It was a bad time for magnolias and mockingbirds. Along with other images of the old South they felt the chill of change as America’s federal government finally cried out last week for justice on behalf of the Wilmington 10. There was no direct connection, but the move coincided with a drive by labor unions to organize Dixie’s oppressive industry and combined to emphasize the need for a new South.
Reports that this has already arrived are premature—as was shown recently by the Institute for Southern Studies in Atlanta. It has found that despite the economic boom and growing industrialization in the South the gap between rich and poor remains almost exactly as it was 25 years ago. The richest onefifth of southern families continues to get more than 40 per cent of the region’s income, while the bottom fifth gets only a nickel out of every dollar. Julian Bond, the Georgia state senator who is president of the institute, said this “demonstrates clearly that the rich get richer— and if the poor don’t precisely get poorer, they certainly don’t do any better.”
The action on behalf of the Wilmington 10 was unprecedented, and was received as a blow to southern pride. The 10—nine black men and a white woman—were sentenced to prison terms of up to 29 years seven years ago for the fire bombing of a white-owned grocery during racial violence that left two dead in Wilmington, North Carolina.
They were convicted on the strength of one witness, Allen Hall, who has since changed his testimony three
times. Federal lawyers say outright that Hall may have lied under oath and the state has now been officially asked to free the Reverend Ben Chavis from jail and the other nine from parole obligations. But there is a fierce sense of independence in the South where many whites seem obsessed with retaining what they perceive as their “rights.” It is generally felt in North Carolina that Washington had no cause to interfere and that the eventual outcome has yet to be decided.
The “freedom-independence” issue raises itself again, and most strongly, in the labor field. Only 14.8 per cent of workers in the 11 southern states are union members, as opposed to 26.2 per cent nationwide. As a result, southern companies, particularly in the textile and furniture industries, get away with paying the lowest wages and providing the worst conditions in the country.
Automotive companies, for example, pay about $1.20 an hour less to workers in the non-union South than to those doing identical jobs in the unionized North. Companies with strong unions are actively discouraged from locating in some communities because local politicians, backed by businessmen, argue that if high-paying jobs are introduced, long-established non-union companies will move away rather than match the
wages. In the long run, they argue, the locals will suffer.
They also label unions as Communist collectives that rob a man or woman of his or her personal freedoms. This is a particularly effective argument among members of the largely conservative white working class, however poor they are and however phony in reality are their “freedoms.” By contrast the blacks, who make up 20 per cent of the South’s population, are more eager to sign a union card. They never had any freedoms to “lose” in the first place.
Jim Sala, who directs AFL-CIO activities in seven southern states, claims that in a lot of areas “there is actually a conspiracy between the politicians of the communities and the corporate interests. They insist on non-unionization to keep wages low. But we are making inroads now because, as inflation goes up, people just can’t live on bad pay.”
Sala says the Garment Workers’ Union is now winning elections in the Carolinas, in Mississippi, in Florida, in Alabama and, altogether, “we have 18 unions involved in some 106 campaigns to get plants organized right now in Florida alone.” But people have “strange concepts” down South: “I asked a class of grade 11 and 12 highschool students in North Carolina what a labor union was, and many of them thought quite seriously that it was a Mafia organization.”
In a North Carolina bar a recent graduate of a northern Ivy League university said the South owed its conservative folk culture to a tradition of storytelling. “For generations we had far fewer outside entertainment facilities than the North,” he said. “The fellow who could tell a good story always found an audience, and the strength of the individual was always stressed.”
In that way, the language of the South has remained lush, personal, expressive. In southern idiom, girls are “pretty as a speckled pup” or “ugly as homemade soap.” In a Mississippi court a black defendant explained his relationship to the common-law wife he had murdered: “She was my much-right woman.” Asked what he meant, he replied: “I figured I had as much right to her as anybody else.”
Not surprisingly, there are many who believe that, despite the poverty and the injustice, America without its Dixie states would be like a kiss without a squeeze, like Renoir in black and white. The South, the old South, is color and cause, expression and excitement. Often dead wrong and hard done by, so often hard done by, but never—well, hardly ever—drab and dull.
Arthur “Peg-Leg Sam” Jackson was born near Jonesville, South Carolina, on Dec. 18,1911. The youngest in a poverty-
stricken, black sharecropping family, he was put to plowing at the age of 10 and often hired out for extra work to neighbors.
There were no civil rights, no unions, no freedoms—except those that left you to starve. But Arthur, now full of home philosophy and strength, looks back with an anger that is tempered, not tormented, by pride. He has been “discovered” by the folklore department at the University of North Carolina, where his words and history have been recorded and are being studied as an insider’s view of what it was and what it is like for the very poor in Jimmy Carter’s South.
“You look at me, you look at a man that was born for hard luck,” says Arthur. Then he grins and adds, just so that you might understand he is not bitter: “I’m in such hard luck that if it’s raining down soup at this very minute, everybody would be standing there with a spoon, why, I’d have a fork.”
It will take more than the Wilmington 10 decision to alter attitudes and inequalities so deeply entrenched.
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