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Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 94-97

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South Polls

Forty Defining Moments of the Twentieth-century South

John Shelton Reed

IMAGE LINK= Spring 2001's South Polls unveiled our list of "The Twenty Most Influential Southerners of the Twentieth Century." Mike Burg, president of Edge Marketing in Charlotte, North Carolina, had asked me to develop the list as the century was coming to an end. He also had asked for a list of "Defining Moments of the Twentieth-century South"--events that symbolized, set in motion, or represented the culmination of important changes for the region. Our panel of thirteen distinguished southerners obliged with forty: twenty before mid-century and twenty after. (This was the same panel we used to compile our list of influential southerners. The panel was composed of men and women who had written or thought about the South and who we chose to be broadly representative of professional fields and subregions.)

There was less consensus from our panel on particular "moments" than on individual southerners, and there was some unavoidable arbitrariness in defining what a "moment" is, but it will surprise no one to see that the two big stories of the twentieth-century South are the transition from an agricultural to an urban society and the transformation effected by the Civil Rights movement. An asterisk (*) indicates that ten or more panelists chose the event.

Forty Defining Moments of the Twentieth-Century South


1901 The Spindletop oil strike, which marked the beginning of the Texas/ Oklahoma/ Louisiana oil industry.

1903 The Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk.

1906 The Atlanta race riot, one of the bloodiest episodes of the Jim Crow era, and arguably the low point of race relations in the South.

1915 Leo Frank's lynching.

1915 The premiere of Birth of a Nation, the movie whose success inspired the second KKK.

1917 *The beginning of Great Migration during WWI.

1919 The start of Florida land boom.

1925 *The Scopes Trial, which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a struggle over the teaching of evolution.

1927 The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers recording in Bristol.

1927 The Mississippi flood of 1927, one of the great natural disasters of the century that destroyed thousands of homes.

1931 The Scottsboro case.

1933 *Creation of the TVA, one of the biggest New Deal programs in the South, which laid the foundations for rural electrification and industrialization in the Tennessee River Valley. [End Page 95]

1934 The great textile strike of 1934, one of the biggest and most bitter episodes in the troubled history of southern labor relations.

1935 *Rural electrification (rea).

1935 Huey Long's assassination.

1936 *The invention of the Rust mechanical cotton picker, which completed the work of the boll weevil in displacing southern agricultural workers.

1939 The premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta, the film that shaped the way the world thought of the American South.

1939 *Willis Carrier's perfection of the air-conditioner, which laid the basis for modern industrialization and for migration to the South.

1948 *The Dixiecrat campaign.

1950 William Faulkner's Nobel Prize.


1954 *Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation to be unconstitutional and spelled the beginning of the end for Jim Crow.

1954 *Elvis at Sun Studios in Memphis, a marriage of rhythm and blues and country music that laid the foundations for rock and roll.

1956 *The Montgomery bus boycott, the opening of the civil rights movement that brought to national attention a young minister named Martin Luther King.

1957 *The integration of Little Rock Central High School.

1960 The Greensboro sit-ins, when black college students sat at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter, a trial run of the method of nonviolent resistance.

1962 James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss.

1962 Baker v. Carr.

1963 JFK's assassination in Dallas.

1963 *The march on Washington.

1964 *"Freedom Summer" and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when hundreds of northern college students went to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote and were met with murderous violence, and...


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