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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Southern heritage, nationalization of southern culture, and the politics of moderation

Seigenthaler discusses his thoughts on "southern heritage," particularly in relationship to the political climate of the early 1970s. Arguing that "southern culture" had become "national culture" by the 1970s, Seigenthaler focuses on how issues like racism and poverty had cultivated separatism and segregation of various groups. In focusing on how politics of race were playing out throughout the nation, Seigenthaler warns against the growing trend towards "moderate" politics, concluding that politics of compromise could do little to promote social change.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You know, you came out of a Nashville family. You got interested in electoral politics. You were stretched in certain ways, right?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Right.
BILL FINGER:
We don't know enough about . . .
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Stretched, but never really shoved in any direction.
BILL FINGER:
But there were people who were shoving in our southern heritage. Jim Dombrowski was shoving people, Myles Horton was shoving people. People got shoved as workers, too, that weren't in that middle-class, protected, Wilder, convict labor. I think that we need to know about that southern heritage. Because the issues are really complicated now, in the 70's. Civil rights was clear, clear to you as a reporter. It was clear that we had to move through that. Corporate ownership and amalgamation of farms and newspapers is not as clear.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
No, but let's just settle this. This draws the line where I would like to have it drawn. Nothings been talked about, written about, thought about or discussed more than the southern heritage. Let me tell you why I think that it's dangerous. I said the other day that it seems to me that aside from letters—and I certainly consider journalism a vital part of the region's cultural life— the South really has made no distinctive contribution to the total society. All that has come out of that, or most of what has come out of it— has been pain, torture, struggle, conflict, controversy. All of that has been the product of poverty or racism. Those two factors have really created most of the ordeal that the South has experienced. I'm not saying that's not valuable. That is valuable. I would say that we have produced an inordinate amount of men and women of letters; not much more. We produce people who are willing to think and appraise and analyze their own situation, their own condition, or at least, if not their"own"in a subjective sense, their"own"in terms of people that they know or identify with. The interesting thing about southerners—Liebling used to write about the wayward press and he said that no matter what newspaper you worked for, it was always, it was always "our" paper. Whatever the paper did, good or bad, newspaper people talked about "our" paper and the way "we" did it.
BILL FINGER:
Possessive plural.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That's right And we've come to think about the South in the same way. We think of the Klansman as a part of ourselves; we think about George Wallace as a part of us. Lester Maddox as one of us. It seems to me that we've got a great sense of guilt because of people like that. The problem has been that while we have been willing to talk about it and think about it, very, very few of us have either been willing or able to do a bloody thing about it. The South is as segregated today as it ever was. This is a city that is split by race. White neighborhoods are still white; black neighborhoods are still black, job discrimination is still rampant. You find a token black in a bank, or a token in an office, or a token in a newspaper city room, or a token on a television screen. But we are still racially separated. And that is continuing, despite all of the rhetoric about a "new South. Despite all the study and all the analyses. I said to Brandy Ayers when I interviewed him on a book review program I have: the first question was: "After a hundred years and thousands of volumes, do we still need another book analyzing the role of the South? Do we really need, You Can't Eat the Magnolias?" His response was, "We do." I read Willy Morris and I think the same thing, "Do we really need it, Willy?" And after I've read You Can't Eat the Magnolias and North Toward Home and Morgan Rouser's book here on southern political voting trends, I conclude the same thing that I guess I concluded when I read V.O. Key and Jack Cash. "Yeah, that southern contribution is important," but it is not as relevant in the 70's as it was when V.O. Key or Jack Cash wrote about it.
BILL FINGER:
What's relevant in the 70's?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
What's relevant in the 70's is that it is no longer southern. It's national. Let's just face what has happened to American society, it has become southern in character. Sure, we stillhave more blacks than any other region in the country, but we don't have more black dominated cities. I mean, Dick Hatcher in Gary is a reality and he was elected because Gary, Indiana, decided that it was going to be racially black. It couldn't decide otherwise, apparently. Gary, Indiana has a black mayor because that is a black city. Washington, D.C. is a black city.
BILL FINGER:
What about economics?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Well, just look at those downtown communities and what is happening to them. What's happening to Gary is the same thing that is happening in other cities, southern and eastern and western and northern. Some statistics the other day showed that from 1960 to 1970, the number of blacks in the South steadily decreased, until about '69. It just leveled out, it now appears to me that it is levelling out at about 50% regionally. Regionally, we've got about 50% of the blacks in the South . . .
BILL FINGER:
Percentage?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, the rest of them are spread out now all across the country. Now, you take that factor and then project that to what happens in Gary and Chicago and Cleveland. Maynard Jackson is not even a first. I mean, he is a fifth or a sixth or seventh. The black mayor of Atlanta was elected because Atlanta went black later than Gary or Cleveland. And Carl Stokes was elected because they went black sooner; Dick Hatcher in Gary because the same thing happened. Walter Washington in Washington because the same thing was obvious. You get 80% black and you just have to have a black mayor, even the federal government could read that. I wouldn't put Tom Bradley in that category because I think that Tom Bradley is the exception. But there is an analogy between Los Angeles. I mean, Lester Maddox is really the prototype of the traditional southern politician, but Lester Maddox is no longer southern. Louise Day Hicks and Sam Yorty are as southern as the prototype of the southern politician: Lester Maddox. I said the other day, without really explaining it, that we have exported our worst and imported the worst that they've had. One of the things that we've exported is our separateness, our separate society. We've sent off so many blacks that we have literally segregated cities and the result of that is that we have changed the political climate in places like that. So, while Tom Bradley is an exception he was not elected because the blacks in Los Angeles outnumbered or nearly outnumbered the whites. They didn't in L. A. He certainly came into power because in that instance, Sam Yorty was everything that the typical stereotype southern politician was. Tom Bradley just happened to be the fellow who moved into that political vacuum and got elected following that. Tom Bradley could have been a white liberal as easily and been elected. People out there were sick of Yorty. If you just go one step beyond that, the result of what has happened in the South, it seems to me, as a result of all these ordeals, turmoils, struggles, conflict and controversy . . . because of the racism and the poverty—those twin specters that are not really separate in and of themselves, but you can separate the two, I think — the result of that has been in the 1970's, a movement toward moderation. The thing that I fear is, and fear deeply, is that a dependence on men like Bumpers, Hollings and Busbee and Askew, Blanton, Baker and the rest, who consider themselves moderates and who are praised now as moderates, not only by the masses in the South, but also by the intellectuals and academics in the South, the journalists, the people who have produced the southern literature that I talked about. The moderates are now hailed as the saviours of the South. And it is my judgement that there will not come out of moderation, the inventiveness or the ingenuity, or the genius or the fire for expermentation and development that this region and the whole country must have as we go on into the 70's. Who among the moderates of the South or the North will be able to stand up and say, "We've got to stop strip mining."? Their idea is to compromise. That's what moderation means, compromise. And this country faces economic, environmental, racial challenges that won't be resolved by men who look upon "the role of a moderate" as being the role of a compromiser.