A New Day In The South?

Election 2008 showed the South is changing. What does it mean for the region’s future? 

Yesterday was a big day in the South.

Let’s start with the most obvious: The fact that three Southern states — Florida, North Carolina and Virginia — helped elect not just a Democrat to the presidency, but the first African-American to go to the White House in history.

Those who don’t believe the South is important to national politics will dismiss the results, echoing outgoing Sen. John Warner’s (R-VA) claim in a recent interview that Florida, North Carolina and Virginia are "different" from the rest of the South.

On the contrary, these states are symbols of the direction much of the South is headed, as the Institute has argued for a long time: Not just a region with more "outsiders" (read: Carpetbaggers?), but a younger, more urban and more richly diverse South overall.

In a region where race has been decisive in all aspects of politics, the shift is doubly historic. Millions of white Southerners — 39% in Virginia, 35% in North Carolina — embraced the leadership of an African-American man in the highest office in the land.

And for millions of African-Americans — over half of which live in the South — there was a sense that their nearly-400-year presence in America finally was allowed a position of power within our democracy.

The Red States/Blue States maps conceal an important reality: The South is bright Purple. 21 million Southerners voted for John McCain, and 18.6 million for Barack Obama. It is a region divided, or blended — and the race was only close because, unlike Democrats of the past, Obama had the resources and inclination to fight in the South.

Change won’t come easy: In North Carolina, one exit poll showed that "race was a factor" in the decision of 24% of whites. Given the deep history of racism and disenfranchisement in the South and our country, that statistic means something much different than the 90%+ African-Americans who say race was a factor in their choice for Obama.

There is much more to think about — this election brought forward many other critical issues for the South that will ripple throughout the region’s political fabric will beyond November 4.

For example, there’s the grassroots form of political organizing that Obama revived in the South, casting aside old party bosses and building a mass of passionate volunteers from the ground up, which more than one civil rights veteran observed was reminiscent of the era of the black freedom movement era.

The Institute for Southern Studies was founded in 1970 by veterans of that movement, black and white civil rights activists including Julian Bond, Sue Thrasher, Howard Romaine and now-Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Over years of struggle, they — and we — held hope that the stranglehold of racial injustice could one day be overcome. Yesterday, a piece of that dream was realized.

As Rep. Lewis told MSNBC last night, after watching election returns from Ebeneezer Baptist Church, spiritual base of Martin Luther King, Jr. and echoing a theme King often made in his speeches:


"I never imagined, I never even had any idea I would live to see an African-American president of the United States. We have witnessed tonight in America a revolution of values, a revolution of ideals. There’s been a transformation of America, and it will have unbelievable influence on the world."


As a region, the South has taken many steps forward — and many steps back — in the last 38 years since the Institute was born. But it’s clear today that something has changed, and is changing in the South.

How, why and to what extent the South is changing — those are the questions we’ll be grappling with in the days, months and years to come.

NOTE: The is the first in a series of coverage on the 2008 elections in the South. Visit the Institute’s online magazine Facing South for more.

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