The New South Rises, Again
Alabama Gets Its First 'New South' Governor
By Glynn Wilson
Photos by Spider Martin
Click here then on each picture for the photo tour
It was an uncharacteristically hot, sunny day for late January. A cloudless, clear-blue Montgomery sky greeted Don Siegelman as he took the oath to be Alabama's 56th governor on January 18, 1999. No one remembers the weather 138 years before when Civil War loomed and Jefferson Davis took his oath to serve the Confederacy on the same Capitol steps. But if you listened to old-timers talking about Alabama inaugurations past and if you believe the cosmos sends a signal through the weather then someone up above must have smiled down on this scene as Jimmy Buffet sang "Stars Fell on Alabama."
During the long, hot summer of 1998, with global warming, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Y2K computer bug consuming the headlines, it was easy to overlook happenings in the "Heart of Dixie." In the land famous for defiant stands in schoolhouse doors, bombs, burning churches, football and the Ten Commandments, public opinion polls hinted at a profound change on the political horizon, a change that could potentially bring Alabama in line with other Southern states.
The change was confirmed in the fall when voters in Alabama decided to throw off the strangling cloak of demagoguery and elect a governor who reflects more progressive ideals. In South Carolina they chose another New South governor, Jim Hodges. Georgians affirmed the progressive legacy by picking Roy Barnes, Zell Miller's heir apparent. And in hide-bound Alabama, voters picked Siegelman, a friend of Miller's for the past 10 years.
As the 52-year-old Siegelman won election and took the oath of office, there were those who could not resist raising the spectre of another "New South." This time the focus is on Alabama, where progressive hopes are pinned on a politician who doesn't thump the Bible or bait the races, a professional politician pushing a lottery to pay for education in order to force Dixie's bare feet into information-age shoes.
Willie James Smith, 72, better known around the Capitol complex as "Litt," leaned on his cane as he watched the historic parade go by.
"It's definitely a new thing. He's the best speaker, that Siegelman. Our kids need those computers (where) creed and color don't matter," he said, a few gold teeth shining in the sun as his lips creased from a happy smile into a thoughtful frown. "Maybe they will get into computers and stop killing each other."
While Buffet's number could be derided as a sappy love song, it seemed to work for the strikingly diverse crowd gathered here in the cradle of the Confederacy. Black, white, yellow and brown children held hands, waved American flags and sang along, up and down Dexter Avenue, the antebellum city's main drag.
Later that night, they turned their sun-drenched faces upward and watched the fireworks over the Alabama River. They danced and gawked at the scene as the mostly black-tie-and-evening-gown crowd mingled with the bib-overalls contingent, a tradition at inaugural balls open to the general public.
The day stood in sharp contrast to the bone-chilling cold on that infamous day in 1963 when George Wallace took his first gubernatorial oath, throwing down the gauntlet and drawing a line in the sand to stand for segregation of the races "today . . . tomorrow . . . forever." Of course it was a gauntlet he himself took back in his repentance after surviving an assassin's bullet on the campaign trail in the 1970s.
Siegelman offered an entirely different challenge. He promised a "Hope" scholarship to children in the next century, to "give them the tools they need to succeed: the ability to think, to reason, to communicate, to solve problems and work with computers."
The high temperature for the day barely reached 17 degrees in January, 1995, when Fob James promised to save the nation's mortal soul by promoting prayer in the schools. "It was so cold four years ago my hands were shaking so bad I could barely take notes," Birmingham Post-Herald columnist Ted Bryant said before Siegelman's speech. He's covered Alabama politics since the early Wallace era, and doesn't remember an inauguration quite like this one. No protests. No moral crusade.
Just Ray Deese of Grady, the sole sentinel of the Old South. On the day the South once reserved to celebrate Robert E. Lee's birthday, and later the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., Deese cut a lonesome figure wearing blue jeans and a Confederate Army cap. His statement was a sign that said, simply: "Robert E. Lee, 1807-1870."
While Siegelman avoided the minefield of race and religion that has held back the "Heart of Dixie" state for so long, he honored the traditions of the Old South by laying a wreath at the foot of the Confederate Memorial, facing the old enemy on the North lawn.
New South Rising
If you listen to the pundits in New York, Washington and California, the ones who always seem to be the most interested in the state of Southern politics, the New South has risen again deep in the Heart of Dixie. Especially for Howell Raines at the New York Times and John Martin of Governing magazine, Siegelman is Alabama's first New South governor in the modern political era, the first progressive elected since "Big Jim" Folsom in 1954. He is remembered as "the little man's big friend," and the last governor to take a real interest in "the people" in a populist sense and not out of shear opportunism.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Al Dupont, a lifelong democrat and a major beneficiary of the last Democratic administration when Jim Folsom, Jr. drank beer with the Germans and lured Daimler-Benz to the state seemed more than a little optimistic about Siegelman's chances of bringing about change.
"Today is a bright new day for us in Alabama," Mayor Dupont said. "After 12 years of Republicans, it's a new era. The people of Alabama spoke. They want a lottery."
Something is definitely new about the election of an Ivy League-educated Catholic to the top office in Alabama, a land long known for a certain Protestant fundamentalism and anti-intellectual bias. His wife, Lori, is Jewish, which Siegelman insists is not an issue. Yet it must seem like one to the religious right, which helped elect the Primitive Baptist preacher Guy Hunt in the accidental victory in '86, and to re-elect him in 1990.
He was removed from office for misuse of inaugural funds, but later pardoned. But the religious right was also critical to James' victory over Jim Folsom, Jr. in '94, even after his administration successfully lured Daimler-Benz to build a Mercedes factory near Tuscaloosa. In 1998, the religious right found its political movement routed by a single issue campaign, the promise of a lottery to fund higher education.
Siegelman's election is a long way from the reign of George Corley Wallace, the "fightin' little judge," who made a national name for himself in the University of Alabama schoolhouse door, fueling racial strife that tore at the social fabric of the state and region. His talk of moral ruin at the hands of a Supreme Court outlawing organized school prayer, and his verbal jabs at "pointy-headed" intellectuals and liberals in the Northeast, became part of the "Southern strategy" used by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in their presidential campaigns and by others who followed.
Siegelman's Republican opponent, the incumbent Gov. Fob James, used much of the same rhetoric, dismissing intellectuals and "standing up" to Washington by threatening to call out the National Guard to keep the Ten Commandments on the walls of a state courtroom. Many thought James was another embarrassment to the state nationally, but he had enough conservative support to defeat Winton Blount, a wealthy Republican businessman, who had opposed James in the primary on economic grounds. The threat of four more years of a ranting, religious conservative who did little to advance the state's economic performance or industrial recruitment efforts sent many pro-business Republicans from the split Business Council crowd into Siegelman's camp.
In Siegelman's first act as governor, he signed an executive order for the immediate removal of all portable classrooms from Alabama schools. While it is unclear how that will be accomplished, it was a symbolic gesture to show he wants to drastically change schools in a state where education consistently ranks near the bottom in national measures of quality.
"I hope he does well. He's smart, talks well," said Theo Kapechis, owner of Chris's Famous Hotdogs on Dexter Avenue. Since 1958, when you could get a hot dog and a Coke for 13 cents, Chris's has been a political hangout. Kapechis could have been talking about any of the Democratic candidates swept into governors' mansions across Dixie in 1998.
But does being smart, well-spoken and a commitment to education make someone the vanguard of a new era?
Out with the Old South
For political scientist and pollster Pat Cotter at the University of Alabama, the New South term "has floated around" before. "I don't think it has a clear meaning. It's pretty ambiguous," he says. "In a sense, you only have a New South governor after it's over. It's just a governor who gets something done, rather than opposing everything."
It is not yet clear whether Siegelman will be able to get anything done with a split, independent, recalcitrant Legislature.
"The New South has been proclaimed frequently and successively since the end of the Civil War," says Southern historian Jeff Norrell, professor of history at the University of Tennessee and a native of Hazel Green, Ala. "It was heavily proclaimed right after Reconstruction by a whole series of publicists, Henry Grady and Henry Watterson, mostly editors, but it was also picked up by politicians. In that post-Reconstruction period, it meant pro-industrialization, pro-reconciliation with the North. Typically it means a rejection of either the defeated South, or the rural-agrarian South, or the segregationist South."
More recently, he says, "People use it to mean whatever they're interested in. It has been frequently used in the last generation to define politicians who have rejected the race-based appeals of the previous generation of Southern politicians." That is, Lester Maddox was followed by Carl Sanders and Jimmy Carter in Georgia. In Mississippi, Ross Barnett was ultimately succeeded by William Winter.
Alabama is the last Southern state to elect a progressive governor, Norrell says, "mainly because of the continuing influence of the George Wallace machine." Other governors flying under the New South flag in the past include Lamar Alexander, the "education governor" of Tennessee in the 1980s and a perennial, plaid-clad presidential candidate for the GOP. Then there was Jim Hunt of North Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia, Bob Graham of Florida, and of course, William Jefferson Clinton of Arkansas. "What characterized them was that they did something," Cotter said.
Republicans succeeded George Wallace in the Reagan era as a major political shift saw the South go from a one-party Democratic region to a Republican stronghold, even those masked in Democratic clothing like Fob James the first time he was elected in 1978. Then came Guy Hunt in 1986, and James again as a Republican do-nothing in '94.
"People like to think Don Siegelman is the first New South governor of Alabama," Norrell said. "I think it remains to be seen how much a break from the past he will indeed be. Clearly, though, he is not committed to any kind of race-based politics, so he is different entirely. What his policies beyond the lottery will be, bringing new money to education in that fashion, I don't know."
One important measure is that none of them ran racist, reactionary campaigns. And it may be that the definition of progressivism in the South has more to do with "doing something" or "doing business" than with truly creative, forward-looking governance, perhaps a pro-active versus reactive political stance. By that definition, Blount too might have been a New South governor if he had been elected, although it is hard to imagine The Progressive magazine labeling him as one.
"He was for education reform, so that qualifies him as a progressive in that regard," Norrell said. "Everything is contextual. In Alabama, progressive meant somebody who was not trying to institutionalize religion in the schools."
Contrast that definition with a new one making the rounds in border states like Maryland, where "smart growth" or "slow growth" adds an environmental twist to progressivism.
Cotter remembers Dick Riley, two-term governor of South Carolina, campaigning as a New South Democrat in 1978. The issue involved getting parents more involved in schools, "hardly a revolutionary idea," he said. South Carolina just elected another progressive, Jim Hodges, who also campaigned on a lottery to fund education.
The opposite of progressive government is always there, lurking in the background like the oft-quoted saying from Henry David Thoreau: "That government is best which governs least." Fob James obviously believed in that creed, not the New South Creed, as outlined by Southern Historian Paul Gaston in that 1972 historical classic.
For Gaston, the terms Old South and New South revealed myths based on symbols and indicated "the passage from one kind of civilization to another." He labeled it a propaganda device, but later defended the concept from a historical standpoint.
In the late 19th century, it became a catch-phrase for industrialization, in some cases even social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest among capitalists. To some in the early 20th century it was used to promote a Southern brand of Communism. The term tends to stand for a vision of society and a way to promote the latest progressive ambitions for the region.
Power of Myth
Are myths like the Old versus the New South simply euphemisms for falsehoods, mirages that should be dismissed as suggested by historians such as Wilbur Cash? Or are they, as Gaston theorized, "a combination of images and symbols that reflect a people's way of perceiving truth?" He said the terms had become "organically related to a fundamental reality of life," and "they fuse the real and the imaginary into a blend that becomes a reality itself, a force in history." For Gaston, the concept's most recognized historian, "The picture of the Old South and the dream of the New South were both expressions of the hopes, values, and ideals of Southerners. In time, both became genuine social myths with a controlling power over the way in which their believers perceived reality."
The myth allowed early defenders of the Old South to view slavery as an honorable, even inevitable, way of life. The early prophets of the New South creed aspired to an entirely American brand of success. It stood for union with the North and brotherhood between the races. Yet admirable in its vision, according to Gaston, the creed has more often been manipulated by "men who served the region poorly."
If another New South is emerging today, it is a South still influenced but perhaps not entirely defined by the Civil War; a South refined but not dominated by the patterns of development learned during the Industrial Revolution; a South honed by the Civil Rights struggle, set back by Reaganism and the Southern strategy, and restless to reinvent itself once again.
How much of a force in history Siegelman will become remains to be seen. But he has risen from "Golden Flake," a nickname he wore early in his political career, to governor on what appears to be a bright new day in Alabama politics.
If it's any indication of what's to come, Siegelman was spotted on C-SPAN taking notes at the National Governors' Association Conference in a session about the use of computers in schools. It's hard to imagine George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Ross Barnett, Guy Hunt or Fob James in that position.
Siegelman's New South task in Alabama will not be made easy by an Old South legislature. But if he can make a significant change in the Heart of Dixie, then something "new" may well be afoot in the old barefoot stomping grounds. It may even be connected to the Internet.
Back to Contents
Copyright © The Southerner 1999. Published in the Spring 1999 issue of this first magazine online.