In the 1950s, a young white Arkansas war veteran with an eighth-grade education and two young children supplemented his night-shift warehouse job by running a one-man garbage route in the rural part of his county.
He would tell his family about the black people who rummaged through the city dump looking for something they could use, even including food.
He was poor and he carried people's garbage, but, by golly, he was sure-enough higher in the social order than those people.
Everyone needed somebody to be better-off than.
In time, this young man would accede to the deepest hopes of his religious fundamentalist wife and get baptized into her conservative church.
The young couple would stand at the hedge and talk over it with the neighbors, also working-class and religiously fundamental. They spoke ominously that "they" were going to put the black kids in school with the whites.
In the early 1970s, this husband and wife sat at their kitchen table and argued with their teenaged son about the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. They'd tell the boy he was raised better than to support something that--as they'd learned in church--would violate God's command for women to be subservient to the male heads of households. They warned of unisex bathrooms.
I submit these were not bad people. In time, they'd evolve to advocate racial integration of their church. They'd weep for the congregational death knell that the race issue sounded.
Years later, they'd know it wasn't so when their preacher assailed from the pulpit a certain newspaper writer with their same last name--no relation to them, the preacher said assuredly and wholly incorrectly--who had written something on the front page that Sunday morning that was the devil's doing.
They were, I'm now given to understand, among the Southern people targeted by the Republican Party from 1964 onward that led to a Southern region in which three-fourths to four-fifths of the white people now vote straight Republican, even for a Republican who boasts of grabbing women in their private parts and doesn't know how to say Second Corinthians.
A new book from two political scientists at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, titled The Long Southern Strategy, is getting appropriate national notice for importance in its chronicling of this political story that locked down the South for the GOP and, by that electoral-college leveraging, changed the nation.
The authors are Angie Maxwell, director of the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Culture, and Todd Shields, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
Their book is both a popularly accessible narrative and a deep academic study.
And here's what it says: There always was a grand bargain in the South, one by which the well-to-do whites ran things undemocratically by making sure poor whites had black people to look down on. But the civil rights initiatives of the new Democrats in the '60s caused Republicans, beginning with Goldwater and intensifying with Nixon and Reagan, to abandon their moral advantage on race to seek to make political inroads in the long-Democratic South among white people scared or angry that the grand bargain was being disturbed.
That ploy has often been referred to as the GOP's Southern strategy, based on race resentment entirely. But Maxwell and Shields provide sage insight to broaden the context to their "longer" form.
They explain that Southern race resentment blended with anti-feminism into general Christian conservatism, and that the Republicans recognized and exploited it all. They suggest it grew from the notion that white men had to rule as a patriarchy to protect weak white women from black men.
This book begins with a quotation from the late Glenn Feldman, a Southern historian and author in Birmingham: "The South did not become Republican so much as the Republican Party became Southern."
Don't believe it? Listen, then, to Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, quoted in the book speaking in 1984 to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans: "The spirit of Jefferson Davis [the president of the Confederacy] lives in the 1984 Republican platform."
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a classic product of this long Southern strategy, tweeted the other day in defense of his racially exploitative president. He asserted that the real racist heritage in America was with Democrats, not the party of Trump.
He would be right if this was 1861, 1929, 1948, 1957, or even 1963, a year before Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and lamented that he'd just signed away the South for the Democratic Party.
Republicans made sure of that. In this significant book, two professors from Fayetteville show how.
Cotton probably thinks he got elected by his own contemporary wonder. He ought to read this book by a couple of learned constituents.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 07/30/2019