What was 'solid' about the South remains - only the labels changed
When Steven P. Miller wrote his dissertation about political and social upheaval in the South during the 1950s, its title positioned the report as "The Politics of Decency: Billy Graham, Evangelicalism and the End of the Solid South." When the dissertation turned into Miller's just-published book, editors dropped the "End of the Solid South" in favor of "Rise of the Republican South."
Miller said he preferred the inclusion of the dissertation's "end of the solid South" label for the book's title, but yielded to the editors.
In many ways, the South is a place of "endings:" the end of the slave-based economy, the end of an effort to secede the union; the end of Jim Crow laws; the end of agrarian-based power; the end of segregation; the end of the conservative "yellow dog" Democrats.
It is this political shift from mostly Democratic to mostly Republican loyalties in the South that most interests Miller as well as how evangelicalism has played into the political change.
A history major with an intense interest in Southern politics and religion, Miller saw evangelist Billy Graham, who came into prominence during the wrenching days of the South's coming to terms with its past, as a symbol of the period. Graham, he said, was empathetic to the plight of blacks, but never went so far as to endorse legal changes to accommodate equality.
"He certainly was more moderate than a lot of white southern preachers, although there were other white racial moderates who didn't have Graham's stature," he said. But this moderation did not include active support of blacks in their struggle for equal opportunities. And so Graham, a son of North Carolina, embodies the entire region's reluctance to embrace civil rights and cling to its "old-time religion" without guilt.
"Graham was walking a line between reflecting on changes and prodding them along," Miller said. He said Graham's introduction of "color-blind rhetoric, created a comfortable way back from Jim Crow ('separate, but equal')" for Southerners willing to listen to a more moderate message.
Book reading, discussion
Miller's book is full of anecdotes that illustrate the tension that marked political and social developments in the South from late 1950s to the current time.
Unlike many religious leaders of the day, Graham did not participate in civil rights marches. When criticized by some for skipping the watershed march on Washington in 1963, Graham said he was presiding at a crusade in Los Angeles and could not make it. But what he then said made it clear that Graham did not support such marches: "One day there will be a march on Washington of Christians, and we will demonstrate for God."
Miller's book goes into some detail about Graham's relationship with Richard Nixon in exploring the interrelationships of the GOP, the South and evangelicalism.
While Graham's "relationship with civil rights leaders was ambiguous, at best," Miller said, he literally embraced Republican front man Nixon.
During the 1970s, producers of the late-night "Dick Cavett Show" asked the Nixon administration to send a representative as a guest for the show. The Nixon people sent Graham. The sometimes caustic Cavett had pointed sarcasm for the Graham-Nixon connection.
During the 1968 presidential race, which featured Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace, Nixon appeared at a Graham crusade in Pittsburgh. The crusade was aired on network television and rebroadcasted several times. Because of the widespread publicity, "the Wallace campaign sued for equal time," Miller said.
The Wallace factor made the race very close between Nixon and Minnesota Democrat Humphrey. Republican operatives considered Graham a difference-maker in the election.
The rise of the South is seen today in the many cultural aspects that have been absorbed by the rest the nation, Miller said. This includes country music, NASCAR racing and, perhaps most powerfully, evangelicalism. Adherents of the many religious groups that today consider themselves evangelical see Graham as the "grandfather of their movement," Miller said.
Graham, 90, is ailing and housebound in his native Charlotte, N.C.
So, the old South is now the new South, and the solid Democratic South is now a pretty solid Republican South. And whatever label is being used, racial tension remains in various forms throughout the region, including new concerns tied to immigration.
Jim Orso is a freelance writer. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.