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  • The South in the World since 1865: A Review Essay
  • Tore C. Olsson (bio)

On the evening of March 5, 1957, a jubilant crowd gathered to celebrate the birth of a new nation. In a former polo stadium in the capital of what had been Britain’s Gold Coast colony, thousands assembled to herald the creation of Ghana, Africa’s newest independent state. The ceremony was deeply symbolic. As the first sub-Saharan nation to gain its independence in the twentieth century, Ghana was a bellwether for decolonization, Black autonomy, and the dismantling of global white supremacy. Among those filling the Old Polo Grounds—and the millions watching around the world—few could deny the ceremony’s significance.

Hundreds had come to the Old Polo Grounds from the United States. Most prominent was Vice President Richard M. Nixon, whose visit represented the White House’s anxiety that the rising tide of decolonization in Africa might destabilize the geopolitical rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union. In attendance to broadcast America’s nominal support for African nations’ independence, Nixon could not help being struck by the emotional response of the cheering, singing, exuberant crowd. But when he asked a group of bystanders, “How does it feel to be free?” the vice president received an unexpected reply. “We wouldn’t know,” one told Nixon in a familiar accent; “We’re from Alabama.”1

Yet the Alabamians who surprised Nixon were not the only representatives of their state at the Old Polo Grounds. Elsewhere in the crowd was the young pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just weeks after the successful culmination of that city’s bus boycott, the church’s congregants had pooled their resources to pledge $2,500 to send King to Ghana for the independence [End Page 67] ceremony. Weeping and joining the crowd in shouts of “Freedom!,” King was deeply moved by the occasion. The birth of Ghana marked a new era, King believed: an era when—as he told his parishioners in Montgomery a month later—the “old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away,” and “a new order of justice, freedom, and good will is being born.”2

What is the place of the American South in the larger world? The events of 1957 in Ghana suggest the region’s exaggerated prominence. Yet every southern historian has at some point confronted the stereotypical perception, shared by millions of Americans past and present, that the South has been marked by a unique degree of isolation, insularity, and provincialism. Few historians have escaped the pervasive public belief that culture, geography, or politics have sheltered and shut off the South from the world beyond the United States. Of course, serious historians have long demonstrated that since the earliest inklings of regional identity, the South has been a product of the world, whether through the transatlantic slave trade, the global market in cotton, or the Confederacy’s jockeying for diplomatic alliances. Yet until recently, there was a distinct sense that the South’s engagement with the world dramatically declined in the years between the end of the Civil War and the Sun Belt boom that began in the 1970s. The editors of The American South in a Global World (2005) argued that the end of the Civil War marked “a turning point that swiveled the South inward and inland” for nearly a century and a half. And in 2009 when Peter Kolchin reviewed scholarship on “The South and the World” in the pages of this journal, he noted only a handful of works that addressed the post-1865 period, far outweighed by the mountain of scholarship on early America and the antebellum years.3

A decade later, those historiographical scales appear far more balanced. This essay seeks to distill the outpouring of research on the post–Civil War South that has employed comparative, diplomatic, transnational, and global perspectives. These works certainly make clear that during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, southerners did not retreat from global affairs, and the South remained comparable to other societies. But rather than simply establishing the truism that the South “was...


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