Whistling Dixie

A search for the real South.

Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture

By Peter Applebome

Times Books; 384 pages; $25

“A perpetual debate goes on about how much of the real South is left,” Peter Applebome observes near the start of his own Southern tour. “Is it still distinctive or is it now just Topeka with more fried food, road kill, heat and history?”

In Dixie Rising, Applebome’s eminently balanced portrait of today’s South, the veteran Atlanta-based reporter for the New York Times turns this debate on its head. He asks, instead: Is the rest of America distinctive, or is it now just Macon with worse winters, manners, and musical rhythm? “The most striking aspect of American life at the century’s end,” he writes, “is how much the country looks like the South.”

This fresh take on the region should disabuse anyone who still imagines the South as a Gothic amalgam of Deliverance, Gone With the Wind, and Walker Evans photos of hollow-eyed sharecroppers. Applebome’s South is economically vibrant, politically and culturally self-confident, and racially more integrated than the rest of America. But Dixie Rising is no blithe blurb for the Sun Belt. Applebome warns that if the Southern doctrines now sweeping through America–states’ rights, low taxes, and quasi-fundamentalist Christianity, among other things–do for the country what they’ve done for Dixie, we may all be in trouble.

In his earnest efforts to give the South a fair shake, Applebome, a native Long Islander now raising a family in Georgia, begins by puncturing Northern stereotypes and sanctimony about the South. He points out that the Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, long regarded as racist backwaters, now have more black elected officials than any other region of America. We see a penitent George Wallace joining blacks in celebrating the 1965 Selma march and telling the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “I love you. Black and white people love you.” And we see how the South has become the nation’s new industrial heartland, creating half the new jobs in America; even Mississippi, long the nation’s bottom-feeder, has prospered thanks to legalized gambling.

Dixie Rising is structured around visits to 10 Southern locales, with each one used to illustrate the confluence of Southern and national trends. Race, inevitably, emerges as a principal theme. According to Applebome, no place in the South has tried harder to overcome the region’s harsh racial legacy than Charlotte, N.C. It was the first majority-white city in the South to elect a black mayor (twice-failed Senate aspirant Harvey Gantt), and remains committed to school integration–even as whites in other cities have flocked to private “seg academies.”

But this racial progress is fragile and, in some ways, phony. Charlotte’s racial comity has not been born solely of its residents’ love of their neighbors. A calculated civic boosterism (so exuberant that the city’s chamber of commerce slogan was once “Charlotte–A Good Place to Make Money”) has spurred the city’s desire to appear enlightened. And integration has its limits. Applebome recounts his visit to a white church that recruited a black pastor, only to see its transracial experiment fail. The white parishioners fled, and blacks retreated to the borderline separatist rhetoric of empowerment and self-reliance.

The South is also a cautionary blueprint for the nation when it comes to economic development. Applebome’s discussion of South Carolina probes the dirty secret behind Dixie’s stunning rise from poverty: its rabid anti-unionism, or what one historian calls “the South’s most respectable prejudice.” (As one labor leader says of Strom Thurmond, “He’ll accept blacks now, but you still don’t see Strom shaking hands with union people.”) The South’s “Faustian bargain”–send us jobs, any jobs, in exchange for cheap, nonunion labor–has undermined Northern workers and made the South “the bad-job capital of America.” This balmy business climate has also led to gross neglect of workers’ safety. To cite just one example, 25 North Carolina workers died during a chicken-plant fire in 1991, due to “locked exit doors that were blocked off so workers wouldn’t steal chickens.”

DixieRising’s account of the South’s political rise covers more familiar ground: massive population shifts toward the Sun Belt that have tipped the electoral balance; the adoption by the Republican Party of Southern political stances, most of them rooted in a visceral hatred of government; and the ascent to power of a Southern president, vice president, House speaker, Senate majority leader and majority whip, and GOP chairman.

Some of this political analysis, shaped by the 1994 Republican landslide, has been lapped by events. Applebome devotes a chapter to Newt Gingrich’s district in Cobb County, Ga., which he says epitomizes the national trend towards suburban, white-flight, Christian-right conservatism. But the 1996 election casts doubts on Cobb County as a model for America. While the South and the nation may still be moving rightward, Newt’s current unpopularity, as well as Southern Democrats’ ability to hold their own this year, suggests that the relentless rise of Dixie’s right-wing Republicanism has slowed, at least for now. The evangelical tone of Dixie-driven conservatism may also help account for the growing alienation from the GOP among voters in New England and the industrial Midwest.

And Applebome goes too far when he suggests that an even more reactionary strain of Southern thought–“neo-Confederate” ideology–has gone mainstream in America. It’s true that the cult of the Lost Cause is resurgent in the South, albeit stripped of its once-blatant segregationism. It’s also true there are close parallels between the “Contract With America” and the Confederate constitution, which not only enshrined states’ rights but also included term limits, budget balancing, and limits on taxation. But when neo-Confederate ideology went national with the presidential candidacy of Pat Buchanan, who passionately defended displaying the rebel battle flag over the South Carolina statehouse, most Americans–indeed, most South Carolinians–found his retro-rebel views too extreme. To suggest, as Applebome does, that “it’s hard to know these days where the Confederacy ends and the Republican Party begins,” is to lump the GOP with some far-out folk, many of whom genuinely believe in black New World Order helicopters and the genetic inferiority of the black race.

S uch occasional overreaching aside, Applebome’s is a shrewd, fair, and entertaining guide to the region. In Nashville, he shows how country and western has become the predominant music of white America, with Garth Brooks having outsold every recording artist in the United States except the Beatles. In Mississippi, Applebome mixes vivid landscape writing with visits to the state’s tacky casinos. Throughout, he displays a deft and lively grasp of Southern history and letters, popular culture and cuisine. (“Pickled pigs’ feet are the opposite of an acquired taste,” he writes. “Unless you’re born eating [them], you never will.”) The narrative is laced throughout with colorful, distinctly Southern characters, including a Delta store owner who displays a Happy Holidays sign year round (“[w]e have a holiday every two months or so”) and a Georgia rabbi whose ” rock ’n’ roll temple” fuses Jewish and Southern ways ("[w]e’re sort of reconformadox”).

Nowhere is this book’s love/hate affair with the South more obvious than at the end, when Applebome profiles Lewis Grizzard, the Georgia humorist and newspaper columnist who asked that his ashes be spread on the 50 yard line of the Georgia Bulldogs’ stadium. After an admiring review of Grizzard’s wit, the author turns on the writer for peddling a nostalgic vision of a homogeneous pre-integration South: “Grizzard’s idealized South was the world before feminists and affirmative action, when gays stayed in the closet where they belonged, where America pretty much meant the world of small-town white folks like him.”

The South that is triumphant now,” concludes Applebome, is one that both Grizzard and neo-Confederates would celebrate, “a place of feel-good nostalgia, easy answers, and painless solutions, forever looking backward through a pale mist and seeing only the soft focus outlines of what it wants to see.” It exalts states’ rights while ignoring the doctrine’s ugly racial legacy, and rants against the federal government while conveniently forgetting Washington’s role in salvaging the region’s economy with military spending and other aid. Applebome sketches the alternative promise of a proudly interracial South that “has gone through the fire of change and come out redeemed.” The problem is, little else in his book suggests that this dream will become reality.

Having recently traveled to many of the places Applebome visited, I found his warm but withering portrait of Dixie to ring true. The much-hyped New South may have shed Dixie’s overt racism and acquired the same neon surfaces as the rest of America. But it can still look a lot like the Old South. And it remains a far cry from Topeka.