The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but its potholes are born of sheer procrastination. I had in mind to bring you a scary column for Halloween, all about the real-life haunted house that is the government of the State of Alabama, but I waited too late to talk to my source. Dr. Glenn Feldman, author, instructor and all-around good guy, departed this vale of politics last Tuesday, and we are all the poorer for his passing.
The prolific professor had written me in early August to herald the coming of his newest scholarly tome, The Great Melding: War, The Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism. I had interviewed him once before in 2011 upon the publication of his book, Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why and How the South Became Republican, and found him to be a fount of information about the crooked backstory of Southern politics.
When I wrote suggesting that we get together again, Dr. Feldman was immediately amenable, but wondered if I would be fully briefed for discussion without having read his previous effort, 2013’s The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans and Race, 1865-1944.
(Obviously, one of my first questions would have been whether scholars get paid by the word for their book titles.)
Dr. Feldman saw these two books as part of a trilogy, and he was right to insist that I familiarize myself with both before we talked about either. He graciously arranged for the publisher to send me copies, whereupon I started my homework assignment.
The only problem I encountered was his marvelous prose. Unlike many scholarly volumes that confuse interminable compound sentences for the expression of wisdom, Dr. Feldman’s disquisitions are filled to bursting with facts and insights. A reader is not encouraged to skim a single paragraph, for fear of missing an illuminating aspect of history. His books, along with Wayne Flynt’s and Vann Woodward’s, are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Alabama and the South became the political quagmire it is today.
Basically, it’s because Alabama and the South were like this yesterday, and the day before yesterday.
In her new book, University of California history professor Kathryn Olmsted posits that the modern conservative movement originated in California in the 1930s, led by anti-labor big business interests. In his books, Dr. Feldman meticulously demonstrates that today’s right-of-center GOP can actually trace its odious ancestry back much farther, all the way back to Southern Democrats just after the Civil War. “The very things that made the South solid for the Democratic Party after 1865 — white supremacy, religious and cultural conservatism, a boundless devotion to market values — also ‘made’ the South begin to become, by 1936, disillusioned with the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal,” he wrote. “White southerners didn’t become Republicans so much as they stopped being Democrats.”
Dr. Feldman expressed the thought more colloquially in our 2011 conversation: “The South has been selling crazy for a long time. It’s just now that, for a number of reasons, the rest of the country is catching up and buying it.”
We perceive that Alabama is being governed poorly at the present time because special interests seem to have first dibs on the loyalty of elected representatives, if not the elected judiciary. Through Dr. Feldman’s thorough research, it becomes appallingly apparent that protecting the interests of the rich has been Job One for Alabama’s government since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s. When a new state constitution was drawn up in 1901, its codicils were dictated by a coalition of Black Belt plantation owners and “Big Mule” industrialists in Birmingham. This coalition of Democrats covered their assets by keeping wages low and workers beholden, by decreasing taxes so that government would be ill funded, and by making sure black people couldn’t vote to change things.
The lengths to which Alabama’s various governments — city, county and state — were willing to go to disenfranchise black people is well-known in the abstract, but the specific details Dr. Feldman imparts are by turns heartbreaking and infuriating. For example, many elected officials, such as U.S. Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman, Governor Bibb Graves and Congressman George Huddleston, whom I had always been taught to think of as “moderate,” were revealed in Dr. Feldman’s research to have been much less so on matters of race.
A reader may find the coarseness of Alabama’s official discourse off-putting, but Dr. Feldman did not shy away from quoting the most awful public utterances or published vitriol imaginable. Prominent public figures of their time, such as Ryland Randolph and Forney Johnston, were at ease using racial invective that would make a gangsta rapper blush. These are things you never read in your Alabama history textbooks, indicative of how deeply the notion of white supremacy was embedded in Alabama society.
When the liberal political alliances that propelled the New Deal made white supremacy untenable for national Democrats, conservative Southerners went looking for a new place to hang their shingle. Dr. Feldman put it more elegantly, saying that melding was the key to understanding the region. He concluded that the “First Great Melding” had brought together libertarian economic policies with white supremacy, the second such had fused economic fundamentalism with religious fundamentalism, and the “Third Great Melding” was of the planter aristocrats with the industrialist elites. It was a plain chain of evidence to Glenn: “The intellectual and ideological lineage of all three meldings can be traced — quite clearly — from the Reconstruction Redeemers to the leading exponents of southern disfranchisement to the most rabid opponents of the New Deal, to the Dixiecrats and, finally, to the modern GOP.”
In the home stretch of reading the two books last week, I was about to request a formal interview when news arrived that Dr. Glenn Feldman had been taken out by a cardiac failure at the unseemly age of 53. He left behind a wife and two daughters, many family members and countless friends, as well as the unfulfilled promise of his wide-ranging intellect.
Glenn Feldman was one of our Watchmen. He proudly assumed responsibility for explaining to the present day the moral shortcomings of the past, with hopes that the future might benefit from his efforts. I wish I’d been able to talk with him one more time, if only to ask if he were any more optimistic about things turning around in the South than he had been when we talked in 2011:
“How many people have to die, how many people have to lose their homes, how many have to be unemployed, how many have to be on food stamps, et cetera, before people wake up? I’m not sure we’re really capable anymore, because of all the things we’ve discussed; whether it’s this religious fundamentalism, this economic fundamentalism, the change in technology and all the distractions, y’know? People are so distracted, whether it’s Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan or NASCAR or college football, but at some point you’ve got to realize other things are going on in the world that matter.”