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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 >>

Homogenization of national culture and its impact on the South

Seigenthaler speaks at length about how problems once seen as unique to the South were increasingly national in scope. As elsewhere in the interview, Seigenthaler focuses on what some had called a process of homogenization, paying special attention to questions of southern community and southern heritage.

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

What you are saying then, is that the whole country is as colonial as the South.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
I'm not sure that I am talking of it in terms of colonialism. But I understand what you are saying. What I am saying is this: that I am confident that the South finally accepted in concept the wisdom of the Supreme Court's decision, not just because they understood in the South that not a hell of a lot would be done about it, but because the simple justice of it finally got through. Look at the South from 1954 to 1960: aside from Little Rock and a few other places, there was not that much confrontation. In 1961, I don't think that anybody in the country knew how active the Kennedy administration was going to be, not even those of us who were inside that administration. I mean, there were really strong reservations about Bob Kennedy. And we went in there and began to move and the resistance to that was substantial. Heavy. But, you know, when you made the argument about the wife of a veteran killed in Vietnam, traveling from Mississippi to Arlington and then going home and not being able to go to the bathroom or to a country-friend chicken place or a restaurant, the simple equity involved had made an impact. What I am saying . . . I could go on and make that case again and again and that case was made in the South. I think that masses of people, as they confronted problems of blacks in the South, the simple reality of the argument made itself felt. I could talk about education, I could talk about jobs, I could talk about all those things. My fear about it today, is that, not just in the South, because I don't think that it is the problem of the South anymore, the questions of the environment are questions that address themselves to people all over this country. The problems of racism do, the problems of poverty are beginning to. Detroit is more a colony today than Montgomery, Alabama. The unemployment rate in many northern cities is much higher than it is in many southern cities. Now, if our leaders are going to be moderates, who is going to argue the inequity and the injustice being done as a result of an imposition of what you have described as corporate colonialization. Which I might call something else. But who is going to argue? Who will have the fire and the zeal? Not the moderates who have been elected to rule in the South.
BILL FINGER:
Are they newspaper men?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, well, I don't know whether I am or not. I won't know until the challenge comes. But I can look around the South and it looks to me that it is possible. I mentioned Gene Patterson the other day, and Pete McKnight, and Claude Sitton and Johnny Popham, and Reg Murphy . . . You know, I look at Reg Murphy. I don't see that there is much fire left in the old Constitution. But I know he is a good man. Now, the question is whether he is good enough. I don't know what happened to Gene Patterson and Jack Tarver in Atlanta. Everything that I have heard is on the side of a free press Jack Tarver has been cast in the role of something of a villain. That's usually newspaper Rotarian gossip. But I don't really know what happened there. I hope that some of those people are going to have the guts and the courage to stand up. Now, go ahead.
JIM TRAMEL:
Let me go back a minute. I sense a sense of frustration at being able to pinpoint our solution.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, sure there is.
JIM TRAMEL:
Is there something that is uniquely southern, that we have maintained an illusion of living in a community, and has that kept us from being honest with ourselves about a class society?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Oh, sure. And the one thing that we have done is convinced ourselves that we were "different." There was nothing really good about being different. And still, we told ourselves that we were different, as if that meant we had superior qualities. There was nothing really good, by my standards about the southern way. It was good and bad. The ambivalence that has been part of the mind of the South during my lifetime, is a natural ambivalence. You know, there is something to be said for an agrarian society. We haven't had one in a hell of a long time. But there is something to be said for an agrarian society. There is something to be said for a slower pace, a better or more relaxed attitude about work. But while the southerner for the most part, has seen that as . . . part of his society as being worth protecting still, at the same time, he has wanted very much to be like the North. He has wanted to be industrialist. And so, he brings in the industry, which puts burdens on him. Then he screams because things aren't like they used to be. "Things aren't like they used to was." That ambivalence is more pronounced in the South than it is elsewhere in the country, because of the dichotomy that has been so marked in the South. Northerners really don't make much bones about what they were. You know, they were crass in their approach to the industrial revolution, which really made them that way. And they saw the genius of their whole environment resting in an ability to mass produce. And we thought that we could have it both ways. We thought that we could have the good old days and the good old ways and still bring in what they had. We thought that we could help our own situation by making it possible to export a lot of so-called undesirables. And the result, I think, is a homogenization that really leaves us one nation now. You talk about a sense of community. And there was that. And in a sense, that remains. I think that it is subconscious with us. But I think that it is still there. We still talk about Lester Maddox as part of ourselves. We still talk about George Wallace as one of us. I don't think of myself as being like George Wallace, but I can't talk about the South as a region without identifying what the total South is and identifying with it. And you know, whether you are talking about Jim Dombrowski or the head of the Klu Klux Klan, you are talking about . . . and I'll tell you the truth, I don't know whether Jim Dombrowski was southern. He may not have been.
BILL FINGER:
He was here long enough.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, for long enough to make an impact.
BILL FINGER:
Well, let me get at this another way. Let me ask you a question. Do you think there is something, that . . . what you are talking about is that sense of family, the sense of community?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Well, that's here. In the 1940's, the late '40's, maybe early '50's, in '46, there was a race riot in Columbia, Tennessee. There was a man who lived here named Edward War Carmack, who had run for United States Senator a couple of times. He went to Columbia, all the blacks had been jailed, and he marched into the jail and said to the head of the state highway patrol, who had gone in and taken over the town, "I want the Carmack niggers." And he got them. He got the blacks who had worked for the Carmack family since slave days, I guess. And those blacks came out with him and went back to wherever it was that the Carmack Negroes worked. That sense of family has been something that Ed Carmack felt and it is something that all of us have felt. We do think of ourselves as inter-related, as unique, as different, as part of the total family and that of many subfamilies. The point that I am making about all this is, that at this point I can't see any value to be gained from looking back on that. The time has come, it seems to me, to look at the South in 1974 and see it as it really is, not that different from any other part of the country, with not that many answers and maybe with a hell of a lot more problems. I don't see the South as part of a colonial possession of the corporate North, but it is more than that. You know, the corporate North has more branch plants in the South . . .
BILL FINGER:
And headquarters.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That's right, and headquarters. And that means for the South, last hired, first fired. You know what the blacks said about employment in the nation, the methods that the South is now going to have to experience, if this economic downturn continues, is that we . . . and again, notice how I say, "we" are going to be. Which is just exactly the point you make, we do think of ourselves as families . . . we are going to find ourselves hurting most, the last to get relief. And what I am suggesting by—all that I am really saying-is that if the South continues to look upon itself, if we continue to look upon ourselves, as being "different" as opposed to recognizing the nation in the 1970's for what it is, a very homogenous society, then I think there is no real value in being southern. No real value in being southern. That's a heresy for somebody who has looked upon the South as being special and different and unique. There is no way to find any answer in the 1970's, in my judgement, from a re-evaluation of what the South has been through. Only because we haven't found any answers after a hundred years, and if we can't find any answers after a hundred years, there is no chance that Cleveland or Gary or Detroit is going to find any answers from looking at us. The South is not better than the rest of the country. It is just a little bit worse.