I was born in Opelika, Ala., in 1969. My parents were students at Auburn University, and after they graduated I spent my entire childhood in the South, moving from Alabama to Louisiana to Tennessee to Kentucky. I had the privilege of growing up in a region that was in the midst of one of the most remarkable and positive social and and cultural transformations in American history. I grew up in the New South.
Consider, for a moment, the pace of change. Just a few years before I was born, white men and women rioted to keep black Americans out of schools and colleges. The stench of institutionalized racism pervaded the region, oppressing American citizens and leaving the South a region apart. It wasn’t the Confederacy, but it wasn’t like the rest of America. Nowhere was American sin more pervasive or obvious.
But then, the change happened. Propelled by a courageous civil-rights movement, reinforced in conscience-stricken churches, and super-charged by an ambitious business community, the New South emerged, and it emerged in a uniquely southern way. It was as if an entire region began to cling to what was good, and reject what was evil.
The transformation was obvious. African Americans, who once sought “the warmth of other suns” by migrating in mass numbers to northern cities, voted once again with their feet and started to return to the South. Earlier this month, The Root’s Michael Harriet asked whether the South was “more racist” than other parts of the nation. His findings? The educational-achievement gap between black and white students is lower in the South, school segregation is less pronounced, the employment gap is lower, the differential in black/white incarceration rates is lower, there are disproportionately more black elected officials, and there the black/white economic gap is smaller. Harriet’s ultimate conclusion is important:
Based on all of the objective evidence, African Americans in the South are closer to whites economically and politically and in education and employment. The opportunities aren’t equal, but there is less of a measurable racial divide in the Southern states than there is nationwide.
The New South at its best is still distinctively southern. It retains its disproportionate commitment to military service, its deep faith, and its skepticism of classism and elitism. At the same time, it rejects the racist fundamentalism of churches past and strives mightily to improve educational systems held back by generations of indifference and disregard.
Let’s not forget, this is a region that segregated its schools, restaurants, and hotels and blocked black Americans’ access to the ballot box just a few decades ago. The magnitude of the change it’s experienced in such a short time is astounding.
Yesterday, the New South’s Democrats turned out, and the New South’s Republicans went on strike. The numbers are simply staggering.
I’m not arguing that the New South is utopian. I’m not arguing that the New South has been magically cleansed of injustice and racism. Far from it. It’s still a region full of fallen, sinful men and women. There is still racism here. There is still injustice. The transformation hasn’t been painless or easy, and it’s far from complete. From its inception the New South has been waging a cultural, political, and religious struggle against the Old South. Old habits die hard, even as in countless conversations in countless communities, men and women have engaged their neighbors, opposed the old bigotries, and done the hard work of remaking and reshaping an entire region’s mores and values.
Roy Moore was the zombie manifestation of the Old South: resentful, nostalgic for the days of slavery, openly bigoted. His supporters and apologists were walking, talking caricatures of the region’s very worst. If your average southerner saw a network show portraying southerners like Moore and his carnival of followers, they’d be appalled. They’d believe that it was evidence of anti-southern bias and elite media ignorance. Yet here we were, yesterday, watching this pathetic display:
Roy Moore campaign spokesman responds with silence when asked if he knew people can be sworn in with a text other than the Christian bible pic.twitter.com/B65qIKBjlI
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) December 12, 2017
So, when I looked at Alabama’s special election, I saw something far more than a mere political contest. I saw a cultural moment. I saw the gasps of a dying way of life that was seeking to resuscitate itself through the twisted fury of partisan politics. I saw local bigots hitching their wagons to national bigots — men like alt-right champion Steve Bannon — in a kind of Old South Pickett’s Charge.
Like Pickett, they failed. They lost a race that was almost impossible to lose.
Yesterday, the New South’s Democrats turned out, and the New South’s Republicans went on strike. The numbers are simply staggering. Democrats — especially black voters — showed up at the polls to support their own at a rate usually only seen in presidential elections: Doug Jones got more than 93 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote total. Meanwhile, the GOP grassroots delivered their own message. In 2016, Donald Trump received more than 1.3 million Republican votes in Alabama. Roy Moore won less than half of that total. In other words, almost as many Republicans stayed home as Democrats voted for Doug Jones.
The message this sends is far, far more important than the outcome. Even in a time of extreme polarization, with a slim Senate majority, Alabama signaled that the Old South is dying without declaring that it is changing its politics or its New South identity. It’s still conservative. It’s still pro-life. And if Doug Jones serves Alabama as a progressive, his half-term will be his last term.
I write this article in my Tennessee office, located only a few miles from the Alabama border. I saw the Old South/New South conflict play out in my own community, with my own neighbors. There were those who shared Roy Moore’s resentments and were untroubled by his bigotries. But there were many others who looked at him and said, “This is not who we are.” They asked their Alabama friends and family members to send a message, and the message was sent.
It’s become something of a cliché to say that “everything is terrible.” America is divided. Americans are bitter. Social media is toxic, and our political culture seems broken. But it turns out that everything isn’t terrible. There is a reservoir of decency in the state and region of my birth, and last night that decency was on full display. The New South confronted the Old South, and the New South won again.