The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism

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Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds. The Myth of Southern Expcetionalism. New York: Oxford University Press. (2010 Pp. 360; $24.95. Paper: ISBN 019538475X .



The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism begins by looking at the ways in which historians challenged the idea that Southern history was originally imagined as a uniquely regional problem. Instead Lassiter and Crespino suggest it is a crisis of identity rather than a real separation from American myths and ideals. (8) In fact, the authors want us to understand that Southern exceptionalism is an idea that is powerful and pervasive in American history and racial tensions and the civil rights movement are one of many ways of understanding how that, this is a As the the essayists show, definitions of Southern ‘problems’ abound and polarization and generalizations about the South can be challenged as the authors want Southern history as American history. While this is not novel, the book is divided into major sections that look at Northern facto segregation,. political power and mass culture and , housing and suburbia and finally political power and imagery have been brought to bear on race relations. This is a work of comparative history with an interesting nuance, looking at ideas about the South and Southerners from many different contexts.

Michael Lassiter begins by challenging the idea that de facto segregation was just as insidious and entrenched in the North as in the South and places like Detroit, New York have long and storied civil rights histories. School practices and housing serve as vivid examples of how de jure polices were overlooked or stalled in order to maintain the status quo. The link between long term housing discrimination and schools has been well established, it was this realization that Lassiter sees as, “white spatial privilege” that can only be continued by using the South as a comparison point. As Jeanne Theoharis points out Boston staged massive protests against busing and Los Angeles experienced the same racial awakening culminating in the Watts riots. For these and many other Northern cities, the city was more invested in not being the South than in being the North. (53)Both of these authors want us to have a, “messier version of history” and one that sees the 1950’s and 1960’s as a turning point in the discourse of racial hierarchy and institutions, simply one that works hard at not being the South. Heather Ann Thompson closes this section with presents a pain filled essay that traces the almost unreadable cruelty of the Southern prison system from its early days to infamous places like Parchman. Actually, such cruelty was endemic to the entire system as inmates at places like Attica later showed. In sum, the North and its institutions engaged in de facto segregation and justified it by claiming not to be ‘the South'.

In Mississippi As Metaphor, Joseph Crespino shows how the South has always been a figurative place and one that has served as the apologetic places for American misdeeds. In fact, Mississippi became the synecdoche for a variety of sins and that along with ideas of the state as a ‘closed society’ essentially sealed its fate as the most Southern of Southern places. This thesis reminds us that civil rights leaders had to fight back against this metaphor if their work was to be done in other places as well. It is the historical legacy that continues to be problematic and the problem is well stated by Crespino that the tropes how us that , “in rejecting the framework of Southern exceptionalism.. regional distinctions were less important than racial ones.” (116) Folk music also played an important part in questions of authenticity and racial harmony, it was ideas about Blacks as ‘folks’ that Grace Elizabeth Hale uses to show how the singing of songs connected civil rights workers and organizers. While “We Shall Overcome” becomes a powerful working metaphor and source of spiritual renewal for the movement, it also later serves to strip dignity form Blacks by denying them political power and reinforcing ideas that Southern Blacks are more authentic in some ways. If folks songs were a powerful idea, Hollywood also reinforced ideas about the South as Allison Graham reveals in her essay. Essentially, Southerners are portrayed as in need of reform as Harper Lee and her ilk show or as tragic buffoons like Forrest Gump. Regardless of individual differences or plot twists, the Southern genre movie reinforces regionalism and erodes ideas about national narratives.

The national versus regional binary has been well set up by the editors and James T. Sparrow continues it in the section about border crossings, specifically looking at the ways in which Norfolk, Virginia became home to thousands of new workers during World War 2 and served as a shipping point for soldiers. Project number One was the first urban renewal project in the country and helped draw attention to one urban problem while shedding a bad light on vice in this small city. Labor issues also plagued the city and ultimately Blacks would win victories in the Tunstall and Steele decisions. The Pentagon was a different story, sitting in segregated Virginia the Pentagon was immediately plagues with questions about tradition versus orders or how does Jim Crow operate on Federal property. It was military service that caused many to confront Southern mores but by the end of the war, it was the ‘warfare’ machine that brought the South out of its regional stance. (185) South Carolina was another example of a place where modernization helped bring about change fueled by the Cold War economy according to Kari Frederickson. Aiken, S.C. for example, remade itself as a ‘new’ Southern city by which it hoped to capitalize on its charming past and new ability to industrialize. This is seen as an attempt to uncouple the city from its Southern past.

As the military industrial complex grew, the suburbs grew with them and Backs housing became a major issue. In the last fifty years, Blacks have returned to the South only to face the remnants of urban renewal, block busting, absentee ownership and abandoned downtowns and commercial corridors. While Blacks did build and move to middle class suburban communities, especially in places like Atlanta, the success was paralleled in other parts of the country and thus while progress is being made, it is also a national not regional phenomenon. Immigrants are also forming a powerful block and Mary E. Odem draws a comparison to the earlier civil rights struggle noting that Latinos and others have changed the face of the South and especially the workforce. This raises new and potentially problematic questions about race relations although anti immigrant hostility seems well organized. The essential point is that the South, like other parts of the country is now a multiethnic community and one can and should no longer imagine it in black and white terms.

Lastly, ideas of political realignment are interrogated and they South as a place of legal test grounds and historical troubles is used as the framework to look at political reapportionment and gerrymandering. If race was not an explicit consideration of the Supreme Court, then it was clearly implicit in the many ways that decisions were handed down. The idea of one person, one vote had deep impacts on the ways in which Southern and other states tried to reinvent themselves. According to Douglas Smith, this was a political thicket that created another chapter in urban versus suburban relations which really meant race relations. It was political power that informed the basis for the ‘religious right’ and Kevin Kruse shows us how that power base was energized as a reaction to the Supreme Courts liberal rulings in the 1960’s. It was imagined as a Southern phenomenon, however, clearly it was not as experiences in California showed. Jesse Helms and others became national leaders in the fight and thus they brought with them ideas and strategies to make a regional campaign a national coalition. The GOP ‘s role in the South is the object of Nancy MacLean’s closing essay and it asks readers to see a neo Confederacy in modern conservatism and as a legacy of anti communism. It is more subtle than that, it is really an answer to an agenda that wants to use political economy to turn back the clock. It remains to be seen what the next chapter of political and race relations will look like in the New South, a place where the myth of exceptionalism has been replaced by a national agenda.


Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

As a collection, essays contained within The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism are very persuasive in arguing that “The South” was not exceptional, except in the eyes of those attempting to perpetuate the idea of the mythological South. Indeed the essays concerning suburban development and the civil rights movement in the south argue that racism, in the nation as a whole, was a pervasive force that defined Black, Hispanic, and White relations during the twentieth century. In so doing they attempt to counter the notion of “historical opposition to dominant national trends”(vi) in American historiography.

Like most essay collections some of the arguments presented are stronger than others. However as a whole the collection does a very nice job of exploring the effects of “northern solipsism”(311) on twentieth-century historiography.

Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism presents historians with several important questions. I believe this work makes a valuable and much needed contribution to twentieth century historiography and that it complicates the well known high level story of civil rights.

1. Is regional history truly gone or are the authors being provocative in suggesting that the “South” as a region is not a valid category of inquiry?

2. Are race and economics the only two areas of meaningful political and social intercourse?

3. Is it valid to assume that one local or state wide exemplar, no matter how well argued or researched serves as a proxy for a national trend?

The answers to these questions are arguably dependent on ones historical proclivities; however, they are still worth examining. The answer to the first question must be that yes regionalism is a viable category and that the authors are rejecting Southern exceptionalism, not regional, recall that the editors, and I are hesitant to define the South. The second questions regarding race and economics seems from a historical perspective to be accurate, ultimately all of the essays have at their core a racial and economic motive. Lastly, perhaps the answer is more contextualized than simple, I suggest in this case yes, it is very clear that things like de facto segregation took place everywhere and Northern and Southern cities could be used interchangeably. This is the essential argument that history is messy and complex and that the existing binaries of place are inherently difficult to understand.

The four areas addressed were not as cohesive as I had hoped and the last political essays were harder to follow, and the book would have benefited from more examples or an essay on tourism or attention to tourists and their perceptions of the South. This is a unique approach to thinking about new lines of inquiry and ways to envision our nation.

Alex Bradshaw, FALL 2012

Andrew Salamone, Spring 2016

In the Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino addressed a glaring deficiency in the historiography of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In this series of essays that explore topics ranging from African-American suburbanization to the portrayal of the south in films, they aimed to recontextualize the struggle over segregation, expanding the view beyond the popularly held notion of an "epic showdown between the retrograde South and a progressive nation." They argued that this overly simplistic view sets up a false dichotomy that casts the south and its racial regime as the exception, rather than the rule. For example, they contended that the south's de jure segregation was no more egregious than the de facto segregation in the north and west. Yet, students in public schools in northern and western cities are more familiar with the history of segregation in places like Mississippi rather than in their own states.

In another case in which this comparison between north and south distorts the history of the Civil Rights movement, the book includes an essay exploring the rise of the "black power" movement and the riots that occurred in Los Angeles during the mid 1960s. The author asserted that historians have largely failed to acknowledge the extent of segregation in California and the rising African-American anger that resulted, instead presenting these events as rising out of nowhere. Popular culture, particularly movies, also played a key role in presenting segregation and opressive racial regimes as a regionally-based phenomenon found only in the south. These films tended to present racism as a "cultural aberration rather than a national deformity." The book concludes with a discussion of suburbanization and its impact on race relations. As with Crabgrass Frontier and Places of Their Own, the author contends that "tenacious inequality" remains a central feature of the suburbs, the product of decades of discriminatory practices in housing policies and other areas.

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