What Does It Mean to Be Southern?

This is Part 2 of an interview by Gregory Rodriguez, editor of Zocalo Public Square, with James C. Cobb, emeritus Phinizy B. Spalding professor of the history of the American South at UGA, for the Smithsonian Institute’s project What It Means to Be an American. Read Part 1 here.

Gregory Rodriguez: What was the primary impulse for Southern states to secede?

James Cobb: For many generations, white Southerners have insisted that the Civil War was not about slavery—that it was about states’ rights, or it was about economic differences, or tariffs. But if you go back and just read the debates over secession in each Southern state— which I have had the dubious pleasure of doing—it becomes very clear that the debate is taking place between two groups of slaveholders. And every state secession convention was dominated not just by slaveholders, but by large slaveholders. And the question that they’re trying to wrestle with is, “Can we best protect slavery by leaving the Union, and creating a new nation centered on protecting slavery, or can we still find better ways to protect slavery by staying in the Union?” That’s the debate.

So, it wasn’t a groundswell of enthusiasm for secession. There was a lot of opposition from the upland mountain counties, where there was no slavery and no real sense of being worried about an interest in slavery to preserve. Secession happened because the people who were interested in promoting and protecting the institution of slavery were also the people who were in power. They dominated the state legislatures, and they dominated the state secession conventions.

The Confederate government was unpopular almost instantly. And so, Confederate white affections settled on the military: the guys who were doing the fighting. And that’s why there was the embrace of the battle flag, as opposed to the national flag of the Confederacy.

GR: Was slavery, then, the reason Southerners—even those who owned no slaves—fought on behalf of the Confederacy?

JC: I think it’s worth distinguishing between what started the war and who started it, and the people who fought it. There were lots of reasons why white Southerners might have taken up arms that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with any vested interest on their part in slavery. Once Lincoln makes the call for troops, it becomes, in the minds of many, “Well, I’ve got to protect my home, my family, my community.” My great-great-grandfather’s two sons went off to war… and his family never had any slaves. They had 150 acres of land.

And so, there were a lot of people who fought in that war for reasons we can’t fully comprehend. It was a war that served the interest of slaveholders and was precipitated by just the existence of the institution of slavery and of course the desire to see it expand. But we cannot necessarily extrapolate from that to say that everybody who fought in that war was fighting for slavery.

GR: What was the Lost Cause? And what led to its emergence?

JC: In the grand sweep of human history, there have been as many nations built on defeats as much as on victories. Because you can find unanimity and a ferocity in how you handle defeat and how you react to defeat as much as through victory. And so, the whole idea of the Lost Cause was to justify the white South’s position and to ennoble the Confederate cause.

Basically, what they were trying to do was create a Southern nationalism that had never existed before secession—based on the idea of the hallowed Confederate warriors fighting against overwhelming odds who only lost because they were so outnumbered. It was also an attempt to restore masculine pride among Southern white men. So, it is really the basis of kind of a nationalist ethos. And it leads, of course, to the erection of all these monuments at the end of the 19th Century and during the early 20th Century.

GR: Is there any connection between that cult of the noble loser, the Lost Cause, and country music?

JC: I think there is in the sense that there is a kind of chip-on-your-shoulder mentality that so much of country music exudes. It’s now less so than back in the glory days of country music, but there is a sense of being looked down upon and feeling that you’re kind of at loose ends and you need to be back among your own people. And so, I think country music does capture those sentiments. But again, it’s not today’s watered-down version, which is all about the perils of trying to live in suburbia. But I think the country music of the ’40s, in particular, when it became much more of a modern phenomenon and you hear a lot of songs about how “I may be a hobo and a hillbilly, but I can still whip your ass,” there’s a kind of grudge mentality that’s definitely there.

GR: You’re implying that country music has been suburbanized. Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of country music and what it says about Southern white identity?

JC: Country music emerged from the musical heritage of the British Isles. And then as it becomes a more commercial art form, it pulls together not just the old themes from the old British ballads but the contemporary events that shape the South. It’s got a strong religious component that always kind of brings you back to, “If you sin, you going to suffer for it.”

I think country music has simply adapted as the South has changed. And if you go back and look at people like Patsy Cline—who is, of course, now regarded as the classic female country singer of all time—in her day, she was viewed as a threat to traditional country music. That was because she sang with the backup of the Nashville sound, which was the big orchestral stylings, lots of strings, even a harp.

So, a great majority of Southerners do live in suburbs now. With all of that, the music has adapted. But it came out of a rural culture where it was hard-bitten, hard times for much of the South’s 20th Century history. The spike was in World War II, when you finally get a little infusion of prosperity, and you get a surge in the modernity of the music in the sense of amplification and the instrumentation, but it’s still mirroring what’s happening in the South.

GR: You write a lot about the concern—shared even by some who fought against Jim Crow—that white Southern identity was so tied up with segregation that the South would disappear as a distinct region when it ended.

JC: The proliferation of [Confederate] monuments corresponds with the era in which the Southern states were instituting Jim Crow Laws. They were taking the vote away from black people, and the monuments were used as sort of props for those moves. And that is why I think you just can’t have those monuments anymore, regardless of what they may have meant once to white Southerners who thought their ancestors fought for something other than slavery in the Civil War.

It’s very interesting—somebody said that what white Southerners do best is resist. And what will happen when there is nothing left to resist? And so, after the civil rights movement, when the end of institutionalized Jim Crow is fait accompli, there is this kind of identity crisis. For generations, everyone had heard that segregation, white supremacy and Jim Crow was the “Southern way of life.” So, what was there now to be redeemed of Southern identity, if the racial component had been stripped away?

And so, you get a classic example of the commodification of identity in the South, with efforts to transform Southern identity into a lifestyle. Then you get all these lifestyle magazines like Southern Living and Southern Accents and Garden and Gun. Identity becomes a hot commodity in the global marketplace. And so, what happens is that something you were cautious about revealing, or certainly not emphasizing—your Southern identity—suddenly becomes a point of pride, because it’s something that makes you special.

GR: What role did President Jimmy Carter play in the emergence of a post-segregation white Southern identity?

JC: It was a short love affair with Jimmy Carter. But if you reel back to that period of the mid-’70s, that’s a time when there’s really a national embrace of Southern culture. That’s when country music really explodes as a national phenomenon. And if you think about what’s on TV, you’ve got “The Andy Griffith Show,” you’ve got “The Waltons,” you’ve got the emergence of Willie and Waylon and the laid-back boys from Luckenbach. There’s this nice, warm, fuzzy, embraceable South.

Carter surfaces amid that. And he’s coming on the heels of Watergate. And he’s got the whole small-town rural Southern boy humility and religiosity, and maybe that’s just what we need: someone who is a good old, down-to-earth Southern boy who is humble and knows he should be humble.

But there were ways in which being a Southerner really hurt him—particularly when he was being a good Southern Baptist. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist, and you know you front-load suffering if you are a Baptist. You know it’s out there, so you may as well go out there and start suffering. And so that’s what Carter did. He comes in and he says, “You know, we can’t keep doing all this stuff. We can’t have all the oil we want. We can’t treat the whole world as our oyster anymore. We’ve got to lower our expectations and live more reasonably.” And of course, Americans don’t want to hear that.

GR: Has the South lost its distinctiveness since World War II?

JC: Assimilating the South and homogenizing the country was once tantamount to a national mission. But it strikes me that white Southerners have tried to hang on to vestiges of their Southern identity that aren’t tied to race. But you also have an American mass society a little bit reluctant to admit that the South is basically much like the rest of the country. Because, if you do that, then you have to own the South, which is something that the country has never really been ready to do. And I’m not sure if it still is. You can’t just keep saying that, when you have a racial atrocity in Pennsylvania, “This is the kind of thing you would expect to happen in Mississippi, not Pennsylvania.” But if you sort of say, “The South is in it, we’re all in it together,” then you lose that negative image that makes you feel good about yourself, and proud of yourself.

GR: And yet the North began to confront its own problems in the last half of the 20th Century.

JC: Unfortunately, what Southern segregationist politicians had been saying for decades was borne out. They always predicted that you just wait and see what happens when Northerners— white Northerners—are told they have to integrate their schools. And the court decides that it’s not just enough to get rid of de jure segregation. As soon as that gets in the court system and it’s starting to affect places like Detroit, then there’s—as a famous Southern historian said—there’s a massive withering of Northern self-righteousness.

And then also, the South has always been the poorest, most backward part of the country, but then the Rust Belt happens. And you get this massive drainage of people and capital moving south during the fuel crisis. There are very solid economic reasons behind it, as well, but there also is more fresh opportunity in the South. So, the whole saga of the more progressive, more prosperous North kind of starts to fray around the edges.

GR: What should it mean to be American?

JC: If we’re talking about the ideal of being American, I think it means accepting differences based on history and culture. And that’s something that held the South back for a long time, because it was not necessarily terribly friendly to outsiders. And it didn’t offer opportunity for people to want to go there—they weren’t seeing an opportunity for them to make a better life for themselves. And so, I think being less hung up on regional differences, as well as ethnic differences, and just sort of thinking, “We’re in this together, and it doesn’t matter whether your great-great-grandpa shot at my great-great-grandpa or not.” Just sort of trying to find that common ground that allows you not to forget your history, and it doesn’t force you to apologize for it, but forces you to acknowledge it and keep it. Keep it as your history without letting that become something that’s divisive.