Part of Curtis Price’s ongoing exploration of the South, this is also intended as a response to Stephen Amberg’s article, “How to Overcome the ‘Patriotic Gore’ of Racism,” published in the October, 2015 issue of the Brooklyn Rail.
Huntsville, nestled in the foothills where the Appalachian mountains trail off into flat Alabama farmland, lies a world away from the loamy soil of southern Alabama’s impoverished rural Belt—the Black Belt of Selma, Montgomery and “Bloody Lowndes” fame that birthed the civil rights movement.
Unlike the Black Belt, though, the Huntsville area rattles and hums with new manufacturing and defense-related jobs. Remington plans to relocate a major factory from upstate New York to Huntsville, in part because of Alabama’s less gun-hostile culture and lack of restrictions on public gun carrying. GE Aviation just announced a major project, a high-tech factory making silicon-carbide products for Huntsville’s booming aerospace industry. Even the sleepy Gulf port of Mobile at the state’s southern tip landed the lucrative North American Airbus factory, the company’s first. And the United Auto Workers notched a rare, much needed victory in the Deep South when it organized the Commercial Vehicle Company, a small auto parts supplier, in Piedmont.
But Alabama’s state finances are in free fall, in large part because of what is arguably the most right-wing legislature in the country refusing to raise business taxes.1 Facing a $200 million shortfall, the recent budget would have gutted the state’s Medicare program; despite a reprieve of level funding for the next fiscal year, the long-term fate of Medicare is still up in the air. State parks are slated to be shuttered and government services pared. Alabama’s sales tax, at 9 cents on the dollar, even applies to food, a hardship falling not unexpectedly disproportionately on workers and the poor.
The most notorious cut, which attracted national attention, was the proposed staggered closing of driver’s license offices, which, by March 2016, would have left only four offices open statewide.2 The move was widely interpreted as a way to keep down the black vote in rural counties, because—thanks to Alabama’s Voter ID law—voters must produce some sort of official ID to vote, and a valid driver’s license is the commonest form of eligible ID. Less noticed was the proposal to keep open money-losing state-run liquor stores in many of the same rural counties, making it easier to get a bottle of hootch than to vote.
State law mandates that all liquor in the state be sold through the Alabama Beverage Commission. The Commission tacks on a 30% markup, then jacks up prices even more when state taxes kick in. As a result, a $10 bottle ends up costing over $21. Heavy reliance on regressive taxes, such as the sales tax, means that Alabama, like many Deep South states, ends up financing much of its budget on the backs of its wage-earners, while at the same time the local political class decries the tepid Obamacare as a “socialist plot” and refuses to expand Medicaid.
But today things are so bad that the state of Alabama will even take your blood. In late October, a judge offered indigent defendants too poor to pay fines the opportunity to pay by making blood bank donations. The State has literally become a vampire.3
This sort of taxing has a long pedigree in the Deep South. In fact, much of the capital accumulation powering post-Civil War Southern industrial development was often directly extracted from the workforce and not disguised as was usually the case elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, in one of the most blatant cases, factory workers were pressured to make “voluntary” weekly contributions to a building fund for a new plant.4 Like so much of what starts in the South and eventually gravitates north, the practice of states subsidizing industry with handouts began here.
Back in 1930, Mississippi set up a “Balancing Agriculture With Industry” (BAWI) program, using municipal bonds to lure industry. Because bonds were tax-exempt, using bonds became a lucrative and risk-free way for industrial capital to benefit from the good credit of public finances. Goosing up these incentives were generous tax exemptions and outright loans from local coffers at little or no interest to prospective employers. Because BAWI was so successful, the model quickly spread throughout the rest of the South. The irony is that many times, Southern cities ended up owning the factory and leasing it to companies, possibly making the South at one point the region with the highest level of socialized production in the country.
Since most Southern cities and towns had few distinguishing features besides cheap land and cheap labor, competition to attract industry was fierce. To further sweeten the honeypot, sometimes towns would add extra benefits; thus Star City, Arkansas preemptively imposed a $1,000-a-day licensing fee on potential union organizers to keep a garment factory from moving, despite the fact that no union drive was on the horizon.
Employers in turn quickly sized up the opportunities and learned how to manipulate the system to get the best payouts—what is now known as “whipsawing,” playing towns, cities, counties, and eventually entire states against each other. It wasn’t until 1969 that the federal government wised up and closed the bond-related tax loopholes fueling this hidden system of subsidies. But before the loophole disappeared, tens of thousands of northern manufacturing jobs moved south. Before NAFTA, there was the “great sucking sound” emanating from Mississippi, Alabama, and the Carolinas.
The state, this time at the federal level, further played a role in a policy of World War II-era military Keynesianism. New Deal social welfare policies responsible for massive public work programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority ended. Thanks to Department of Defense funds, Army bases disproportionately flowed south, transforming the whole region, not only directly by building plants and barracks but also indirectly by investing in needed infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
Alabama was no exception to military Keynesianism. Huntsville itself, for example, had been a small textile center of 30,000 people before NASA set up its Marshall Space Center but now has mushroomed into the fastest-growing city in this state. Although the active barracks later closed, on the map the sprawling Redstone Arsenal fills almost as much space as the city of Huntsville itself.
Today, mirroring the rest of the country, Huntsville has a dual economy. Even if not as bad as “Juleps for the Few and Pellagra for the Crew,” the taunt hurled against New South boosters more than a century ago, the class divisions slice sharp here. While engineers, scientists, and technicians drive Priuses and BMWs to gleaming Research Park and shop at upscale shopping malls like Bridge Street, low-wage service workers stream out University Drive on the bus to work at the cheek-by-jowl strip malls full of fast food chains, Dollar Generals, budget hotels, thrift stores, and the like. The buses only run once an hour so if you miss the bus or one breaks down, you are seriously late to work and may even lose your job. And the buses stop running at 6 p.m., so you are out of luck if you’re stuck working the off-shifts.
In one of those exasperating idiosyncrasies so typical of the Deep South, all Huntsville buses have to go through a central bus depot downtown that is the only transfer point in the system. The depot itself is a glorious hub of working-class sociality where newly released ex-cons arriving from the downstate prisons and work camps mingle and jostle with housekeepers, crackheads, and short-order cooks talking about what happened at home and on the job. People bum cigarettes, chump change, and share tidbits of gossip, because nearly everyone knows or is related to someone else.
The social relations on the Huntsville bus system are light years away from Northern cities like Baltimore, where buses simmer with seething tensions, anyone could “go off” and snap at any minute and people lock themselves away in privatized iPhone-ear-bud worlds to avoid others. Here, people at least talk and interact. But there’s no escaping the fact that a bus ride in Huntsville is less reliable and takes much longer.
The Two Souls of the South
It’s easy to look at the South as an unbroken historical chain of grinding poverty, virulent racism, social backwardness—a region giving a free hand for capital to do whatever it wanted whenever it liked. But as much as this might arguably describe the big picture, it doesn’t capture the nuances and contradictions that still course through the region. As someone once put it, paraphrasing Sartre, “it’s never what’s been done to you but what you do with what’s been done to you” that counts. And so it is with the South.
Throughout Southern history, there is an alternative to the conventional narratives, much of it uncovered in recent years. Historian David Williams, in volumes such as Bitterly Divided, his book about internal resistance to the Civil War, has brilliantly captured this suppressed history. More recently, Dixie Be Damned by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford also brings together shreds of this alternative narrative. Sparsely populated, mostly white Winston county, a few dozen miles from Huntsville, for example, seceded during the Civil War and formed “The Free State of Winston.” Very few and small shards of this history make it into the official curriculum, and the irony of those celebrating the glories of old Dixie by waving the Confederate flag is that their grand-pappies may well have been draft resistors or anti-Confederacy guerrilla fighters.
A more recent example of this alternative history can be seen in the 1967 wildcat strike at the Masonite plant in Laurel, Mississippi.5 Management used the fact that the union local was led by a Klansman to leaflet black workers to cross the picket line because it wasn’t a strike in their interests, while the International withdrew support: all the elements for another defeated strike were in place. But, thanks to the intervention of civil rights movement activists from the Southern Christian Education Fund (SCEF), multi-racial rallies evolved, drawing hundreds of workers for months in nearby fields. The strike, one of many SCEF was involved in around the same time in Mississippi, was lost, but workers published a newspaper and formed a workers’ party to contest local elections in Laurel. For now, all this history has been lost.
In his 2008 autobiography, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, Bob Zellner, one of the SCEF organizers involved, recounts an incident where he was asked to “discuss this communist thing” by some white strikers with a known racist background. To his surprise, they said “they had looked it up and as far as they could tell, they were communists, because it said that people should share and share alike and that all people were equal.” In a small but significant way, the Laurel strike shows how consciousness doesn’t change by abstract propaganda but by the pressure of real events. People start to act differently even as the old ways of thought they use to understand their situation lag behind the need to act to resolve a concrete problem.
The Laurel experience, as exceptional as it may have been, was an offshoot of the ferment that trailed in the wake of the civil rights movement. The movement itself was in large part a product of the regional isolation of the rural South, just as were, on the cultural front, the social and cultural conditions making possible an Elvis Presley or a B.B. King. The isolation that nourished the pre-conditions for both has now largely vanished, slowly eroded by the decades-long modernization and economic development snowballing after the War on Poverty and more recently stimulated by the homogenizing effect of the Internet.
The result is that there will be no reprise of the civil rights movement in the South, any more than the next Elvis, singing in a distinct style heard nowhere else, will be discovered pumping gas in rural Mississippi. Instead, the South is being buffeted by the same forces as elsewhere in the country. But even this has paradoxical effects.
On the one hand, mutual aid and communal traditions are still stronger here. Because of an absent social safety net, people still rely on family, kin, and neighbors, making social ties more rooted in local and extended family networks and reinforcing some minimal sense of social solidarity.
Even local institutions respond differently than do those in the North. For example, Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical College (Alabama A&M), the historically Black college in Huntsville, lets people pick collard and turnip greens grown on school grounds as part of its agriculture programs. This communality and reliance on kin to get you through hard times is the vibe perfectly captured (though as treacle) in Tyler Perry’s movies, where all problems effortlessly dissolve under the sunny Southern skies of an extended family reunion and a dollop of homemade potato salad. The extended family, that “haven in a heartless world,” holds out, however faintly, some hope for a better future.
The best of this sort of communal tradition I saw sitting silently at a kitchen table, where a group of middle-aged black women discussed the sons, brothers, and sometimes husbands who were caught up in the Alabama prison system. It was a moving and often gut-wrenching dialogue.
But at the same kitchen table a few days later, with many of the same people nursing beers, few interacted. Instead, everyone was absorbed by looking at their cell phones at YouTube videos. The individualization and isolation that define so much of contemporary America kicked in. Probably the most widely read paper in Huntsville is not the mainstream Huntsville Times but the weekly “name and shame” Hard Times, printing mug shots and rap sheets of everyone arrested in the past week. Hard Times at once provokes a sense of solidarity-corroding retribution and, among young people, becomes a perverse badge of honor that you’ve done “something” to merit a listing.
Behind the “Y’All Wall,” though, oceans of pain wash over Southern working-class life. As is well known, the South experiences more diabetes, obesity, heart disease, HIV, and other chronic illnesses than any other region. The whole region constitutes one unbroken “Stroke Belt,” as it is known in public health circles, with stroke rates sometimes two or three times the national average. Drug use, that thermometer of social misery, is off the hook. Huntsville ranks as one of the painkiller hotspots in the United States, with 38 times the national average of questionable doctor-administered pain injections given.6
In the wake of oxycontin, or more precisely as a result of the crackdown on prescription mills drying up the street level supply of pills, a new wave of heroin has now flooded Southern streets. A recent charting of increased ER admissions because of heroin overdoses shows states in the South registering the biggest leaps. And crystal meth still remains a major scourge of Southern working-class whites.
In large part this surge of drug use is tied to the psychological and economic insecurity that has hit working-class life hard as a whole. The recent study showing the sharp drop in white working class lifespans, an unprecedented post-USSR-collapse-style decrease in life expectancy due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide captures this hidden, festering despair. It is the type of despair that may not be responsive to any political intervention. A recent report by the Washington Post on the North Carolina trailer camp —where Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof lived— revealed a jobless, transient world of damaged and broken families, non-stop video games, grass, and endless days of dead-end boredom.7
But unlike the Laurel, Mississippi strike, today there is no one like SCEF providing any counter-narrative. An already marginal left, more focused on identity and less on economics, has basically written this group of people off, assuming that unbridled racism is part of the Southern white working-class DNA. This view of unblemished white supremacy ignores why racism waxes in some conditions and wanes in others. In the absence of traction provided by any alternative, assuming it could hold, and more importantly, the practice to back it up, Southern white working-class disaffection gets easily channeled against immigrants or manipulated by the Donald Trumps and white-supremacist groups, or in looking backward in the most reactionary way to some mythologized Confederate past.
Even with this admittedly unpromising picture, there is still a chance the raisins might explode, that the Old Mole of the alternative South will once again claw its way to the surface. During the heyday of Occupy, there were camps and Occupy groups suddenly springing up in many Southern cities, including Huntsville, cities which never had a left or activist presence. In one video of a public meeting posted on the old Huntsville Occupy website, speakers said they came down to the camp and participated for reasons such as “wanting more control over their lives” and “to have a say in things.” What has happened since to the thousands of such previously non-political people in the South “wanting more control over their lives” is anyone’s guess. But since what goes on in the South rarely stays in the South, it instead percolates elsewhere, the “Southern Question” remains pivotal as ever to any renewed opposition in the United States, should it develop, and such people will remain key as well.
- Jason Zengerle, “The Civil Rights Movement is Going in Reverse in Alabama,” The New Republic, August 10, 2014.
- Lee Roop, “State Will Close All But Four Drivers’ License Offices Next Year if Budget Cuts Stand,” Huntsville Times, August 26, 2015.
- Campbell Robertson, “For Offenders Who Can’t Pay, It’s a Pint of Blood or Jail Time,” New York Times, October 19, 2015.
- James C. Cobb, Industrialization and Southern Society 1877-1984. (Chicago, IL: Dorsey Press, 1984), 37.
- Archival material from SCEF on Laurel can be found online. “Lessons from Laurel” at crmvtet.org and “Masonite Strike and Worker Organization” at mscivilrightsproject.org.
- Amy Brittain, David S. Fallis and Dan Keating, “Pain and Gain: An Alabama Pain Clinic Stand Out amid Data on Medicare Payments,” Washington Post, May 10, 2014.
- Stephanie McCrummen, “An American Void,” Washington Post, September 12, 2015.
CURTIS PRICE is a life-long Baltimore native who works in a West Baltimore health care facility.