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frontporch "Prepare to Meet God." The stark, prophetic warning once glared out from thousands of roadside tree trunks in the twentieth-century South, just as it does from Charlie Curtis's arresting picture in this issue's photo essay "Signs of the South." Sometimes the message was even more unsparingly personal: "Prepare to Meet Thy God." Whether blazoned on a high-priced billboard or traced in fading letters on a hand-made cross, the summons was once inescapable on the southern landscape, evangelism's inventive response to the culture ofthe automobile. Road signs were not the only popular methods diat twentieth-century traditionalists used to preserve older values in the face of automotive innovation. In their "Up Beat Down South" feature, Patrick Huber and Kathleen Drowne recall a classic "hillbilly" ballad, "Wreck on the Highway," written by Dorsey Dixon and first made popular by Roy Acuffin 1942. Reminding the unwary listener that no one's soul was safe when "whiskey and blood run together," Dixon's wailing above: IsAtticus Finch stilla hero? Film stillfrom To Kill a Mockingbird, courtesy ofUniversalFutures andtheMuseum ofModernArtFilm StillsArchive. lyrics were an audio version ofthe sign's starkwarning: make yourselfready. Life's final highway awaits us all, and in the words ofanother gospel number, "no one else can walk it for you." In whatever form—"Get Right with God" was another perennial favorite— low-tech appeals to repent and be saved are not as common on southern highways as they used to be. Especially when it comes to religion, broadcasters and niche marketers now have more focused means to reach potential penitents. Even in decline, however, the highway jeremiad continues to represent a prototypical southern approach to the demand for moral improvement. Rooted in ageold evangelical tradition, the commandment is unequivocally personal. You are wrong, the sign insists—not history, not society, not "the system"—andyou must get right. Quit your drinking and gambling and running around and get on your knees. Now. Otherwise, you face the worst alone. At the end of a world gone wrong, there will be no excuses for the unprepared, no one to blame but yourself. So what ifdoomsayers have been saying the same thing since time began, with only indifferent results? To believers, the warning exists outside ofordinary time, and its fulfillment is always just as real and just as imminent as it ever was. A recendy spotted bumper sticker made the point with a feminist spin: "God is coming back, and man is she pissed." The eternal verities of an older generation have never disappeared, of course. The spiritual descendants of the people who put up signs about Judgment Day are still around and still worried about the same things their grandparents worried about. Today they post their messages in places like cable television, however, where the heedless can more easily ignore it. At the same time, die cultural and technological changes that enable evangelists to neglect highway signage in favor oftelevision and the Internet also prompt other southerners to preach novel varieties of sin and damnation. Some of us worry more about the dangers of racial injustice than Sunday beer sales or video poker, for example. Many others fear ecological destruction more seriously than the last trump. By extension, this issue's newfangled prophets preach a less personal approach to salvation than their predecessors. It's not enough for one individual to swear offracism; a collective injustice demands a collective remedy. Even more, it won't help much if only one of us recycles, for saving the planet takes planetary measures . Prepare to meet God ifyou want, but think globally and act locally to stave offthe real apocalypse. Two ofour essays are from writers who warn ofsecular catastrophes and who want to move beyond personal or private efforts to avert them. Joseph Crespino focuses on the problem of race. Racial injustice is hardly an exclusively southern problem, but few would deny that history has given southern whites a special burden of responsibility in what the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called "an American dilemma." As Jim Crow began to crumble in the mid-twentieth Front Porch 5 century, the most prominent southern voices attacking the system of segregation were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 4-8
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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