Of Rogues, Relics and the Sages—Southern Politics in an Age of Crisis and Reform
by John L. Godwin
You were rifling through those references and bibliographies, puzzling over titles that seemed mysteriously to reappear. You were pondering the lessons of the American past, how it was that a catastrophic Civil War more devastating than any single event in the nation’s history could be resolved, not in single speech or legislative enactment, but out of the slow renditions of time. You were pondering the Great Depression and World War II—human events the very scale of which stagger the imagination. And you were once again reflecting on U.S. politics and the impact of the Southern states, where racism became institutionalized along with its semi-feudal economy, seeming forever to persist in the byways of the nation.
In politics as with any other human endeavor, even a real masterpiece can be overlooked. History is strewn with examples of obscure classics that cry out for readers. But the need for fresh perspective on such enduring questions brings us back to those books that uncover truths vital to the understanding of our world. Maybe that’s why Dixie Demagogues, by Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick, published by Vanguard Press in 1939 refuses to go away, though its authors remain something of a mystery. The book, for all its longevity, is almost never discussed where it is cited by historians. It seems to have been seldom reviewed, and apparently drew little comment in the public press in its own day. The flavor of its prose is acerbic, ironic, even slightly sententious, though energetic and never witless or arrogant. At times the book reads like an indictment particularly of regional leaders in U.S. Congress. Nevertheless, its insights remain profoundly relevant to our time.
If the South was once rightly regarded as a land apart from the national mainstream, Dixie Demagogues may provide one of those essential readings, pointing out the steps whereby the national mainstream was transformed alongside the region. By the late 1940s, in the years during and immediately after the Second World War, the American South had come to be viewed as a land of debilitating social cleavages with a tendency toward theater and absurdity in its politics. Historians dispute the extent to which this occurred in the South alone—but this book by Michie and Ryhlick takes the matter on at point blank range. In a country like the U.S., where money often rules and the study of politics is about how to get elected, this book helped to uplift the cheerless realm of politics in the South at a crucial moment.
Could it be that for this very reason the book has been consigned to an oblivion by historians?
It was written at a time of growing international crisis in foreign affairs, one that unfolded after 1936 as Germany re-armed, marched its armies into the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, continuing on its drumbeat of military aggression, with Italy and Japan joining the fray for a share in the spoils of war.
So, why, with these devastating events before the world, should the subject of Southern politics become suddenly so important?
The circumstance can be compared to Hurricane Katrina in 2003 bearing down on the Gulf Coast, leaving behind a shattered city and revealing the racism, corruption, and incompetence of a government unable to provide the most basic services for its people at a time of crisis. Today the American people want answers, and most of all, want improved government to prevent such scenes of devastation from reoccurring. So it was in the 1930s and 1940s.
But the Great Depression in the Southern states was no hurricane, rather a dark miasma that had already settled over the region long before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Charges of political demagoguery and outright incompetence among the region’s political leaders were nothing new, but had been heard in the region’s press and elsewhere at least since the extremism and violence of the Ku Klux Klan ran roughshod over civil liberties in 1920s. The depression brought the Democratic Party back into national leadership under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Southern Democrats in U.S. Congress for a time showed enthusiasm in the support of FDR’s New Deal. But as the 1930s unfolded, as Michie and Ryhlick show in this remarkable volume, Southern legislators turned in opposition to a variety of New Deal measures pertaining specifically to labor, civil rights, and the economic regulatory regime which increasingly called for new and enlarged federal powers. Their opposition led to a deepening schism among Democrats. And in 1938 FDR turned to a group of Southern liberals—sages by comparison to the demagogues—who helped the administration produce its famous Report on Economic Conditions of the Southern States (1938). Armed with this Report, President Roosevelt addressed the nation in August of that year as the Congressional campaign drew toward its climax, declaring, “It is my conviction that the South presents right now, in 1938, the nation’s number one economic problem.”1
In the year that followed, the two reporters who had worked for the Time-Life empire of Henry R. Luce produced the volume that laid bare the realities of life and politics in the region, making accessible Roosevelt’s charges to millions of readers still fixated on myths of the Old South as a land of chivalrous cavaliers and dashing Confederates. In a region containing more than half of the nation’s farms, the pervasive dependency on cotton agriculture in the 1930s saw sharecroppers and farm tenants driven to desperation as prices fell to six cents per pound. Average gross farm income for the region as a whole fell to little more than a third of that of the Northern and Western regions. Foreclosures and glutted markets meant that thousands of sharecroppers, tenants, and small farmers were driven off the land. Vast acreages fell to the ownership of banks and corporations, while in the cities and towns, sweatshops with wages among the lowest in the nation flourished, as unemployment grew rampant. Millions of poor Southern children, white and black, lacked adequate food, clothing, housing and received a second rate education. But for the entire population, “[T]he faded overalls, the flour-sack garments worn threadbare with innumerable washings have become a symbol of poverty. They need medical care. Illness, misery, and premature death are constant visitors to their squalid homes. Malaria annually infects more than two million. Syphilis, pneumonia, typhoid, hookworm and rickets are always present...” (p.14)
In response to depression maladies, Michie and Ryhlick’s Dixie Demogogues provided a rogue’s gallery of Southern politicians that pointed the finger not only at the region’s primary leaders, but also exposed the political and social structures along with the assumptions which under girded a broken system. “A fantastic parade of political charlatans has marched across the hustings of the South since the Civil War,” announced the authors, adding “[T]he people of the South have been ‘robbed,’ literally and figuratively, for so long by those whom their ballots elect that they now accept this as a necessary evil of the system under which they are misgoverned.”(p.3-4) Through portraits of such figures as Texas’s W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel, Mississippi’s Theodore “The Man” Bilbo, Huey Long, “the Kingfish” of Louisiana, gallous thumping Eugene Talmadge of Georgia, South Carolina’s Cotton Ed Smith, Robert “Our Bob” Reynolds of North Carolina, and Tennessee’s ruthless machine boss, Ed Crump of Memphis—Michie and Ryhlick show how the South’s leaders in the U.S. Senate became the colorful clowns and the race-baiting charlatans whose opposition to New Deal reforms finally aroused the ire of the nation and provided a stimulus for the new liberalism of the postwar era.
Mississippi’s Bilbo is offered as a primary example, in a state “entertained, bewitched, cajoled, beguiled, and bewildered by the campaigns of ‘The Man’”.(p.87) A former theology student who drove the state dressed in a pink suit with a fedora hat, Bilbo sang hymns, denounced crop reductions, pledged to investigate the Gutenberg Bible, and contrived charges against political friends only to reveal their ultimate falsity, while promising impoverished farmers that he would “drive the money changers out of the temple,” and would inflate the price of cotton by encouraging women to wear cotton “lingery” (pronounced with a hard ‘g’). Showmanship of this sort had been common enough in Southern politics, but its real character only became clear when actual voting wedded the demagogues to the moneyed interests they often denounced. Bilbo’s brazen racism also knew no limits. He preached white supremacy, extolled the purity Southern womanhood, admitted to membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and praised the “racial consciousness” of German and Italian fascists as if these latter day converts had finally discovered what the South had always stood for.(p.104-105)
Michie and Ryhlick show that it has not been long indeed since white racism was a staple feature of the regional culture, where politics tended to degenerate into an exchange of personalities. The flamboyance of style over substance could as easily turn to vicious ranting that made racism a highly public if not a popular pastime. But in addition to these, a second type of demagogue traded on an ability to work “behind a cloak of dignity and respectability.” This more subtle political type, which included such figures as North Carolina’s Senator Josiah Bailey, Walter George of Georgia, Millard Tydings of Maryland, Carter Glass and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, contrasted mainly in terms of appearance and intensity and did not alter the underlying pattern. Such educated and intelligent men provided the example of “streamlined demagogues”. They might differ in the degree to which they worked alternately in support or opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal, but their primary difference from the Bilbos and the Longs lay in the fact that they were essentially less entertaining.
These included men like the former House Speaker from Texas, Vice President John Nance Garner, who won prominence as a card sharking lawyer with vast holdings in real estate and banking. Garner carefully positioned himself as a Roosevelt supporter, yet remained devoted to the special interests of his state while ignoring the substantial Mexican population that “has been ground to serfdom under the heels of a landed aristocracy.”(p.31) According to Michie and Ryhlick, Garner emerged as the South’s leading symbol of resistance to New Deal reforms. Backed by the newspaper empire of William R. Hearst, he had become one of FDR’s new rivals and stood as a major contender for the presidency in 1940. The list also included South Carolina Senator James G. Byrnes, who worked for FDR’s election in 1932 and voted for much of the early New Deal legislation, but turned against it after 1936 along with Mississippi’s Pat Harrison.(pp.34-35, 44)
Dixie Demagogues also contains the deeper analysis of the structure of politics that in later years became a mainstay of commentary on the region. A new era of liberal politics was in the making, to which Michie and Ryhlick contributed by showing how the foundations of government in the Southern states dated from the overthrow of Reconstruction—hence the full extent to which the South as a region remained essentially outside the mainstream of the American experience. With the establishment of white supremacy through the 1890s, the political disenfranchisement of millions of black and poor white Southern voters resulted in a one-party politics, in which the mere mention of the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln and the Union triumph of 1865—still brought fury and indignation from Southern leaders. The suppression of black voting, accomplished through the poll tax, literacy tests, property qualifications, and the all-white primary led to the establishment of the South’s Bourbon Democracy under regimes whose underlying philosophy of state’s rights and economic conservatism seemed to have more in common with the conservatism of the 1930s Republicans than with the liberal ideology of the Democratic Party. The result was a mass decline in voter-participation, often among those very poor white and black voters who suffered the most from the depression. According to Michie and Ryhlick, voter participation in the election of 1936 saw only a 10.7% voter turn-out in South Carolina, 13% in Mississippi, 16.1% for Georgia, and 19.8% for Alabama; while in North Carolina, a state that had already abolished its poll tax, the voter turn-out stood somewhat higher at 42.7%.(p.18)
For a generation of Americans who came of age with economic assumptions conditioned by the depression, muckraking journalism of this sort was essential. Michie and Ryhlick observed that the South’s status as the nation’s primary economic problem, “is not a brand of shame upon a group of states. It is a stigma on the nation.” On the eve of America’s world-wide struggle with the tyranny and mass murder of the Axis powers of Europe and Asia, the rhetoric of Southern politics was dysfunctional. The lack of basic democracy in the South found its parallel in the economic blight that existed elsewhere in the nation, so that the South’s “lack of purchasing power is dragging down the material prosperity of America.”(p.9) White supremacy, built into the very structure of Southern politics in an age of segregation, served as the mainstay of men who “live on their ability to pluck the strings of passion and race hatred.”(p.6) Through the seniority system in Congress, Congressional rules and party rules, moreover, a system of Congressional bottlenecks had been created which elevated the South’s demagogues to powerful and deciding positions on key committees. Dixie demagogues thus could and in some cases did forestall the very measures needed to lift the nation out of the depression. Lingering under the spell of its Civil War obsession, the defiant South stood as a roadblock to American progress, forestalling the development of a social safety net to provide security for millions of poor and the elderly, in addition to the workers and farmers who made up the backbone of working America.
But it is important that for Michie and Ryhlick the Southern white majority were as much the victims of the malady as Blacks, Mexicans or other groups. The industrialization of the region, continuing even during the depression era, where the South’s Chambers of Commerce flaunted, indeed, advertised its “cheap and contented” labor supply, remained firmly under the control of “the 200 great corporations which control to a large degree the economic life of America.” For the two journalists, “[T]here is more truth than triteness in the expression that the South is the colony of Wall Street.”(p.16-17) The Gilded Age program of industrial development proclaimed by Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady created only the illusion of “the dawn of a glorious age” and along with it the illusion of a “Solid South”. The rogues and relics of a bygone era in the South had become “the spokesmen for absentee corporations and a rotting feudal system.” The system of white supremacy in the South and all its abuses, perpetuated against the people of the Unites States, could continue to exist “only so long as the South continues to slumber under the opiates of suppression, race prejudice, poverty, and illiteracy.”(p.287)
It is tempting to suggest that we have a dire shortage of books written with such force and clarity. But the truth is more likely that books like this one become popular only at critical moments within history, those crossroads of circumstance when the turn of events underscores their meaning, inspiring readers to take them seriously. A recent study by Augustus B. Cochran, Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie, covered some of the same territory, arguing that the Americanization of Dixie since the 1960s has in effect, resulted in a nationalization of a Southern type of politics. The drift in politics over the last thirty years according to Cochran has been toward the kinds of abuses once common to the age of the demagogues, threatening the U.S. and the world with clouds that “bode ill for our democracy.” Although rejecting what he regards as a superficial comparison of the region’s leaders today to the “bigots and buffoons” of yesteryear, Cochran asserts that, “to lay a proper foundation for contemporary politics... we must start at the beginning. In Southern politics, the point of departure is always V.O. Key’s classic analysis, written in 1949.”2 Sharing many of the underlying assumptions of the Time-Life journalists, V.O. Key joined the ranks of the sages with the publication of his now famous Southern Politics, In State and Nation, which became perhaps the most outstanding in a series of books written by the liberal minded Southern writers of the period—including such figures as Howard Odum, Rupert Vance, James Agee, W.J. Cash, Stetson Kennedy, Lillian Smith and others.
Cochran is likely justified in describing Key’s magisterial work as the best place to begin the study of postwar Southern politics. It has been held to be the first book of its kind, the first truly detailed analysis of regional government, employing the statistical and analytic methods of modern social and political science. Yet, unlike Cochran, V.O. Key cited Dixie Demagogues at a number of interesting footnotes, and there are a number of close parallels in the thrust of its assertions with this well known work that make it all the more interesting to contemporary readers. Key also focused on one-party politics, the white primary system, the political disenfranchisement of Blacks, and the overall disorganization in politics that is said to result. Perhaps because of Dixie Demagogues and the one or two other books like it, the misleading rhetoric of Bilbo, Huey Long, Eugene Talmadge and etc. had already become a well known, if clearly established political fact by 1949, at a far more conservative hour in U.S. history. Like Michie and Ryhlick, Key observed that sectional tensions within the Southern states served as a major factor. The Black Belt region where the history of antebellum plantation agriculture became most firmly established, often contended for power with the upcountry South, where post-Civil War development had been most dramatic. Both books tended to view the resulting pattern as deriving essentially through a structure of power rooted in the Black Belt, from which white supremacy and political disenfranchisement had its origin. And both operate with the same assumptions about the South’s most distinctive institution: the removal of white supremacy and the development of a two-party South would likely become a great benefit to the nation.
But there are also important differences between Key’s Southern Politics, and Dixie Demagogues. Writing at a time of burgeoning labor activism in the late 1930s, the Time-Life journalists saw a South where freedom of speech and political association were crushed out as a major organizing campaigned of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) directed at the city of New Orleans met with armed assaults, arbitrary jailing, and even torture at the hands of company agents allied with law enforcement and the system of justice. Texas Congressman, Martin Dies, leader of the newly ordained House UnAmerican Activities Committee, created ostensibly to investigate the foreign agents of fascist powers in the United States on the eve of war, had instead turned the bulk of its activities to the investigation of communism. The result, as Michie and Ryhlick show, was newspaper headlines that “screamed—REDS DOMINATE CIO”. Exploiting the patriotic fervor associated with growing world conflict, Dies and his supporters across the U.S. proclaimed “100 percent Americanism,” said to be based on “the belief in God as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.”(p.55, 66-67) Michie and Ryhlick also stress that in the U.S. Congress, efforts by supporters of the NAACP’s national campaign to end the lynching of African Americans through federal legislation met with a continuous, united opposition from Southern legislators.(p.9-10)
V.O. Key’s famous study, for all its statistical expertise, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and installed at the University of Alabama, showed that the famed analyst was simply not interested in such a multi-dimensional exposition of the failure of Southern leadership. It thus required a major depression and an impending world war to produce what otherwise might never have found its way in print to American readers. Southern Politics treats with Congressman Martin Dies with little more than a footnote. Has nothing to say about the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and little to say about communism or the Cold War—the major political events at the time of his writing. Key viewed organized labor optimistically as a promising influence for the South, but is more interested in defending capitalist order, and has as little to say about lynching. Although he acknowledges the recommendations of President Harry Truman’s Civil Rights Committee, on the whole the flavor of Southern Politics is at best cool and detached if not ambivalent on the subjects of labor and civil rights for Blacks.
From Carolina Civic Voice, Spring 2007