Past Is Prologue

More Than Dixie

Working-class white people in the South have better stories to tell than the Lost Cause

Woman in Graham, North Carolina counter-protesting a Black Lives Matter march this past July. Photo by author.

I think she is trying to stare me down. Her eyes are leveled right at me.

In another space, at another time, we might be friendly. We might chat. I might say, “Excuse me, ma’am, my apologies,” as I bumped into her on my way to pay my bill at the diner. And she might smile at me and say, “No problem, hon.” She might comment on my tattoo, and I might tell her I like hers. Maybe she has a butterfly that makes her think of her mother or a bit of script reminding her to be strong. She might show me the pictures of her grandchildren, the ones she keeps in her billfold, and I might tell her that I love children too. I might tell her to have a nice day, and I might mean it when I say it.

But, for now, we have both arrived here, on a street corner in downtown Graham, North Carolina, under the shadow of yet another Confederate statue, a mostly unremarkable statue, one like many in our small Southern towns, a statue that has never been right, and now we are here in the heat of the long days of 2020’s summer, breathing in the stale air, breathing out change.

The woman and I are being kept apart by a line of cops. She is standing in what can only be described as a fighting stance, her knobby knees sticking out from her jean shorts, demonstrating her defiance by refusing to turn away. She is holding a poster board above her head, probably bought at the Family Dollar where I also shop. On it, written in marker, are the words: “I was born in 1956. I don’t remember slaves.”

A man stands behind her waving the Stars and Bars, that strange flag that has dotted my own Southern life, its motion creating a slight ripple in the July heat. To her side is another man, the man I believe she came here with, and he is screaming obscenities over the heads of the officers at me and the other people gathered. His obscenities are particularly vile when they are directed to the young Black men beside me, who he calls “bucks,” not quite the N-word, but we all know what he means. All lives matter, he chants, all lives matter. He is loud, bombastic, agitated, furious. All lives matter. All lives matter. When it comes from his mouth it seems like they don’t.

But it is the woman I can’t take my eyes off, and likewise, she won’t look away from me.

“You can’t pretend to not be white,” she finally yells at me. I flinch a little.

The door was propped open with a brick, letting fresh air into the classroom, the heat already setting in even though it was only April. I was tilting my chair forward at my desk, balancing it on two legs like I had been told not to, poring over my seventh-grade history textbook after class. I was scanning the pictures in the chapter titled “The Civil Rights Era,” looking for white faces in the crowds of Selma, Atlanta, Birmingham. Not the twisted up, cruel faces of the teenagers and mothers screaming at Ruby Bridges, but someone I could identify with. Someone on the right side. Someone I could claim.

Civil rights marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr. cross the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama after being turned back by state troopers. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Growing up, I remember only being aware of my whiteness when I was confronted either with non-whiteness or by egregious, vile whiteness. But I never walked through my daily life — tripping along behind my mother in the grocery store, riding my bike on country roads, meeting friends at the county swimming pool — feeling like I was white.

It’s not that I felt I wasn’t white — it’s just that whiteness was the default. Blackness and Brownness were “otherness” and worthy of comment, while whiteness was always just assumed.

For this reason, a lot of power comes with whiteness. Almost everywhere you go, you belong. But for this same reason, whiteness can lack a narrative that fits with our sense of self. To align with whiteness means to align with oppressors who enslaved over four million people; oppressors who enacted 100 years of segregation and Jim Crow; oppressors who have continued American imperialism on both the Left and the Right. Is whiteness a monolith? Is it a single story? If you acknowledge your whiteness is there only one way to be?

When I think back to that classroom and my desperate desire to find signs of white folks who stood against supremacy, I think about how we all want a story to tell about who we are and where we are from. We all want and need characters from history to attach ourselves to. I can tell vague stories about being working-class, about greasy men under cars, panting dogs in weedy yards, mothers driving collapsing minivans, and the prideful make-do Christmases I have given my own son with sparsely decorated trees. But I can’t really tell a story of whiteness that fits with my understanding of the world.

I desperately want there to be a different story of whiteness, but I think the fact remains: Whiteness is oppression. Aligning yourself with your whiteness is a choice to engage in supremacy. However, in a strange way, the vast and arid narrative of whiteness also allows us to choose who we want to be. If you understand history to be a narrative and not merely a string of facts, you can choose what history you wish to align yourself with. Or, at the very least, you can choose who you venerate.

It turns out that Southern white history doesn’t have to start or stop with Robert E. Lee.

“I was born in 1956, I don’t remember slavery.”

Her sign is not wrong, I suppose, but it is certainly not right. Of course, chattel slavery no longer existed in 1956, but Jim Crow was in full force and the Ku Klux Klan in central North Carolina was in its third major resurgence the year she was born. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, membership in the North Carolina Klan was growing so rapidly and perniciously that it soon became the largest Klan organization in the country, erecting billboards and holding massive public rallies across the state. When she was born, the North Carolina Klan claimed a membership of well over 10,000 white North Carolinians.

So, perhaps she does not remember slavery, but she should remember the Klan of the 1950s and ’60s — the Grand Dragon, Bob Jones, lived only a few towns over from here. She should also remember starting school in an all-white classroom. In fact, depending on where she lived, it’s likely that she made it all the way through her junior year of high school before her local school would have desegregated. North Carolina didn’t come into compliance with desegregation until the 1971–1972 school year.

However, being born white in the South in 1956 doesn’t automatically tie you to racism, segregation, and the Klan. There has always been resistance — and many white folks were part of that resistance. While we tend to make excuses for people’s thoughts and actions as being a “product of their time,” the truth is that every generation has possessed clear-eyed dissent to slavery, the Confederacy, Jim Crow, racism, discrimination, and abuse.

For most white folks — at least poor and working-class white folks — Dixie was never really our story anyway.

In 1956, instead of aligning with the Confederate flag, people could align with Horace Carter and Willard Cole, two white small-town journalists living near Graham. Carter and Cole ran the Tabor City Tribune and the Whiteville News Reporter, respectively, and both earned a Pulitzer for taking on the Klan in their reporting. In July 1950, Carter wrote an editorial titled “No Excuse for the KKK” in response to a law-enforcement sanctioned and escorted parade by the Klan right through Tabor City and in front of Black residents. Carter called the Klan “the personification of Fascism and Nazism” and went on to write nearly 100 more pieces (joined later by Cole’s writings in the next town of Whiteville) in his tiny town paper. He did this during some of the local Klan’s most violent days. Carter and Cole’s views were largely rejected by the white community, leaving them and their families isolated and subject to threats. But they continued to write.

White folks in North Carolina could hang their hats on Carter and Cole or a myriad of other white people who were a part of the resistance. People could tie red strings to doorknobs like North Carolina’s Redstrings here in the Piedmont. White people could tell children stories about Tennessee’s brave bridge-burner David Fry or of Delia Webster, who operated a station on the underground railroad and helped hundreds of people toward freedom.

The woman with the flag might think that because of the color of my skin, I’m on the wrong side of the protest. But, Dixie isn’t the only story we Southerners have to tell.

For most white folks — at least poor and working-class white folks — Dixie was never really our story anyway.

My first boyfriend drove a pickup truck with the Confederate flag emblazoned across the back window, and he would pick me up from my house in it. That summer of making out on dead-end roads and drinking stolen wine with the moon lighting up loblolly forests was a good one. He was kind and gentle to me in a way that laid expectations that every teenage girl should have the opportunity to establish.

The flag behind our heads as we drove aimlessly through town felt rebellious, a reclaiming of an insult, dirt kicked into the faces of those who muttered “white trash” behind our backs. I didn’t understand the flag as I understand it now, but I remember wanting it like I wanted him — something to claim, something to tell me I was worthy, something I could call my own.

The idea of a rebel is undeniably attractive. I saw pictures of “the rebs” in a small museum in Appomattox that summer; they looked disheveled, wild-eyed, smirking. I found myself liking their style compared to the formal Union stiffs. But rowdy rebel yell aside, is that really what the Confederacy was? Can you call what they were doing “rebellious” when in truth they were fighting to uphold slavery and an aristocratic status quo?

It seems like our country is built off incorrectly attributed rebels. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, our fights have always been for rich, white landowning men who were trying to keep the tide in their favor.

And facts tell us that most of those wild-eyed Johnny Rebs were actually conscripted men. Clearly a rich man’s war with nothing to gain for the majority of whites, the Confederacy relied on ever-expanding Conscription Acts to build out their troops starting in 1862. Drafted men who had the means (that is, the wealth) were permitted to hire a substitute instead of fighting themselves. Wealthier men could also gain exemption from the draft through the “Twenty Negro” law, which allowed overseers and those in the owning class to avoid service. In other words, by design, the people who were fighting were overwhelmingly poor.

Slavery in the South was not a “way of life” but an economic system that benefited only the wealthiest class.

By the end of the war, more than 10% (12,000) of North Carolinian soldiers had deserted the Confederate army and created community self-defense groups to thwart the Confederate Home Guards from finding them and forcing them to return to service. Many poor and working white people, especially in the mountains, created armed resistance to the draft altogether, not wanting to be ruled by a slave-owning oligarchy.

Slavery in the South was not a “way of life” but an economic system that benefited only the wealthiest class. Exploiting the lives, spirits, and bodies of millions of enslaved people, slavery additionally held down poor white people who could not compete with “free” slave labor in the southern economy. In places like Tennessee, the majority of whites opposed both succession and the war. Because the thoughts and inner musings of poor men are rarely documented, I can’t know if they opposed slavery or if they simply just didn’t want to fight. But I do know that the flag decal across the entire back window of my boyfriend’s truck wasn’t nearly as rebellious as we might have thought.

On the contrary, flying the Confederate flag should feel more like a class offense. After all, the only way to be a rebel in a rich man’s war is to refuse to fight his fight… and to refuse to fly his flag.

At the protest in Graham, there is another white woman, but this woman is next to me. Like me, she is watching the woman with the sign, who is now waving it high above her head and shouting at me that I should be ashamed of myself. Nearly all the neo-Confederates are yelling at the Black Lives Matter protesters, shouting obscenities, and trying to disrupt the speakers on the stage.

“Ignorant racists,” the woman next to me says, shaking her head dismissively. “Just ignore them,” she instructs me. I bristle at this in the same way I bristled at the sign-holding woman suggesting I was trying not to be white.

Counter-protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in Graham, North Carolina. Photo by author.

I think she is wrong. She is wrong that they should be ignored, and she is wrong that they are ignorant. While my guess is that the woman with the sign has her history incorrect, I believe that casting racism off as uneducated neglects to acknowledge it as a systematic and intentional tool of power. Contemporary white middle-class anti-racist organizing seems primarily interested in calling out the racist behavior of others and, to a lesser extent, the unlearning of our own racism, but it consistently and persistently fails to possess any analysis of power.

Poor and working-class white people who align themselves with whiteness are doing so in a last-ditch attempt to gain power — and that isn’t simply obtuse. It is part of a carefully laid-out economic and political plan.

The woman holding the sign is not merely an ill-informed Confederate historian nor is she necessarily uneducated. She is more likely a subscriber to deeply racist ideology and calling her “ignorant” avoids confronting this truth.

In 1949, white Southern writer and activist Lillian Smith described in her book Killers of the Dream a “grand bargain” that asked Southern poor whites to turn over their political power to a minority of wealthy whites in exchange for a social status elevated above Blacks. This constant turning over of decision-making, wealth, and power to an elite in order to be told a tale of white supremacy is one of the defining characteristics of the white working-class South.

Casting racism off as uneducated neglects to acknowledge it as a systematic and intentional tool of power.

Southern white elites have always known that any unity experienced between poor whites and Blacks is an existential threat to their power, and they have stoked fear and racial resentment and have intentionally created competition between the groups to nullify its potential impact. While Lee Atwater made the Southern Strategy famous, the technique had long existed and was only perfected by Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. It was, after all, a central strategy also in the antebellum South. The truth is, these wealthy white people resisted measures that would engender equality both between races and between classes. For example, Southern landowners prevented most forms of education throughout the South, hoping to keep both enslaved Black people and poor white people from learning to read or write. Wealthy people knew they were outnumbered and feared what allegiances could be formed against them.

History in the United States is often grossly told. As recently as 2015, a McGraw-Hill textbook used in public schools referred to enslaved people as “workers from Africa.” In the 1990s, I was taught the purposeful myth that there were “kindly slave owners” who treated the people they held in bondage well.

Poor white people, however, have rarely made it into history books at all. Most of our nation’s preserved storytelling is that of wealthy white landowners, and the idea of America becomes their dream and their playground, not ours. In the South specifically, the narratives of poor white people are left out because of a need to paint a picture of white unity in the Confederacy. This single story of whiteness was necessary to further the “Lost Cause” narrative that was used to destroy Reconstruction and to later rally white people around a romanticized Gone With the Wind “shared past.”

The omission of poor and working Southern white people from history and the merging of their identity with the Lost Cause narrative is not only a historical fallacy, but it’s also used to mask the huge gaps in economic equality between classes. Wealthy white supremacists in power need poor white people to believe in their whiteness and to believe that maintaining racist systems can lift up all whites — including those at the bottom. After 400 years, however, it hasn’t.

“I was born in 1956. I don’t remember slavery.” I continue to stare at her and her sign. She continues to stare at me. I am conflicted. I oppose her message; I oppose her beliefs. But I also feel a softness come over me — maybe not so much for her, but for all of us in 2020 standing out in the imploding sun. She is complicit because she is trying to scrape her way to the top of the pile by subscribing to white supremacy, but she has also been taken advantage of.

She and I are not dissimilar. We might be 15 years apart, but our faces and bodies both wear the signs of working-class America. Neither of us is beautiful, but we are worn and tired. We are both angry and frustrated, and our faces and bodies visibly wear those emotions. Could things have been different if we had been given access to a different narrative of who we are?

Poor and working-class white folks have long been rebels — real rebels — trying to disarm and revolt against a system not made for us. Class dissent and fighting white supremacy in the South have a substantial and radical history involving intentional multiracial organizing, but those are the stories we aren’t supposed to tell.

My seventh-grade textbook had three short paragraphs about abolitionist John Brown. The first paragraph explained that he was a religious zealot and was probably insane. The second paragraph detailed that he assembled a scrappy crew of followers, raided the armory in Harper’s Ferry, freed a handful of enslaved folks, and had a truly half-baked plan. The third paragraph taught us that he was hung from a tree and reiterated that he was probably crazy and that even Lincoln himself thought so. All of that sounded suspicious to me. By 12 years old, I had heard enough men call their ex-girlfriends “crazy,” and I had already figured out that it didn’t mean what they said it did.

Those three paragraphs about John Brown were my first hint that the culture I was growing up in, including the educational system, was not interested in talking about multiracial or class solidarity as part of our American story.

John Brown looking crazy in“Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry. Image: Wikimedia Commons

John Brown was also taught to me as though he were an outsider: a meddlesome Northerner who didn’t understand the ways of the South. He was taught to me as a rogue, someone disconnected and alone. But in truth Brown was actually supported by both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He was a part of the Underground Railroad movement, probably our nation’s first and largest multiracial organizing effort. The raid at Harper’s Ferry was part of a plan to extend the Underground Railroad. The Subterranean Passway, as the expansion was called, was designed to go through Appalachia to access the deep South, where over a million enslaved people had been moved in the decades before Brown’s raid. The passway was planned through Appalachia because throughout the mountains, impoverished Appalachian white communities were generally opposed to slavery, just as they were later overwhelmingly opposed to the Confederacy and even created safe havens for Union soldiers.

While the abolition movement was more robust in the North, there were white people throughout the South working as clandestine operators on the Underground Railroad and speaking out in public against slavery. The first abolitionist paper in the country, the Manumission Intelligencer (later named The Emancipator) was published not in Philadelphia or Boston, but in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The first issue made its purpose clear:

This paper is especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that important and interesting subject. It will contain all the necessary information the editor can obtain of the progress of the abolition of slavery of the descendants of Africa.”

Once the Confederacy was destroyed and the elite Southern landowners were briefly dethroned, multiracial organizing flourished during Reconstruction. The People’s Party gained multiracial strength through Black and white rural farmers who had shared economic needs and a burgeoning sense of class solidarity. Still a very segregated society, white farmers formed the Southern Farm Alliance, while Black farmers formed agrarian and labor groups such as the Knights of Labor in North Carolina — but their political platforms were largely the same. In the mid-1890s, agrarian unrest swept the tobacco and cotton-growing regions of the South, including in North Carolina, and these populist farmers joined organizers in the Republican Party, which at the time consisted of Black people in the low country and working-class white people in the mountains. This multiracial fusion coalition quickly took control of the NC legislatures in 1894 and again in 1896, along with the governorship. This multiracial power build sparked an enormous white elite backlash from the all-white, wealthy Democratic party. The backlash culminated in the Wilmington Massacre when Black people were murdered by white mobs who then overthrew the legitimately elected Fusionist government. (By 1900, the gains of the populist-Republican coalition were reversed, and the Democrats ushered in disfranchisement: Practically all Black people lost their vote.)

Despite the backlash and the near-repealing of all the rights that the 14th Amendment was supposed to guarantee, multiracial power continued to be built across the South, especially in settings where class solidarity could be actualized. In Coal Creek, Tennessee, workers rose up in arms when the mine owners tried to replace free, mostly white, coal miners with convict labor leased by the state government. Most convicts were former slaves who had been arrested on various “Black Code” transgressions as a way to re-establish a cheap Southern labor pool for business owners. For over a year, the free miners repeatedly attacked and burned area prison stockades to free the convicts — notably not attacking the laborers as the competition but instead understanding the threat was the system itself.

Similarly, in Louisiana’s lumberyards, Black and white workers together organized wildcat strikes in the early 1900s after the timber baron’s extended their workday and cut wages. The strikes were crushed, but their organizing led to the creation of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW), which grew its multiracial membership to 25,000 members in just one year. Because of local segregationist law, the Black and white members of BTW had to meet separately, but soon they decided to ignore the law and create a multiracial delegation. The company responded by attacking a union meeting, killing three union members, injuring 40, and arresting 49. In another town, 1,300 Black, white, and indigenous workers went on strike together only to be attacked by vigilante mobs organized by the timber companies.

One way to measure the fear of those in power is by the severity and harshness of their response to community organizing. If we use this measurement, it is clear that organizing within class and across race is one of the biggest threats to those who wish to hoard wealth and power in the United States. I think often of Grundy County, Tennessee’s Highlander Center, a place founded on the idea that regular people — Black, white, and Brown — can be agents for change. The center has been repeatedly bombed over the last 87 years; the most recent attack was in 2019 when the headquarters was burnt all the way to the ground. A friend of mine works there and told me that through the debris and char, he could still see the swastikas the perpetrators had spray-painted on the wall.

As the Highlander Center, wildcat strikes, populist fusion governments, radical journalists, and abolitionists show, Southern heritage has always been more than Dixie.

These stories weren’t in my history book, and they weren’t taught to the woman holding the sign. These stories have been written out of history for clear political purposes, but we can find them and learn from them. We can’t choose who we come from, who our ancestors were, or what the color of our skin is, but we sure as hell can choose who and what we venerate.

I don’t have a deep understanding — or any understanding — of my own white heritage, and I suspect that’s not rare. I vaguely know that some of my family might have been Scottish and others French Canadian. My personal story is rootless, a child of wanderlusting parents who picked up and moved us nearly every year. We never attended family reunions — I am not sure there were even any to attend. My own birth certificate reads one state, but by the time I was brought home from the hospital, my parents lived in another.

I want a story about who I am that I can tell. I think that’s what the woman with the sign wants too. We are not alone in that — it’s a very human thing. But as white Southerners, she and I both have a choice in what story we tell. We can claim labor strikes, or we can claim the Klan.

Many of us have Confederate soldiers in our past, but it’s hard to know which of those soldiers wanted to fight and which were conscripted. Probably somewhere in our lineage you can find a distant relative who put their body in harm’s way to protect children in Montgomery, one who packed their bags and slipped away with the kids from the cruelty to start a new life without the terror of patriarchy and white supremacy. Maybe in our family ancestry, we have a jailer who left the cage unlatched, a grocery store clerk who refused to deny service and lost his job for it, a sister who spoke up at the dinner table only to be turned away and shunned.

To find our story, we need to find these characters. We need to celebrate them. They, too, can be our heritage. That’s how you make your heritage distinct from hate.

Mother. Southerner. Storyteller. Bread and Roses. #race #class #poverty #gender #equity #children #egalitarianorganizing #bottomupstorytelling *views my own*

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