- “The Duality of the Southern Thing”A Snapshot of Southern Politics in the Twenty-First Century
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In 2001 the talented up-and-coming rock band Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera, a critically acclaimed album that was produced only with the financial help of friends and fans. The two-disc Southern Rock Opera was the group’s attempt to explain their South to the world and to make sense of the myths and legends that cast long shadows in Alabama. Track number eight, a spoken-word confessional narrative, casts judgment on, as the title reveals, “The Three Great Alabama Icons”: Ronnie Van Zant, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace. The former are recognized with influencing writer and frontman Patterson Hood. Van Zant, although born in Jacksonville, Florida, is credited with creating an anthem of Alabama and southern pride and Bryant for making football the sacred cow that inevitably drove the un-athletic teenage Hood straight to a guitar. The bulk of lyrical analysis, however, is saved for Wallace, whose segregationist record is juxtaposed with his outreach to African Americans in later life. “And Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past, and in 1982 won his last term in office with over 90 percent of the black vote,” writes Hood; “Such is the Duality of the Southern Thing.”1
The Drive- By Truckers have left open the full scope of this duality and returned to reflect on it years later, all of which merely hints at the profundity of that statement. Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage comes as close as any work to understanding the intent behind Wallace’s transformation. And Paul Stekler’s “American Experience” documentary, Settin’ the Woods on Fire, leaves audiences wondering if Wallace’s motive even matters in the first place. In the final verse, the Truckers themselves consign Wallace to hell for his “blind ambition” and insatiable “hunger for votes.” But this “duality” is about much more than Wallace’s rage and violence. It is about much more than Wallace himself. For Wallace, like the demagogues who preceded him and who will follow in his wake, remains a constant subject of scrutiny because he exposed something significant about the regional force that is the American South. Just as Wallace is a generous muse for the Drive-By Truckers, his political career remains a useful source for questions about the modern South. Three questions are particularly poignant regarding this central concept of regional duality and its existence in the contemporary southern political landscape. First, Wallace’s ability to capture the national spotlight pushed Republican attention southward. “Recognizing the seriousness of Wallace’s threat,” notes journalist and author John Egerton, Richard Nixon co-opted his message and made the region a distinct and critical geographic piece of the electoral puzzle for the modern gop. Is this assumption of a distinct or aberrant South still valid? Second, the success of Wallace’s campaign outside of the South, in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, revealed that southern identity was not limited to a geographic boundary; rather, it reflected a state of mind and a worldview that proved palatable to many. What does southern identity look like now?2 [End Page 90]
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is another lesson of George Wallace that is not about the “sinner,” but about the African Americans in Alabama who eventually—whether strategically or sincerely—lent him their support. Indeed, in his critical assessment of Wallace’s 1982...