John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


A Long Way From Fort Sumter

Posted on April 14, 2011
Earlier this week marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. A century and a half ago, rebel forces fired on Fort Sumter off the coast of South Carolina, and the battle for the heart and soul of the idea of democracy in the United States commenced.

We have come a long way since then, although old wounds still run deep, just as old resentments lay just below the surface. The Stars and Bars still rankle those who deeply resent the legacy of slavery, and the playing of Dixie still stirs the hearts of those who proudly call themselves sons of the confederacy.

That things have changed in America is so completely obvious, it probably doesn’t need to be stated. But it is hard to think that the Great Emancipator himself could ever have imagined that one day a black man would ascend to the White House, or that he would win Virginia and North Carolina, two of the most important states in the old Confederacy, to get there.

The South is changing dramatically. During the antebellum period and then for a century post-bellum, it was a hotbed of nativism mixed with agrarianism with a healthy dose of old-time Baptist fundamentalism. Southerners clung to racism like it was their birthright, and pined for their plantations as if the good old days were poised for a comeback any day now.

But several factors changed the Old South. First, civil rights laws were imposed upon it by the federal government. Jim Crow laws were finally dismantled and slowly, but surely, political empowerment of African Americans changed the political equations in the Southern States.

Second, air-conditioning changed the character of the region. People didn’t have to slow down in the middle of the day, and productivity picked up as a result. With higher productivity came more manufacturing and with more manufacturing came more jobs.

Those first two factors meant that Northerners and foreigners felt more comfortable moving to the region. That changed the essential character of the people, and they became more open to new ideas and new thoughts.

The South, because it didn’t have a labor union history, has become a much better place to do business for foreign and domestic manufacturers. Toyota, Nissan, BMW and Kia have all opened plants in Mississippi and Alabama, and Boeing is now moving a big airplane manufacturing plant to South Carolina.

Here is what Wikipedia had to say about the changing demographics: “In the 21st century, the South remains demographically distinct with higher percentages of blacks. When blacks are combined with whites, it appears that the South has lower percentages of high school graduates, lower housing values, lower household incomes and higher percentages of people in poverty. However, when race is taken into consideration, Southern whites do as well as Northern whites, Southern blacks do as well, or better, than Northern blacks.”

That the South is changing for the better seems to be born out of this story that ran on the AP wire last month: “The nation's blacks are leaving big cities in the Northeast and Midwest at the highest levels in decades, returning to fast-growing states in the once-segregated South in search of better job opportunities and quality of life.

The Southern U.S. region -- primarily metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Charlotte -- accounted for roughly 75 percent of the population gains among blacks since 2000, up from 65 percent in the 1990s, according to the latest census estimates.”

Southern universities – Duke, Emory, North Carolina, Vanderbilt – are now among the nation’s elite, and provide a steady stream of talented graduates that are now staying in the region to help build their economies.

Northerners (and I am from the North) like to write off the South and Southerners as being unsophisticated and backwards. They like to think of them as Bible-beaters and rednecks and country music fans, and not serious.

They also like to write off Southern politicians or more specifically Southern politicians who have Southern accents, as not being serious contenders for the White House. But two of the leading Presidential candidates -- should they choose to run – are Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee, and if they decided to throw their hats in the ring, they would give Barack Obama a serious run for their money.

These guys both have the Southern charm, but they have plenty of political smarts and Barbour, especially, has plenty of Northern efficiency.

Many of the so-called experts like to write Haley off because he is too Southern to compete for the White House. But the South is changing, and I don’t think Haley’s roots disqualify him in any way, shape or form should he decide to run.