The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South

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SUMMARY

--Mlinhart 14:35, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

The initial Southern response to court ordered desegregation was massive resistance. Matthew Lassiter agrees with Harvie Wilkinson (Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics 1945-1966) that this drastic policy that led to school closings changed the course of one-party Virginia politics and adversely affected the future of the Byrd machine. Lessons from Virginia’s experience with massive resistance were not lost on the rest of the New South. Urban areas were undergoing economic expansion and wanted to participate in the national business scene. A pragmatic concern about economic realities was an important consideration in the determination to avoid civil unrest. Business leaders and individuals were concerned about the loss of public education and the effect of racial unrest on the economic future if their region remained intransigent in opposition to integration. Lassiter stresses that urban middle class concerns about racial harmony and fairness were also important in the drive to avoid massive resistance. According to Lassiter, the ‘denouement of massive resistance’ is a ‘watershed moment in southern history, a political and ideological showdown that redefined and reinvigorated the middle ground, hastened the demise of the one-party system and accelerated the power shift to the booming metropolitan regions.’ (40)

Lassiter discusses the years of effort seeking peaceful integration in Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Both cities were in the midst of periods of growth and expansion in the postwar years. Lassiter found whites and moderates in both cities attempted to accommodate the demand for integration. White women in Atlanta’s island suburbs (upscale white enclaves inside the city), formed a group called HOPE (Help Our Public Education) in 1958 and worked to achieve peaceful integration, thus saving the school system from massive resistance. Their effort culminated in token integration in 1961. In the 1970s, black and white liberals tried to fully implement integration ‘through the busing of city students and through a metropolitan consolidation plan’ (107) to incorporate a larger white population from the suburbs. The annexation efforts failed. By 1980, Atlanta public schools had a ’92 percent minority enrollment.’ (109)

Charlotte, North Carolina was ‘regarded as one of the most progressive bastions of the New South.’ (121) Unlike Atlanta, Charlotte annexed adjacent suburbs automatically when population density reached ‘a predetermined threshold.’ (128) In Charlotte, there was a ‘nearly complete marginalization of openly segregationist sentiment’ (169) and a realization that the era of ‘political consensus for legal segregation’ (169) was over. The ‘debate over the meaning of racial integration had begun.’ (170) As a reaction to a court order for ‘comprehensive integration’ (136) by Judge James McMillan in the Swann case in 1969, a Concerned Parents Association was formed in the white collar suburbs to defend the ‘family right to exercise freedom of choice and oppose busing.’ (139) The group achieved a one-way (black busing) integration compromise in 1969. When Judge McMillan ordered 2-way busing in 1970, the CPA turned to protest in ‘an organized uprising of the Silent Majority.’ (153) White moderates preferred neighborhoods schools but did not support defiance of the law.

--Mlinhart 14:35, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)



COMMENTARY

--Mlinhart 14:35, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Lassiter develops a concept of the Sunbelt Synthesis with a ‘strategic commitment to racial peace through the planning policies of residential segregation, i.e., the twin pillars of rapid economic development and enforced racial harmony.’ (11) For Lassiter, white flight and the development of suburbs was enabled by governmental policies. Lassiter claims de facto segregation had its roots in ‘government programs that simultaneously developed the post-war metropolis and contained the inner city ghettoes.’ (3) The programs included ‘federally funded highways’, ‘federally guaranteed low interest mortgages’ and ‘generous tax deductions for homeowners’ as well as ‘federally bankrolled urban renewal policies.’ (1) that tended to concentrate the poor and black inside the city and allowed white middle class families to move to the suburbs. Thus there was a ‘fusion of class segregation and racial discrimination embodied in the urban-suburban divide.’ (2)

Ultimately as Lassiter notes, the ‘political interplay between the Silent Majority and the judicial accommodation of suburban resistance transformed state sponsored residential segregation into a historical wrong without a constitutional antidote.’ (315) Throughout the South and in the rest of the country, busing was a hardship and ultimately a failure. It seems impossible to find an acceptable solution to integration ‘absent an aggressive and systematic municipal commitment to residential integration including mandatory mixed income zoning.’ (215)

One of the surprising facts of American presidential politics is the importance of the Sunbelt since the mid-sixties. Except for Gerald Ford, every American President since Kennedy has come from the Sunbelt or California. Lassiter claims Nixon’s Southern Strategy was not the reason for the transformation of the Solid Democratic South into a two-party South. He believes the Republican Party benefited from the ‘suburban ethos of the Silent Majority’ (227) but that the midterm elections of 1970 demonstrated that the ‘GOP abandonment of the middle ground created an opening for a new breed of moderate Democrats who dominated Southern politics during the 1970s and assumed the leadership of the national party during the 1990s’ (227) with the candidacy of Bill Clinton.

Lassiter claims the era of Southern exceptionalism is over.’ (15) The old South of legal segregation, an agricultural democracy and a single party politics vanished because of the civil rights movement, corporate investment and migration from the North. ‘Jim Crow gave way to the nationalizing treads of residential segregation and suburban exclusion.’ (15)

Lassiter’s spotlight on the middle class illuminates the attitudes and role of this group and thereby distorts the history of the desegregation efforts in the South. He demonstrates that the Southern middle class, at least the upper middle class, was relatively amenable (or resigned) to integration especially if it was not in their backyard or if it did not cause their schools to reach a ‘tipping point.’ (188) Like McGirr (Suburban Warriors The Origins of the New American Right) and Lienesch (Redeeming America Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right), Lassiter finds that middle class can arise from their silence when they feel their families are at stake. Lassiter does not emphasize the role of religion although he does mention that ministers did serve as leaders of the moderates who worked to avoid massive resistance.

The Supreme Court determination in the Brown case was not the end of segregation in the South or in the United States. Except for the upper Northwest, there was a substantial decline in the percentage of white students in urban schools in the United States after the Brown decision. In 1986, the schools of Washington, D. C. were 4% white, Detroit had a 9% white student population, Chicago had 14% white students and New York City had 19% white students. In all these cities except Washington, there was at least a 20% decline in the white public school population between 1968 and 1986. (317) Obviously racial segregation had not ended. It might even be possible to assert that segregation increased throughout the country. The civil rights movement achieved the end of de jure and unconstitutional segregation and overt discrimination. De facto segregation, which Matthew Lassiter terms ‘innocent’ (315) segregation, continues.

--Mlinhart 14:35, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Liz Jones, Spring 2007

In Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Professor Matthew Lassiter examines the emergence of the New South from the Jim Crow era. Lassiter questions conventional ideas about electoral realignment, asserting, “the widespread tendency to attribute the conservative shift in American politics to a top-down “Southern Strategy,” launched by the Republican party in order to exploit white backlash against the civil rights movement, misses the longer-term convergence of southern and national politics around the suburban ethos of middle-class entitlement.” (3)

Rather than crediting racebaiters like Orval Faubus and George Wallace for the destruction of the so-called Solid South, Lassiter looks instead at middle and upper class families that moved to the New South. They approved of limited integration as opposed to massive resistance, but on the grounds that massive resistance would close the very schools that taught their children, shattering their dreams for an education and a better tomorrow. Many women were influential in getting this idea across, especially in late-1950s Atlanta. Their activism, if limited, echoes the Not June Cleaver, which discusses how women engaged in fighting for causes. These middle-to-upper class women were leaders, creating HOPE, which argued against the standard of the time—fighting integration—and calling for measured (albeit very, very slow) introduction of blacks into all-white schools. Still, the movement did not signify a massive reassessment of race relations. The “token integration” that emerged was “initially championed and ultimately legitimated” by dedicated liberals and energetic moderates. (104)

Still, members of the middle class took great umbrage at the fact that they had worked hard to achieve the American Dream, but now the federal government wanted to intervene in where children went to school. Sure, many blacks were relegated to dilapidated ghettos in the inner-cities, but “white collar families that claimed membership in the Silent Majority rallied around a “color-blind” discourse of suburban innocence that depicted residential segregation as the class-based outcome of meritocratic individualism rather than the unconstitutional product of structural racism.” (1) The inner-city-suburban dichotomy echoes Crabgrass Frontier, which demonstrates how government policies from the New Deal onwards forced blacks to largely remain in the ghettos. Not all did, however, as demonstrated by Places of their Own, which discusses the development of black suburbia.

It is interesting and refreshing to read an alternative to the idea of realignment. Although I was initially skeptical, Lassiter makes an interesting and convincing argument.

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