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Trying to understand white Southerners

by Richard Mason | March 26, 2023 at 1:57 a.m.

No matter how many interviews or studies are done, I don't think you can understand the innermost feelings of a white Southerner unless you are one.

Black and white Southerners have had completely different lives during the past 150 years. I'm certainly not capable of writing about the Black Southerner's life, but will try to explain some of the mysteries of how we white Southerners react.

The Civil War, which resulted in the destruction of the Southern plantation culture, scarred the Southerner's soul, and that has carried over for generations.

That is hard to grasp for a non-Southerner, but it's there. The generation of white Southerners who lived during the Civil War experienced several hundred thousand deaths impacting almost every family which, along with a period of hardships that continued for several decades after the war, brought on humiliation, starvation, and death.

During that period the overriding opinion of the majority of white Southerners was that the South had been treated harshly, which built resentment that is still buried deep.

Today Southerners are watching their history being erased. Slavery was horrible, but 258,000 white Southerners dying and millions losing everything they had was also horrible. I can remember my grandmother telling us about leaving Georgia after her family had their house burned to the ground during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia, then during Reconstruction, their land was essentially stolen from them. They ended up in Rose Bud, Ark.

They were typical of a generation who carried a deep-seated hate for the North that was passed on while romanticizing the idea of "old times there are not forgotten," which pervaded every part of most white Southerners' being.

I never heard my grandmother say but one cuss word. It was "Damn Yankees." I had a friend tell me that his family moved to north Arkansas from Louisiana after the Civil War because his great-grandfather had fought for the Union, and after the War no one in town would speak to the family.

I'm not trying to justify the white Southerner's attitude. The Southern "Cause" was wrong, but when Southern history was taught in the 1940s and '50s, the generals (including Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee) and soldiers of the Confederacy were considered heroes.

This didn't change with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision: In declaring separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads, the Court ruled that the protections of the 14th Amendment applied only to political and civil rights, not "social rights."

In the late 1950s when I attended the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and the band played "Dixie" at the start of a football game, the home crowd stood and cheered.

But we weren't only cheering for the Hogs. It was the South we were cheering for. Frank Broyles said he liked the band to play "Dixie" because it fired up the crowd. Love for the South is buried deep in the being of every Southerner.

Even today the white Southern soul is weighted toward God, guns, and states' rights, with a hint of racism, and if you mix that with a tendency to fight over nearly anything, it produces a complicated white population who believe the South has been and is being treated unfairly, even though that may fly in the face of actual facts or history.

Southerners have a tendency to disregard facts that don't fit their views of life.

What most folks don't realize is how deep the resentment is buried in a lot of white Southerners, but what is even more remarkable is those same Southerners don't realize it either.

They uniformly love the South along with all of its bumps, bruises, and faults. Southerners are almost like NATO: An attack on any Southern state or any part of Southern history is deemed an attack on all. If you're not a white Southerner, don't even attempt to understand that.

A few decades back in most Southern states, the nomination of the Democratic Party was all a politician needed to be elected. Today it is almost the reverse. Why? Some say the South is more conservative, but that is wrong.

One thing that hasn't changed is the makeup of the white Southerner: fundamentally conservative and strong on law, order, and family values.

The Southern politicians who changed from Democratic to Republican did so because the values they perceived are now in the Republican Party. Those values are, at best, just window dressing, but perception is reality.

Email Richard Mason at [email protected]

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