This is Chapter Six – “Dixie” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3
IN HINDS COUNTY, Mississippi, in a dark-paneled reception room brightened by striking orange Scandinavian furniture, on a mahogany pole, stands a Confederate battle flag.
As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, there would be nothing remarkable about the presence of the flag in this, the deepest of the Deep South, just below the state capital of Jackson. In fact, if it were standing alone, it might not attract any attention today. But this particular, full-sized, gold-fringed symbol of a certain time and place stands in a row of four. The first flag is that of the Union. But the second is the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany. And the third, snuggled up against the Stars and Bars, is a flag whose design is centuries older than the War Between the States. A stylized white castle above which floats a Maltese cross against a blue shield, it is the battle flag of a place called Ravensburg. Ravensburg, a small town seventy miles south of Stuttgart in southern Germany, was once home to a man by the name of Erwin Gross. Gross, whose wife's name is Hildegard, and whose secretary's name is Helga, is a brand-new Mississippian.
Andrea, his sixteen-year-old daughter, speaks English with a southern drawl complicated by a slight, if startling German accent. A blow-dried blond heartbreaker in tight jeans and cinched shirt tails, she looks remarkably like the stereotype of an Ole Miss sorority belle. The Grosses' rambling ranch house, complete with swimming pool, is decorated with dried-flower arrangements that include fluffy bolls of Delta cotton grown just a few counties to the west. Somehow, the talk turns to guns, and Erwin jokes that "I am not enough of a Mississippian yet to own a Luger."
Yet Mississippian Erwin is, in perhaps the most basic way it is possible to be these days. For Erwin has brought 135 high-paying industrial jobs to Hinds County. He's the director of the Hawera Tool Manufacturing branch plant here.
Hawera makes what connoisseurs call the Cadillac of carbide-tipped drill bits for punching holes in concrete. They cost $60 to $70 apiece retail, and come in a film of fine machine oil, like a high-quality rifle barrel. If, for some reason, you had a block of concrete six football fields long that you wanted to drill a hole through, you'd ask for a Hawera bit because the six hundred meters of concrete will give before the bit does.
With two thousand employees worldwide, Hawera's companies do about $300 million worth of business annually, with perhaps 30 percent of their drill-bit sales in the United States. When Hawera decided to service the North American market with its first factory located here, it analyzed place after place. Seven bound volumes comparing states - monuments to what Gross likes to think was a methodical, unemotional, and culture-free approach to the siting procedure - sit in his office to this day.
"We made a real professional research," said Gross in his rapid-fire English, the fluency of which is a triumph, considering that he took his first eight-week crash course in the language only two years ago. "We checked everything which was important to us: electricity, transportation, wages, skills, property price, tax . . ."
The choice came down to Mississippi.
So today, in the heart of the state many North Americans still think of as far and away the most backward - behind stylishly architected brick and unfinished-concrete walls - stand Mississippians working state-of-the-art machines from Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany, making up to $8.00 an hour, which is more than a lot of newspaper reporters get. The shop's typical wage would be on the order of $5.00 to $6.00 an hour, considered good money here. The working conditions are antiseptic. The benefits package is sound. About 30 percent of the work force is black, which is comparable to the racial makeup of the county and the state.
As for Gross, his cathedral-ceilinged house is nearly three times the size of the one he lived in in Germany, but it cost less. He says there are more cultural opportunities in Jackson than in Ravensburg. (The night I visited with his family, the kids were in a hurry to catch the new show at the planetarium.) And he still can't get over how many people to whom he's never been formally introduced wave to him on the street and say, "Hi, Erwin!"
And by God, Erwin has become proud. Proud to be a Mississippian.
If you talk to people in the Norse [says Gross, who has the charming habit of referring to his new-found region as the Souse], they just don't know what Mississippi is. They just don't know where it is, sometimes.
I'm logical and objective. I'm not saying they're Yankees. I'm saying they're stupid. You travel around over there. They ask you, “Where do you come from?”
"Blaaaah,” they say. They just have a negative.
But if you ask them, have you been in Jackson? they say no. Do you know where it is? No. Do you know where Mississippi is? Ya, I know, down in the Souse. How many people live there? What's going on there? They don't know anything. But they have opinions. I don't know where they get their information from. Maybe twenty years ago, thirty years ago, it was a certain way of life here, and they still believe it. Like some people still believe fairy tales, like the stork that brings babies. They really don't know that the Souse has changed a lot!
Indeed, the South has changed so much in the past decade or two that change itself has become Dixie's most identifiable characteristic. Long a region identified with stagnation - backward, rural, poor, and racist, a colony of the industrialized North, enamored of an allegedly glorious past of dubious authenticity - Dixie is now best described as that forever-underdeveloped North American nation across which the social and economic machine of the late twentieth century has most dramatically swept.
The Southern Growth Policies Board - easily the most sophisticated regional economic pressure group in North America - casting about for a learned analogy from which to analyze Dixie, picked post-World War II Germany and Japan. In fact, in an almost impenetrable hardbound volume entitled The Economics of Southern Growth, it flat-out says that "1965, the year by which both the voting rights and civil rights acts had been passed, was for the South what 1945 had been for Germany and Japan."
The board, created as the research and lobbying arm of the southern governors, in effect compares 1965, when "the ancient disputes about what racial policy should be were finally settled with a defeat of the Old South by the rest of the country," with the liberation of Europe and Asia by the Allies.
It straightforwardly compares the economic effects on ingrown, nationalistic, totalitarian regimes suddenly opened to the effects, good and bad, of Western, liberal, social democratic realities.
This, they say, is the condition which now defines the South. If that is true, it makes the task of defining the new borders of Dixie somewhat less formidable.
Sociologically, climactically, historically, politically, topographically, and racially, Dixie is a quilt. Rigid analysis of what constitutes Dixie can lead one to believe that it doesn't exist, and never did. It's not hard to make the case that the heavily black coastal lowlands of the Carolinas are very different from the mountains of Tennessee. Louisiana Cajuns are very different from Ozark hillbillies. You can take a state like Alabama and confound those who would describe it as monolithically Deep South by pointing out the historically pro-Union counties at the southern tip of the Appalachians. Atlanta, undeniably, is the capital of Dixie. The authentic southern experience is changing planes in the just expanded, but until recently unutterably vile, concrete-block bomb shelter of an airport there. Yet all over the South you can find people who will flatly, and wrongly, assert that Atlanta has nothing to do with the "real" South.
It's amazing, considering the variety of sage distinctions that can be made about Dixie, that people refer to themselves as "Southerners" at all. Considering that being a "Southerner" is the most fervent and time-honored regional distinction in North America, it almost makes you wonder if ordinary people know something that the academicians do not.
Perhaps what most folk realize is that Dixie's boundaries are defined more by emotion than any other nation. Like New England, Dixie is an idea that has been around for a long time, and people have had a lot of time to savor it, curse it, love it, and leave it.
In fact, one of the best ways of identifying the South is by listening for it in casual conversation. I don't mean drawls. I mean constant calculations - like shop talk in a factory or office - about where the place has been, where it's going, whether things are getting better or worse than the excruciatingly well-remembered past.
There is such a multitude of threads to the fabric called Dixie that official organizations draw boundaries enclosing anywhere from nine to seventeen states and call the place "the South." (And this doesn't even get to the question of what constitutes that spurious idea called the "Sunbelt.") "Dixie" is the classic example of a place that eludes definition by conventional political geography.
As a result, I like the interesting intuitive grip displayed by teenagers and small-town merchants when it comes to defining the South. The teenagers have an exquisite sense of where, geographically, displaying an ancient defiance by flying the Stars and Bars from their radio aerials will rile the grownups. The merchants have finely tuned ideas about where it is that calling their establishments the Dixie Bar and Grill, or Rebel Auto Sales, will help them make money.
Drop back a county or two from the northern or westernmost meaningful collections of these displays (both of these groups notoriously overreach), and you're within shouting distance of the Dixie line.
(There are many theories, and no unanimity, about how the South came to be called Dixie. However, my vote for the least plausible explanation seriously propounded goes to the learned gentleman who said he'd traced it all back to a Dutchman, name of Dixie. This Dutchman allegedly decided to grow tobacco in Harlem. When, with absolute predictability, this turned out to be a terrible idea, old man Dixye reportedly sold off his slaves to a guy in South Carolina, who did not treat them at all well. This led to the slaves composing songs in which they wished they were back in Dixye's land, and the rest, look away, is history.)
At any rate, Dixie starts on the midcontinental Atlantic at about Ocean City, Maryland. Ocean City, socially, is to Washington, D.C., as Prince Georges County, Maryland, is to the capital, suburbanly. Prince Georges and Ocean City are those places which, unfavored by the high and mighty, tend to attract first-generation money - both black and white - to whom the very idea of living in a place called a "condo" - or, for that matter, a "suburb" - is rightfully perceived as a miracle of upward mobility.
As resorts go, Ocean City is more like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, than it is Surf City, New Jersey. In Myrtle Beach, a mayor who opposed billboards was denounced not only as a communist, but as a "Yankee." Economic observers only half-jokingly refer to this response as a triumph of modernism. They're grateful the mayor didn't end up in the swamp.
From there, as described in the Foundry chapter, Dixie cuts across the chicken farms of southern Delaware to include the Eastern Shore of Maryland, eastern referring to its location relative to the Chesapeake Bay. The gracious capital, Annapolis, is a border town between Dixie and the Foundry. The boundary carefully skirts Washington's wealthier suburbs and drives up through rural Virginia, north of the Shenandoah Valley, to swoop down the western edge of the worst of the southern Appalachians, splitting off chemical-factory-laden West Virginia river counties like Mason, Jackson, and Wood. There are those who would argue that Ohio counties like Scioto and Adams, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, are still southern. Similarly, Covington, Kentucky, across the river from the industrial presence of Cincinnati, is not southern. But by and large, the Ohio River is a meaningful border until you hit Indiana, the rolling hills of which, north of Louisville, are economically and emotionally part of Dixie.
Actually, some would say South Bend, on the Michigan border, is the northernmost penetration of the Confederacy, but that's an exaggeration perpetrated by Northerners who like to dwell unfairly on the Klan marches that were occurring there in the sixties.
(For that matter, Louisville makes a fetish of claiming it is not part of the South. That's ridiculous. It may well have been a Union bastion over a century ago, but that's nothing on which to base Southernness today. I don't see any move on the part of Louisville to pry the evil influence of mint juleps from the minds of its young during the Kentucky Derby.)
Indianapolis is the boundary where the Foundry and Dixie part company. From Indianapolis on, the distinction to be made is between the South and the "real" Midwest - the Breadbasket - another very old idea in America, which, despite industrialization, communications, and travel, retains great power.
Near the Illinois boundary, Terre Haute has been a dividing line in Indiana dialects, politics, and values for over a hundred years and still is, and as a result is another good border town.
As many as thirty-one counties, below a line roughly from Terre Haute to East St. Louis, have from time to time been identified as part of Southernillinois (pronounced by natives as one word). Route 50, from Vincennes, somewhat farther south, has also been suggested as the border, although Illinois political correspondents reply that it's "common knowledge" that Southernillinois "is ten miles beyond wherever you're standing."
But what all these descriptions refer to is the area at the heart of which is the flat plain where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers come together, locally called Egypt. Its capital is Cairo (pronounced KAY-roe), one of the meanest burgs of its size outside Oklahoma. The memory of pitched and repeated racial battles in this shabby Dixie river town is not dimmed.
The news generally is not bright in this crescent, which has the disadvantages of southern problems in a state whose prosperity is built on decidedly nonsouthern solutions. Divisions between industrial and agricultural interests - divisions between the Foundry and the Breadbasket - get far more attention in Illinois.
East St. Louis, Illinois, is one of the grimmer slums on the continent, with no appreciable tax base from which to attack its problems. Like St. Louis, Missouri, it is an outpost of Foundry-like third-generation problems, made worse by its being an island, and a border island at that, between regions that don't understand and don't want to understand. Both the Breadbasket and Dixie are afraid that what St. Louis and East St. Louis have got - congenital urban decay - is contagious.
The only good news out of southern Illinois, where jobs are not plentiful, is that, like the rest of the state, it is resting on a thick bed of coal. The university town down there, in fact, is named Carbondale. Other parts of Illinois consider the chewing up of prime farmland preposterous. Southern Illinois is grateful to be one of the most heavily strip-mined lands east of the Mississippi.
Missouri is a state of great conflicts and paradoxes. It was admitted to the Union as a slave state, but did not join the Confederacy. Instead, it waged a particularly virulent internal civil war over these issues. The southeast "boot heel" on the Mississippi River is thoroughly Deep South. The southwest corner is the Ozarks, which, in their mountainous isolation and great beauty, are like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The rich soil of northwest Missouri that the last glacier left behind is so thoroughly a part of the Great Plains that Kansas City is the capital of the Breadbasket. The center of the state is called "Little Dixie."
The politics and history of this kind of mishmash have been so confused and tangled for so long that Missouri's boast is its pugnacity: "Show Me" is its motto, and Harry Truman, a native son, its pride.
Missouri makes such little sense as a state that even the Federal Reserve Board has Kansas City and St. Louis as capitals of separate regions. Untangling this skein is complicated enough to explain why most observers just call Missouri a "border state," and then don't actually try to draw the border.
But the Breadbasket-Dixie influences begin to balance out in a fashion such that the boundary probably should be drawn through St. Louis and on to Columbia. Dixie's influence does extend north of that line - as has been observed elsewhere, Mark Twain might still recognize his beloved river town of Hannibal - but it is leavened by those two cities. St. Louis, one of the dozens of places it's possible to call the "gateway to the West." is almost Foundry in its mixture of ethnics and blacks, machine politics and liberalism, heavy industry and tenements. Columbia, the capital of Little Dixie, is the home of the University of Missouri.
From Columbia, the Dixie line curves down to include the Ozarks. John Gunther, in his seminal Inside U.S.A., charmingly assessed the Ozarks of the forties as "The Poor White Trash Citadel of America. The people are underdeveloped, suspicious, inert. There are children aged fifteen who have never seen a toothbrush."
The last thirty years have brought such amazing southern-style change that the Ozarks should definitely be considered part of Dixie, despite their historic antipathy toward the Confederacy. To be sure, there are hollows in this highland Missouri-Arkansas-Oklahoma region that still hold poverty worse than southern Appalachia. But Arkansas, like West Virginia, has had as governor a Rockefeller who understood the value of throwing other people's money at poverty to help make it go away. And the politicians who followed Winthrop Rockefeller have been striking examples of the new young, mediagenic, non-Neanderthal southern politician, one of whom was briefly president in the seventies.
The sure sign that social work has had impact on the Ozarks is that folklorists have descended on the region in droves to record the quirks of the white trash "before it is too late" and they all become well fed and uncolorful.
But more important than the VISTA workers to the Ozarks has been the "quality-of-life" revolution, started in the sixties. The Ozarks in the past suffered from having little that would respond profitably to the assault of a dragline or an exploratory well or a Tennessee Valley Authority or DDT. The Ozarks have had precious little going for them except beautiful mountains, restful lakes, peaceful small to medium-sized towns, and cheap, available, if rarely horizontal, land. Thus, "progress" passed it by. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as it turns out, that very lack of "progress" was of enormous attraction to retirees, vacationers from the cities that ring the mountains, young people who, fancying themselves "homesteaders," wished to apply their urban educations to the problems of going "back to the land," and light industries that could locate anywhere there was an interstate highway and a WATS line. The influx of people like that, for better or for worse, has whiplashed, if not Future-Shocked, the Ozarks. That phenomenon - being Future-Shocked or the threat of being so - is, in the 1980s, what ties the South together.
So the boundary toddles down through the thin northeastern edge of Oklahoma, which is part of the Ozarks, only to broaden and head west as it hits another Little Dixie, even more enduring than Missouri's.
Unlike the Ozarks, Oklahoma's Little Dixie is marked by how little things have changed despite all attempts. Oklahoma always has demonstrated a singular resiliency to outsiders' notions of what is socially acceptable behavior. Little Dixie, which lives up to its name by being poor but proud, is champion in its articulation of a private sense of what constitutes murder. Mark Singer, in a marvelous New Yorker magazine disquisition on one Gene Stipe, who remains Little Dixie's "Prince of Darkness," observed that "in Latimer County, one of the three counties in Stipe's legislative district, the smartest thing that someone accused of a felony could have done between 1949 and 1974 would have been to request a jury trial. That quarter of a century slipped by without a single verdict of guilty."
Singer continues, "'Let's say I pick up a Smith & Wesson double-action .22-calibre revolver on a .32 frame with a four-inch barrel and plant one right between your eyes,' a man in Latimer County once said to me, in what I decided to regard as an utterly speculative and friendly tone of voice. 'Now, if I've got a brain in my head, all I need to do is drop the gun and borrow a dime and call Gene Stipe. And I'm pretty sure he can find me a jury of my peers that believes in the good old "Judge not, that ye be not judged." ' "
Couple this with cavernous brush country that to this day can conceal dangerous outlaws and even a couple of renegade circus elephants with complete thoroughness, despite massive searches, and you have a sense of the challenge Little Dixie is capable of offering to the forces of assimilation.
Somewhere, perhaps below Durant, Oklahoma, we cross the Red River, leave Little Dixie, and are in Texas, on the last lap of the boundary tour.
The problem here is that, as in Indiana, three nations come together, in this case, Dixie, the Breadbasket, and MexAmerica. In Indiana, the lines of force are tough to define because Indianapolis is the place where three nations peter out. Here, however, it's tough because the values of three nations have been and are coming together and clashing with great force and many fireworks.
Here are the facts. East Texas near Louisiana is pure Dixie of loblolly and slash piney woods. Not only is it unlike the rest of Texas by being moist and densely forested; it is poor, it is black and "peckerwood" white, it is isolated, it is suspicious, and it has been so for a long, long time.
South Texas near Mexico is dry, hot, and Spanish. Climatically, geographically, and historically, it belonged to Mexico, and at the rate the Spanish-speaking population is making itself felt, it may again. In the vast King ranch south of Corpus Christi, Hispanic workers do not say they work "for" the man; they work "with" him. It is MexAmerica.
The West Texas hill country is where the chaparral starts. This is the land of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and "outlaw" country-and-western music star Willie Nelson. It is cattle and, farther north into the Panhandle, cotton and wheat. And it is very Anglo.
It is the real home of the great Texas myths about plain-spoken square-shooters. It is the most colorful part of the Breadbasket. These three nations are competing for influence over a triangle approximately 250 miles on a side defined by Dallas and Fort Worth in the north, Houston in the southeast, and San Antonio in the southwest.
Historically, Dixie had the upper hand. Although well into the Plains, Dallas, the cosmopolitan merchant town then at the end of the railroad line, was long considered southern. Not only did it have merchants, gamblers, and prostitutes; it had "society" and "good families" and a fixed sneer for its sister city, Fort Worth. Fort Worth was separated from Dallas by only a few dozen miles and the Balcones Fault, a geological fault of more interest to natural historians than anyone else, but Fort Worth always was either "where the West begins" or "a godforsaken cowtown," depending on who was talking. Breadbasket towns have always suffered from the theory that they're hick.
Meanwhile, Houston, right on the edge of the pines, and only inches above sea level, is a swamp of heat and humidity only an air-conditioner repairman or an oil engineer could love. Dixie had a hold on it because of the climate, location, and opportunity it offered to both poor blacks and whites.
Yet San Antonio was always part of MexAmerica. It has one of the largest Hispanic communities of any city well north of the United States border, and certainly one of the best organized politically. In Mexico, there are a lot of folk who literally think that San Antonio is the most important city in the States.
With the rise of Houston and Dallas as cheerfully, obnoxiously arrogant world capitals of glass, steel, and money, the Anglo Plains culture is clearly now dominant in this crescent.
But it's still tempting to draw the Dixie line right down the middle between Dallas and Fort Worth - smack on Runway 17 Left, the main north-south slab of concrete of that improbable megastructure, the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. From there, the boundary heads toward Houston and the Gulf of Mexico.
Houston is the biggest draw for opportunity-seekers of all colors and classes this nation has seen since Los Angeles. Some of the richest and most powerful men in America call the western suburbs of Houston home. But while their presence is at the top of Houston's image, it's by no means the whole story. Almost literally in the shadow of the tall buildings at Houston's core are black slums straight out of the heart of Mississippi. They are so antiquely southern, they're not even urban. They're shotgun shacks - propped up on blocks and with a front door and a back door, through both of which, when they are open, a 12-gauge can be fired without hitting a thing.
But Houston's blacks are not all poor and powerless. The community is numerous, and it votes. Barbara Jordan, with Andrew Young of Atlanta, the first black elected to Congress from the South in the twentieth century, was from Houston. The city can not only look and feel southern; it can act it.
The Dixie line follows the extraordinarily vile liquid in the Houston Ship Channel the fifty miles to Galveston, and on out into the Gulf of Mexico. At the eastern edge of the Gulf, half a continent away, is southern Florida, which also isn't Dixie. Like the border town of Houston, Miami is a land of great promise in the eyes of a lot of people who don't commonly use the language in which this book is written.
One major difference between these two parts of the Gulf is that the Hispanics of South Florida are so commonly first- and second-wave Cuban immigrants of the sixties, which is to say middle class, which is to say in possession of a heritage of education and skills such as entrepreneurship. Unlike the poor, rural Mexicans who have begun to ring Houston, living in houses that don't look like slums until you realize that four families are trying to live in one little bungalow, the Cubans have exported a whole world with them to Florida. In the words of songwriter Jimmy Buffett, they don't have to buy any secondhand American dreams.
One of the more interesting lessons to be drawn from this tour is economic. Despite the South's reputation as a place of great growth, almost all the truly spectacular development of the so-called Sunbelt phenomenon has occurred on Dixie's boundaries: the wealth of the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., is as marginally "southern," as is the boom along the Dallas-Houston corridor or the population influx to South Florida.
What you see in Dixie is great change - social, emotional, even architectural. Change so amazing to Southerners that sometimes it seems that all they can do is marvel over the recent past. This change, of course, is epitomized by attitudes about race.
I watched a white man from Philadelphia, Mississippi, turn seriously purple from lack of oxygen, his mind trying to force his reluctant body to utter the word "nigger" in front of a reporter.
Philadelphia, Mississippi, is noted for little save the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 - murders that led to a scorched-earth policy on the part of the U.S. Justice Department, which guarantees that, no matter what happens elsewhere, the very last hamlet on the face of this earth to be de-integrated is going to be in Neshoba County.
This fellow from Philadelphia, who presumably had nothing to do with the proverbial "racial disturbances" in his home town back then, is now the manager of a chemical plant elsewhere in the South, and to this day, he can't bring himself to refer to his non-Caucasian employees even as "Negroes" or "blacks." He calls them "minorities." As in, "The older minorities try to call me Mr. Jameson or Mr. Jim [neither his real name]. I tell the minorities that "Mister' was my father's name. I insist the minorities call me Jim."
The way he got into oxygen deprivation was by attempting to explain to me how it was that his plant, which is currently high-paying, modern, and reasonably hygienic by the standards of the industry, came to have about 8o percent of its line workers black. Well, he explained, back in 1961, when this factory was built, before OSHA, before EPA, before unionization threats, and before he was out of knee pants, the particular kind of chemical manipulation that it requires was performed in an un-air-conditioned, grueling atmosphere highly charged with toxic dust. Absolutely refusing to be tape-recorded, he said, "At that time, at this place, it was viewed as minority work." Realizing how ridiculous he sounded, he struggled to spit it out. "It was . . . was . . . view . . . viewed . . . as . . . nig . . . nig . . . nig . . . nigger work," he finally croaked, with visions of his future as a corporate manager flashing before his eyes, his career gone up in smoke for his candor.
I didn't get to belt back a few bourbons with this guy and find out how he feels about "minorities" deep in the recesses of his soul. But I do conclude, from his verbal tick, that, at the very least, he will go to his grave believing that, as a Southerner working for a major corporation, if he doesn't appear to be the very model of modern race relations, he's cooked.
Now, that may not be liberty and justice for all, but it is neck-snapping social change, and it is what I think is important to distinguish from economic growth in the South. Since growth and change have arrived in the South virtually simultaneously and, of course, have fed off each other, it's easy to think they're one phenomenon. But they're not.
You can have growth without change.
Tupelo, for example, in the hills of northeastern Mississippi, was mercifully bypassed by conflict and violence during the civil rights period of the sixties. Now a thriving industrial city - which is still not what you call common in Mississippi - in the late seventies, a resurgence of the Klan made the place look like a remake of The Birth of a Nation, complete with cross-burnings and a black boycott of white stores.
The International Chemical Workers made the bold move of trying to organize a chicken-processing factory in southeastern Mississippi in the seventies. They have been unsuccessful in coming up with a contract, even though there is a standing joke that the factory has done more for race relations than every federal civil rights law ever written. "[The boss] didn't treat nobody different, no matter you black or white," one worker was quoted as saying. "Ever'body who worked there was treated like a nigger."
And you can have change without growth.
Neither New Orleans nor Birmingham is setting any records, economically, yet both elected black mayors in the late seventies. At the same time, Floyd McKissick, famous in the sixties for being among the first to call for black power, was seeing his dream of creating a "new town" in the hills of North Carolina crippled. Soul City was supposed to have eighteen thousand residents by 1979, according to the plan. When the year came and went with a total of 135 people living there with great faith, but no industry, the federal government pulled the financial plug. Growth in Dixie is a many-level thing.
On the more or less negative side: the Sunbelt is a misleading confection. Dixie's growth rate, though twice the national average, is far different from that of the Southwest and of southern Florida. Of the top ten cities in rate of population increase in the southeastern United States in the first half of the seventies, only one was in Dixie proper. And that was Fort Smith, along the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, which was eighth, reflecting the Ozark quality-of-life revolution and a strong military presence. Far more typical in the list were places like Temple, Texas, on the outskirts of the Fort Hood Army base, or the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Fort Lauderdale strip just north of Miami. None of those places can be considered Dixie. In terms of absolute population increase, there is only one non-Texas, non-Florida southern city in the top ten: Atlanta.
Some of Dixie's growth is artificial. One of the South's favorite urbanization techniques is annexation. When a rural area that may have taken three decades to become densely populated enough to be called a suburb is viewed as being wealthy enough to be profitably added to a city's tax rolls, bang, it suddenly finds itself within the new, revised city limits. This is a useful way of ensuring that a city doesn't atrophy. But it distorts the sense of growth you get from statistics. It's not the growth that has occurred instantaneously; it's the change in borders.
All of Dixie's growth has been catch-up. There is still not one southern state with a per capita income that matches the United States average, and as of 1977, the states that are wholly within Dixie were behind by at least 14 and as much as 29 percent.
A lot of the growth has been of dubious quality. In North Carolina, for example, vast numbers of industrial jobs have been created, but the majority of them are still in minimum-wage industries, like cut-and-sew shops, textiles, furniture-making, and food-packaging. What those jobs amount to are people trying to make things cheaper than the Taiwanese can. And succeeding.
Growth associated with high pay has not always been welcome. The Miller Beer Company, paying more than $9.00 an hour, wanted to locate a $100 million brewery, employing five hundred, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Chamber of Commerce figured, accurately, that workers making a third of that in other shops would flock to such jobs. In order to keep their most highly skilled people, other industries might have to raise their pay. Rather than have that happen, they ran Miller out of town on a rail. It finally located in Eden, North Carolina, far from competition.
Philip Morris wanted to build a huge cigarette plant in Concord, North Carolina. Concord is in Cabarrus County, the least unionized county in North America. It is also the home of Cannon Mills, the textile firm that feudally dominates its company town of Kannapolis. Not only would Philip Morris offer starting pay that, at $5.25 an hour, would be more than a dollar above what the county was used to as average pay, but Philip Morris was accustomed to having unions in its plants elsewhere. The "Welcome to Carrabus County" vote in the executive board of the Chamber of Commerce ended in a tie. And that came after people started picketing in the streets with signs that said CALL FOR PHILIP MORRIS.
Erwin Gross, the German industrialist mentioned earlier in the chapter, acknowledged that, despite his plant's relatively high pay, "a little bit of politics was involved" in the decision of his company to locate in Mississippi. "We hoped and we still hope that it will take a certain time until the unions move slowly down from the North to the South, and the farther down you are, the longer it may take," he said. "A lot of industry wants out of the North because of the high labor problems, because of people living together crowded in big cities - aggressive people giving problems to factories. We said to ourselves, it will not take very long. It's getting as crowded in North Carolina now as it is in Chicago. We said, okay, just go down, ya? You will have ten, twenty, twenty-five years more time till you got the same trouble. It gives you more room to maneuver. It was one of the major points."
And a lot of the growth looks like hell. Because of the South's historic poverty, for example, there was a dearth of decent housing even before the emigration ended and the immigration began. To accommodate the new growth, Dixie has embraced the mobile home. Trailers are becoming the most typical southern architectural form. Granted, they're affordable and reasonably practical (when they don't blow over in a high wind or burst into flames from one dropped cigarette). But there is no getting around the fact that they are ugly. The only thing worse than a plain one is one that its makers advertise as "French Provincial."
As Stephen Suitts, head of the Southern Regional Council, puts it, "Southerners don't have any rich relatives. God was a Northerner. Without a heritage of anything except denial, Southerners, given a chance to improve their standard of living, are doing so, and they do it largely without concern or perception of ultimately whether it's good or bad. To not have the problems of your parents is to not have problems."
On the more positive side, the growth is more evenly distributed than in many parts of North America.
To be sure, as some cities grow, they begin to chain up, like the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis or the Montreal-to-Milwaukee one. Take the more-than-200-mile-long strip from Raleigh/ Durham, North Carolina, to Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example. Once a string of, at best, sleepy mill towns like Burlington, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Kannapolis, Charlotte, and Gastonia, it has now been grandly christened the Piedmont Crescent. There's serious talk of the need for high-speed rail transportation in this corridor, like the New York-to-Washington Metroliner.
Similarly, it probably won't be long before the Gulf Coast, from Pensacola, Florida, to Galveston, Texas, clots. Pensacola is anchored by its world-without-end naval air station. Mobile, Alabama, already isn't hurting as a port. If the unforgivably expensive Army Corps of Engineers' plot to connect the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers is ever completed, linking the Appalachian coal fields with the sea, Mobile will be the prime beneficiary.
Biloxi, Mississippi, is the home of the cost overrun. Biloxi is represented on Capitol Hill by one of the last of a dying breed - John C. Stennis, the extremely senior senator from Mississippi (first elected, 1947; re-elected in 1976, at the age of seventy-five, without opposition in the general election and with 85 percent of the vote in the primary). For some reason, on the tiny bit of beach frontage in the home state of the man who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1969 to 1980, there is a very large Litton Industries shipyard that makes amazingly expensive war boats.
If a small megalopolis is possible, that's what New Orleans-Baton Rouge, at the mouth of the Mississippi, has become. Its economy is still based on port facilities that, if taken all together, rank as the number one tonnage-handlers on the continent. The operations range from those of the huge grain elevators, where the dust explodes from time to time, to the chemical plants, which send out loaded freight cars that periodically fall off the tracks, "forcing massive evacuation," as the newspapers always put it.
But in New Orleans proper, that marvelous collection of sleaziness and peeling paint that only an 88 percent humidity (the annual 6:00 a.m. average) can produce, the primary industry is now tourism. Jim Chubbuck, the savvy administrative assistant to the mayor, says that the town is closely watching the increase in European tourism in the United States - which is now a bigger deal than U.S. tourism in Europe. He figures that Europeans will be as unsophisticated about the United States as Americans were about Europe thirty years ago. What do they know from Boise? They'll go to four places, he figures: New York, Washington, San Francisco - and New Orleans. Similarly, he would like to steal some of the South American action from Miami. He knows how much Venezuelans spend.
New Orleans certainly has the climate to be a Caribbean town, I said. Does it have the drug money? (As will be discussed in the Islands chapter, drugs are becoming important development factors in many places. There is only so much in the way of profits that can be plowed back into yachts, jets, and exotic personal habits. The money has to go somewhere. So people buy office buildings and shopping centers and stuff.)
No, Chubbuck said, like everything else in this town, drugs have been locked up by the establishment since the nineteenth century. In this case, the Mob. (This is as good a place as any to note that Dixie is the only North American nation contained entirely within the United States.)
Lafayette, Lake Charles, Port Arthur . . . The Atchafalaya "River" is so called because it is a narrow body of water deep enough that trees will not grow in it. That is how you distinguish it from the swamp that pervades Louisiana west of the Mississippi. What constitutes "land" versus what constitutes "not land" is a matter of great debate in this part of the world, where you are wise to build your hunting cabin on stilts, and where ATVs - all-terrain vehicles, which essentially are boats with wheels - are big sellers. But urbanization is rapidly consuming even the Atchafalaya Basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying desperately to save this fertile and beautiful refuge from vigorous drainage efforts. Locals respond by saying, in effect: "Let the see if I've got this straight. You think there's a serious threat that southwestern Louisiana might be joining civilization?" Amazing as it may seem, the answer is yes.
Beaumont, Texas, is part of this Gulf growth sphere. There's an off-color Aggie joke (the Texas version of a Polish joke) that has a woman suggesting to the Aggie that he perform a lewd activity upon her person "where it's dirty and nasty." The punchline is "So he drove her to Beaumont."
High Island, Texas, which gets its name from being several feet, rather than inches, above sea level (it's on top of a salt dome), is where a great number of pipes come ashore from the Gulf's oil wells. It's also where Vietnam-era helicopter pilots, skimming over four-foot seas in almost horizontal rain, with zero visibility, turn to their obviously panic-drunk passengers, grin, and say, "If we keep on this heading for twenty-eight minutes and the rig isn't under us, we're lost."
And Galveston is at the mouth of the Ship Channel, which makes inland Houston the third-largest port in tonnage in North America.
Offshore oil, shipbuilding, ports, commercial fishing, resort development, and tourism are bringing strip development, trailer parks, office towers, traffic jams, and other signs of progress to what was recently and quite literally the backwaters of North America.
Conversely, there are still places like Terrell County, Georgia (one county south from the town of Plains), where black people still make a point of getting off the downtown streets before sun-down. A black out-of-town newspaper reporter, who didn't know that until he felt it was almost too late, kids feebly that he was terribly glad to be down there with a New York Jewish lawyer, since that's the one person he could think of who would be less popular than his own swarthy self.
And there are places like Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. (Remember the song about Billy Jo McAllister dumping a mysterious parcel off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Same place.) Delta poverty is so grueling that it's tough to imagine how it could get worse. Yet the seemingly impossible is occurring. Tallahatchie County is suffering from a decline in manufacturing jobs.
But by and large, the growth that has occurred in the South has been pretty well spread around. The feeling Southerners have that they can see it "everywhere" is borne out by the Southern Growth Policies Board. On its economic map of Dixie, the pale green of growth - more people making more money - speckles the region so thoroughly that it's far easier to point out where it is not taking place - northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas, western Mississippi - than to attempt to catalogue all the places where it is.
Statistics show that urban and rural growth have been pretty well balanced, too. This means that economic improvement is being felt by a broader range of people than if it occurred just in Montgomery or Savannah, for example. It also spreads out the problems associated with growth, like clogged roads and visual blight. Theoretically, this allows them to be dealt with more easily. They don't overwhelm simply one locality, like Detroit or Cleveland.
Evan Brunson of the board analyzes the dispersal on several levels. First and most obvious is that the less industry a town has, the more likely it will be to have land and labor that can be bought cheap. Second, the poorer the area, the more hungry it is likely to be. If a locale in Dixie wants your factory badly enough, the taxpayers will frantically fund an industrial development board to woo your company, and will issue revenue and general-obligation bonds to finance your land, buildings, and equipment. The locality will train workers expressly for your tasks, at your site, at their expense, without even guaranteeing jobs to the trainees, thus making it easy for you to screen applicants. And then it'll waive your property tax for a few decades. Third, no matter where the town is, it's getting increasingly difficult for it to be more than an hour away from an interstate or a commercial airport linking it to whatever's needed in the way of critical parts or technicians if an emergency should arise.
But finally, Brunson thinks, you can't underestimate that mysterious thing called southern quality of life. It's this simple: when a plant is being sited, no matter what the beady-eyed book-keepers come up with in terms of economic justifications, the decision-makers are going to get to the point where it dawns on them that there are some among them who will literally have to live with this choice - go down to run the place and raise their kids in this town. Survey after survey has shown that most North Americans, given their druthers, would like to live in a small, stable community, where they can get to know their neighbors. And, of course, that's precisely the South's long suit.
Contributing to this quality-of-life theory is the federal government. I had started off with a notion that the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s was going to become the most hated arm of Big Brother in Dixie It, I figured, would be getting in the way of a whole lot of growth to which Dixie was religiously committed.
But now I'm not so sure. The EPA's existence allows an Alabama mayor to say to a developer "Now Fred, you know how much I'd like to let you dump your purple widget waste right into the drinking water here, and if it were up to me, Lord knows we could work something out, but it isn't. You know those damn boys in Washington would be all over me."
And there's no way the industrialist is going to be able to say "Well, in Arkansas, they told me different." What Alabama can say is that we don't put any additional environmental restrictions on you. That's something that Ohio, for one, can't say. Because of the density of its current development, and the age of many of its factories, Ohio has existing air- and water-quality problems that force it to put an additional squeeze on new operations.
Thus, ironically, environmentalism aids in bringing industrialism to places it's never been seen before. But at the same time, the new factories are of intrinsically higher quality than those built decades ago in the Foundry. Because of national environmental laws, a new paper mill, for instance, though still not something you'd want to have on the village green, is not the thoroughly outrageous polluter and exploiter it was twenty years ago. They literally don't build them like they used to.
And, ironically, another plus is that Dixie is not, in fact, growing as fast as Houston or Boca Raton or Denver. Moderate growth has a lot of advantages. It allows time to plan. On as basic a level as trying to figure out what a town will need five or ten years down the road in terms of sewers or schools, Nashville has a pretty good chance of having today's estimates bear some relationship to tomorrow's realities. That's simply not true in Tucson. In a boom town, the decision you make today looks ludicrous when implemented two years from now. You thought that you surely couldn't possibly need more than five new cops. Instead, you need fifty.
Finally, analyses of what growth is doing to Dixie are forced to make comparisons mercifully unnecessary elsewhere. Gene Patterson, now the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, won the Pulitzer Prize when he was at the Atlanta Constitution during the civil rights era for his editorial stand on the side of the angels. But when it comes to industrial development today, he cautioned me, "Remember, about a lot of what you're going to see . . . It beats the hell out of pellagra."
Pellagra is a disease that comes from subsisting on a diet totally lacking in essential vitamins. It can result in insanity. Like hookworm infection, which children get from dirt contaminated with excrement, and which can cause anemia, stunted growth, and heart attacks, it was so common in Dixie until recent times that the memory of it is fresh in the minds of many of the people making decisions today.
With a singular history, and with growth and change so much on the mind of Dixie these days, the dark side of its development, to me, is how few people have any idea where the region should be going. If anyone has a clear and compelling vision of Dixie's future as a special place, he is hiding his light under a bushel.
The chorus to which I became accustomed whenever I brought up the subject of the future of Dixie was "Have you read John Egerton?"
John Egerton, of Nashville, Tennessee, is the author of a book called The Americanization of Dixie, which eloquently suggests that in return for the mess of pottage represented by the proliferation of modern McDonald's stands, the South is trading its birthright - the ineffable that once created a Faulkner.
The South as a land of grace and violence [writes Egerton], as beauty and the beast, had an irresistible fascination about it. It was evil and decadent, but it also bred heroes and dreamers, and it yielded a tenacious sense of hopefulness that kept the world from going home. It still has qualities that could make the world come back for another look. But it is well on its way to a surrender of its distinctiveness, to amalgamation in the nation, at a time when the nation is still groping, after two hundred years, for a society in harmony with the principles on which it was founded.
In the Americanization of Dixie - and in the Southernization of America - the South and the nation seem in many ways to be imitating the worse in each other, exporting vices without importing virtues; there is no spiritual or cultural or social balance of payments. The South is becoming more urban, less overtly racist, less self-conscious and defensive, more affluent - and more uncritically accepting of the ways of the North. And the North, for its part, seems more overtly racist than it had been; shorn of its pretensions of moral innocence, it is exhibiting many of the attitudes that once were thought to be the exclusive possession of white Southerners.
The South is now closer to being like the rest of America than it has ever been. The mobility of people and the diffusion of cultures through television and other media have advanced the process of Americanization to a new level. The lesson of the historians is that the South has never made a practice of learning from the mistakes of others or from its own: if it remains true to form, it will keep on going through the open door into the Union, emulating unquestioningly the values and venalities of the big house.
This view demands special attention, not only because of the power inherent in it, but particularly because it appears to have become the majority view of the thinking Southerner. It is a view that seems to be gaining the status of Gospel. And it has some implications that may very well be accurate, but that are no less disturbing for that.
For one thing, if assimilation is Dixie's future, does that suggest that once again it's bucking history's tide? A hundred years ago, most of the continent realized the advantages of federalism: armies to confront Spaniards, Indians, and other obstacles to conquest; a treasury to raid for crucial public works; an industrial base to crank out tools for dealing with savage conditions. This, of course, is exactly when Dixie chose to rearrange the architecture of Fort Sumter, for its own good and sufficient reasons, and the ultimate result was a century of underdevelopment.
Today, North America would appear to be maturing. One region after another discovers itself to be strong, distinctive, and capable of having interests and solutions neither dependent on, nor congruent with, other regions. Places like the Pacific Northwest, without a tenth of the history and pain of the South, are forging very original and highly idiosyncratic responses to challenges. So, I would submit, are the other nations of which this volume speaks.
But what, then, if Dixie is in fact becoming "Americanized," would the response of the South seem to be? Apparently, the answer is to pack it in. Forget the music, the dialects, the tales, the violence, the beauty, the humidity, and everything else that always made Dixie the most distinctive nation. Obviously, that has nothing to say to the future. General Sherman may have started the process, but General Electric, with its air conditioners, is going to finish it. The South will become little save the happy hunting grounds of Holiday Inn.
Does this sound plausible? Well, yes, if you concentrate solely on what the South today is not. It is no longer predominantly poor. Nor rural. Nor agricultural. Nor apartheid. If it is not all these things that once set it apart, then it is logical, perhaps, to see it as embracing all things plastic and homogeneous.
The trouble I have with this theory is that if it is true, it would seem to me to imply that there was nothing about the South in all these years that met three criteria: being special, being capable of surviving a complicated, industrial world, and being good. The implication seems to be that if the South throws out all the bad, it throws out all that's uniquely southern.
That may be true. It could be that the well was poisoned for so long that it will never flow sweet. If it's not true, then I guess the obligation is to show what will be tomorrow's South.
And there appear to be few interested in embracing this task. In a walk around Durham, North Carolina, you can begin to see Egerton's point. The place still smells like Dixie. The home of Liggett and Myers, the scent of ripe tobacco fills its air. Durham smells like a fresh package of Chesterfield Kings. If you look closely at the brick of a warehouse wall, you can still see the faded paint, which reads DRINK LEMON-KOLA. It's an ornate script that swashes out from the bottom of the K, and then loops to return to link up with the word LEMON. It's a style that survives in the Coca-Cola logo, Coca-Cola, interestingly enough, being both a symbol of world homogeneity and its birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia. Lemon-Kola itself is gone. I wonder what a lemon cola tasted like.
Beyond Elliot Street is the standard, poor, black neighborhood. A lot of tin roofs that need paint. A ramshackle "cash grocery" with steel grilles over the windows and chain-link fencing around its entrance. Mt. Giliad Baptist, with its inevitable blue and white bus. Endless rows of porches. A few have curved tubular-leg kitchen chairs on them, and occasionally you'll see a comfortable-looking stuffed chair with a rip down the middle of its vinyl. But overwhelmingly, the porch furniture is molded-metal armchairs and love seats that glide back and forth on rails, all with identically patterned perforations on the back and seat to let cool air through. Somebody made a fortune selling molded-metal porch furniture in Durham years ago.
But these are traces of what used to be. They're not how you'd describe the town now to a stranger. Durham now is Duke University and the C'est La Vie Disco and Dinner Lounge in the rehabbed brick warehouse. The downtown has been totally face-lifted. Trees have been planted, fountains added, and modern, geometric street lighting installed. Of course, all the diagonal-to-the-curb parking spaces have been eliminated in the process. That just irks the hell out of the locals and probably explains a lot of the empty storefronts downtown. Urban renewal has been going great guns for at least twenty years. You'd think by now they'd be able to get it right.
The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company building is one of those high-rises that appears to float on walls of glass. The Northwestern Bank, Home Security Life, and even the First Presbyterian Church Day Care Center are basic corporate modern, and are linked by flowing concrete highways that swirl through and around the downtown in brand-new, graceful, if enormously confusing patterns. In the wealthier residential neighborhoods, porches are rare. Somebody else made another fortune in Durham more recently, punching holes in old walls three feet wide, two feet high, and five feet above the floor. Where the air conditioner goes.
(Digression: A woman in Arkansas told a man that her life had been changed by three things: television, air-conditioning, and rice. Rice? he asked. Yes. Television gave her a reason to come in off her porch. Air-conditioning made it physically possible to do so. But when the fields were flooded in order to grow rice, the mosquitoes came, and now she can't go back out to spend the evening chatting with her neighbors and watching the passing parade, even though she has a mind to.)
Heading out toward the University of North Carolina along the Jefferson Davis Highway, one gets a view of what Egerton might agree is becoming the "real" South. Route 15-501 to Chapel Hill is solid strip development. Shiny chrome and glass cubicles that dispense gasoline, cigarettes, and beer. Acres of concrete parking lots. Shopping centers. Massage parlors featuring adult entertainment. All the modern conveniences.
I almost blew right past that vision of an adaptive future, the Southern Cooking Carolina Style Eat In, Take Out Restaurant. Surrounded by a parking lot, with a garish back-lit sign that tends to blend in with the forest, and fronted with plate glass. it's a very studied, if not entirely successful, attempt at looking like a cookie-cuttered Franchise Fast-Food Heaven. But it messes up the details. For one thing, right out front it indicates the availability of Brunswick Stew, Pinto Beans, Hot Biscuits, 5:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M.
For another thing, although the cramped foyer in front of the counter where you place your order had four booths, close examination reveals that they are not machine-made. They are heavily covered with enamel paint to make them look like plastic, but they are definitely not the real thing. They're made of wood. Another thing is that you can't be too fat, and you have to snuggle real close to get four people into the booths. They do not meet Standards.
The pecan and banana cream pies are another failing: they do not look commercial. They taste homemade.
Under the part of the menu on the wall labeled "Biscuits," there is a category "Fatback." Fifty cents. I ordered two. The fat came crispy and golden, with a rough, salty bacon taste to it, and very hot. The biscuits were piping, and I could be wrong, but I could swear they were made by a human. It took me four minutes to be served. And seven hours later, when the day's first splash of bourbon hit my stomach, the lunch revealed itself to be still there. That's value. That's stick-to-your-ribs. I was a satisfied customer.
Driving up through the Mississippi River Delta along Route 1, one gets a very different vision. The road is four feet above the surrounding fields, just to get it out of the mud. The land is absolutely, precision-ground flat. Far flatter than Iowa ever dreamed of being. And it's empty. You can drive for miles without seeing a building or a farm implement or another car on the road, even though this is some of the richest cotton and soybean country in the land. The scale of agriculture here goes to thousands of acres per operation - ten thousand, twenty thousand in some cases - far grander than Nebraska ever dreamed. They're still called plantations. And this is still the poorest part of Dixie.
Without even going off into the back roads, you can see many a shack with a crack-back roof beam, barely supporting rusted-out plates of tin that hang off at an angle. The porch sags, wallboards are missing, and a blowout patch covers a major hole in the side. Cardboard covers broken windows; the door hangs off one hinge - and you think oh God please don't let there be anybody living in that; please let it be abandoned. But a line of laundry flutters out back. Or a stick-ribbed, evil-looking, spavined cow stares at you from out front. Absolutely isolated in the middle of a field, a weathered church stands next to a fresh grave, lavishly covered with colorful wreaths and flowers.
As with everything in Dixie, there are two ways of looking at this wretchedness, about which foreign correspondents reach for comparisons to Bangladesh or Arab refugee camps. On the one hand, you can be amazed that it still exists after all these years, after all that work, after all that federal money. On the other, you can, like Phil Carter, the former editor of the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times, be amazed at how little of it is left after less than one generation of war on it.
For driving into Greenville is not unalloyed misery. As common as the shacks, are well-painted green aluminum roofs supported by steel beams and no walls, under which stand row after row of tractors, combines, and trailers with wire-mesh sides from which hang flecks of cotton. Brightly colored and obviously well taken care of, this John Deere equipment stands, some of it with four, man-high, rear flotation wheels; hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, all alone, ready to go. In the middle of another cotton field, you'll see a brand-new, two-car-garaged, brick ranch house so fresh and new that the scraggly young shrubs in the front haven't settled into the earth yet. The most obviously expensive brand-new suburban homes have pillars in front of them. (In many parts of the South, the long, low, California-style ranch house has had a second story tacked, incongruously, above the foyer, in order to allow two-story pillars to be placed in front.)
Coming into Greenville on the inevitable strip-development highway, one sees, just after the Country Club Estates, the intriguingly named Mainstream Mall. Bright, shiny, and utterly interchangeable with any shopping center in North America, it has a Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream and a place called the Dutch Country Family Restaurant. Folk in the Delta will tell you that the name Mainstream Mall is a reference to the Mississippi River, and has nothing to do with its place in society. If that's true, it's the most colossal commercial Freudian slip I've run across.
The architects have even gotten to downtown Greenville. Phil Carter's father, Hodding Carter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his stands in favor of racial moderation (Hodding Carter III, Phil's brother, was a spokesman for the State Department on television during many international crises, including Iran, in the late seventies), once wrote a book called Where Main Street Meets the Levee. It was a collection of tales mostly about newspapering in a small southern town, and is still read by folk who realize how important a task that was in a land noted for ignorance. The title is a reference to where the newspaper office once was. It's no longer there. The paper has moved out near the bypass, next to the new Uncle Ben's Converted Rice factory, which represents growth that people are excited about as far away as Jackson. Main Street, meanwhile, has been turned into S-curves. The wide avenue, in which I'm sure a horse-drawn wagon once could easily have turned around, has been planted with mounds of trees and bushes, such that the traffic pattern now is very narrow, and swings from the left curb to the right curb to the left curb to the right curb. Presumably, the thought was to add shade to the street while making it difficult to speed. The plan did not take into account the southern drunk, of which there are few drunker. From time to time some old boy late at night forgets that they've put curves in Main Street and takes it straight in a four-wheel-drive pickup, clipping off saplings, left and right.
Mercifully, the bulldozers haven't gotten to Greenville, though. Architecturally, it's still a Dixie town of two- and three-story facades, with shops below and offices and living quarters above, punctuated by the occasional grand old public building, like the massive stone bank. It's very pleasant to sit up on the second floor of one of these places, sipping something cool and telling lies, letting a breeze come in from an open window, watching the people below stroll late at night. Mr. Egerton seems to be right in thinking that the days of such buildings are numbered. People don't seem to know what to do with these old shops. They're not big enough for most modern emporiums. It's considered eccentric to want to live above one of them, if you've got a car and the ability to live out in the suburbs. When you put a high-rise Hilton or Federal-Building-Post-Office in among them, they start to look downright rural.
By contrast, the question of abandoned railroad stations in Dixie has been thoroughly examined and conquered. I should have expected it, but I did not. The old Columbus and Greenville Railroad Company station is the site of the Clone Bar of Greenville, Mississippi.
It's not really called the Clone Bar. That's just an idea that has stuck in my mind ever since a friend took me for a drink in Washington at yet another joint that is referred to as a "watering hole." He began speculating on the factory that must exist to grind out prefabricated trendiness. In nature, he figured, there are only so many ferns. Only so many spider plants. Only so much macrame from which to hang the ferns and the spider plants. For sure there is no way that the nineteenth century ever produced as many mirrors, on which are painted colorful and baroque advertising slogans for spirits, as there now exist on the walls of these clone bars. Where the hell did all these long, carved wooden bars with brass foot rests that just ooze character come from? The stained glass?
The twist on this in the South - it may happen elsewhere, but nowhere else is it so ubiquitous - is to ensconce the clone bar in the abandoned railroad station. The station is inevitably of solid construction, near downtown, cheap, and of fabulously period design, complete with gingerbread. All that needs be done is blow out the interior walls, expose the beautiful brick and beams, and then - in the touch that is always considered a stroke of genius, no matter how often it's done - roll up a boxcar, and maybe a caboose, and rehab them too (!), connecting them permanently to the station (!).
As these things go, the Clone Bar of Greenville is a very classy execution. It's multilevel, and red and white banners hang down from the ceiling. The seating is rattan and red plush. It has circular butcher-block tables. The wine racks above the bar are natural wood. The boxcar room is perfect. At its entrance is the legend:
Home Shop for Repairs
Do not load Rule I.
LD CMT 119100
LT WT 57900
But the best part isn't the station itself. Nor is it the shacks to the side of it, which used to serve as dorms for freight-car workers, long ago, and which now have also been rehabbed and plate-glassed and house tiny art galleries. The best part is that this whole thing is the project of an outfit called Delta Enterprises. Delta Enterprises is a black self-help organization encouraged by the Ford Foundation to turn to capitalism to help relieve poverty in the Delta, in the Mississippi once referred to as "The Closed Society."
Well, think I, casually examining the leggy, long-haired blondes at the bar, and feeling far more dazed by the whole experience than can be accounted for by the whiskey. It's working. This place is packed. It must be making a fortune. Mr. Egerton would be proud.
But, then, if Dixie is being Americanized, what in blazes do Southerners have against Atlanta? Surely, the airport was long an abomination in the eyes of God, and naturally, any capital city will evoke envy. But what I was hearing, I felt, was more thoughtful.
For example, it came from the Chamber of Commerce factotum of a small, decidedly non-Georgian town about as far away from Atlanta as you can get and still be undeniably in the South. I had dropped in on him for some statistics, unannounced and in a hurry to make another appointment. Of course, the visit provoked a prolonged tale about the development of the town, its new schools, its new industrial park, its bright future . . .
With the new north-south crossroad coming through, he said, we should really take off now. (Pause.) It kind of scares me, he seemed to surprise himself by admitting. I sure hope we don't become like Atlanta, he sighed, ignoring the obvious impossibility of his city going from a population of twenty thousand to a population of two million any time soon.
I took a sudden new interest in the man's ambivalence. Why? What's the matter with Atlanta? Well, he fumbled, it's the quality of life, falling back on the line he'd read somewhere. What do you mean? I asked. What have you got here that you don't have in Atlanta? Well, he said, when I drive downtown here, I almost go off the road because I have to use both hands to wave at friends.
Again and again I ran into this strange antipathy toward Dixie's largest city, matched by similarly unsatisfactory explanations. A certain amount of it was mixed with pride, but it was part of a great-place-to-visit-hate-to-live-there attitude. And this came even from transplanted Northerners, that species which is becoming so common in the South.
Could it be the crime reports? I asked myself. Atlanta from time to time is labeled the murder capital of the United States. But not for lack of competition. It regularly trades the title with New Orleans and Houston. Each of the three cities is far more bloody than Detroit, New York, or Washington. And New Orleans is more the home of quadruple apartment locks than Atlanta. Yet I didn't hear people badmouthing New Orleans and Houston.
Could it be the transportation? The freeways of Atlanta are a mess at rush hour, but, again, no more so than in most cities, and Atlanta has brought MARTA, the subway system, into operation, freeing thousands of commuters, a fact that had been widely reported and hailed. And, of course, the airport has been rebuilt. It's now the continent's largest.
Could it be that the city government is run by blacks? How likely could that be when the economic structure is still firmly and obviously in the hands of whites? For that matter, it's been a long time since black city governments were a rarity in the South or anywhere else. Why pick on Atlanta?
The mystery deepened for me when I got there. By any reasonable urban standards, this is a swell city. It's got a well-developed fabric of 118 neighborhoods, most of them with their own local neighborhood association. It's got excellent older housing stock that lends itself to being spruced up and made fashionable. A lot of the neighborhoods are amazingly close to downtown - easy bicycle distance, even walking distance. The prices are right. Maybe high by the standards of Paducah, Kentucky, or Trenton, New Jersey, but a steal by the standards of desirable living in Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. It's an easy place to get outdoors. (The jogging population is absolutely obnoxious.) It may not be what you'd call integrated, especially when it comes to redneck neighborhoods versus poor black neighborhoods. But in the more middle-class areas, there are white enclaves in the black west side and a thin but significant black presence in the white east side. The fact that there are a hundred thousand or so members of the black middle class within the city limits is a stabilizing influence most big city mayors would die for. This is, after all, the city of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, of Martin Luther King, senior and junior. That's always been an essentially middle-class congregation, even if its Auburn Street neighborhood - "Sweet Auburn," as it's locally known - has seen better days as a commercial strip.
For that matter, it's the home of the chain of black colleges anchored by Morehouse, the most prestigious in the world. Atlanta's loaded with schools, Georgia Tech and Coca-Cola-endowed Emory among them.
Still within the city limits, but to the north, there are twenty-five solid square miles of nonstop mansions, weaving in and out of the creeks and valleys of the foothills of north Georgia. If there's a larger collection of quarter-million-dollar-and-up homes within a major city's limits in North America, I don't know where it is. When this neighborhood goes downhill, there won't be enough stiffs in all of North America to justify turning all these places into funeral homes. Even if some were made into small hotels - a perfectly plausible use - it wouldn't take up all the slack. There are not now, and never in all of history were, as many Corinthian columns in Greece as there are along Paces Ferry Road in north Atlanta. Even the neighborhood movie house is called Loew's Tara.
The downtown, admittedly, is a bit much. Atlanta has given in to the proverbial edifice complex. "Megastructure" is the by-word in downtown Atlanta. A local architect who is nauseated by the competition to build bigger, glitzier, more stunt-laden buildings has devised a plan that, he is convinced, could make him Atlanta Architect of the Year.
He wants to put up a building ten or so stories taller than the Peachtree Plaza, which now tops the city at seventy stories, and then crown it with a ferris wheel. He's positive it would make him a civic hero.
He's right in observing that Atlanta seems to love inducing vertigo. Among the clichés no hotel would be without is the glass-walled elevator, whether it offers a view or not. Multistory atriums are very big. (Newspapermen whisper about the indoor suicide leaps right into the indoor dogwood trees.) Fronds of plants trail from space frames that support acres of skylights wherever you go. Indoor ponds are fed by indoor waterfalls. Restaurants rotate, walls are carpeted, ceilings are mirrored, banners hang everywhere, and it seems to be a crime against the profession to build a right angle, or design a shop with a simple, flat, nonmultilevel floor.
I think this vertigo may have something to do with the reason a lot of Southerners who used to rail against New York have now focused on Atlanta.
One crowded Saturday afternoon, in the Omni International - the home of every distracting environmental stunt that architecture has ever devised - a wise Georgian and I spent some minutes watching a teenage girl watch an escalator. She stared at the sharp-edged, slatted blades of steel emerge from the floor and march up the ramp, and she watched people step on them. She watched how they held their bodies; she swayed as if to catch the rhythm with which they stepped off the floor and onto the moving stairs. She was with three younger children, and clearly she was attempting to figure out how the four of them were going to get up this escalator. She finally took a deep breath, faced the escalator - and took off her shoes. As in touch with the situation as she was ever going to be, she leaped on. Arriving successfully at the top, she started hollering directions down to her charges.
From the hollering - which, as a habit, is perfectly ordinary in a rural setting, but is quickly dropped when folk start getting used to cities - my friend analyzed the situation as one of south Georgia culture shock.
Later, I was pointed toward a bar called Harrison's as a place to study why "they" hate Atlanta. It's a clone bar, albeit one of the biggest I've ever seen. It's where former presidential assistants like Ham Jordan and Jody Powell hung out back when all they were was ambitious, and it's probably where they hang out now. It was jammed with slinky young women in velvet and floppy hats, and with blow-dry-coiffed, square-jawed young men in the standard southern uniform of three-piece suits all buttoned up even well after office hours. I was trying to take notes on this discreetly, still not certain what I was supposed to be understanding, when I was picked up by the girl from Tennessee. She was from a small mountain town and had left there "to look for a change." She had tried living in Washington, but had come to Atlanta to work for a federal grant program, "giving away money, you know?" She said she didn't really like Harrison's "because the guys won't even talk to you, they're just looking around, you know?" although she objected to characterizing the place as a meat rack, pointing out that here, at least, it was possible to come without getting molested. She gave me a big brave smile as she continued her slightly cracked urban hustle, which she had never learned in Tennessee.
It finally clicked. I got to wondering what her daddy did, and if he knew the kind of urban insecurity his daughter had accepted in trade for leaving her small town. And then I thought about the late Dr. Andrew Young, Sr., the New Orleans dentist who was the father of Andrew Young, briefly our ambassador to the UN after serving as one of the first black congressmen from Dixie in this century. Dr. Young, born in 1896, was a frail thoughtful man near the end of a long life when I talked with him. When he spoke about Dixie, he repeatedly came back to the point that, in his opinion:
The South has always been a better place to live than the North, even during segregation. You always knew where you were. The South has always been better because you've had less chance of being embarrassed. In the North [in the pre-civil rights era] you could go into a store, or a tavern, but they'd serve you when they felt like serving you. In my opinion, it was better not to be able to go into a store at all than face that kind of humiliation. Now, in the South those unjust old [segregation] laws don't exist. They can't hide behind those laws. In the North you still wait. In New York, just recently, we were in Lord and Taylor. I sat there, my wife walked around, and nobody came up to her at all. It was humiliating. Here in New Orleans, they meet you at the door.
This sense of knowing where you are and who you are - in the best, non-racist sense of the phrase, quite literally knowing your place, both geographic and your position in it - might be the elusive factor that is southern and good and possibly capable of surviving.
The suggestion is rooted in the South, more than any other region, being a patchwork of small cities and towns, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It is one of the few places where economics are matching social goals. Small cities and towns are where people want to live, and small cities and towns are where industry wants to go. Since the South is an industrial frontier, nothing is there to stop it. This suggests that the forces of nature are working to prevent exactly what the residents fear: the Atlanta-ization of every comfortable town.
The importance of this comes down to the hackles on your neck. People who grew up in the Foundry or New England may find it difficult to believe, but it's possible to have a stranger wave and say hello on the street without that person being a Moonie or a bum. In Charlottesville, Virginia, being waved at by people you don't know is a warm and enduring part of life in a southern town. It's considered poor form to respond to it by averting your eyes, shortening your neck down into your shirt collar, and quickening your step.
People who do that remind me of the Wall Street Journal reporter who recently asked me of my travels: "Is Mississippi still scary?"
In Mississippi, drivers go so far as to wave automatically to strangers in a raised two-finger salute from the top of the steering wheel as they speed past. It's part of living in a world that people understand and feel that they can control. It even helps to bring the apparently inexplicable into focus. As one Atlantan put it:
Crime in the city is tremendously threatening - the bizarre things that happen. But you know, it's not that things are more bizarre. It's that you don't know the person. You don't have any idea where he or she came from, and it's just crazy to you. For example, the guy who walked up and shot the secretary in broad daylight. There were two million people in Atlanta who didn't know that fella, and it just seemed awfully bizarre.
Well, I recall about seven years ago, somebody went into an old woman's house over in Greenville, Mississippi, and sat down and just sort of began the game of shooting her. Shot her in the leg, then shot her in the arm, and then, well, he killed her.
Well, that was horrible. But folks knew him. “Now you know,” they'd whisper, “his family, they were never really quite . . . You know his uncle. He always would get . . .” They could somehow make it all fit. Terrible, but it fit. It's not just crime in the newspaper.”
Yet there are many who argue that a vision of an industrialized, wealthy. dispersed, friendly South, freed by foresight and intelligence from having made the mistakes of the North all over again, is a joke.
A bunch of southern liberals, called the L. Q. C. Lamar Society, in 1912 published an extraordinarily depressing book entitled You Can't Eat Magnolias. First it argued the importance and inevitability of economic development. Then it listed just about every single thing that could go wrong in the process. Then it attempted to suggest solutions. The reason the book is depressing is that the solutions often read like the same ones that have been defeated everywhere else. Like schemes to limit suburban sprawl by the government intervening and buying up land. If the solutions don't sound likely to be adopted, then you're left with the list of problems; and believe me, it is long.
I wasted more than an hour of the time of Blaine Liner, the director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, in the manicured monument to that immaculate miracle of industry, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. I kept on talking at cross-purposes with the man. He discoursed about growth. I kept asking, "What's southern in all this?" Finally, he blew up at my ignorance. "What the hell do you want from us?" he asked. "Twelve-inch-wide pecan floorboards on our airports? Do you want to spend two days slopping from Raleigh to Durham on roads that aren't paved? I can fly to Birmingham, get my work done, and fly back the same night. I don't know if that's southern, but I like it "
It wasn't until I talked to Terry Sanford, the former governor of North Carolina, former presidential candidate, and guiding spirit behind the founding of the board, that I realized quite how confused I'd been. When the board was first founded early in the seventies, its very slogan was "Southern Growth Without Northern Mistakes," and I thought that still was where they were coming from. I didn't pick up on the repeated reference to the slogan being "that old cliche." Sanford finally explained it to me. Around the middle of the seventies, people stopped taking the idea seriously because the politicians involved couldn't come up with a specific consensus on what a northern mistake was.
Even Stephen Suitts, whose Southern Regional Council attempts to continue the work of the civil rights movement, referred ironically to some of his old ideas as "foolish”:
I've always held that quixotic notion that the South's potential for what Martin King called a beloved community - and what I hope is an integrated community - has always been much greater than in any other region. And I've always thought that was important not only in terms of equality and freedom, but in terms of productivity for your region. It influences everything.
I thought the South had more potential than anyplace else. So what's happening is, I'm seeing the welfare of some Southerners increase, and the potential which I've always thought the region had, being slowly but surely diminished.
There was good reason ten years ago to speculate that the South could well be the region where anybody and everybody would want to live. But those of us who were speculating on it are finding the South less attractive to ourselves. That potential is just not being grasped.
When the weather in the South becomes the major factor in talking about why people live in the South, you know that it's become an accident of geography, rather than [a product of] human enterprise.
If writing about Dixie has been a growth industry for the last two hundred years (which it has; there is little more daunting than facing the libraries and libraries published about Dixie), then declaring a portion of southern history "New" is the South's most time-honored literary trap.
By my calculations, there have been at least six major, widely hailed New Souths since Lee's surrender to Grant, not to mention the minor, trial-balloon New Souths that the sad surplus of southern journalists float from time to time (everybody's gotta eat).
Few have not taken a lick at the notion. Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom!, had one of his characters, a Canadian, upon hearing a particularly lurid tale, remark: "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn't it."
W. J. Cash, in a much-honored work called The Mind of the South, published in 1941, says in the preface that his New South - which I believe is about three New Souths ago - "now, indeed, save for a few quaint survivals and gentle sentimentalities and a few shocking and inexplicable brutalities such as lynching is almost as industrialized and modernized in its outlook as the North."
(This is the same preface in which the author feels compelled to address the question of whether "white trash" are really genetically incapacitated. After considerable discussion, the author cautiously generalizes that the answer is no.)
So it's always dangerous to talk about change in the South, and undoubtedly even more dangerous to fixate on Opelousas, Louisiana.
But west of the Atchafalaya Bridge, which is where, they say, real Cajun country starts, and on your way up toward Evangeline Parish, north of Opelousas, there's a place called T and D's Groceries and Apartments. It's right on the cement-tar road there, just a block from a house where a family is keeping four young steers in the side yard - you never know these days about beef prices. The Sears Service Center is across the street.
T and D's offers state-of-the-art hot boudin, which, kept warm in a slow-cooking electric pot, is a fat gray sausage with rice in it and a spiciness that kind of sneaks up on you from behind when you're not looking. T and D's also offers cracklin's, which are pieces of golden fried fatback, packed in a little plastic bag, convenient for snacks. Also tasso (for gumbo), crawfish tails, and duck meat.
Back of T and D's, through the mixture of rural and suburban housing that plants a five-house brick subdivision next to trailer homes up on blocks, emerges a broad, football-field-sized expanse of lawn surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, beyond which is a cluster of buildings identified by a small sign: FMC.
FMC is a twenty-nine-division conglomerate, into everything from food-handling to solid rocket propellants. This plant was built in the sixties to make insecticides. It produces carbofuran, which is marketed as Furadan, and what Furadan does is get poured into the ground of Dixie by tractors, and then taken up into the root systems of corn, tobacco, peanuts, rice, sugar cane, Irish potatoes, sorghum, and millet. It then proceeds to do terrible things to the corn-root worm, the tobacco worm, and nematodes.
There's a guy who lives next to this FMC plant who also claims, in a very large lawsuit, the likes of which is also becoming very Dixie, that Furadan has done terrible things to his horses, which graze a few feet from the plant's fence. Also typically, the plant's management vigorously, and thoroughly, refuses to discuss this.
The FMC plant is worth studying in other ways. Its pay of $5.00 to $6.00 an hour for line employees is considered an 8 on the local 10-point wage scale. It's in a place with a convenient "surplus" of labor. Unemployment ranges from 8.5 to 11.5 percent. Taxes are low. Unions are few. Its location is twenty-four miles from the nearest interstate, although it is serviced by two other major divided highways. Navigable water is nearby; the airport is being expanded.
And it employs Agnes Stelly.
In 1965, Opelousas, faced with the civil rights revolution, attempted to counter demands for integration of the schools by offering "freedom of choice." Anybody could register for any high school they chose.
Agnes Stelly, one of a family of seven black children born on literally the wrong side of the tracks, had a vague sense that she might be able to get a better education if she got out of her segregated environment. So she chose to sign up for the white high school.
She remembers those years as very lonely. A few months into the school year, she concluded she'd made a terrible mistake. There were so few blacks that she refers to herself as part of "one half of one percent."
As for the whites, well, when I asked her if interracial dating was a problem, Agnes said, "It wasn't a question of interracial dating. It was a question of interracial hello-saying." Yet the thought of going back to her old life, and admitting that she couldn't handle her decision to face the new, seemed even more humiliating. So Agnes stuck it out in the white high school for four years. The year she graduated was the year the freedom-of-choice plan was shucked and the Opelousas schools were thoroughly, and mandatorily, integrated.
But meanwhile, Agnes had gone on to the University of Southwestern Louisiana, in Lafayette, to study chemistry. Despite her father's skepticism about the cash value of higher learning - after all, look at schoolteachers - all seven of his children went to colleges ranging from USL to Southern University to Xavier to the University of New Orleans.
And now, all seven young Stellys have found their place in the world. Two are middle-management executives - one in Los Angeles and one in Flint, Michigan. Another is a sales rep in San Francisco. (Agnes particularly admires him. She can't get over that he's gotten into something as risky as sales and has actually made it.)
Two are in New Orleans - one working for the federal government and the other a reporter for the States-Item. (The latter is the one the elder Stelly points to as proving his point about the dubious cash value of higher education.) And one is a bookkeeper in Houston.
But Agnes has returned to Opelousas. Her early twenties were turbulent. At a certain point, Agnes had had so many chemistry courses that she could have screamed. She left school short of a degree. A marriage, a child, a life in Houston, and a divorce were mixed in there, before she decided to come back home and sort out her life.
That's when FMC came to get her. Bill Williamson, the manager at the plant and her boss, keeps saying, "She's worth every penny. She's worth every penny."
Agnes is using her chemistry background to be the head of quality control for the plant. In her lab inside the firestone-brick office building at FMC, in front of the huge gray cubes of aluminum that make up the plant itself, she is surrounded by things like her Hewlett-Packard 5730A gas chromatograph. It's attached to the 5730A isotherm oven and the 3380A computer. A Mettler H51 balance for weighing things to five digits right of the decimal point is somehow associated with the microscope, the centrifuge, the pipettes, and the sulfuric acid.
Agnes is making plans. FMC is willing to pay for her to take courses leading to the completion of her degree, and she intends to take the company up on the offer.
She doesn't want to stay in Opelousas forever, although she admits the money is good, and she's putting away every nickel she can, and they are many.
Williamson, when asked about Agnes' salary, takes a deep breath. She's making a lot of money, he says. Compared with those line workers whose wages are described as 8 on a 10-point scale? Oh hell, she's making a lot more money than them. She makes more money than a schoolteacher. Why, he adds, she's making a lot of money by the standards of a man!
And that remark may reveal why it's logical to suggest that we're heading into a kind of seventh New South, another step, perhaps, in the Americanization of Dixie.
In 1956, Agnes' father, a bus driver, was approached by the city fathers and asked if he would accept a special task. Times were changing, they explained, and Louisiana had to change with them, and would Philip Stelly be willing to take a job as one of the first two black police officers of Opelousas? He describes those years as so long ago that "it was before they made the streets one-way." And he doesn't remember them as being easy. First it was a struggle to get a patrol car allocated to a black man, and then it was a struggle to get a patrol car that wasn't a hand-me-down from a white man. But time moved on, and Mr. Stelly moved with them.
And now FMC has turned to Agnes and offered her a job, and it admits that it recruited her for reasons of social justice. But not because she's black. This plant, surrounded by homes the front yards of which, even in the 1980s, can still be found littered with geese and goats - in a Dixie deeper than which it's damn tough to get - has been integrated for years. Bill Williamson even looked confused when I asked him whether he'd hired Agnes because of her race.
Of course not, he said.
I hired her because she's a woman.