If you are a Southern conservative who wants to learn more about the origins of the Sunbelt South, don’t waste your time on James C. Cobb’s The South and America Since World War II.
This book is a partisan rant written by an aggrieved White Democrat who is obviously writing for a more sympathetic Northern audience. The liberal bias of the author and his narrow selection of topics which are used to frame the history of the South since World War II will constantly annoy Southern readers.
Most of James C. Cobb’s readers will already know that Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The real story of the Till murder though was less “the savagery of some white southerners racial passions” than the fact that lynching was almost non-existent in the South by the 1950s.
It is precisely this kind of maddening selection bias and tendency to generalize from highly unrepresentative samples which obscures the true history of the South since World War II underneath a fog of liberal newsreels and soundbytes from the 1960s. The SPLC can only come up with 13 civil rights martyrs in Alabama over a period of 13 years. There were 75 mostly black homicides in Birmingham alone in 2012.
For every Selma or Birmingham there were thousands of Southern cities, small towns, public schools, and universities that were integrated without any violence whatsoever because MLK and his entourage didn’t show up there to perform stunts on television for the benefit of CBS News.
The story of the realignment of the “Solid South” from the Democrats to the Republicans is also much more complex than the myth that it was simply a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. Most Southern segregationists like Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Richard Russell stuck with the Democratic Party after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The South didn’t tilt to the GOP in Congress until the 1990s or in most of the state legislatures until the 2000s.
LBJ defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964 with the support of most of the Southern states. Jimmy Carter won every Southern state but Virginia and Oklahoma in 1976. Reagan’s landslides were national in scope. Bill Clinton won Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Georgia in 1992. Clinton lost Georgia but carried Florida in 1996. Gore was competitive in Tennessee in 2000.
There are exasperating episodes in this book that are dealt with at length like the controversy surrounding the “South Carolina Is Gay” campaign or whether Montgomery County High School in south Georgia is holding a segregated prom which are so unrepresentative of daily life in the modern South that the reader just wants to toss this book into the garbage.
You can’t read The South and America Since World War II without getting the sense that blacks, women, gays and other Democratic leaning constituencies along with conforming to the mores of the Northeastern liberal establishment are the measure of all things. This comes across clearly in the chapter “A Favorable Business Climate” which exaggerates the environmental damage caused by industrial development in the Sunbelt South.
The left leaning bias in this book gets so bad that Cobb even gives credence to paranoid conspiracy theories that the levées in New Orleans were blown up after Katrina to rid the city of black people. He seems furious that state spending on food stamps and welfare are significantly below the national average in Mississippi. Supposedly, this is part of a plot to encourage blacks to move out of state.
After putting this book down, I was left wondering why topics like the decline of Birmingham since 1979 or the violent crime epidemic in New Orleans and Memphis or the failure of Head Start and integrated schools to close the racial gap in test scores wasn’t dealt with at greater length, as opposed to, say, George Allen’s “macaca” comment or Harold Ford, Jr.’s heartbreaking loss to Bob Corker in Tennessee.
Then I remembered it is up to people like us to do the job that James C. Cobb won’t do. You don’t become your “generation’s leading interpreter of the South” in Black Run America by violating the dominant culture’s racial etiquette. Instead, you call Fannie Lou Hamer “a warrior for change” and the most “vital and genuinely passionate voice for racial justice in the post-World War II South.”
Note: The argument that the South is perfectly willing to accept farm subsidies, transportation funds, and military spending while condemning the “big government” that lifted the region out of poverty has merit.
I also agree that the Southern “right-to-work” states subsidize multinational corporations in order to promote industrial development. It is too bad that this book lacked the more objective tone of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry.