By Michael Foley
In the years following the Civil War, as Reconstruction policies not only provided jobs for emancipated slaves in the South, but actively recruited Blacks from the North to former slave states for work and helped Blacks run (and win) in state and U.S. congressional elections, a violent political coalition called The Redeemers formed, loudly promoting white supremacy after Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan fell apart. The Redeemers, who derived their name from a stated mission of redeeming the South to its former so-called glory by restoring white supremacy, had a slogan that outlived the movement: “The South will rise again,” a sentiment echoed by Confederate leader Jefferson Davis as he awaited trial for treason.
In the short term, they succeeded. Eventually, the federal government gave up on enforcing Reconstruction and left southern states to their own devices. Blacks were promptly voted out of office, and racist laws and economic policies quickly passed to make Blacks as powerless and disenfranchised as they had been before the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the long term, however, the South never quite lived up to the vision of the Redeemers. Certainly, most ex-Confederate states never achieved the economic prosperity of their antebellum days. That’s largely due to the fact that the Civil War and Reconstruction coincided with the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution. While Southerners tried to restore their once-booming agricultural industry, the rest of the world moved on to manufacturing. The South has been playing catch-up ever since.
For more than a hundred years after the Civil War, many white Southerners made white supremacy their top political issue, despite more pressing concerns like widespread poverty. In the 1940s, the Dixiecrats, in many ways a spiritual successor to the Redeemers, emerged as a segregationist political party. Their 1948 presidential nominee, Strom Thurmond, won four southern states. The party dissolved over the next decade, but their platform survived in the South.
Ultra-conservative Alabama governor George Wallace, who infamously said in his inauguration speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” ran as a third-party candidate in the 1968 presidential election. His campaign was best known for motifs that still seem to resonate with Southern conservatives: incendiary rhetoric against anti-racism protests and the slogan “Stand up for America,” which, his own daughter admits, was dog whistle for “stand up for white Southerners.” Wallace won five southern states and nearly ten million votes in the strongest third party candidacy since the nineteenth century. The South didn’t quite rise, but they made a lot of noise.
This support of racist dogma was all in line with the idea of the Solid South: throughout the twentieth century, conservative politicians could bank on dominating southern states, provided they bake racism into their platform. For the first half of the 1900s, that meant a solid blue bloc of Democrats; in the second half, as civil rights legislation became a hallmark of the Democratic Party, the South shifted red. In the same 1968 election that Wallace performed so well in, Richard Nixon employed similar dog whistle tactics, focusing on rhetoric of states’ rights and “law and order” in an unspoken-but-clear campaign against civil rights for Blacks. With the exception of Texas, Nixon won every ex-Confederate state that Wallace did not, to become the thirty-seventh President of the United States.
During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan attended Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair to deliver a racially coded speech in support of states’ rights; from there, he regularly inculcated criticisms of busing, affirmative action, and the “welfare state” throughout his campaign. He won every southern state except for incumbent Jimmy Carter’s home state of Georgia, and won them all in 1984.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush’s campaign frequently ran ads associating Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis with a violent crime spree by a Black man named Willie Horton. The ads prominently featured Horton’s mugshot, so that everyone could see the color of his skin. The subtext was clear: George Bush will protect you from the Blacks. Bush won all southern states.
This strategy only showed its first crack in 1992, when Democratic nominee Bill Clinton won Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia. What did it take? Clinton taking some dog whistle positions of his own, plus a double dose of Southerners on the Democratic ticket. Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and his running mate, Al Gore, was a United States Senator representing Tennessee, and they still only managed to split the southern vote.
Eight years later, Gore didn’t even manage to win his own home state; in this case, however, his opponent, George W. Bush, may have benefitted from largely abandoning the Southern strategy. Bush branded himself a “compassionate conservative,” capitalizing on photo ops with Mexican-Americans and Blacks. However detrimental some of his policies may have been for minorities, Bush and his campaign staff saw the benefit of seeking to grow the Republican base, rather than relying on the slowly dwindling bloc of racially motivated white Southerners to support him.
Still, an entire of generation of Southerners had been conditioned to vote Republican at all levels of government, even against their own better interests. Take even a cursory glance at which states rank worst in education, teen pregnancy, poverty, obesity, healthcare, and more, and you’ll see the results.
I’m not saying all of this to disparage the South. I’m a lifelong native of South Mississippi, and happily so. My point in outlining all of this is to provide context for the moment we find ourselves in now.
In 2008, thirty years after the Willie Horton ads won Bush the South, three southern states (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia) voted for the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama. A shift had clearly begun to form.
That shift is still happening today, in cities like Austin and Atlanta, but also in smaller towns, where younger voters are turning their backs on their parents’ views of the Black community, the LGBTQ community, criminal justice, economic policy, immigration, and more.
In 2017, Alabama elected moderate Democrat Doug Jones to the United States Senate over racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, alleged sexual predator, conspiracy theorist, Republican Roy Moore. In June 2020, Mississippi legislators officially retired the controversial state flag, which bore the Southern Cross of the Confederacy. In July 2020, Asheville became the first city in the country to formalize plans to make reparations to the Black community.
These are all historic moments worth remembering, but we have a long way to go. This November, Tommy Tuberville, whose only qualifications are being a football coach and blind supporter of the current President, is projected to unseat Doug Jones. In Mississippi, a Confederate fetishist who joked about lynchings is expected to easily defeat her Black challenger, Mike Espy. And, of course, Donald Trump will win most southern states. But we have to keep going. The world has to see that the South is changing for the better.
And they will see it.
Every Southerner grows up hearing that tired old phrase, “The South will rise again.” When the Redeemers made that declaration, they were referring to the Old South, the South of white supremacy. This is the New South, and it is indeed rising.
This website is meant to chronicle both the victories and the challenges the New South will see in the coming months and years. We will face many devastating setbacks along the way. But make no mistake:
The South will rise again.