Poor but Proud

A review of J. Wayne Flynt, Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Professor Flynt, the author of this volume, concentrates on the economic condition and the cultural life of poor white South­erners, but does not fail to mention some of the vices of the American majority, especially the attempt, often unsuccessful, to impose their own values and lifestyle on the South. According to Flynt, one of the most difficult obstacles confronting those who attempt to assess Southern poor whites is the abundance of stereotypi­cal definitions and judgments. For example, contrary to the popular view, all poor whites in the South were not (and are not) racists and red­necks, nor were (or are) most of them Klansmen and Holy Rollers. As Flynt observes in the Preface, “Getting to know people as individuals dissolves many of one’s pre-conceived notions about them, and so it is with Southern poor whites.”

However, even when stereotypes are abandoned, all the difficulties in assessing the culture of poor whites in the South are not removed. One must find a scale with which to judge this culture. Flynt believes that many errors in public policy and in private interpretation have been made by judging the South with the values of the mainstream culture. Should Southern culture, with its rural, agra­rian, and religious values and its notion of kin, be weighed in a balance which favors urban, industrial, and secular values and the nuclear family? This question was dealt with in the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, Flynt appreciates the importance of the Agrarians’ social criticism but finds fault with them for glamorizing the Old South and for failing to come up with a detailed, practical program to alleviate pover­ty. The Agrarians did advocate a plan: subsistence farming, agricultural di­versification, and individual owner­ship of farms (rather than tenant or corporate farms). But they offered no detailed program for reducing pov­erty.

Faulting the Agrarians for failure to spell out a program of specific eco­nomic reform misses the point. This was not their mission. More than material poverty, the Agrarians feared poverty of the spirit and spiritual enslavement. They should be re­garded as critics or prophets, not as planners.

Flynt chides Arnold Toynbee, New Deal bureaucrats, and “secular missionaries” (industrialists and their spokesmen) for equating material poverty with moral and cultural depravity. Appalachian mountain people often were poverty stricken, but this material poverty was not always accompanied by barbarism, illiteracy, and witchcraft, as Toynbee stated in A Study of History, Bureau­crats and secular missionaries, de­voted to economic yard sticks, could see little or no value in Southern or mountain culture. Also, they, like many other Americans, could not understand a people who “made do with what the Good Lord provided” and who accepted hard times as “God’s will.”

Many social scientists have em­phasized racism in the South, think­ing it the most salient characteristic of Southerners, especially poor whites. Flynt argues that racism “was only one aspect of a multifaceted folk culture” and does not deserve the primary attention it has received from authors seeking “to serve their own ideological purposes.” In particular, Flynt censures aristocrat William Byrd, the abolitionists Frederick L. Olmstead and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms for serving ideology rather than truth in some of their writings about either poor whites or the racial attitudes of poor whites.

Flynt views Southern poor whites as an ethnic minority, “a group of racially and historically related people who shared a common culture which they preserved in a distinctive way of life, language, habit, and loyalty.” As an ethnic group, Southern poor whites differed substantially from the rest of America. The Southern “eth­nics” were tenant farmers, producing relatively non-perishable, one-crop substances (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane), with an emotional, other­worldly religion, gifted in the arts of story-telling (tall tales and ghost stories) and music, both sacred and secular. Those qualities gave South­ern poor whites their distinction. Flynt observes that poor people have always been the best keepers of American folklore and that this has been especially true in the South where “strong family ties, poverty, isolation, and hostility to outsiders kept oral traditions unchanged over the years.”

For a long time the South remained economically and politically isolated from the Northeast. Poor whites in the South, says Flynt, experienced a double isolation, for they had little influence on the economic and political activity of their own region. This isolation from the mainstream culture and from the hub of activity at home contributed to the individualism and conservatism of poor whites. Attempts by industrialists, unions, and New Deal agencies to reduce this isolation were not always successful. Farmers who left the land to work in mines, factories, and mills merely exchanged poverty on the land for poverty in town. Those who moved north suffered from double culture shock and were doubly isolated. By 1900, says Flynt, many Southern workers had discovered “that industry was a Frankenstein.” Programs which ignored regional culture alleviated neither poverty nor isolation and “lifted the poor more often into purgatory than into the heavenly city.”

Poverty in the South, ineffectually dealt with in Reconstruction days and only partly alleviated by Roosevelt’s New Deal measures, was forgotten for a few decades only to be rediscovered in the early 1960’s. Despite New Frontier programs instituted under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Kennedy’s Appalachian Regional Commission and Johnson’s War on Poverty, the poor are still with us.

But what can be done? According to Flynt, “Government can help, but the Southern landscape is littered with the wreckage of ill-conceived government panaceas.” Because of human nature and the nature of society, it is unreasonable to expect the eradication of poverty everywhere, but some means are more successful and less demeaning than others. Flynt seems to echo Agrarian sentiments in his assessment of the problem:

Progress might mean jobs and a better way of life to some, but to others it meant the extinction of old ways that were revered and still meaningful. Progress might mean the eradication of poor white racism and fundamentalism, but it would also spell doom to magnificent handicrafts and bonds of spirit and neighborliness by which people lived creatively with one another.

Flynt also delineates the bitter aspects of Southern life (racism, violence, and political demagoguery) as well as the sweet. His effort is to examine Dixie’s Forgotten People from their own perspective, not from that of another region. Flynt may owe some of his understanding to his own ancestors he describes as “proud sharecroppers of the northeast Alabama clay hills.”

The volume includes an excellent annotated bibliography that students of Southern culture will find valuable.

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