.

They’ve heard that. But I tell them I lived through that and it seems so odd to them. Yet, the idea that kids of all races would be, and religions, would be educated in the same public school classrooms was an extraordinarily frightening concept to many whites.

Fast-forward to today, when in many public school classrooms, kids are introduced to the idea of gay parents, of transgender children, and to the idea of the real history of the United States, which includes genocide against Native Americans, all of the violent and ugly racial history. And that is still frightening to many, many whites. I don’t think it’s frightening to the children in the classroom, but it is frightening to many of their parents.

Reckon: And Frye, I believe it was you that wrote about busing in Charlotte and how, in some ways, it was working. And then all of a sudden the federal government under Reagan came in and basically said, oh, we’re not going to enforce busing. And all of a sudden parents who had newly moved to the area, in some cases, pushed back and all of a sudden schools started resegregating again.

And I think that similar things have happened across the South and across the country where there are brief periods, like you said, Cynthia, where the kids are getting along fine and where they’re getting a real education about what’s really happened in this country and then frightened parents step in and screw it all up.

Can you talk about what you were seeing there in Charlotte, Frye?

Gaillard: Yeah, I was watching all of that in Charlotte, both as the education reporter for the Charlotte Observer for a while, and then as a parent whose two daughters and stepson were going through the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system at a time when it was maybe the most racially integrated school system in the country. And I saw the quality of the education that all three of those kids got, my kids. I saw the cross cultural friendships that they made and I just saw nothing but benefits from the diversity in the classrooms. There was no educational downside.

They did really well. Test scores were rising in the system. And I happened to be in the office of the school superintendent, a man named Jay Robinson, who was a white guy from the mountains of North Carolina, who spoke with this mountain twang. And was one of the most ardent proponents of desegregation that I’ve ever met.

He believed in the virtues of diversity in the classrooms with a kind of fierce commitment. And we were watching on TV as President Reagan in 1984 was running for reelection and came to Charlotte and pronounced busing and school desegregation in Charlotte to be a failure. And there was just no measure by which it was failing.

And Jay Robinson, the school superintendent, walked over to the TV set. He didn’t like it that I put this in the newspaper, but he walked over to the TV set, snapped it off and said that son of a bitch. It was just so heartfelt. But you know, that gave aid and comfort to some of the new arrivals in Charlotte who were used to more homogenous school systems. Charlotte Mecklenburg was one large county-wide district. And so it had a wide range of racial backgrounds for students, not just black, white, also a wide array of economic backgrounds. And so there were parents who were new to Charlotte who were uncomfortable with that. Their kids weren’t, as far as we could tell, but they were. And so eventually they pushed back.

It became a lawsuit. A new federal judge who was more conservative ruled that you couldn’t use race to assign kids to school, which sounds good, but what he meant was you could not be deliberate about integrating schools. You just had to assign kids as if boundaries were colorblind and were not influenced by things like red-lining and zoning patterns and all of these things that clearly had been a part of why neighborhoods were segregated.

So now Charlotte Mecklenburg is re-segregated, not totally but significantly. And it’s kind of a heartbreaking thing to those of us who watched a city work so hard to come to terms with its segregated past and saw the benefits for our own kids to be in an integrated school system. Now that dream, it’s hit the shoals.

Tucker: Oh, absolutely. Again, let me just say that cultural change shows up in the classroom because public school classrooms put kids from different backgrounds and races and religions together, and those who are afraid of cultural change don’t want that.

You know, the old segregationists back in the day were terrified. They used to say quietly on the White Citizens Councils that Black boys would be trying to date white girls. Well, in fact, if you put a bunch of kids together, some of that will happen. So, you do have lots of dating and marriage across racial and religious lines. The same thing will happen, if you expose kids to lots of different kinds of cultural ideas, they won’t grow up afraid of those things. They will grow up seeing those things as normal. But yes, there are very few bills that are going around state legislatures these days that talk about critical race theory. And that’s good because many of the people writing the bills don’t know what critical race theory is anyway, but they talk about making sure that no child is judged on account of his race, making sure that children aren’t made to feel uncomfortable. Well, none of that is actually happening in classrooms.

Again, Frye and I have both talked about these subjects in classrooms where none of the students seem to be uncomfortable. But it will nevertheless have a chilling effect on the teachers who are afraid that some kid is going to go home and misreport or half report a classroom discussion. And the teacher will suddenly be in trouble.

I have been fascinated by some of the things that I have heard some of these politicians say. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves claimed recently that children were being dragged to the front of classrooms and made to—white children—were being dragged to the front of their classrooms and humiliated and made to apologize for being white.

That’s just ridiculous. No such thing is going on, but he wants to shut down and Mississippi state legislators, and Alabama state legislators, what to shut down any conversation about the difficult racial history in this country.

Gaillard: I was at a high school in Mobile, not long ago, Davidson High School it’s called, and it has a remarkably diverse student body, not just Black, white, but multiple races and economic backgrounds and all of that.

And there are some wonderful teachers there who are just leading the most constructive kind of conversations about American history and about political realities in America. And it was so heartening to go into those classrooms and talk to these kids and see how unafraid they were, how hopeful they were about the country.

They could talk about things that had gone on in the past. You know, one group of human beings owning another group of human beings and segregation and sitting in the back of the bus and all of those kinds of things. And they could talk about how that used to happen. But how we’ve come to a place where it doesn’t happen and that shows that we can make progress on the issues that continue. I mean, that was the tenor of the discussion. That couldn’t have been more positive. It couldn’t have been more kids feeling good about themselves. Good about their country. So it’s almost like politicians who don’t even set foot in these classrooms turn reality on its head and conjure up sort of images that just aren’t there if you go into the schools.

I do a lot of that and I have never seen white kids made to feel ashamed and I’ve never seen them feel ashamed. I mean, they may learn about Frederick Douglas or they may learn about Benjamin Turner, the first Black member of Congress from the state of Alabama elected in 1870. And, you know, he was African American and they’re white kids. What they see is a brave and determined and wise and forgiving man. And they admire those human characteristics and talk about those. You know, it’s not because he had them and was Black, that means that they must not have them because they were white. I mean, that’s silly and they know it. And so it just doesn’t come up in that way. So I get very impatient with these kinds of laws and this kind of posturing on the part of some of our politicians.

Reckon: After everything that’s happened in the last few years, with the wounds that Trump has exposed, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more steam after the death of George Floyd, why do issues like this continue to work? How is it so hard to make lasting progress without suddenly a new wave of laws that enshrine bogus history?

Tucker: Well, I think one of the answers to that question is that fear is an easy and cheap way to motivate people. Politicians can get elected by talking about reconciliation and teaching American history as it really was, but that doesn’t move people quickly or motivate them in quite the same way, that fear does. Fear and anxiety do. And so what I think a lot of our politicians relearned from Donald Trump was that is an easy and cheap and effective way to get elected.

And that’s all that they really want to do. Never mind that once you get elected that way, it’s going to be much more difficult to govern. Because you will then have a polarized nation, a polarized state, a polarized Congressional district, with a lot of people angry at each other and afraid of each other. So it will be much harder to govern if that’s the way you get elected. Nevertheless, many people find it so much easier to take that shortcut.

And fundraising too, by the way. It is so easy for politicians to conduct fundraising with these horror stories that are made up about, you know, white children being humiliated in the classroom, or all the Democrats wanted to defund the police, or some other made up claim that, again, easily generates fear and anxiety. So I think one of the answers, not the entire answer, but one of the answers is that so many politicians take the quick and easy way.

Reckon: And it’s interesting, I think you two worked on this essay together. We’ve talked a lot about education and, of course, in response to Brown v. Board of Education, there was, um, the rise of segregation academies. And I did not understand until reading this essay, the way that that fueled the rise of the Moral Majority movement and the Christian Right. Can you explain that for our listeners a little bit?

Tucker: So the Christian Right has done an excellent job, I think, at covering up and hiding its origins. But as somebody who grew up Baptist in Alabama, I have long been fascinated by conservative Christians and the fact that they were not in tune with the civil rights movement. You know, Martin Luther King Jr. called them out in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

But in researching Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, which later on took on other names, but it is still the politically active Christian Right as we know it today, I learned that the issue that he was concerned about first and foremost had little to do with morality or Christian ethics as I understand it, but had everything to do with race. He was an old-fashioned diehard, Virginia segregationist who criticize Martin Luther King Jr. And the civil rights movement from the pulpit, which by the way, was not unusual. Lots of white Southern ministers, in particular, did that at the time. Moving forward though, Brown v. Board was the ruling that the Supreme Court made that made segregated public schools illegal.

So, Falwell quickly formed a seg academy in Virginia, a segregation academy, to educate white children only. Well, at some point a group of Black parents and civil rights activists asked the IRS an excellent question, “why should these schools get a tax exemption? They were set up for one reason and one reason only, and that’s racial discrimination. And the IRS eventually, it took years for this ruling to come about, but the IRS eventually agreed with them and said, “no, these schools will lose their tax exemption, if they stand for segregation.” Well that just really angered Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones and a collection of his right-wing allies, who were all segregationist at their core, but they needed a different issue to bring onto the national stage. Because it doesn’t look good for a preacher to stand up on the national stage and say, you know, “I think Black people are second class citizens and should never be allowed to go to public schools.” So they looked around and finally settled on abortion as the issue that they would campaign on on the national stage. But I like to remind people that they never lost the racism that was at their foundation.

Reckon: And one thing you point out is at that time, abortion was not a unifying issue necessarily for even Southern Baptists, that some Southern Baptists were in favor of a woman’s right to choose.

Tucker: Exactly. 1973, when Roe v. Wade was the ruling, conservative Christians did not immediately get up in arms. This was not something that they were unhappy about, but again, over the next several years as Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich and other allies were looking for an issue, they joined forces with Catholic churches because Catholics already had generations of anti-abortion doctrine. So, this was another way for them, again, to cover up what was really motivating them when they moved onto the public stage.

Reckon: And that of course doesn’t mean that anybody who is pro-life is pro-segregation, but I think it’s important and instructive to know how these movements gain steam and where they come from and what their origins are.

And then there’s a double-edged sword with Trumpism because he comes in and empowers a lot of this white Christian nationalist movement, but he also leads to a lot of internal turmoil and there’s an Exodus of some evangelicals, especially Black evangelicals, and women in the church. What did some professed Christians see in Trump? And then how did this become a line in the sand?

Tucker: Frye likes to remind our readers that our book isn’t just about things that have gone wrong. There are also some signs of hope. And I actually take the exodus of some conservative Christians from their churches as a sign of hope. I grew up Baptist in Alabama. I definitely don’t doubt the motives or the Christianity of every conservative Christian I know. So I take the fact that there were conservative Black Christians and conservative women and some conservative white men who could no longer stomach this union of conservative Christians and Trump, as a good sign. They believed that Trump signaled a rot at the core of conservative Christian churches. And they left, in some cases, the churches that they were members of. And I actually take that as a good sign, not just for them, but I think it sent a signal to some people who were left in the pews of those churches to ask themselves, is there something wrong with the way that we have embraced Donald Trump?

Gaillard: Well, there are a number of religious voices in the country, and I think the debate and the proclamations from the Christian Right have sort of dominated discussion in the place where religion and politics overlap. On the other hand, you have a continuing example of, let’s say, Jimmy Carter, who continues through the Carter Center and through Habitat for Humanity, even now that he’s well up into his nineties, to embody a whole different understanding of what Christianity means, and what the Judeo-Christian tradition means.

In Georgia, you had an African American minister in Raphael Warnock running for the U.S. Senate. The minister of the church once pastored by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King Sr. running for the U.S. Senate. And sometimes running in tandem with Jon Ossoff who is Jewish and was also running for the Senate in this odd year when both Senate seats were up at the same time in Georgia. They hit the campaign trail together, both of them motivated to some extent by the tenets of their faith and their spiritual lives.

When Ossoff was sworn in, in the Senate, the Bible that he held was the Bible that had belonged to the rabbi of the synagogue that was bombed in Atlanta back in the 1950s. So he wanted to make this historical, spiritual connection to an ethic rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

And when Raphael Warnock made his maiden speech in the Senate, which is a lovely piece of oratory. If you, if you haven’t listened to the whole thing, it’s worth it. Because he gives voice to the Christian underpinnings of his politics. He says democracy is kind of the civic affirmation of the divine in people, the worth of every human being. And then he comes out of that and points out that he, this African-American minister, now holds the U.S. Senate seat once held by the arch segregationist Herman Talmadge. And Warnock pauses when he says this. And then he adds, “that’s why I love America.”

And so, you know, that’s the other side of what we’re trying to say. We’re certainly trying to issue a warning in this book and we’re trying to point out some of the things that we have railed against in this conversation. But at the same time, we don’t want to gloss over the fact that there are these very heartening voices. These, to us, patriotic voices. These people who do appeal to the better angels of our nature and run for office on that basis. And sometimes get elected as Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff did in the once reliably red state of Georgia. That’s now purple. And you know, now there’s another fierce race there for governor with Stacey Abrams running again. And we’ll see what happens.

You know, there’re just these two parallel strains in the American character and in the Southern character where America is writ large. And one of them has to do with our better angels and the other has to do with our darker selves. And we don’t know which is stronger.

Reckon: To close, we are seeing this legislation right now regarding schools. We are seeing efforts to clamp down on who has access to the ballot. And we are seeing efforts to get back to the 1950s, even with Trump out of office. And then, of course, the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. So having had this conversation, you know, the good and the bad, how optimistic are you both about the future of the south in the short-term and in the long-term?

Gaillard: It depends on which day you ask me. From my point of view, I’m optimistic, oddly, because we’ve seen terrible things happen in the past. We watched the progress toward racial equality that occurred in Reconstruction be totally undone in Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement replacing it. And that was a terrible setback for African Americans in this country. And then the civil rights movement came along and pushed things forward in a dramatic way. So looking down the road a little way, what will come after these new efforts at, if not total disenfranchisement, at least making it harder to vote, particularly for African-Americans and people of color. What will come after making it harder to talk honestly about these kinds of issues in public schools? You know, I don’t know. I don’t know.

I just know that [there are] those of us who think we have to be honest and open hearted and listen to each other and realize that we are inevitably a multicultural society. And we can make that a good thing or we make that a bad thing. We need to try to make it a good thing. It’s just so clear that those of us who believe that just need to keep saying so, and we need to get out and vote. And we need to do all of those other things. But I would say that I feel a guarded optimism on my best days and an abject pessimism on my worst.

Tucker: That pretty much sums up where I am as well. It depends on what day you ask me, but one of my heroes, and we both wrote about him in the book, is of course the late great John Lewis, who never lost his optimism. No matter what. He was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And even after a long illustrious career in Congress, and he sees the first Black president elected, and he gets to the point where many of his Republican colleagues are once again trying to curtail the right to vote. But he kept working. And so on my best days, I keep him in mind and he’s my role model to get in good trouble as he would put it.

You can purchase signed copies of “The Southernization of America” via Alabama Booksmith here.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.