Dixie’s Forgotten People: the South’s Poor Whites
© 1979 Wayne Flynt
When Franklin Roosevelt referred to the forgotten man, he was likely thinking of those men in the city’s breadlines. The South, however, was home to a host of forgotten men: poor whites, who lost in the land-grab and who industrialism largely left behind. Dixie is a quick survey into the realm of rural white poverty, succeeded wholly by Flynt’s own Poor But Proud. Despite its brevity, it provides both flavor and substance.
Myths about displaced Norman cavaliers fleeing England to restore the old order in the South not withstanding, most poor whites came from the same stock as those men who became the masters — at least those in the ‘core south’, where Flynt primarily draws from. They emerged as economic losers, families who either arrived late and got the leftovers or soil that had already been picked clean, or who were out-done by the rising gentry creating their vast fiefdoms. The Civil War left them with even more crushing poverty in the form of tenant farming, and the ruined south was hard to transform into the “new”, industrialized south. A fierce contempt for accepting charity from outsiders frustrated well-meaning missionaries and social reformers, but they were not altogether left behind. Some tried to escape rural poverty by working in the mills, which were often more dangerous and no guarantor of comfort, and others lobbied for more political power. Some even overcame racism to create an race-blind tenant farmers union; from such a union came the latter Civil Rights marching song, “We Shall Overcome”. Racial cooperation in the realm of labor was one of the dashed hopes of the 19th century populist age, however. The world wars were kind to the South, bringing more industry and money, but the interwar years consisted of an economic slump so dismal that the Great Depression wasn’t even noticed. While the South as a whole became more productive with the advent of machinery, added jobs constituted only a quarter of those lost to the machines. After World War 2, the Southern economy finally quickened, but many still remain left behind — especially in Appalachia, which receives a section unto itself.
Dixie’s Forgotten People isn’t two hundred pages of labor struggles with a southern twang, though, for he also shares the genuine life of the people. Using interviews with adults remembering their youth, Flynt records here folk stories and music. The music shared is that which is fraught with meaning — melodies that comment on the plight of the family, of working for nothing but trouble, of hoping for rest and relief in the world to come. The religion of the rural poor was overtly otherworldly, constantly challenging the elite with the threatening promise that one day the first would be last, and the meek would inherit the earth. (If “meek” is the right word for estatic snake handlers and Pentecostal preachers in unions..) Some of that culture even became mainstream, in the form of country-western, but as it became popular it lost the edge born of desperate poverty and anger. (This is a trend that has fast continued, with ‘country’ singers slipping into the pop charts with ease, a la Taylor Swift.) Despite their poverty, the subjects retain a spine — they are, to borrow Flynt’s later title, ‘poor but proud’. Some of that pride, in racial myths, is misplaced, but much of it is legitimate, invested in the rich musical and artistic heritage that was saved from homogeneity by the mountains of Appalachia and dismal transportation. Now, with interstates and cookie-cutter suburbs sprawling across the South’s coastal plains and rugged hills, one wonders if that heritage itself will become the forgotten Dixie instead of just its poor — lost to ticky-tacky McAmerica,
In short, Dixie’s Forgotten People was a quick and varied survey, albeit one supplanted by the weightier Poor But Proud. Considering that most people think of that obscene film Deliverance when they think of the country poor, Flynt’s time spent with them is well needed among American readers.