Dixie’s Victory

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About 60 years ago, in July 1942, a 35-year-old coal miner from East Kentucky named Jim Hammittee packed up his belongings and traveled with his wife to Detroit, where he found work in a roller-bearing plant. “When I first came there, we only planned to stay till the war was over and then we’s moving back South,” he later recalled. “But by the time the war’s over in 1945, we had pretty well adjusted and accepted that way of life as the way we wanted to live. So we settled down....” The Hammittees raised three children in the Detroit suburbs. Except for trips to visit friends and kin, they never returned to their native South.

Jim Hammittee and his family were part of a demographic revolution that changed America. Between 1910 and 1970 more than 11 million Southerners pulled up stakes and settled in the North, mostly in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, and in Western boom states like California and Washington. Meanwhile, another internal migration caused the almost overnight transformation of the South’s traditional rural landscape. In just two decades between 1940 and 1960, roughly 9 million Southern farmers, well over half the region’s total agricultural force, left the cotton patches of the Mississippi Delta and the wheat fields of the Southern plains for cities like Houston, Dallas, Richmond, and Atlanta.

These two migrations, from South to North and from farm to city, amounted to a major turning point in American cultural history. They’re why jazz and the blues graduated from being regional “race music” to being the stuff of PBS documentaries and college courses. They’re why white Manhattanites travel to Harlem to eat “soul food” at the landmark restaurant Sylvia’s and why the whole nation is involved in a never-ending debate about the varieties of barbecue. They’re why Southern folk music has become “American roots” music. They help explain why Wal-Mart, once just a small Southern chain, represents American consumer culture in Argentina and Brazil, China and South Korea.

In the mid-twentieth century the arrival of Southern rural traditions in the urban marketplace created a new breed of Southland culture that exploded onto the national scene. At the same time, the millions of white Southerners planting new roots in the North introduced the rest of the country to their conservative religious and political culture and to once-regional pastimes like stock car racing and country music. The consequences have been revolutionary.

Surprisingly, though, while the effects of the black Southern migration have garnered considerable academic attention, only recently have historians considered the importance of that other stream of Southern country migrants. The significance of their travels is apparent everywhere. NASCAR ranks as one of the most popular and lucrative spectator sports nationwide, claiming some 40 million fans, staging races from Chicago to Phoenix, and recently closing a $2.8 billion television deal with NBC and Fox. And recording industry executives have long ceased to laugh at what Northern sophisticates once ridiculed as “hillbilly” music. With the sole exception of rock music, annual country-music sales over the past decade have rivaled or outstripped all other genres, including pop, rap, hip hop, R&B, and jazz. At the same time, mainline Christian churches in every region find themselves steadily eclipsed by their fundamentalist and charismatic competitors, which formerly bore a distinctly Southern profile and were widely regarded as dying. More and more, it appears, Southern culture has become American culture.

 
Early racers were professional “trippers bootleggers using expensively souped-up cars to outrun revenue agents.

It is one of history’s ironies that white Southern culture never stood a chance of becoming nationally ascendant until the Old South itself became a relic. And that didn’t occur until quite recently. Although the former Confederate states were hardly immune to economic and social changes after the Civil War, the region’s fundamental social and economic landscape remained remarkably much the same in the 1920s as it had been in the 1860s. Southern boosters like the brash young journalist Henry Grady were heralding the emergence of a “New South” as early as 1886, but the historian Jack Temple Kirby reminds us that this vision was largely predicated on “hyperbole and fraud.” Well into the twentieth century “the region remained rural and poor.”

All of this changed with the coming of the New Deal and World War II. Federal subsidy programs initiated in the 1930s helped spur crop reductions and land consolidations that forced millions of tenant farmers off the land, while technological innovations in the 1940s and 1950s—chemical pesticides, fertilizers, the mechanical cotton picker—swiftly transformed Southern agriculture from a labor-intensive endeavor to a capital-intensive one. These structural developments, in addition to a massive infusion of federal defense and research dollars during World War II and the early Cold War, helped thrust the South into the modern age.

 

In 1920 the population of nearly every Southern state was at least two-thirds rural, a figure all the more remarkable when we remember that the U.S. Census qualified towns of just 2,500 as urban. By 1960 everything had changed. Industrial work had out-stripped farming for more than a decade, and in eight Southern states a majority of citizens now lived in urban areas, where they were swiftly closing regional gaps in education and income. In short, the South finally started to resemble the rest of the country. Paradoxically, it was at just this historical moment that Southland culture matured and circulated nationally.