Journalistic images of the South, 1945-1970 : A second nationalization

Date

1973

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Abstract

The South has had a special hold on the American imagination. Journalists' extensive writings on the region have provided one notable expression of that fascination. A detailed survey of four Northern-based periodicals, Harper's Magazine, Commentary, Partisan Review, and Christian Century, reveals that journalists maintained this special interest from 1945 to 1970. In the hundreds of articles, editorials, short stories, and reviews that they wrote on Southern subjects, three prevailing impressions of the region appeared in this twenty-six-year period. An image of a Changing South dominated the accounts from 1945 to 1955. During this era, journalists still viewed the region as the most backward section in the country, but they reported that Southerners were solving their old, distinctive problems and were merging into American society. Two developments, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, strongly influenced the ways writers viewed changes in the South. Assuming that the non-South was a democratic, prosperous, and liberal society, the journalists enthusiastically welcomed any signs of the South's nationalization. They believed that this would bring Negroes full rights in the country and that the then unblemished national image would have a world-wide appeal, especially to Asians and Africans. Ironically, the literary artists of the Southern Renascence dominated American literature at this time. Some critics warned that nationalization of the South would destroy the main inspiration of Southern writers. A few journalists did assert before 1956 that racism was not limited to the South, but this viewpoint was not widely accepted. In fact, the idea that racism was exclusively Southern shaped the predominant image of the region from 1956 to 1964. As the Civil Rights Movement intensified during these years, sectionalism in the journalistic accounts increased. Critics attacked Southern literary artists for their opinions on the Civil Rights Movement. Historians revived nineteenth-century sectional controversies. Most observers disregarded earlier predictions about nationalization and emphasized traits that they believed to be uniquely Southern, especially racism and violence. An image of an Embattled South, in which evil white supremacists fought good civil righters, prevailed during this era. Most journalists had little sympathy for the white South's opposition to Negro demands, and they supported the federal government's efforts to enforce reforms in the region. Some journalists suggested that the South was not American at all. Others, Southern white liberals, argued that while their region's race problem was complex, Southerners were gradually accepting the reforms and becoming nationalized. During the period from 1965 to 1970, a third predominant image of the region appeared, a new form of the Changing South. Most journalists no longer presumed that the non-South was democratic and just, as they had believed in earlier years. Widespread urban rioting outside the South and the Vietnam War had destroyed this belief, and the South's problems seemed little different from the nation's. Many writers once again depicted the South as nationalized, but now part of an unhappy, troubled nation. One group of journalists, publishing in Harper's Magazine, did view the region's nationalization with optimism. They believed that the socioeconomic and political changes and the civil rights reforms that had occurred in the region in recent years might result in a future South that would be the nation's salvation. These writers, mostly Southerners strongly influenced by historian C. Vann Woodward, emphasized a Changing South image which suggested another myth of regional distinctiveness. They foresaw a new, humanistic society developing in the region in which blacks and whites lived together peacefully. Whether their hopes for a new South would be realized was not certain at the end of this study, but the influence in journalism of the Harper's writers was apparent. In the early 1970's, several accounts reflecting their vision of a new South appeared in other national magazines.

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Keywords

History, United States, Southern States, Twentieth century, Journalism

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