SO MANY PEOPLE have claimed to "understand" the South, its mystery and irrationality. Richard Nixon thinks he understands it well enough to construct a "Southern Strategy" as the foundation for his political power. Ironically, the President, who accused the Senate of "regional discrimination" when it defeated his second Southern Supreme Court nominee, has fallen victim to the eternal myth of the South-that it is so vastly different from the rest of America.
It is a persistent myth, perpetuated by the South itself, but also by its Northern neighbors, who have a vested interest in making the South the scapegoat for its own failings. As many a Northern politician has discovered, condemning the South is a good way to avoid the reality that it is not only the South but all of American society that needs reconstructing. "James Baldwin said the white man invented the nigger because he needed him," Pat Watters writes; "so, too, the nation may have invented the South."
The South and the Nation is a sensitive, affectionate but by no means uncritical study of the contemporary South which does not examine the region in a vacuum, but relates it to the rest of America. The central question Watters poses in a disturbing one: "In its worst attributes, how different is the South from America? How much is it an influence, how much a reflection?"
Certainly it is apparent that racism is not a regional phenomenon now that the self-righteousness espoused by the rest of the nation during the early days of the civil rights movement has given way to angry calls for law and order. Yet the illusion persists that the South is somehow evil, that it is a foreign country within our borders.
In some ways it is far behind. The poorest region of the country, the "new, new South" is in frantic pursuit of the middle-class affluence it sees all around. At a time when America is finally beginning to question the values of modern industry and technology, the South is plunging blindly into industrialization, suffering all the exploitation that has occurred elsewhere. The brutalities of the textile mills are a good example: attracted to the South by the cheap labor and tax inducements of local governments, they have resisted unionization and have been a continually reactionary force.
But it is still possible that the South will do things differently, that it will learn from the mistakes of others. Watters raises the question of whether "many of the attainments Southerners long have been encouraged to overestimate their ability to gain are worth the gaining, and even whether the South's majestic ability to fail through history to attain them might not suggest a secret or unconscious knowledge that they weren't really worth going after-such things as ever-growing cities, efficiency, big industry-that there must be something better."
He does not deny that the South has a long way to go just to catch up with the rest of the nation in some basic respects, yet he sees in the people of the South-even in the most brutal of red-necks-a humanity and honesty that might make fundamental change possible. "... Maybe those whites were just saying... that they wanted desperately a feeling of being important, of being something, and racism remained the pitiful core of an old bundle of corrupt, totally dishonest political oratory which gave them that feeling." The great danger to Watters is not the overt racist like George Wallace, but the "moderates." like Claude Kirk or Howard "Bo" Callaway who hide their racism behind a cloud of conciliatory rhetoric.
BLACKS have shown the same disdain for the hypocrisy of the "custodian liberals" of the Hubert Humphrey variety, who have promised so much and done so little. By 1964, when SNCC disavowed the Democratic Party, "the Negro South was coming to discount for the most part American democratic idealism and white liberal ideology because there was so little evidence of either's working." Linking this similar feeling among both blacks and poor whites. Watters sees some hope for an old dream-the kind of populist alliance Tom Watson-and later Huev Long-tried to forge. He is not so naive as to see this as a possibility in the near future but only when the hypnotic power of racism is broken.
Writing unabashedly as a Southerner, Watters does not deny the distinctiveness of the South. He argues that it has much to teach the rest of the nation in its respect for individuality, love of nature, and appreciation of humanity over economics. In suggesting that the South will change only if the rest of America changes first. Watters has made a realistic assessment of the magnitude of the job ahead. Unfortunately, he can offer no new strategy. Rejecting revolution, he advocates a kind of neo-populist new polities, with leaders such as Julian Bond as one possible alternative. As a Southern liberal who since 1963 has worked for the Southern Regional Council, for years the South's only voice against racism, Pat Watters is used to waiting and fighting against insurmountable odds. The rest of us may not have that much patience-or hope.