Race, Racism, and Southern Myths

Ku Klux Klan meeting, South Carolina, 1951. Source: KulturCritic.
Ku Klux Klan meeting, South Carolina, 1951. (Source: KulturCritic/Heirs of W. Eugene Smith)

In 2010, two historians edited a collection of thirteen essays written by white historians about “The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism.” Admittedly, I am not fully aware of the process of selecting the contributors to this volume, nor am I suggesting that this is an isolated intellectual exercise. In publications and conference rooms across the world—including those on my own campus—scholars of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have debated the notion of Southern distinctiveness. The most common device employed in such debates is the observation that racial segregation, oppression, and activism also existed outside the South.

For millions of African Americans, however, there has never been any question that the South is indeed exceptional. The South’s exceptionalism exists in Black memory and imagination because it is the only place in the United States where such high numbers and percentages of the Black population were enslaved. Further, it is the only place in the United States where the Southern system of racial apartheid known as Jim Crow pervaded Black life for nearly one hundred years after Emancipation.

When Mississippi migrant, Gus Courts, testified to a Senate Subcommittee in 1957, he called himself and other Black migrants, “American refugees from the terror in the South.” A voting rights activist, Courts fled Mississippi for Chicago soon after he was nearly killed in a drive-by shooting in retribution for his activism. One of Courts’ closest friends, Reverend George Lee, had been killed just six months prior. In Chicago, as in Mississippi, Gus Courts was not free to live anywhere he wanted because he was Black. Nonetheless, Courts saw the South as exceptional because of the pervasive state-supported and community organized anti-Black violence that undergirded Southern Jim Crow. In Chicago, unlike Mississippi, he could at least vote without being shot.1

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden, 17) in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being attacked by police dogs during a civil rights protest. (Bill Hudson/AP)

Another generation of Black migrants left the South decades earlier; they, too, were refugees. Upon crossing the Ohio River in 1917, one group of Black Southern railroad passengers bowed their heads in prayer and then broke into song with renditions of “Beulah Land” and “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” gospel hymns that invoked the promise of heaven. Some of the men on the train stopped their watches at the exact time they crossed into the Ohio River. One report noted that a woman on the train, “went so far as to swear that she could tell the difference in the air over the Ohio River.” For these 147 native Southerners, the South was clearly exceptional. Informing their view was the memory of slavery. For generations of Black people, the Ohio River represented a symbol of transitioning into freedom.2

Components of this symbolism remained even after Emancipation. Some on those exodus trains might have been former slaves. The odds were that anyone over the age of fifty-two coming from Louisiana, Alabama, or Mississippi—all states with extremely few free African Americans during the Antebellum Era—had in all likelihood at one point been enslaved. Even for younger generations, the river that separates the North and South remained a distinct and powerful symbol of freedom. They had grown up hearing stories of such a river. The symbolism of that and other rivers was embedded deep within their souls. Even decades after the Civil War, the experience of crossing the Ohio River marked a powerful moment of departure from the lands where their ancestors had been held in bondage. The North for them was different; the North, unlike the South, was a place where they believed they could be free. As one migrant explained, “I just want to be somewhere where I won’t be scared all the time.”

None of this should serve to reduce the important scholarly contributions of those who study race outside the South. But to critique “Southern exceptionalism” because of the existence of racial discrimination elsewhere also overlooks the crucially important facet of Black migration away from the South: Black migrants were never completely ignorant of the racial challenges they would face in the North or West. Southern Black migrants had networks of family and friends living in places such as Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, who cautioned them about the racial realities of life in Northern cities. Black Southern migrants were quite aware that their Blackness would follow them north and continue to limit their lives in a myriad of ways.

But this is part of the point. Despite their awareness of racial discrimination in the North and West, Black Southern migrants left the South anyway because in their minds, anywhere and everywhere was different than the South. To them, the South was clearly exceptional.

A Black family arrived to Chicago from the Deep South. (New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism is a work containing essays by a tremendous collection of scholars whose work in this volume and other publications has profoundly shaped my understanding of Southern, American, and African American History. I respect these intellectual projects and refer to that text only as an example of the limitations of one particular intellectual objective or perspective.

But also consider a Black historian’s perspective. To me, the South has always been unique. Beyond the legacies of Jim Crow and slavery, the South is a place from which my ancestors fled. My ancestors left behind no memoirs explaining why they left places like North Carolina in the 1890s, Alabama in the early twentieth century, or Arkansas in the 1950s. I can be sure, however, that the threat of violence influenced their decisions. Racial violence, including lynching, rape, police brutality, and assaults, peppered black life. At times, African Americans could insulate themselves from such attacks, but their lives were characterized by enormous inequalities and everyday threats of violence. That was the experience of being Black in the Jim Crow South. As Southern migrant Richard Wright famously explained, “The penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move…The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness.” The legacies of fear and violence in the collective memory of African Americans is part of what makes the South exceptional.

On my father’s side, I am at once the first person of my generation be born outside the South and also the first and only member of my family to return to the South. I live in North Carolina, the very state which my great-grandfather left. My university and department have been welcoming to my presence, ensuring that I enjoy opportunities that none of my ancestors in this region could have ever imagined. I wish my ancestors knew that one day, a member of their family would be a professor at the University of North Carolina, a place where they were not allowed to attend because they were Black.

But none of this shelters me from the haunting legacies of violence. I am safer now than my ancestors were then, but the relics of Jim Crow’s violent realities dot the landscape, serving as constant reminders of the Southern Black experience. Sitting just several hundred yards from my office is a monument dedicated in 1913 to celebrate the restoration of white supremacy to the South in the years after Reconstruction. At its dedication, the speaker, a white supremacist who advocated violence against African Americans, praised those who fought “during the four years immediately succeeding the war,” when white insurgents such as the Ku Klux Klan employed racial violence and “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” “As a consequence,” noted the speaker of lynching and murder, “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”

Despite this statue’s celebration of Jim Crow-era violence, my university refuses to take it down. Part of what continues to make the South so exceptional to people like me, is that even today, so many white Southerners privilege the disproven white supremacist version of history over the truth; and they insist that their ancestors were justified in honoring their dead by celebrating the enslavement and murder of mine.

  1. Courts quoted in Ralph Matthews, “Horrors of the South Told to Senate,” Chicago Defender, March 9, 1957, 2. For more on Courts and Lee, see John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 41-69.
  2. Johnson, “Migration Study,” Box 86, Folder: Migration Study Mississippi Summary, Part I, F. Research Department, 1916-1963, Records of the National Urban League, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

William Sturkey

William Sturkey is an assistant professor of in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the co-editor of To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools (University Press of Mississippi). He is currently working on a book entitled A Way of Life: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow in the New South (under contract with Harvard University Press). Follow him on Twitter @william_sturkey.

Comments on “Race, Racism, and Southern Myths

  • You missed one very important aspect of why the white supremacy mentality is still the driving force in the relationship between between blacks and whites and who is driving it. It is the conservative white evangelicals.

    Reply
  • Thanks for a well-explained and thoughtful article.

    Reply

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