- The Shadow Remains: Victimization, the Gospel of Decline, and other Southern Ingredients in the Twenty-first Century Political Culture
The year 1964 was one of extraordinary moment in alabama, southern, and national politics. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed as massive resistance to integration continued to mount across the South. A variety of states pushed to use state funds to support private segregated schools, talked openly about closing schools if necessary, tightened voting restrictions, and deployed State Sovereignty Commissions to spy on civil rights protestors. And, of course, a presidential election took place. The mood for many white southern traditionalists who had been raised to know that black and female deference and the space and place restrictions of segregation were as natural as fried chicken from a cast iron skillet and hot water cornbread was one of disbelief. What in the world was going on?
These frustrations emerged into the public square in many ways. Johnny Cash, son of an Arkansas sharecropper, topped the charts with “Understand Your Man,” an homage to male prerogative if ever there was one. “Don’t call my name out your window,” Cash sang, releasing the frustrations of many who saw an increasingly modern world as an undesirable development, “I’m leavin’. I won’t even turn my head. Don’t send your kinfolk to give me no talkin’. I’ll be gone, like I said. You’d just say the same old things that you be sayin’ all along. Just lay there in your bed and keep your mouth shut, Till I’m gone.” Also in 1964, Vincent Price starred in a cult classic film, The Last Man on Earth, where he, in the personage of Dr. Robert Morgan, [End Page 321] was the title character. Morgan, the film’s flimsy plot explained, was desperately trying to survive but also to cure the world of a societal plague that had turned the people of the earth into infected, zombie-like vampires. Morgan could fix the problem and return the world to its proper and civilized social construction, if only the vampire zombies would stop trying to kill him long enough to listen and do what he said.1
As in Cash’s song and Price’s movie, three similar themes were seeping deeper into the political discourse: good God-fearing traditionalists were being victimized by changes in the culture; people, societies, and even countries should be most properly defined by their enemies, not their friends; and a belief perhaps best characterized by the term Gospel of Decline—a sentiment that the region, country, and world were falling precipitously from greatness into absolute decay. And those three themes were emerging from Alabama roots.
No single figure represented the politics of victimization, the importance of having the right enemies, and the Gospel of Decline as much as Governor George Wallace. Elected governor in 1962, inaugurated in 1963, and already running for president for the first of four times in 1964, Wallace understood the zeitgeist of the moment, at least from the perspective of the white, male southerner, and had no peer in articulating this ethos of doom and gloom. He was, as Dan Carter argued in The Politics of Rage, “the alchemist of the new social conservatism” and a seminal figure for the “conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970’s and 1980’s.” But while the influence of Wallace and for that matter other Alabama-born and bred political actors was relatively opaque in the 1980’s, as a mixture of optimistic Reagan-era Americana and nostalgia about a “shining city on a hill” merged with code words and dog whistle appeals, by the twenty-first century the shadow of the former governor had lengthened until ideas like victimization and [End Page 322] the Gospel of Decline have become nearly universally accepted as unquestioned facts.2
Victimization emerged as a key Wallace theme in his first term. In his testimony to the Platform Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the governor excoriated the federal government for destroying southern schools through integration, trampling state and southern rights through unwanted decree, and arbitrarily wresting private property from...