A Bottom-up Southern Strategy for Power in the 21st Century

Jerome Scott, Project South & Walda Katz-Fishman, Project South & Howard University


To build today’s movement to fight for and to win justice, equality, peace and popular democracy we must understand how the ruling class has historically controlled the American people and what we must do to break that control.* The short answer is that the ruling class has controlled us through a southern strategy rooted in super-exploitation, white supremacy, male privilege, division, and brutal repression. Today’s bottom-up movement needs its own southern strategy to challenge white supremacy at its core, capitalist private property, and male domination, etc. We need to build unity across historic divides and to model the principles and processes of popular democracy in our movement as we struggle to transform society. To win nationally, we must win in the South.

To address the question of what a bottom-up southern strategy for power in the 21st century would look like we consider these three questions: 1. Why did Democrats not have a southern strategy in this election and the Republicans did? 2. Why did the Democrats used to have a southern strategy but do not now? 3. What does this means for a bottom-up southern strategy? We begin by stating what we mean by a southern strategy and then answer these questions.

Southern Strategies – theirs & ours

What the ruling class’ southern strategy looks like

It took a long time – 500+ years – to perfect the evil of today’s US empire. And it began in the US South. The American nation, at its inception, was a southern nation. The South set the direction and limits for reaction in the country as well as for progress.

The US South, from the beginning of the American nation, has been the site of the most violent exploitation and oppression – from genocide to slavery, from the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow to states’ rights, from the super-exploitation of southern workers across race/ethnicity/nationality and gender to the open face of terror of the US police state. The 3/5 rule in the US Constitution – counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for electoral purposes – ensured slave owners’ control of the country even as enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples and poor whites were denied the right to vote.

In the post-Civil War period Wall Street controlled the South, but the South controlled the nation. The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 signaled the end of federal occupation of the South, the beginning of the defeat of Reconstruction, and the renewed disenfranchisement of blacks, other peoples of color and working class whites in the South. These events guaranteed Dixiecrat control – i.e., southern reactionary Democratic Party control – over local, state and national political institutions. In response to the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 60s, the “solid – Democratic – South” began to break up as many leading Dixiecrats jumped ship to join the Republican Party. Today the South is again a battleground over power, politics and policies affecting racial, economic and social justice struggles in the US and around the world.

What the people’s southern strategy looks like

The US South has also been the site of the most determined and consistent fight for black freedom, indigenous self-determination, working class emancipation and human liberation. Early maroon communities of Native and African Americans offered a refuge and a place from which to challenge genocide and slavery. The abolition movement, including slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad – with strong leadership from black women, and the ensuing Civil War ultimately brought down the southern slaveocracy. Sharecroppers – black and white – organized for their economic survival. The anti-lynching movement – also with powerful black women’s leadership – organized against this most brutal form of terror and control. Southern labor – women and men and sometimes in multiracial coalitions – organized and led strikes for work, wages, unions and a better life. The modern Civil Rights Movement including, e.g., the NAACP of Monroe, NC, Black Panther Party (founded in Alabama), Deacons for Defense, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Women’s Political Council, Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, among others organized for black self-defense and/or won reforms for race relations and gender relations, but not class relations – in the US South and the rest of the country. And there is in the South today a growing social and economic justice movement including many recent immigrants to the US.

Where these struggles have been successful there has been some degree of unity across race/ethnic/nationality lines, women have been a powerful voice and force, and those most affected have been in the leadership. When struggles have been grounded in the South they have most often been part of powerful national movements – e.g., the abolition movement to end chattel slavery and the modern Civil Rights Movement to reform race and gender relations in the US. But, when struggles have been blocked in the South, this has often meant that the struggles nationally are derailed or delayed – e.g., the trade union movement in the post-World War II era, the passage by most southern states of anti-labor “right-to-work” laws and these same states’ refusal to pass the ERA – Equal Rights Amendment – for women’s rights as a constitutional amendment. A people’s southern strategy is an essential foundation for today’s movement if we are to win the popular democracy, justice and equality we are fighting for.

Why the Democrats did not have a southern strategy in the 2004 election and the Republicans did

For the Democratic Party to win the South it has to mobilize the African American community, other communities of color and inner-city low-income communities in that region – where close to 60% of African Americans live today. But to do this is to help set the basis for building a bottom-up movement for fundamental change. So the Democrats decided in 2000 and again in 2004 they would take the chance, and would rather lose than risk mobilizing this volatile base.

On the other hand, the Republicans were able to win the South without mobilizing the African American community, other communities of color and low-income communities. So the ruling class’ southern strategy in 2000 and 2004 was led by the Republican Party. It mobilized its suburban base of middle and upper class whites as well as its religious fundamentalist base of working and middle class whites. And this was a winning southern strategy for the ruling class. They won the South without mobilizing the volatile base of those most adversely affected by today’s economic and political realities.

Why the Democrats used to have a southern strategy but do not now

The ruling class has always had a southern strategy – a deeply repressive and oppressive form of rule in the US south that set the basis for political control of the entire nation. Depending on the historical moment, the party that carried out this strategy was sometimes the Democrats and sometimes the Republicans. Regardless of which ruling class political party it was, the strategy is always the same – brutal repression and super-exploitation built upon a foundation of white supremacy, patriarchy and all forms of division and couched in the language of false morality and religion.

Whichever party represents the most reactionary section of the ruling class at any given historical moment tells us which party is going to have a southern strategy. From the end of the Civil War to the modern Civil Rights Movement, the ruling class carried out its southern strategy most often through the reactionary southern wing of the Democratic Party. With the end of Jim Crow and the defection of the “solid South” reactionary Democrats – the Dixiecrats – to the Republican Party, that party today is clearly the Republicans.

In the final analysis though, the ruling class’ southern strategy is about maintaining power. And sometimes this includes winning elections and sometimes it does not.

Today’s movement moment – winning & keeping it

Today our movement is challenged to learn for these lessons of our history and struggles and to chart a path to a victory that we can win and hold onto. We think there are two key lessons for this moment – “how we build our movement” and “why it’s possible to build our movement and win.”

How we build our movement

The most essential tactic of the ruling class in its southern strategy has always been and remains today white supremacy and all its manifestations – institutionalized racism, white privilege and racist/anti-immigrant ideology, etc. This makes it the most essential target for a bottom-up southern strategy if we are to be successful.

Too often in the past our movement has not recognized as important or tried to embrace, practice or struggle around the principles and processes of popular democracy for building our bottom-up movement for justice, equality and liberation. This has resulted in a lack of sufficient internal struggle around the privileges of wealth, white supremacy, legal status, male dominance, heterosexism, language, ability and age, etc. This has kept us divided and has weakened our movement.

Clearly in this movement moment we must challenge and struggle against all forms of privilege and oppression within our movement, as well as in the larger society, and move forward together on the basis of equality and collectivity. A related task is to develop a broad and diverse collective leadership so that our movement is not dependent on a single “leader” or “founder.” Finally, it is essential that we build a political base independent of the two political parties of the ruling class (Democrats and Republicans).

How we build our movement is the very foundation of the new society we are struggling to bring into being. So we must walk the talk – or we will not be able win.

Why it’s possible to build our movement and win

The second key lesson is that the electronic technology now available to humanity can provide for the material and cultural needs of our communities world over. In the past we struggled to reform an unjust and unequal system, but one that was based on material scarcity. We did not have within our grasp the real solution to the problem of how to meet the needs of all humanity. To collectively share the resources and things we need and to realize our principle of equality truly requires abundance – so all of us can get what we need.

Today’s new technology – automation, robotics, computers, digitization, etc. – makes it possible to have an abundance of all the goods and services we need – food, housing, education, health care, transportation, cultural expressions and time for family and friends. The technology is also available to do this in a safe and sustainable way that respects the total environment we live in and share with nature. This abundance means an end to scarcity and an end to the inequality and power domination that comes with it and that we have known too long.

For us popular democracy – equality, participatory decision-making, struggle and liberation – is an essential set of organizing and educating principles and processes for growing our movement for justice, equality and liberation and for transforming our society and reconstructing the new world we are visioning and fighting for. Make it happen!

* for a more comprehensive discussion of what we mean by “popular democracy” see “Popular Democracy – a vision for our movement” by Jerome Scott & Walda Katz-Fishman in Project South’s most recent resource guide – It Ain’t Just About a Vote – Defining Democracy for Movement Building – a popular education toolkit (2004) from Project South, Atlanta, GA www.projectsouth.org

References Grant, Joanne. 1996 [1968]. Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses. New York: Fawcett Columbine. Katz-Fishman, Walda & Jerome Scott, et. al. 2004. It ain’t just about a vote – defining democracy for movement building. Atlanta, GA: Project South. www.projectsouth.org Katz-Fishman, Walda & Jerome Scott. 2004. “The Black Radical Traditions in the South: Confronting Empire” pp. 191-222 in Race and Ethnicity – Across Time, Space and Discipline edited by Rodney Coates. Boston & Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers. Peery, Nelson. 2002. The Future is Up to Us: A revolutionary talking politics to the American people. Chicago, IL: Speakers for a New America. Scott, Jerome & Walda Katz-Fishman. 1994. The Southern Strategy: Then and Now – Freedom is Through the South. Project South Working Papers. Atlanta, GA: Project South. www.projectsouth.org Woodward, C. Van. 1951. Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

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