- Nation within a Nation: The American South and the Federal Government ed. by Glenn Feldman
Wilbur J. Cash’s statement in his 1941 work The Mind of the South that the South is “not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it” became the basis for the title of this collection of articles on the South’s historical relationship with the federal government. The book’s positive scholarly contributions unfortunately are overshadowed by repeated cliché about conservative southern whites.
Chapters that follow editor Glenn Feldman’s introduction address different time periods and states. Thomas Schaller charts South Carolina’s pattern of resistance to government authority from the American Revolution through the late twentieth century. Zachary C. Smith relates Populist Georgian Tom Watson’s extreme rhetoric in the early twentieth century to a southern anti-militaristic, anti-capitalist tradition. Rebecca Miller Davis and Chris Danielson examine twentieth-century Mississippi politics in separate chapters, the former stating that race-based resistance to shifting Democratic Party policies led to Mississippi’s turn to the Republican Party, and the latter asserting that Mississippi Republicans were divided on race relations and actually increased black office-holding by enforcing the Voting Rights Act. Alabama historians would especially be interested in David R. Jansson’s, Martin T. Olliff’s, and Matthew Downs’s chapters. Jansson examines expressions of southern nationhood by the League of the South, a group with Tuscaloosa roots. Olliff [End Page 273] shows how Alabama welcomed federal dollars from the Federal Road Aid Act of 1916, while Downs documents how Decatur, Alabama, newspaper editor Barrett Shelton developed a close relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during the New Deal. Gregory L. Richard examines Arkansas federal district judge J. Smith Henley’s decisions which initiated prison reform throughout the South. The book concludes with Allen B. McBride’s and Natalie Motise Davis’s essays on anti-statist origins of the Tea Party and the South’s benefits from recent federal programs, respectively.
The book’s great problem is that it addresses the rise of conservatism in the South in the late twentieth century in a manner that is trite at best and contradictory at worst. From Feldman’s introduction, the theme reappears often that southern white conservatives must be racists, while liberals who expressed racism get a pass. The South’s relationship with the federal government “may be said to be … one of perpetual adolescent rebellion” and is “at times even perverse” (2). The book’s overall political bias is shown with the statement, “[T] he federal government’s growing commitment to racial justice and equality in the form of the Democratic administrations of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson especially (and Republican Dwight Eisenhower to a lesser degree) played the primary role in Mississippi becoming more conservative in politics” (6–7). There is no sense of the fact that African-Americans were seen as means to ends of power by those on the left, such as Lyndon Johnson, who, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, stated in 1957 to Senate colleague Richard Russell that Negroes were “getting pretty uppity” and must be given “a little something” because of their increasing “political pull” (New York, 1976, p. 148). Woodrow Wilson is presented as the foil to the firebrand Watson, though the southern-born Wilson segregated federal offices himself.
The bias recurs to the point that it cannot be overlooked. Jansson, for example, concedes that outsiders often have prejudices against the South, but he then concludes that groups like the League of the South only “might gain credibility if they were able to cultivate links with activists on the left” (224). Undoubtedly race played a role in the South’s realignment toward the Republican Party, but no acknowledgement [End Page 274] appears in the book that southern white conservatives–particularly evangelicals–were alienated by a Democratic Party that embraced controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and...