When Frye Gaillard, a writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama and award-winning author, invited Cynthia Tucker to co-author a book that would consider the role of the South in shaping America’s current political and cultural landscape, she happily accepted.
“I have enormous respect not only for Frye’s talent as a writer but also for his perspective on the South,” says Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist who spent years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is currently the journalist-in-residence at the University of South Alabama. “Starting with his own family, he has continued to excavate the history of the South as it really is/was and write about it, contributing to the movement to heal the wounds of racial animosity and oppression. His perspective, obviously, is different from mine, but I value it.”
The resulting essay collection, The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance, offers a multiracial perspective on the legacy of political polarization and the possibility for redemption when a democracy is under siege.
In advance of their book talk at the Atlanta History Center on April 27, Tucker shared her thoughts with ArtsATL on the “whitelash” that followed Barack Obama’s election; the ease with which Southern Baptists abandoned core theology at the polls; and the fragility of democracy absent a free press.
ArtsATL: As an Alabamian who has covered national news and politics for decades, would you characterize the South as an outlier, or a barometer of societal values and morality in the United States?
Tucker: When I was a younger journalist, I viewed the South as an outlier — though I have begun to reconsider that view. In some ways, the South is still an outlier: Many White Southerners remain entrenched in “lost cause” mythology; the region is poorer than other regions, less educated and more resistant to the views of “elites” and the dictates of the federal government; fewer Southern Whites voted for Barack Obama than Whites in other regions. But the “whitelash” after Obama’s election has shown how much the racial animosity of too many White Southerners has either spread to other parts of the country or been awakened in other regions.
ArtsATL: After President Obama was re-elected in 2012, Rush Limbaugh stated, “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered . . . thinking we’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this.” One might argue that last year’s insurrection at the Capitol signaled the highest manifestation of this fear-mongering, while others see the lawlessness unleashed on January 6 as a harbinger of what’s to come. Where are you on that spectrum?
Tucker: Frye and I ended The Southerization of America in the same way that John Egerton [who wrote The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America in 1974] ended his musings on the South — in uncertainty. None of us know which way the South or the nation will go. I have many days of deepest pessimism. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, and despite the income inequality, the nation still provides a decent standard of living for most of its citizens, especially its White citizens. Yet, a significant minority of White people are so unhappy about the prospect of losing their status at the top of the heap — Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly makes that case in Caste — that they are prepared to destroy democracy. Geez.
On the other hand, I see hope in the election of both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. I saw hope in the 2020 summer of Black Lives Matter protests, in which people of all races participated. People of color have joined with a minority of Whites to save this democracy more than once, and we seem prepared to do it again. Go, Stacey Abrams!
I use the word “minority” intentionally here. Obama never received a majority of White votes; neither did Biden. A majority of White Americans voted for Donald Trump both times.
ArtsATL: Of all the perplexing features of Donald Trump’s presidency, you argue that the unwavering loyalty he elicited from conservative Christians was the most puzzling. Why does their rank hypocrisy come as a surprise given the history of Christians using the Bible to defend slavery; the Founding Fathers’ sanctioning of White supremacy; and Dr. Martin Luther King’s asking in the last century, What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
Tucker: Yeah. Excellent question. Having grown up surrounded by White “Christians” who insisted I couldn’t sit down with my family in a restaurant or sit next to their children in a classroom, I should know better, right? Still, the Southern Baptists finally got around to apologizing for slavery in the 1990s, and they began to recruit Black members. So did other conservative churches. I dared believe that they were finally willing to believe in the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of Christ.
In truth, though, their theology has never really been about the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ultra-conservative White Christians have for generations borrowed from the Puritans — preaching a theology that centers on personal morality with sexual rectitude at its core. No drinking, no dancing, no sex outside marriage. When Trump came along, they abandoned all of that. Sexual rectitude was no long part of their theology. I admit I was stunned by how quickly and easily they abandoned their core theology for a bigot. I wonder what they have left.
ArtsATL: How do you explain voters’ selective amnesia when it comes to ignoring the checkered pasts of religious leaders, politicians and pundits like Jerry Falwell Sr. (a staunch segregationist who once proclaimed that integration would “destroy our race eventually”); Newt Gingrich (who was in the middle of an extramarital affair with the woman who would become his third wife when he fomented outrage over Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky) and Bill O’Reilly (who called the Dixie Chicks “callow foolish women who deserve to be slapped around,” after the group’s lead singer voiced her anti-war stance prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003)?
Tucker: Selective amnesia isn’t the most surprising feature of our current political and cultural landscape. A significant minority of our citizens have simply abandoned reality. Period. Psychologists tell us that facts don’t stand much of a chance against what people want to believe. And preachers such as Franklin Graham and commentators/”news” hosts such as Tucker Carlson are telling people what they want to believe.
ArtsATL: What are your thoughts on the way critical race theory has been weaponized by Republicans?
Tucker: As the movement against what Republicans call “critical race theory” has gained momentum, I have watched carefully to see where this would lead us. And it has led where I thought it would — to a point at which some schools are now abandoning the effort to teach the history they were teaching just last year. An Indiana elementary school sent parents a letter allowing them to opt out of Black History Month lessons. As you know, Black History Month lessons in elementary schools tend to be the most superficial glances back at non-controversial figures such as George Washington Carver.
The fight against “critical race theory” — many of the GOP legislators sponsoring bills to ban it have no idea what it is — is simply a way to take schools back to the 1950s, when textbooks hardly mentioned Black people at all.
ArtsATL: Donald Trump’s calling the press “the enemy of the people” was as menacing as it was incendiary. Why do you think his rhetoric resonated with so many of his supporters? What would you say to people who do not understand the connection between a free press and the preservation of a democracy?
Tucker: I try very hard to teach my students at the University of South Alabama the connection between a free press and the preservation of democracy. I don’t know that I am able to persuade all of them. Here in the South, the national press has probably been seen as an enemy since the civil rights movement, when newspapers such as The New York Times and the broadcast networks reported on the horrific violence against Black protestors trying to claim their rights as Americans.
During Trump’s presidency, his supporters were undoubtedly angered by reports of babies being snatched from their mothers at the border or reports of police violence against unarmed Black men. Again, they are fully prepared to jettison facts if those facts don’t fit with what they believe.
Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and coproduces Collective Knowledge, a conversational series that’s broadcast on THEA Network, and frequently moderates author talks for the Atlanta History Center.