Working in a Southern Wire Factory

By Curtis Price

Posted November 19, 20

It’s change of shift and SK has walked into the break area. She is a woman in her mid-60s, with a white-haired, grandmotherly look, complete with granny glasses and page –boy hair-cut. But when she talks, SK speaks with a toughness and resilience that belies her appearance.  Her co-worker, N, has also come in, but N doesn’t make much small talk. Instead, N curls up in a chair to play online casino games and plot her next trip to the Tunica, Mississippi gambling palaces, perhaps an unintentional comment on the state of working-class consciousness these days. Both are rural, working-class Southern white women used to doing unskilled labor.

SK and I have settled into the type of easy informality that leads to good conversations. She worked for 35 years in a wire factory outside Hartselle, a small town of ten thousand about a half-hour away from Decatur, Alabama. Although Morgan County – where both Hartselle and Decatur are located – is mainly rural, there’s a large swath of heavy industry in Decatur and over 27% of the population work in factories, everything from Wayne Farms poultry to GE and rocket fuel processing. In fact, the Decatur area is number two in the U.S. for the percentage working manufacturing jobs, according to a recent report, a factory town bucking the trend toward deindustrialization. This concentration of industrial jobs even spills over into the rural areas surrounding Decatur such as Hartselle, where small industrial parks dot the flat expanse of cotton, corn, and soybean fields.

SK applied to the Hartselle wire factory when she got out of high school but they told her they didn’t have any openings. However, SK knew they did from friends who worked the line inside and was convinced they didn’t want to hire her because she was a woman. Instead of giving up, she went back and demanded they give her a chance. She got the job.

SK had to deal with the sexism of the men, mainly from the maintenance crew that was key to keeping up production, because if a machine broke down, maintenance could pick and choose how quickly they would get the line up again. To avoid being victimized, SK learnt to do her own maintenance. After a while, she got so good that the maintenance crew would ask for her help in resolving problems.

I asked her if the work was repetitive, thinking of a typical assembly line, and she said it was actually more varied because the nature of the contracts changed. Sometimes she would be spinning thin wire, other times thick cable. SK learnt how to maneuver spools weighing several hundred pounds by herself and described how she would have to monitor a line a hundred feet long. She talked passionately about different aspects of the work, how she learned to tame the wire and make the machines do her bidding. You work the machine, the machine doesn’t work you.

For her, working was a sense of mastery over an impersonal process and she went home every day confident she had won out. This sense of mastery as personal accomplishment and creativity gives her a work ethic that is unusual in this era of bullshit, abstract labor, email-caste jobs. Management tried to promote her, but she couldn’t stand the office politics and demanded to be sent back to the line.

Like most Southern working-class women of whatever race, her life has been full of hardship. She survived two husbands dying young and an accident with an 18-wheeler that left her in the hospital for weeks. She told me about her son, an electrical contractor working unstable gigs, and how, when his wife became pregnant while he was unemployed, had a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t provide for the family. He signed himself into a mental institution after a suicide attempt. When SK went to see him, the staff had him so doped up he could barely respond. She signed her son out on the spot. He recovered when SK got him a job at the wire factory, where he’s now been working for over twenty years. As Langsdon Hughes wrote:

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

It had tacks in it and splinters

And boards torn up

And places with no carpet on the floor…bare

Don’t you fall now

For I’se still goin, honey.

I’se still climbin,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”


We never talk politics, but it wouldn’t surprise if SK is a Trump supporter, although I don’t see her fist-pumping at a rally screaming “lock her up!” But she knows instinctively that “big-city types” look down on people like her and in this assumption, she is absolutely correct. A rootless, middle-class, hobbyist left focused on posturing, therapeutic expressions of “rage,” and “transgression” just simply has nothing to offer. Instead, SK embodies that sense of “common decency” Orwell rightly pointed to as so characteristic of working-class culture, a culture of “common decency” crossing racial boundaries that still hangs on in many areas of the South even as it has frayed elsewhere. This culture of “common decency,” I am convinced, will be the basis of any future politics of genuine emancipation, should such politics ever arise.

Johnny’s Fish Fry

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted September 30, 2022

Being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer didn’t come as a surprise. Years of smoking in the cab of a long -haul truck takes all surprise about something like that away. For Johnny, the diagnosis was somewhere between possible and inevitable. He said cancer let’s you know who your friends really are. “You ask for nothing your whole life, only to have people make excuses about why they don’t call.” But he didn’t worry too much about other people before cancer and he wouldn’t start now.

We are early. The fish is yet to go into the outdoor propane fryer. The anti-keto buffet is covered in the kitchen. Drinks are on ice. Only, most of the guests were missing. I’ve never attended this fish fry before so I was probably the only one there who hadn’t heard Johnny’s life story, yet. Being twenty years younger, I certainly couldn’t dispute anything he would tell me.

Johnny grew up next door to my grandparent’s on the raucous north side of town. It was a lower working class neighborhood that didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was. There was a bar called “the brick” on the corner, because the building looked like one, and a brothel across the street.

Johnny grew up when there were physical consequences to messing up and he was a “bad” kid. A self-professed bully who didn’t “mind his mother”, he heard the request to “go to the tree” many times. That meant go and bring back the switch you were going to be beaten with. Once, he dragged a fallen tree limb to his mother and got the smile and reprieve he’d hoped for. “These bad-ass kids today could use some old-fashioned discipline”, he said.

He talked about growing up in our semi-segregated hometown in the early 60’s. He had to learn to deal with white people because he grew up not caring for them much. He asserted his dominance over other boys, and got good in sports at a time when winning became more important than race. He joined the army and got out of town as soon as he could.

By that point in the story, a witness showed up to offer occasional commentary. When the witness, one of the kids Johnny bullied, told him, “I hated you growing up,” the feeling was as fresh as the fish for the fryer. 60 plus years didn’t blunt much.

The years had obviously changed Johnny’s views about white people who were at least half of the people at the fish fry. White wives of black men, including his own, his neighbors, and former drinking buddies made the occasion as mixed as the half and half ice cream that awaited us for dessert. He wasn’t just tolerating white folks anymore.

Johnny didn’t regret much except not being there for the black kids who could have used role models growing up in our hometown. While he was away in the 70’s and 80’s, things had changed there as they had for the country. It was easier to move up and out but not so easy to stay together.

Spending years on the road made self-reflection an occupational hazard. With all of the truck stops, restaurants, and hotels, you were your own constant companion. There’s only so much to distract you from examining yourself. He spoke as someone who come through that for the better. He accepted where he was, what he had done, and the consequences. The cancer was just one more thing to deal with and he accepted that too.

We prayed, ate, drank bottled water and caught up with the events of the year before the fish fry culminated with the release of balloons in remembrance of the recently departed. It had been a tough year with the pandemic as there were almost as many balloons for the dead as there were people to hold them.

I wondered who would hold Johnny’s balloon someday as the soloist sang, “Thank you lord”.

Back in the USA

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted August 6, 2022

As I arrive back in the US for another extended visit, I’m always jolted by the tenor of political speech here. “Pritzger sucks” and “Let’s go Brandon” signs in my rural hometown qualify as legitimate political commentary. I come back to a Republican Party that is embracing Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s democracy light movement. People can vote as long as Orbán wins. Orbán proves you don’t have to use centuries old social grievances to whip up an illiberal mob as the threat of non-European immigrants and their non-European genes is just fine, among other things.

The Republicans have also taken the “see something, say something” notion of mutual surveillance a step further by advocating and rewarding citizen snitches in the classroom to discourage “divisive” teaching and in the very personal business of policing pregnancies.

Living in Germany allows a particular window into the relatively recent past. The existence of the GDR, East Germany, is not that long ago and right up until its demise in 1989, it was a vibrant police state led by their secret police nicknamed the Stasi. I know many who grew up in East Germany. I’ve heard direct accounts of victims of the police state in tours of Stasi prisons. I’ve seen the tools used to spy on neighbors in museums.

Historian David Cook writes that there is evidence that 1 in 30 East Germans acted as Stasi informants…and we don’t have all of the evidence. To put that in perspective 1 in 30 Americans would be nearly 11 million people officially providing information to the state against their friends, neighbors, families, and colleagues.

A scary thought is that we willingly provide advertisers more information than the Stasi could dream of. Big Data and data mining tools allow keepers of massive amounts of information to have insights into our individual lives that we don’t have ourselves. Imagine if they start using all of that for reasons other than selling us stuff.

Beyond the data is the corrosive role of suspicion. In East Germany, suspicion of your neighbor as an informant was obviously warranted. Sometimes people didn’t know they were informing on someone as a story here, or bit of information there shared unwittingly with an informant or undercover agent could be compiled into the picture a Stasi official could use to threaten to destroy a future. Things didn’t have to be illegal, they only had to look illegal to the right decision maker to kill job or educational opportunities.

Is that where we’re headed? Virginia Gov. Youngkin, who used fear of black history to gain political backing, instituted a tip line for parents to inform on teachers. Youngkin’s stated purpose for the tip line is to, “Help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.” The rights parents are denied is the right for their children to be unchallenged and comfortable in the classroom. Maybe it’s the right not to have to answer difficult questions when their children get home from school? Naturally, Youngkin is also fighting to keep tip line data from being made public.

The insidious Texas anti-abortion bounty is even more craven by offering a reward for legal action leading to the conviction of abortion providers or anyone who assists in the provision of an abortion in the state.

As a 2021 article in Vogue described it,

“If an individual were to suspect, say, a Lyft driver of taking a pregnant person to an appointment for an abortion after the six-week mark, said individual could sue the Lyft driver and collect a judgment of $10,000—and a refunding of their legal fees—from the Lyft driver if the lawsuit were successful. “

Of course, the Supreme Court has made the necessity of the provision of six weeks to legally have an abortion obsolete. Idaho and Oklahoma have already followed the Texas bounty model that turns private citizens into potential litigants against people who actively support women’s access to abortion. How many other of the 14 states that currently ban abortion will follow suit is not yet clear. Many other states are using their existing criminal justice systems to enforce their anti-abortion laws.

So it begins again. Some of us know all too well the price of continuous suspicion and friendly neighborhood surveillance. I can only imagine the level of scrutiny union organizers got in the 50’s or get at Amazon today. It’s almost like a black teen in a department store. If public tolerance of tattletale policies continues, we stand to lose the ability to trust others who are in our boat, making it even harder to organize for our interests. Who is interested in that outcome, I wonder?

George Floyd in the Deep South

By Curtis Price

Posted July 4, 2022

(Reprinted from the End Notes dossier, “That Summer Feeling: The George Floyd Protests and America’s Hot Pandemic Summer, 2020,”

Outsiders often lump the South together as an undifferentiated region, but this blanket categorization disguises important differences in culture and politics between Southern states. Mississippi and Alabama, for instance, are radically different from North Carolina and Tennessee despite their geographical proximity and their shared Confederate history. Mississippi and Alabama had different courses of development than the Upper South, where small yeoman farming dominated (in contrast to the Deep South’s large plantations). George Floyd demonstrations took a different form in these states, both desperately poor and sharing a long history of reactionary superstructures dominated by what are called in Alabama the “Big Mules,” landowning and industrial elites that controlled state politics and social life for over a century. To a large extent, they still do.

Alabama has the longest state constitution in the world, going on for hundreds of pages, a thoroughly anti-democratic 1901 document specifically designed to prevent any replay of the 1880s-era multi-racial populist movement that threatened elite power. The extreme centralization encoded in this revanchist constitution has stripped cities of almost any local control, which has kept Birmingham and Huntsville from mothballing Confederate statues or else face a $25,000 fine. The state legislature is currently trying to raise fines to $5,000 a day and hold city officials personally liable for them. The irony of public officials railing at the federal government for trampling on “states rights” and yet not hesitating to apply an iron heel to any expressions of local autonomy is lost on the perpetrators.

Even obscuring a Confederate statue, as Mayor Woodfin of Birmingham did by covering it with plywood, is labeled a crime worthy of state prosecution. Mississippi only removed the Confederate cross bars, enshrined on the state flag for over a century, in 2021. In the Deep South, as William Faulkner – who knew a thing or two about such things – famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

With this background, what was striking is how the George Floyd protests ended as possibly the largest and most widespread demonstrations in each state’s history. In Mississippi, for instance, a protest outside the state capital in Jackson attracted over 4,000 people. A critical difference between the protests during the Civil Rights movement and those that erupted after George Floyd’s death however is that state repression was absent in the latter, so comparing absolute numbers of crowds is misleading when assessing their social impact. During the George Floyd protests, for instance, there were no phalanxes of cops with riot shields and snarling dogs ready to be sicced on protestors. The cops mostly stayed unobtrusive and, at times, even participated by “taking a knee.”

Besides the Jackson demonstration, there were solidarity rallies in Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Meridian, Starkville, and Oxford ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. In Petal, a tiny town outside Hattiesburg, home of the University of Southern Mississippi, large demonstrations of a few hundred took place calling for Mayor Hal Marx’s resignation after the good mayor said he saw nothing unreasonable in how the cops responded in Minneapolis.

In Alabama – more populated and industrialized (Alabama is now an auto industry center because of factory transplants from the North) – protests took place not only in the larger urban cores such as Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile but also in many smaller peripheries. In Dothan, for instance, a small agricultural city near the Florida panhandle – the “Peanut Capital of the World,” as the city dubs itself – demonstrations were organized by The Ordinary Peoples’ Society (T.O.P.S), a pre-existing, mostly black working class group already mobilized around police brutality and voting rights for felons. Florence, Decatur, Troy and Auburn also saw sizeable-for-their-size demonstrations.

In contrast with Mississippi, there were confrontations with police in several Alabama cities, the sharpest of which was in Birmingham, where downtown stores were looted after cops stopped an attempt to take down a Confederate-era statue. Mobile also experienced smaller skirmishes with police that were quickly quashed. In Huntsville, which has a larger professional managerial sector because of the city’s reliance on military and aerospace contracts, police still attacked a peaceful crowd after a demonstration went over the allotted time, tear-gassing and arresting many in a pre-emptive strike under the excuse of preventing rumored “Antifa-type looting.”

If most demonstrations in Alabama and Mississippi conformed to the pattern elsewhere, in other cases, the particular contradictions of the Deep South played out.

In Gadsden, a smaller de-industrialized city in central Alabama whose last major employer, Goodyear Tires, had just announced its plant closing and where disgraced far-right Republican senate candidate Roy Moore rides on a horse to vote wearing a Stetson, protests faced different obstacles.

A target for the local BLM was the Emma Sansom statue in downtown Gadsden erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Sansom was so honored for having tended the war-wounds of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who later founded the Ku Klux Klan. Sansom’s descendents wrote a moving open letter supporting removal. But demonstrations at the statue were met by pro-Confederate counter-demonstrators.

Jerome Gunn, a Detroit ex-pat, became known as a leading Gadsden BLM organizer. Before BLM, Gunn ran clothing and food drives for the poor and a soup kitchen for the homeless out of his Gadsden car wash and detailing business. Gunn had also personally paid for hotel rooms for people displaced by a fire at a local apartment complex and for survivors in nearby Jacksonville when swaths of the city were flattened by a tornado outbreak in 2018.

Those good deeds didn’t stop Gunn from getting arrested at BLM demonstrations on dubious charges of “first degree theft by deception,” which many rightly interpreted as harassment for his role in BLM. Shortly afterwards, Gunn’s business was fire-bombed and gutted (the same fate, coincidentally, befell the home of one of Roy Moore’s accusers). The irony, as Gunn pointed out, was that the majority of people he helps are white. No suspects have been arrested – and probably never will.

It deserves mentioning how Gadsden BLM demonstrations, in an inspiring display of cross-issue solidarity, regularly stopped outside the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, which doubles as one of the most repressive holding tanks for ICE immigrant detention, while inmates cheered and banged on windows in support. But such connecting up of different struggles was all-too-rare during George Floyd protests here.

A few dozen miles away in Albertville, a small city of 20,000 dominated by the poultry industry and where mostly Hispanics and Haitian workers recently wildcatted over wages, a George Floyd memorial march attracted over 600 people. Even counting the presence of outsiders from other cities such as nearby Huntsville, this was a huge turn-out.

But the Confederate flag still flies every day outside the Marshall County Courthouse in Albertville. When Unique Dunston, an Albertville BLM organizer, attempted a campaign to remove the flag, the turn-out was tiny and like Gadsden, counter-demonstrators, some armed, came out in opposition. The city refuses to take down the flag.

The focus on removing Confederate statues and flags in the South has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how these are visible symbols of an era of white supremacy and a reminder of its continued grip in the South today. Thus, they became an easy target for protests. Yet on the other hand, statues are just symbols of this larger web of social relations and removing them was an easy cathartic gesture that left these underlying conditions intact while giving people a sense of having accomplished “something.”

For this reason, many – but not all – the demonstrations against Confederate statues mostly attracted college-educated whites. This was certainly the case in Huntsville, where protests against the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse were white-dominated, a reflection of the city’s higher than average share of white PMC workers and smaller African American population. The response among working class blacks was more muted. As one African-American Mississippi farmer, a man who limped from beatings during the Civil Rights era, put it, “Those statues? We never paid attention to them. We know we ain’t going back to those days.” This probably reflected the silent opinion of many, who voted with their feet by not coming out.

A further irony is that the Redeemer myth of the “solid South,” the very memory which the statues honor, papers over how the South lost the war in large part because of mass desertion. Towards the end of the war, nearly 40% of Confederate soldiers had gone M.I.A. Not all of these desertions were consciously anti-Confederate – many soldiers abandoned their posts because of family hardship at home and not from a conscious rejection of war objectives.

But enough did. In North Alabama, for instance, an area where big plantations never existed, whole swaths became ungovernable, with multi-year sustained guerrilla warfare erupting against the Confederacy. Secret societies formed within the ranks of the Confederate army that sabotaged the war from within and provided an underground railroad to encourage desertion to Union armies or hiding out from authorities. Du Bois notes this phenomenon in “Black Reconstruction” when he wrote, “the poor white not only began to desert and run away, but thousand followed the Negro into the Northern camps.” Little of this history is known in the South and is unlikely to surface anytime soon.1

Still, as the situations in Gadsden and Albertville both show, vague exhortations to racial reconciliation and healing can run up against genuine white supremacy (the real deal, not some feigned, promiscuous, au courant accusations where anything under the sun can get labeled as “whiteness” with enough effort) if limits are pushed too far, violating boundaries of what is considered “acceptable” discourse. Under this rubric, slavery gets acknowledged as a wrong – there is little talk anymore about how happy enslaved people were on plantations – but then the topic is quickly changed. Dwelling too much on slavery then becomes a sign of stirring up “trouble.”

The threat of non-state agents of repression enforcing this “acceptable” race discourse, with local authorities predictably turning a blind eye, especially outside the major cities, remains real. It’s all more underground now: there are no visible White Citizens’ Councils with vigilante clout, memberships in the thousands and control of local small-town infrastructure. Yet the fact that these informal networks exist at all highlights the tortured link between the entrenched old South and the slowly emerging new in two states where “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

What’s Goin’ On

By James Murray

Posted May 21, 2022

“C’mon and talk to me
So you can see
What’s goin on..”
-Marvin Gaye

I first met ‘Steve,’ when he came to work at our department. Compared to the old-timers we were, ‘the young guys.’ We were never close friends but we got along and worked well together. We both followed the NBA and listened to some hip-hop and neither of us like ‘the old guys,’ at the shop. About once a week we would go to lunch and shit-talk our co-workers and discuss mutual interests.
I knew Steve had experienced a tough childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he had bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and southern California with a chronic alcoholic father, always in extreme poverty, he had spent several teenage years living with his father (literally) in a van down by the river. He seemed to be a survivor though, in an apparent happy marriage with two children. He had a semi-skilled trade and our jobs paid relatively well. He told me once he, ‘Had done a lot of drugs,” in his misspent youth but, “A lot of drugs,” mean different things to different people and its common for
people to be overly dramatic about past debauchery. He didn’t seem like any kind of dope casualty to me. We met up at a sports bar a few times to watch games and I got to know his wife, ‘Shirley.’ She seemed pretty typical and would have a couple of beers whereas Steve didn’t drink at all, being turned off and distrustful of alcohol due to his father’s experience. I ascertained Shirley had trouble keeping a job. I thought she had some anxiety issues, and did not possess great social skills and I realize working-class culture (especially in the south) can be difficult for a woman (or anyone) to navigate if they weren’t raised in it, and sometimes even if they were raised in it. But it wasn’t my problem and I didn’t judge her.
Sometimes Steve would mildly complain about how Shirley would continue to spend money even when she wasn’t working. She pressured him to buy a big, expensive (is there any other kind) pickup they really didn’t need. But lots of people buy vehicles and luxury goods they really don’t need, and he never expressed any animosity toward his wife. I sensed more of a good-natured fatalism than anything else. “I make it, she spends it,” he told me one time. And Steve really was a kind, good-hearted guy. Very little education, formal or informal, but he had the natural sophistication of someone that had grown up struggling and hustling and moving around the country. As far as I could tell, Steve and Shirley were completely irreligious and totally apolitical. As well, mildly culturally liberal in the way followers of pop culture and mass media usually are. I can’t remember politics and religion ever coming up in conversation.
From want or necessity Steve started doing side gigs in the evenings and on weekends. Likable, competent, honest and reliable, he did well, making money and acquiring a client list in short order. I would estimate this was about 2013/2014.
In time he quit our department on good terms to pursue the side-hustle full-time. The old guys at the shop began retiring, one by one. I got a raise, then a promotion, then a ‘position.’ One boss retired and we got a new, better boss, one that I had rapport and mutual respect with. We got new hires. I was doing well, but usually busy and running at110mph most days between 7 and 4. I lost contact with Steve.
Suddenly, it’s summer, 2016. I’m in a McDonalds getting coffee one morning about 6:15 am and I run into Steve. I’m amazed to see he’s wearing a red, ‘MAGA’ hat. At first I thought it’s a joke. It seemed so unlikely. Despite my long-standing politics (anarchist/Marxist/etc.) I myself was sympathetic to Trump. I loved the way he had humiliated and defeated Republican dirt bags like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, and the way he had unapologetically disrespected the GOP’s ‘serious men,’ like John McCain and Mitt Romney. And that summer he was running against an (IMO) psychopathic monster named Hillary Clinton. In such circumstances how could any empathetic reasonable person not be sympathetic to Trump? But my sympathy was ironic and highly conditional. Steve’s support of Trump was serious, embittered, aggressive, paranoic. His entire personality seemed to have changed. No longer laid back with a constant soft smile and good humor he was agitated by the ‘Fake News’ conspiracy and now I saw him as edgy and driven with sole interest, it was all – Trump Trump Trump.
Of course Trump won the big election but my life didn’t change – long work weeks and totally checked out on weekends. I continued to find Trump an entertaining, yet farcical creature. Good for a laugh but completely unserious. Certainly not a fascist and revolutionary, just a clown with a lot of money like Berlusconni. I did not see or hear from Steve for months and months. One day he called me out of the blue and asked if I could help get his wife, Shirley a menial job in the department, I was noncommittal but brought it up to my boss. We both knew her sketchy job history but he said – why not? Give her a chance. So Shirley got hired but I very rarely saw her, and when I did I was in a hurry and just waved or said, “Hi,” We never had a conversation. She seemed to be doing well but I didn’t know any details.
More months passed. Then a year or two. One day I was having coffee and
gossiping with Shirley’s immediate supervisor, ‘Misty.’ “She has some strange beliefs,” Misty told me.
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. Like some weird religious shit.”
I just laughed. I had never known Shirley or Steve to be religious at all. But I thought the conversion to Trumpismo might have led to a conversion to fundie Christianity.
“She’s obsessed with pedos,” Misty told me.
“Yeah bruh it’s weird. She does a good job but all she can talk about is conspiracy shit, pedos, and the Bible.”
“Well at least she shows up.”
In hindsight I think Misty was describing some early version of the ‘QAnon ideology,’ but I knew nothing about that then and know very little about it now. More months passed. Steve texted me unexpectedly one night, knowing I am a fairly serious, ‘firearms enthusiast,’ he wanted my advice on which manufacturer’s AR-pattern rifle to buy. His budget was one-thousand. Knowing it didn’t really matter and not wanting to have a long text exchange about semi-automatic rifles I just gave him some answer, “Bushmaster or FN,” I probably told him.
More months passed. Someone told me Steve was now, ‘preaching.’ I could just laugh. “Professionally?” I asked. The person didn’t know the financial details but said Steve was traveling all over the state and region to ‘share his message.’ Someone else told me he was neglecting his business and abandoning half-completed jobs to focus on his politico-religious mashup. He had several lawsuits for ‘Breach of Contract’ pending against him. He and Shirley had pulled their kids out of the public school and were now, ‘homeschooling.’ All of this was interesting and a bit concerning to me but I had much bigger concerns almost every minute of the day and night.
Months kept passing, some said they were picking up speed as the fortunes of Trumpismo ebbed and flowed and ebbed. Covidmania and Lockdown Fever gripped the country. In Oklahoma, any such concerns were a passing phase, and as an ‘Essential,’ I kept going to work everyday like normal. For a few months the restaurants were closed and masks were, ‘Mandatory,’ but then it was all over. Everything open, no masks in sight. I thought Trump’s defeat in November, 2020 was more than a bit suspicious, but again – it’s just not something I cared that much about.
“Did you see the new Paper?” Misty asked me one day, referring to the small-town
weekly newspaper.
“No. Never.”
“Shirley’s husband got arrested.”
“Really? Steve?”
“Really bruh.”
“For what?”
“Possession of methamphetamine.”
“Wow. That’s crazy. He was a religious fanatic the last I heard.”
“I don’t know bruh. I think Shirley’s on it too. She’s been acting real weird. Talking to walls and shit.”
“Oh my God.”
“Be glad you don’t have to deal with her.”
“I am.”
In a few weeks Shirley’s bizarre behavior got her called into the office for a ‘write up.’ When notified of the reason she was there she went wild, throwing pens and inanimate
objects, threatening Misty and others and screaming profanities. She walked out and never returned.
You have to wonder what’s going on in a culture that can take functional normies and their semi-functional spouses and put them on a track that leads through Trumpismo, into religious nuttery, then around the curve into conspiracism and then dump them into methamphetamine abuse. I don’t think Trump’s charisma and manipulative ability, or ancient Bible secrets unveiled, or shocking crackpot political analysis, or the addictive properties of fine Oaxacan ice provide an answer here. I’m
certainly no clinician, not even an ‘expert,’ but the clinician would just write you an antidepressant script and the ‘experts,’ blame it all on racism and ‘white privilege,’ or something. I think people are just so exhausted and burned up and out from these past decades of reaction. They just want to ‘feel something.’ They want to ‘experience something.’ They want to have an explanation. They want to know an answer. They will go into bankruptcy, destroy their families and livelihoods, wreck their own and other’s lives to chase the dream that life might have meaning and value outside the markets
and system of financialization. Of course they’re going to fuck up, there’s a million and one wrong turns and no one has a map here

A Short History of the Tulsa Dixie Mob

By James Murray

Posted May 14, 2022

(A text like this must remain in the arena of “informal history.” There are traditional sources – a few pages in this book or that one, newspaper and magazine articles, law-enforcement reports, etc., but not nearly as many as one might expect considering the sensational nature of some of the events.  There is also an oral history,.. From its peak –  powerful and feared – respected by organized crime organizations across the country – the Dixie Mob has  receded into a shadowy Oklahoma legend.)

“Stories of crime and corruption yes it’s true

Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs and whores and booze..”

                                               -Drive By Truckers

     Alcohol prohibition did not end in Oklahoma until 1959, but of course there had never been a shortage of strong drink in Oklahoma. Bootlegger organizations and independent moonshine cooks and beer brewers had operated with varying degrees of openness and semi-official protection since before statehood. Everyone in a small Oklahoma town knew who the local bootleggers were, they handed out business cards and operated with regular ‘business hours,’ and made home deliveries. In Tulsa, a city flush with post-war oil, aerospace and manufacturing money, there were some bootleggers who grew rich and well-respected for their “honesty,” and business ethics. Such a popular product as alcohol, distributed illegally on a large scale, had to attract the attention of law-enforcement. And certainly it did, but police officers and Sheriff’s and District Attorneys liked to drink too. The “Good ol boy,” system prevailed. A local alcohol distributor, ‘playing by the rules,’ and willing to make donations to Sheriffs and District Attorney re-election campaigns, and willing to hand out a few bottles of, “Good stuff,” to police officers and deputies ran very little chance of ever being arrested. If church leaders  or business executives started raising a fuss there could be a “Seizure,” arranged – perhaps a stolen car or truck loaded with illegal booze would be located. A newspaper article accompanied by photos would praise the intrepid police work that took hundreds of bottles, “off the streets.” For the bootleggers it was just part of the cost of doing business. This system of corruption held sway for decades.

     The atmosphere of pervasive corruption in Oklahoma law-enforcement was cited as a rationale by progressive lawmakers to legalize alcohol. If Oklahoma was going to be a modern state, fully integrated into the industrial economy the local police in cities and towns had to be professionalized. And that could not happen as long as the vast majority of them were looking the other way to avoid seeing alcohol distribution or even actively involved in such trafficking.

     By several accounts over one thousand bootleggers became unemployed the day the liquor laws changed. Often they had gotten used to living tax and guilt free. Many entered the legitimate world of workaday concern, but some did not. More than a few had seen the end of prohibition coming and had already started venturing into new gray or black market enterprises. Multiple sources report the network of bootleggers around the Tulsa area began morphing into a multi-faceted organized crime organization almost immediately after the end of prohibition.  I would expect they had begun branching out into prostitution rings and gambling enterprises long before 1959, and obviously they had been cooperating with individuals in law-enforcement for decades. But in 1960 the first “crime crews” associated with what would come to be known as the “Dixie Mafia,” were being formed. These crews lacked formality, sometimes overlapping and sharing members, sometimes combining forces and then splitting apart into individual criminal activity and operating independently for months or even years at a time. In Tulsa, a “sphere of influence” that included the surrounding area, especially Sapulpa and Tahlequah , some of the names associated with these crews were Albert McDonald, Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, Leroy MacManaman, Rubie Jenkins, “Fat Jerry” James, Wayne Padgett, Thomas Lester Pugh and others. Their hangouts were bars on Old Sapulpa Road, a ‘private club’ in Sperry and “dope dens” on Tulsa’s north side. The FBI  noticed a string of seemingly professional, unusually lucrative bank robberies began occurring all over Oklahoma. Burglary was noticed to be becoming professional and organized, and between 1959 to 1961 property crime losses doubled in Tulsa County. Arkansas and Louisiana also experienced suspicious large increases in robbery and theft and Kansas was struck especially hard. The McManahan Gang, or “Northside crew,” stole untold hundreds of vehicles out of Kansas as well as tractors, implements and farm and oil field equipment. Simultaneously Kansas experienced a bank robbery surge that was unprecedented. In the midst of a cyclical agricultural boom Kansas farmers were buying new equipment and vehicles and putting money in their local banks. According to FBI reports the “Tulsa related” bank robberies  were characterized by the use of such exotica as submachine guns, walky-talkys, and souped up modified vehicles. Inevitably the robbers would disregard the cash in the teller drawers and go directly to the safe. Small banks in isolated prairie towns were easy and safe pickings. Sometimes local police would be distracted by arsons or bombings.The investigations languished, unsolved, as previously rare jewelry store heists and safecracking crimes began proliferating in Oklahoma and bordering states.

      It is widely suspected the Italian mafia families in Kansas City and St. Louis were utilized to ‘fence,’ all this stolen merchandise and that these families soon  began employing these Oklahoma outlaws for “off the books,” contract murders. As an intimidation tactic for shaking down bars or recalitarant drug dealers or maybe as a method of impressing an overly ethical District Attorney, or even as a murder weapon, the bomb became a Dixie Mafia signature. Other Tulsa mobsters were gunsmiths, building functional submachine guns out of parts kits as well as firearms suppressors. When car bombs and suppressors began being used in Chicago and New Orleans mafia murders it was assumed the Okies were either there, working personally or had sold the munitions to those cities traditional mafia families.

     All this activity did not go unnoticed. Kansas law-enforcement officials would press on the FBI for answers and learn that gangs were proliferating in Tulsa, but their close-knit and shadowy culture  made gathering evidence difficult. Vernon Glenn, who worked as an OSBI agent in those years, later stated his office began seeing activity that was new to Tulsa and Oklahoma. It was not just that specific crimes had significantly increased. There were obvious patterns. And such patterns indicated organization. Of course there had always been burglary and robbery teams in Tulsa, as well as prostitution rings, gambling and drug dealing. But the OSBI and FBI began seeing signs of organized criminal racketeering – a group or group seeking to gain a monopoly on the drug trade, or local prostitution or gambling. Deciding who could steal what, when and where. This was how the traditional mafia families in New York and the east coast operated. It was something new to Tulsa. Agent Glenn and his peers could tell ‘something new was happening,’ But It took years to figure out who was who in the new Tulsa underground. They were trying to play catch up and the crime crews were moving very fast

     According to numerous sources, rumors of a major murder contract began circulating in 1964. The target would be Martin Luther King and the price was said to be one hundred thousand dollars. This offer was brought to Tulsa and at least some of the locals began taking it seriously. Others were skeptical as no one seemed to know who was guaranteeing the money, and however hated and feared he might be –  King was considered a civilian in the criminal underworld and a very high-visibility target. Reflecting their social background in Oklahoma agriculture or the oil fields almost all these professional criminals were “blue dog” southern Democrats. If for no other reason than it was commonly believed Democratic politicians were easier to bribe or make a deal with. The Republican party in Oklahoma was more associated with the urban managerial and banking elite. In other words, their social betters and traditional antagonists. One notable exception was Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, a former rodeo bronc rider, he was a vocal follower of the John Birch Society and an extreme anti-communist Republican. One associate remembered Sparks, “Looked like a cowboy, he smelled like a cowboy, he was very polite unless drinking. He was a killer.” Sparks was attracted to the idea of killing King and he and Leroy MacManaman packed a variety of weapons into the trunk of a Cadillac and drove to the southeastern states to stalk the civil rights icon,  They spent more than a month trying to locate and get close to their target but to no avail. King’s movements were unpredictable, the informal security around him was wary and fairly efficient. The would-be assassins were not familiar with the southern cities and had no connections in the local police departments. Unbeknownst to the pair, they were being quietly shadowed by FBI agents, who assumed they were scouting banks to rob. While staying at a hotel in Mobile, Alabama, Sparks and MacManahan were visited by a man claiming to be a representative of a Klu Klux Klan sect. They told him they were planning to abandon the attempt on King’s life and he offered them a thirteen thousand dollar “front,” to continue the effort. They declined the offer and drove back to Oklahoma. Decades later records would be declassified that showed the hotel room had been bugged by the FBI and KKK leader’s conversation with the Tulsans was recorded but never used in any prosecution.

     The robberies, murders and rackateering continued apace for years. Between 1960 and 1970 property and violent crime rates grew six times faster than the population in Tulsa and surrounding counties. A comprehensive list of “Tulsa Dixie Mob,” activity is of course impossible to compile, but examples can be gleaned from local newspapers and OSBI/FBI reports – An old-time bootlegger turned heroin dealer was found in a shallow grave in Chelsea,OK, an FBI informant fingered “Two Jumps” Sparks but there was not evidence.  Bars were blown apart by explosions in Bartlesville and Tahlequah. When the Tahlequah newspaper reported “organized crime” was active in the area the newspaper building was bombed. A triple murder in New Orleans was said to be linked to “Tulsa area criminals,” but that investigation, like so many others, went no where. A bar in Dewey was bombed. An associate of the northside crew was found in a ditch with a bullet in his head. It was believed he was talking too much. Independent burglars and small-time drug dealers began “disappearing.”  Well-known old-school Tulsa thief and writer Bobby Bluejacket said of these racketeers, “They changed the rules overnight. If you didn’t like it, you could be in trouble. People were dying.” Bluejacket and other veteran Tulsa criminals  just left town. An auto dealership office was bombed.  Federal drug agents reported the quality of heroin and dexedrine had increased and the availability of these drugs was consistent on Tulsa streets.

     The looting of cars and agricultural machinery out of Kansas never ended. Cattle were also being rustled, on an industrial scale of  unknown thousands per year. Frustrated by his state’s inability to successfully investigate the usual Tulsa suspects, the Kansas Attorney General commissioned a report in 1970 based on FBI files and intelligence reports. Titled “The Dixie Mafia Intelligence Report,” it explained how “A loose confederation of professional criminals operated in cities scattered throughout the south.” This report explained there seemed to be no formal hierarchy or even membership yet the organization functioned, “Controlling vice rackets, murder for hire and robbery, in a manner most similar to the more familar traditional Italian mafia families.” The report named Biloxi, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma as the cities with the most active and dangerous organizations and where large-scale racketeering was ongoing. This report received regional and national news coverage. The Report was mostly a compendium of sensational crimes, and figures showing how bank robbery and commercial theft had gained year over year in 1960s Kansas. The invention of the  “Dixie Mafia,” label apparently begins here. In Tulsa, crime crews were named after their leader, “The James Gang,” or “McDonald’s Guys,” or were referred to using geography, “The Northside Crew,” or “Westside Guys.” No one had ever heard of the Dixie Mafia. But local outlaws read the newspapers like everyone else and were happy to adopt the usage. It was (and is) usually slightly modified in Tulsa street language to “Lil Dixie Mafia,” or “Dixie Mob.” There seemed to be an apparent paradox – is a non hierarchical organization an organization at all? How could a loose network conduct large-scale racketeering operations? It was not explained in the report and it has never been explained since. Yet by all accounts that is what was happening. By 1970, the bootleggers forced out of business in 1959 had reinvented themselves and the Tulsa underworld. They were controlling the narcotics traffic, the sex trade and gambling. They had a national reputation for producing contract killers. They had severely compromised the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa Sheriff’s Office. If and when apparent members were arrested it seemed to have no effect on the organization (or lack thereof) at all. With no head to decapitate, the FBI did not know a successful method of attack. Groups of individuals with familial or friendship ties going back decades are very hard to infiltrate.

     In downtown Tulsa a de facto “Red Light District,” was flourishing. Brothels stood side by side in red brick buildings along East First Street, anchored by the decade’s old “Mays Room” on the corner. Operated by Pauline Lambert, she had apparently negotiated an “arrangement,” with the Dixie Mob, and her place was more luxurious and expensive than those the “good ol boys” owned. A newsstand and coffee shop on ground floors provided a discreet place to buy marijuana, benzedrine or heroin. Other retail drug outlets existed at Greenwood and Archer and scattered throughout the city, sometimes these spaces would also have a card room with games going twenty-four hours a day. All operated quietly but without any fear of police interference. A joke stated the only time you would see a police car on East First Street was when one of the department’s administrators was looking to enjoy a long lunch.

     Once known as “The Queen of Tulsa Bootleggers,” Cleo Epps had provided alcohol to the “best families,” in Tulsa for decades. She counted oil-money heirs and politicians (and police officers) as personal friends. When prohibition ended she purchased a motor court on the west side of Tulsa and cooled her heels on a large ranch illegal booze had purchased for her. By some accounts she did a bit of fencing of women’s clothing and accessories and bought and sold stolen jewelry, but mostly she was retired. The Dixie Mob was a boy’s club and she was an older woman.  Reportedly she was troubled by her former associates’ activity. She knew they were trafficking narcotics and ‘involved with the Italians’ and killing people and she didn’t want anything to do with all that.

     Epps might have faded into obscurity, quietly disapproving of the new era of Tulsa racketeering, but on August 25, 1970 a tremendous explosion rocked an exclusive midtown neighborhood. District Judge Nelson started his car to go to work and the vehicle blew up around him. He was shattered and disemboweled but miraculously still alive. The city was shocked. Who would bomb a district judge? Well, okay, there was only one possible non organizational candidate. But why? Where was the motive? Nelson had just announced his candidacy for District Attorney, and his opponent was to be a well known criminal defense lawyer and Dixie Mob fixer named Charles Pope. Was the attempted murder just to assure the “Dixie Mob connected” candidate, (a Democrat of course), won? It seemed painfully obvious. Except the Democratic nominee almost always won anyway. Was a District Attorney election worth a high-profile attempted murder? Conspiracists said the Dixie Mob had been into Nelson for years and he had tried to renege on a deal. Some wags said Albert McDonald had a new bomb reciepe he wanted to test and one Republican politican was as good as any other for that purpose. Nelson would live, barely. But his career was finished.

     Cleo Epps was thinking the same thing a lot of people were thinking – this had gone too far. She had been friendly with the Nelson family for years. She had been in their home. Attempting to assassinate a district judge in broad daylight in front of his wife and kids? She was mortified. People who would do that would do anything. Epps knew a grand jury was convening downtown to investigate local organized crime. There was one convened every few years and nothing ever came of it.  She called an old friend, a Tulsa Police detective and told him she would be willing to testify in front of the grand jury. She wanted to keep it as secret as possible though. Weeks later she entered the grand jury chambers wearing a wig and ridiculous disguise. Half the people in the room knew her personally. It was a pitiful farcical attempt. Several Dixie Mob figures were in the room and when she entered and they got up and walked out. Perhaps as much out of sadness as disgust. It was widely assumed she had just signed her own death warrant. It would be a case of suicide by Dixie Mob. On the witness stand she told a barely credible tale about seeing Albert McDonald and Lester Pugh stealing dynamite out of a shack on her property. She explained she kept dynamite to blow stumps out of the ground. Many minds were sceptical, Surely Dixie Mobsters had better sources for explosives than stealing an old woman’s landscaping stash. And still no motive was established. FBI agents and newspaper reporters in the Grand Jury room were almost as disappointed as the mobsters who had walked out of the room. Epps was testifying under oath, why hadn’t the D.A. asked her about this murky “Dixie Mafia,” organization? If anyone knew the players she did, but the D.A. had limited his questions to a dynamite theft. Was there a reason?

     The job was offered to two brothers, cowboys from Sperry, but they were hesitant to murder an old woman in cold blood. But Albert McDonald and Tom Pugh had no such qualms. McDonald had known Epps  since he was a teenager and thought she would trust him enough to meet up. Amazingly Epps somehow believed that her disguise had worked, that her testimony in downtown Tulsa would not leave the room. That despite Dixie Mobsters, newspaper reporters and concerned citizens in the grand jury room hearing her implicate McDonald and Pugh that such information would not get back to them. McDonald called Epps saying he had a shipment of untaxed whiskey to get rid of. They arranged to meet in a parking lot off 51st Street.  When she pulled up to McDonald’s Cadillac Pugh got out of the passenger side of the vehicle and held the door open for her to sit in the front next to McDonald. She settled into the seat and Pugh opened the car’s back passenger side door and slid in behind her.  She was shot in the back of the head with a suppressed .22 and they leaned her body over in the seat and wrapped a blanket around her head to hold in the blood. With the warm corpse in the front seat they drove out to the country to hide the evidence. A few weeks later McDonald and Pugh were indicted for bombing Judge Nelson. But there was no evidence, and the only ‘witness,’ (to dynamite possession) was missing and presumed dead. The charges were dropped.

     Nineteen-seventy turned to 1971 with indications that a “Dixie Mob offensive” was underway. An associate of the Kansas City Civella Crime Family  was found in a field by the Tulsa airport with a bullet in his head. A bar on the west side was bombed. The District Attorney in Tahlequah was crippled in a car bomb blast. A previously bombed bar in Sapulpa had been rebuilt and was bombed again. Days later its co-owner was shotgunned to death in his driveway. In February 1971 the Tahlequah Police Chief’s wife asked to borrow his personal car to run errands. When she turned the key the vehicle was blown to pieces. Parts of her body were found on the rooftops of houses down the block from the blast site. Tulsa newspapers reported and editorialized in shocked tones of outrage. They were murdering Police Chief’s wives now, something had to be done. FBI agents flew into the city to bolster the local field office and investigate the multitudinous crimes and a special FBI team was pulled out of the east coast and sent to Tulsa to set up shop with the latest in eavesdropping technology. They soon learned the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa County Sheriff’s office were none too cooperative. The FBI surmised, (almost certainly correct) that both organizations were severely compromised.

     Albert McDonald was thrown out of a bar in Bartlesville and (as the tale is told) went back after closing time and leveled the building with a bomb. Minutes after the explosion he was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. The FBI rushed to search and vehicle and it was covered inside and out with bomb making residue but he wouldn’t confess, inisisting the residue must be left over from the vehicle’s previous owner. The search warrrant obtained for his residence was more useful – no bombs were found but evidence indicated his ownership of numerous “Chop shops,” in north and west Tulsa where stolen vehicles were broken down into parts. The FBI claimed he had been involved in the theft of, “More than five-hundred cars and trucks out of Kansas.” Eventually he would be indicted for “Interstate Transportation of Stolen Vehicles.”  While involved in legal procedings regarding the vehicle theft ring  McDonald ( with Pugh as triggerman) apparently murdered Epps. There was no evidence in that case either, But as months dragged by informants were located who would testify that McDonald and Pugh had casually mentioned the murder in conversation.  Eventually they would be arrested and charged with that murder and go to trial. Moments before opening statements were to begin on the trial’s first day an unoccupied service station was blown up across the street from the courthouse. Windows were rattled and cracked and people fell out of their seats from shock, fear and the concussion. Pandemonium reigned in the courtroom as one can easily imagine. The next day a car bomb went off down the street from the courthouse. Downtown Tulsa was placed under a security blanket of police, Sheriff’s Deputies and federal agents the likes of which had never been seen before. A few days into the trial a bomb threat was called into the courthouse and the entire building was evacuated and searched. No bombs were found and local wise acres said it was a juvenile hoax. Everyone knew the Dixie Mob didn’t call in threats. They just set off bombs. Out on bail and on trial for their lives McDonald and Pugh allegedly went on a murder spree of ‘hitting’ those who might provide hearsay testimony next. In short order Tulsa Dixie Mob associates Delbert “Big’n” Self, and Martin “Boots,” Edwards would die via gunshots. Eventually McDonald and Pugh would be convicted of the Epps murder on the basis of circumstantial and hearsay evidence.

     The corruption-busting District Attorney Buddy Fallis had made known while campaigning he would indict corrupt cops and deputies and ‘Fight serious crime!’ And he coyly admitted he was willing to ‘Bend the rules,’ to do that. Charismatic with a rich sense of humor Fallis would go on to have a long career as Tulsa District Attorney. Initially unloved and referred to as ‘Little Caeser,’ (and much worse) in the courthouse and police department, Fallis would wear a bulletproof vest everywhere he went, for years. By 1978 the de facto “red light district,” along East First Street would be shut down. Organized crime cannot thrive without law-enforcement collusion and Fallis would keep his campaign promise by showing no queasiness about charging police officers and Sheriff’s deputies with felonies and misdemeanors. By 1980 the heydey of the Dixie Mob was over. Prostitution was driven completly underground and biker gangs were cutting in on their narcotics traffic. Tulsa was too small a city and Kansas too small a state to make a long career in robbery and commercial theft. The participants began dying, going to prison, retiring or drifting away to greener, more populous pastures. Two (very nonItalian) Tulsa mobsters joined the “Chicago Outfit,” as formal Cosa Nostra “associates.” Others permanently relocated to Los Angeles. Buddy Fallis spoke of several suspected “Murder for Hire,” homicides with probable Dixie Mob participation circa 1979/1980, including one at the then prestigous high-rise University Club apartments. These murders remain unsolved.  As late as the mid-90s relatively large-scale bookmaking enterprises still existed in Tulsa, and debts could be settled in the traditional manner. And “Money was on the street,” in the form of unofficial, no-paperwork, high-interest “vig loans.”  These relatively gentlemanly forms of criminal racketeering were probably the last examples of organized Dixie Mob activity in Tulsa.

The Poisoning of a Black Southern Town

Wall Triana Road

By Curtis Price

February 4, 2022

I’m at the public housing projects in Triana, a tiny, nearly all-black town of about 400 on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Triana ends at the dark, heaving waters of the Tennessee River. On the other side of the river begins the off-limits Redstone Arsenal, bigger than the city of Huntsville itself, and choked in impenetrable barbwire.  Sometimes you can hear the muffled boom! of weapons testing from Redstone echoing. Sometimes, gators crawl across the road from the fetid swamps a quarter-mile upwind.

My acquaintance has lived here for about a year. He likes the peace of living in the country. The projects themselves are older, one-story apartments. They feel vaguely Spanish, a stucco-pastel of washed-out ochre.  There’s lots of green and a small symphony of katydids buzz and hum. I can’t help but compare them to projects in the North, which look either like army barracks or small-scale prisons.

Triana housing projects

Back in the early 1800s, Triana was a commercial center in Alabama, its proximity to the river making it an ideal site for trade. Those days are long gone, but going to the Tennessee down Record Road, you can see at this wide juncture in the river’s bend how a natural harbor formed. If you hang around long enough, barges will silently appear and then whirl away, disappearing like river ghosts, carrying grain to poultry farms farther north.

Today, people come to picnic and boat.  Upscale whites from the new luxury complexes sprouting up on the outskirts of Triana are displacing black working-class residents using this stretch of the riverfront for barbecues and picnics.

For generations, the river fed Triana’s poor and working class. It was a free source of fish, the catfish, and bass that filled the Tennessee. Everyone fished or knew someone who fished to put food on the table. Until, 1979, that is.

In 1979, the then-Mayor of Triana, Clyde Foster, an Equal Opportunity officer for Redstone Arsenal and son of a Birmingham steel worker, found out from an anonymous phone call from a journalist that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had discovered elevated DDT levels in local fish, forty times the recommended level. When Foster asked “For how long?,” the reporter hung up. No government official had ever bothered to tell Triana.

The source of the DDT was traced to a factory on the far-flung fringes of Redstone Arsenal that had been leased to an outside corporation to make mustard gas and other chemical weapons in 1943. After the war, the plant changed hands and began producing  DDT. The Army documented plummeting bird numbers in the species that used the nearby Wheeler Refuge in the 1950s and finally, shut the plant down in the early 1970s as a result of the growing backlash against DDT and the blot of several fish kills in Spring Branch Creek, which fed into the Tennessee River.

Spring Branch Creek

The Olin Corporation, the last owner, had leeched four thousand tons of DDT into the river’s bottom soil. Foster went to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), which declined to get involved saying no research indicated that DDT was a health hazard to humans. One doctor at ADPH said he would just as soon sprinkle DDT as sugar on his morning cereal, since both carried the same level of harm.

Undeterred, Foster, a degreed engineer who had helped marshal Redstone Arsenal into the Civil Rights era, managed to interest a CDC doctor in Atlanta. She came to Triana and tested. What she found were high levels of DDT in blood, two to three times the national average. One elderly resident, a retired farmer, had the highest level of DDT ever recorded in a human at 3,300 parts per billion (the U.S. average is 16.5).

The headlines screamed a “Southern Love Canal” and labeled Triana “the unhealthiest town in America.” But it was the South. It was Alabama. And it was isolated, tiny, poor Triana, so interest quickly died and the New York journalists quickly turned their attention elsewhere, as New Yorkers often do when it comes to the South, back to Hollywood starlet scandals, Wall Street gyrations, and Andy Warhol’s latest soup cans, but with Triana briefly having its Warholian turn in the sun of fifteen fleeting minutes of fame.

However, outside of the media gaze, Mayor Clyde Foster fought tenaciously to make sure Triana wasn’t forgotten. Through his efforts and the resulting lawsuits, Olin Corporation was finally forced to pony up a substantial settlement. Triana became an EPA Superfund site, making it eligible for federal dollars. For a couple decades afterward, the river was dredged and the contaminated mud hauled off. Foster wanted a portion of the settlement monies to be funneled into a community clinic that would last for generations. Some accounts of the Triana disaster mention a community clinic set up by Foster.

I asked my friend where he thought the clinic could have been located. He thought it might have been in an abandoned building up from the Dollar General that he said a group of white crack heads was now squatting in. He also whispered darkly that since he moved to Triana, he noticed all long-term Triana residents have yellowed eyes from the DDT, a feature that’s managed to escape me in all my trips there.

I imagined Foster’s clinic would have been in the old log cabin shack down from the Triana library that in the early part of the twentieth century served as one of the few medical clinics for North Alabama’s black community. The clinic was run for decades by a single dedicated doctor and nurse and had been long abandoned. It would be fitting that Foster’s vision of free health care for all Triana residents would continue the work of earlier generations, the original clinic as a tree that would continue sprouting fruit.

Old Triana Clinic

But it turns out, that contrary to some published accounts, the permanent clinic was never built. At a memorial meeting sponsored by the Triana Historical Association, Foster’s daughter told me Triana residents wanted individual pay-outs and couldn’t see the long-term benefits of an embedded community clinic. So the settlement money flooded in and quickly went out again, as it always does in poor and working-class communities, which end up just being conduits of monies into other, fatter pockets, and Triana was never fortuned with its own clinic.

However, the other clinic, that old, weather-beaten, one-room shack, is now, after decades of being left to the elements, being restored as a historical site, a long-overdue recognition of its role in Alabama black history. (1)

As I left Triana, driving along Zerit Road, on a finger-like peninsula jutting into the muddy Tennessee waters, I noticed a solitary figure silhouetted against the grey sky, holding a fishing rod. I don’t think personally I would have enough faith in soothing government reports that everything was cleaned up and fish fit to eat.

Tennessee River, near Triana

But the biggest threat to Triana’s future may not come from the river but from the land. The area surrounding Triana is being gobbled up by developers building fancy, cookie-cutter townhouse complexes with faux Olde English names like The Greens at Eastwick. And who knows, considering the never-ending, voracious demand for housing in Huntsville’s metastasizing upscale suburbs, if Triana will slowly get whittled away out of existence in a few decades?


1. For an overview of Alabama’s larger black hospital movement, see

Reverend Black’s Blues

By Curtis Price

Posted December 18, 2021

In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casual­ties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent histori­ans, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the non­slaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.

Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)

The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristoc­racy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were in­competent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideo­logical circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, some­one else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for them­selves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.

The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter ses­sion in consciousness-raising.

The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the non­slaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has re­cently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and intro­duced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herren­volk thesis.

First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruff­ner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.

The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was pre­cisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.

For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is pre­cisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.

To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeo­men of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verifica­tion. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often be­came a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and oppo­sition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)

Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plan­tation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the de­lineation of a discrete way of life.

In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and espe­cially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly op­posed extremist and anti-Union measures.

Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.

At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.

This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.

On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared per­fectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a quali­tatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.

In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be per­ceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)

The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ig­norance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to pro­mote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding oc­casional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.

The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and war­time desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political stan­dards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic con­nection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)

Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the non­slaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.

Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas through­out the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.

Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their atti­tude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were moti­vated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be ex­pected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.

As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democrati­zation. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.

And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberal­ism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plan­tation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not them­selves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.

This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportion­ment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men re­quired new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.

The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeo­manry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not under­stand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw them­selves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.

It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such argu­ments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.

How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guaran­tee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.

Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.

One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.

1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democ­racy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.

2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.

3. Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).

5. John Price, “Slavery in Winn Parish,” Louisiana History 8:2 (1967): 137-48.

6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Per­spective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).

7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nation­alist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).

8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.

 10.  Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).

(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)

I am sitting in a North Alabama conference room, furnished in Deep South church-basement Deco. The walls are pale cream, as are the tiles, with only the brown chairs and tables offsetting the wan interior. It’s the Volunteer Christmas Party at a local community services agency. The crowd is divided roughly fifty-fifty between black and white, all older women with only two men, me and one other. This overwhelming sex imbalance reflects the nature of volunteering, where it is women more so than men who get involved with community issues, including visiting the frail, shut-in elderly and tending to the sick.

Speaking of the small, black church nurse corps – where women who do this work of unpaid caring for others – Noel Ignatiev once wrote that this mutual aid and non-professional caring was the essence of socialism. Perhaps it is. But also probable as a scenario is the same church group driving out an unmarried mother by whispering and shunning because of her “sin.” The two sides go hand in hand. The Southern church can both envelop in non-commodified compassion or it can become a boa constrictor wielded against the outcasts and non-conformists, suffocating the different.

I strike a conversation with an elderly black woman sitting next to me. We slip into an easy informality. I gather from her conversation she must be in her seventies, even if she looks much younger. Her story is that of many working-class Southern women, black and white. Taking care of children and one set of dying relatives after another, from parents to spouses. Unlike the professional middle-class, who can wall themselves off by having the coins to hire outside help to provide caring so they can pursue their precious careers in the market place, working class women are confronted life-long with a double-burden of care and employment.

The inspirational speaker, the improbably named Reverend Equator Black,  strides in with a broad smile, a tall string bean of a man with a long, sad face like an itinerant Delta blues singer and dressed to the nines in a pinstriped suit. The Reverend is 96 years old, and still works every day farming. He tells snatches of his life story: bootlegging as a child during the Depression, “whore-mongering” across the South before he got “The Word,” a stint working in steel up north in Pittsburgh, truck driving – he’s done it all. He then performs a brief shimmy that’s a cross between a Chuck Berry cakewalk and a Limbo, to audible gasps in the room, showing how limber he is nearing 100 and of course, “thanks to the Lord.”

He starts preaching, citing Bible quotes and then putting the microphone in front of one of the audience to complete the Bible passage. But to me, as a non-believer, it strikes me as sometimes forced and formulaic, which in fact it is. Call and repetition, however, strikes a chord with this group. Yet, like much of today’s religion in the United States, it comes off as self-centered. God is an insurance policy, for people that don’t have insurance policies. The Lord is all-powerful and has time, in His busy schedule, to personally oversee every act of His flock. I don’t hear much social aspect, that this type of religion makes you better so you can help others.

But at the same time it counsels waiting for Divine Intervention or blessings, it holds out a distorted, but real vision, of a better future, nourishing hopes in barren grounds. Yet this is the same privatized religious impulse that can swiftly change under the right social conditions to become a critique of the powerful and a demand for justice on earth, such as happened in the Southern Civil Rights movement. It is also a shield against dissipation in the wider world, a talisman burnished against the siren-song slop of consumer culture. However rigid and narrow it can seem to outsiders, you don’t find  in it the corroding dissatisfaction that cripples so many other American lives, even if the “Gospel of Prosperity” and its  snake-oil peddlers such as Reverend T.J. Jakes are steadily whittling away at these rich, older rural South traditions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

“Boss Lady’s” Slide into the Great Big Nothing

By Curtis Price

Posted October 15th, 2021

 They thought she could never die, so often had she escaped death, even after she got on dialysis and chain-smoked away with oxygen tank on. But finally she was dead, lying in the red velvet coffin with that same hardened look of pure meanness she wore all her life. They knew she had truly died because someone stole the diamond rings off her still-warm fingers after she had gasped her last breath, an act that would have warranted a stabbing or pistol-whipping when she was alive.

“Boss Lady” had come down South from the mean streets of East Detroit – the Mack Avenues and Jefferson Streets – after her mother was stabbed to death. The murderer was never found, and, in all truth, probably not sought too much; after all, what was one more, early, poor black death in Motor City? Relatives in Alabama took the family in. Years later, rumors circulated that “Boss Lady” had killed her mother to get money to buy heroin. Whether it was true or not was beside the point. It was believable.

“Boss Lady” hit the streets running. At first, she was doing stick-ups. But then she graduated to running a boosting ring, made up of crack addicts who would go out to the Huntsville suburbs and shoplift. All they got for their efforts was a place to lay their head and a few rocks to smoke. “Boss Lady” kept the rest, which she fenced at substantial profit. Crime, after all, is just another form of capitalism so her profiting off others should come as no surprise.

Soon, “Boss Lady” expanded her business enterprise. She became a major crack dealer in Northern Alabama, picking up shipments from Houston and New Orleans. Many of her expanding network of minions, as well as rivals in the game, took falls, but she survived unscathed, leading some people to whisper she was ratting people out. Her ruthlessness was the stuff of legend; once, in a bar argument, she stubbed her cigarette in a woman’s eye. She was the enforcer, keeping order in her own crew and as a woman in a man’s world, had to be tougher, more vicious.

I met her after her prime, after she finally ended up doing a long bit in the Federal pen. She was still doing her thing, but others had stepped in and taken chunks of her market. Again, street-level capitalism is no different from its “respectable” counter-part of Brooks Brother suits and board rooms. You crush competitors, you win over rivals’ customer base.

We had a mutual friend in common, someone who had known her for decades. We ate a few time collectively in those all-you-can-eat down-market Chinese buffets, the kind where a vague, musty smell wafted through the dining area; the kind where women, bent over scooping ice cream, let long hair dangle in the food. It was a cuisine that made TV dinners look like Michelin and who knew if the mystery meat, which never tasted like the labels, was some stray neighborhood dog or cat, as rumors had it. These buffets were – and continue – to be popular with working-class people because eating there is one area of their lives where there are no limits, no constraints. The ultimate cost of the ticket, though, only tallies up later down the road: in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, those three Pale Horsemen stalking the blue-collar South.

Our common friend had told me her history, but warned never to let her know. She, of course, knew that I knew, while pretending she didn’t know that I knew and I did the same in return, a kind of mashup “Victor/Victoria” verbal role play. I liked her, even though I found her draining to be around for too long. She had the sleek demeanor of an apex predator always on the prowl.

But it was also like admiring a beautiful, coiled, poisonous snake, with multi-hued scales: you admired it from afar; you didn’t want to get too close. She asked for my number and we texted innocuous texts a couple times, but that was it. Until several years later out of the blue, she accidentally sent me pix of a couple bricks of white-whatever, a photo destined for someone else with the same first name. She told me to delete it, which I did. But I never saw her again.

“Boss Lady” died surrounded by her courtesans, but they secretly hated her and she returned the favor, never trusting anyone around her. She knew her strength was ebbing and that dark day was dawning. She wanted to immerse herself in the presence of people, even if these people were just grinning in her face. No one liked her; she was feared more than respected – but never liked. When the news got out of her death, many in black Huntsville secretly cheered.

Our mutual friend said she won’t be “peddling her poison anymore.” But I kind of admired her in a cool, clinical sense. She had grown up with nothing and never learned how to read or write. But despite the deck stacked against her, she ended up with a nice house, a couple cars, and money in the bank. She was never one to flash her wealth. Her sisters, on the other hand, were living in the projects, with multiple children, waiting for the monthly check. “Boss Lady” never fell into that trap, she wanted more out of life, even if she hurt people right and left going up – and hurt people right and left going down.

The Twilight of the American Left

By Park MacDougald

Posted September 4, 2021

“The most vulgar, simplistic view of the Left — that dissolves all the supposed distinctions between centrists, liberals, leftists, socialists, communists into one homogenous Democratic blob — happens to be correct.” So writes Benedict Cryptofash, an anonymous Twitter user and self-described “anti-leftist” whose other theoretical contributions include “the Left and Right are fake and gay” and “only libtards care about policy”.

Despite appearances, Cryptofash — his pseudonym mocks the tendency of online leftists to accuse their critics of “cryptofascism” — is not your typical Right-wing internet troll. He’s a Marxist who regards “leftism” as the ideology of bourgeois supremacy, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the classical liberalism that Karl Marx spent his mature years attempting to demolish. “My critique focuses on the Left,” Cryptofash writes in one of his periodic straight tweets, “not because they are worse than the Right, but because they are better than the right at precluding proletarian class consciousness.”

Cryptofash is one of the more visible members of a political tendency known as the “post-Left”, the latest in the endless stream of new and strange ideologies thrown up by social media. Although professing commitment to traditionally Left-wing goals such as anti-capitalism, the post-leftists are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobin, n+1 and Dissent.

Aside from Cryptofash, other leading lights include What’s Left? co-hosts Aimee Terese and Oliver Bateman, editor of The Bellows Edwin Aponte, the Irish writer Angela Nagle and a coterie of pseudonymous Twitter accounts, such as @ghostofchristo1. Red Scare co-hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova might be considered fellow travellers.

The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.

Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.

Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.

At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.

Similar criticisms have been made by Left-wing writers such as Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, but whereas these “class-first” leftists tend to regard “identitarianism” as a liberal deviation from authentic leftism, the post-leftists regard the idea that there still is a radical Left meaningfully distinct from the Democrats as meaningless. And because post-leftists see the Democrats, and by extension the Left, as their primary enemy, they have no problem engaging and even entering into provisional alliances with the populist Right, especially on cultural issues. Hence the right-wing memes.

Of course, the post-leftists operate at varying levels of coherence and theoretical sophistication, and most of them have produced far more in the way of podcasts and tweets than sustained considerations of political theory. (Cynically, one might say they are less of a “tendency” than a Twitter clique centered around Aimee Terese.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss it altogether on those grounds — the Dirtbag Left’s Chapo Trap House podcast, after all, has played an outsized role in the revival of millennial socialism, and it is always difficult to predict which of today’s shitposters will be setting the tone of the culture five years from now.

For one thing, the post-Left channels powerful currents of Marxist and post-Marxist critique that have been downplayed or forgotten during the “Great Awokening” and the recent socialist renaissance: from Amadeo Bordiga’s communist hostility to “anti-fascist” collaboration with the bourgeoisie to Christopher Lasch’s early writings about the medical-therapeutic state as a tool of class domination.

But perhaps the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone, the founder and long-time editor of the critical theory journal Telos and another Marxist who eventually left the Left only to find himself in a strange alliance with the Right.

Piccone began his career as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and proponent of his theory of “one-dimensionality”, which held that capitalism had advanced to such a degree in the West as to effectively abolish all opposition to itself. With the proletariat co-opted by consumerism, radicals, in Marcuse’s view, should instead look for resistance from racial minorities and other outcasts who had yet to be integrated into the system.

But by the late 1970s, Piccone, reacting to the failures of the New Left, had broken with Marcuse. He began to argue that the new social movements that Marcuse had perceived as expressions of anti-system negativity had in fact been forms of what Piccone dubbed “artificial negativity” — pseudo-radical protest movements generated by the system itself.

Piccone agreed with Marcuse that by the mid-20th century, capitalism had triumphed over all internal resistance. But he believed that because the system required such resistance in order to periodically restructure itself and avoid stagnation, it had begun to manufacture its own controlled opposition. He interpreted the initial Civil Rights movement, for instance, as a product of the system’s need to “rationalise” the segregated labour market of the South, after which it seamlessly transitioned to promoting black nationalism in an “attempt to artificially reconstitute an otherness which had long since been effectively destroyed”. The allegedly radical protest movement against the Vietnam War had, similarly, merely allowed an evolving US capitalist class to abandon an imperial quagmire that had become obsolete.

Indeed, Piccone grew so pessimistic about the “artificial” nature of Western leftism that he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out extant pockets of, and resources for cultivating, “organic negativity” — his term for social practices and political formations that genuinely stood outside the logic of the system. Some of these he found on the far-Right, in the regionalism of the Italian Lega Nord, the anti-liberal political theory of Carl Schmitt, the paleoconservatism of Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis, and the right-wing “identitarianism” of Alain de Benoist. Such explorations, or flirtations, were justifiable because, in Piccone’s view, nearly all of what passed for radicalism in the mature societies of the West was pseudo-radicalism that ultimately served capitalist interests.

Although Piccone could be more than a bit conspiratorial, it is not hard to see how his “artificial negativity” thesis could be applied to a great deal of the officially sanctioned cultural radicalism of today, which may help to explain why ideas similar to his are beginning to resurface. One can also point to the experience of leftists during the Trump years who found themselves corralled into an anti-Trump popular front that had them allying with not only centrist Democrats but also Never-Trump Republicans, including many of the architects of the Iraq War.

Bordiga had famously argued against this sort of broad-based “anti-fascism”, which he warned would “breathe life into that great poisonous monster, a great bloc comprising every form of capitalist exploitation, along with all of its beneficiaries”, and this is indeed what happened — socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.

The Trump years also revealed something about the nature of power in the United States that, once seen, is difficult to unsee. For all the warnings that Trump would turn out to be Hitler, he in practice turned out to be more like Berlusconi — a vulgar entertainer with a sordid personal life who in most respects ended up governing like a normal politician.

What happened on the other side of the aisle was more subtle but also, in the long run, more sinister. We saw the national media collaborating with shadowy intelligence agents and researchers to launder a conspiracy theory about Russian collusion and, later, employ the same playbook to block Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. We saw constant media-generated and wealthy NGO-funded campaigns against racism and sexism welded to the electoral priorities of the Democrats. We saw “Critical Race Theory”, a crude ideological rationalisation of the Democrats’ coalitional logic, elevated to the level of quasi-official religion. We saw Twitter suspending The New York Post for publishing embarrassing information about Joe Biden’s son in the run-up to the election and payments processors such as PayPal partnering with progressive NGOs to monitor their customers and report “extremists” to law enforcement.

In short, we saw the consolidation of a near-unified ruling class bloc explicitly aligned with the Democratic Party against the potential disruption of Trump. This development has already created a host of strange new political alliances. If it holds, we should not be surprised if more than a few anti-capitalist radicals begin to reassess who their real enemies are.

(This post first appeared on Unherd, August 21, 2021,