May 27, 2010
Forget About Kansas…

…what’s the matter with the South? It’s worth remembering that Dixie was well on its way out of the toilet before it chose to dive right back in. Badtux the Southern Penguin poses the question in this excerpt. And here’s his answer, which is not likely to surprise you. But plenty of people don’t know the backstory.

Historically, the American South in the period from around 1920 to 1965 was characterized by populism. A series of charismatic progressive governors was elected in most Southern states during this time period who brought their backwards states up to then-modern standards in many ways.

Public education had been crippled for decades by barriers that prevented most poor kids from advancing past the 6th grade, especially the cost of textbooks. Those barriers were removed and poor kids for the first time had the opportunity for a high school education. Public universities were vastly expanded and tuitions cut to zero for poor kids in many cases, allowing access to higher education for many for the first time.

A road network that was primarily rutted dirt roads in 1920 was by 1965 as good as any road network anywhere in the nation. Taxes on the wealthy that basically didn’t exist in 1920 were at national norms by 1965. In 1920 most Southerners had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephone service, by 1965 those were at national norms. Manufacturers noted the new infrastructure and the newly-educated work force and flocked to the South in droves. Decrepit cities like Houston and Atlanta started throwing up modern skyscrapers and becoming thriving metropolises.

Yet this burst of modernization basically had slammed to a halt by 1975. Instead of electing progressive governors, the South started electing regressives, people intent upon rolling back the reforms instituted by the progressives. When progressives did get elected, like Edwin Edwards in Louisiana during the late 1970’s, they found themselves fighting holding actions, basically trying to keep government services from being gutted by a populace increasingly hostile to government.

City parks and recreation programs were gutted and closed, city bus services were cut back or eliminated, and the roads and schools started to deteriorate. A few cities fought back and managed to become isolated islands of progressivism and prosperity, but most Southern cities started a long slide to ruin…


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at May 27, 2010 06:38 PM
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Not to sound too much like a conspiracy nut (which I am, but that is beside the point), but Dallas,Texas was a particular hotbed for reactionism. That is likely why it was chosen as the spot for John Kennedy's murder.

Posted by: colonelgirdle on May 27, 2010 7:36 PM

I think this is largely true. When I was a child we paid next to nothing for our school lunches. I think it 15 cents for the whole week in 1965 (3 cents per lunch) and I suspect if the parents couldn't afford it it was resolved without telling the other children. This changed when I moved to another county in the 70s when those children whose parents couldn't pay the minimal fee had to clean the lunchroom and they had to be embarrassed when it happened because they were paraded out of class in front of us all. That school district was a mean one but the one where children just didn't have to pay much at all was differnt. The first was in Allendale County SC and the second was in Bamberg County SC. I tell people in PA what we paid for our lunches in the 1960s and they find it astounding. I suspect we might have paid nothing but for the fact that the local dairyman was also a politician. But he did take us on a tour of the farm and maybe he could have had a hand in trying to get the district to pay for even our milk. But that didn't happen. But yes, there was progressivism in the South in the past, deeply entrenched. As to all the roads being paved, no, that wasn't completely true. There are still many dirt roads down there (here in PA they call the paved roads McAdam roads). I have found few dirt roads in PA. But enough roads are paved in South Carolina that almost all the major highways are in good shape. The first toll road came into being on Hilton Head Island a few years ago. That would have been unthinkable in the progressive area.

Southerners are lucky int that the paving lasts a long time because there is nothing to cause cracks when it gets so cold it freezes. That rarely happens. So I suspect they pay less to keep up their road system. But I remember as a child my father saying that SC had the best road engineers and road designers in the nation. And I think that was true at that time.

In addition our universities were so inexpensive in the 70s that we had thousands of North Easterners who joined us even they had to pay the much stiffer out of state tuition fees. I made quite a few friends from the Northeast in those years and still maintain contact with some. They were a mystery to us and we to them so we often became fast friends to see other views of the world from a Northern perspective.

But I think my tuition and room was about $400 a semester in the mid 70s. Those days are now gone.

Posted by: Buck on May 27, 2010 9:47 PM
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