US South in transition: What should it take into its future?

Yes, there is still an identifiable entity that can be called ''the South'' in terms other than just geographic, says Prof. Dan Carter, a specialist in the history of the US South at Emory University.

But the rapid ''transformation'' occurring in this region - bringing it more into the economic and political mainstream - is shaking that identity to its core, he says. Some Southerners fear they'll lose their distinctive identity.

Loss of some of the traditional Southern characteristics is for the good, says Professor Carter, who was born and raised in this part of the country. But other, traditional, Southern values such as an emphasis on family, the importance of leisure, and, to some degree, a less materialistic approach to life, should be saved: They can help shape the future of the South in positive ways, he says.

Born and raised in the South, married and the father of two children, Carter worked for two years as a reporter in his home state of South Carolina. He was educated in the South, except for a master's degree that he earned at the University of Wisconsin.

Most of all, the South could take better advantage of some of the lessons of its history in making a better future, he says. Often, opportunities are being missed, he says.

Behind him, in a corner of his comfortable two-story house on a quiet residential street here, is a tall secretary with a pull-out desk and roll top. The pendulum of a large wall clock quietly marks the seconds.

It is the hot season in Atlanta. The dogwood and magnolia trees have long since shed their blooms, and flowers begin to wilt and wither if their thirst is not quenched. Big, white-columned homes in this city are closed up tight, as air conditioners run nonstop.

In a 90-minute interview, Carter made these main observations about today's South:

* There's still too much emphasis on individualism, a trait that lingers from the past, and a frequent disregard for community values and aesthetics.

* Economically, the preoccupation is often to simply reproduce ''the worst aspects of modern urban industrial capitalism.''

* The South is making a serious mistake by not ensuring a good education for its poor so that they need not be poor the rest of their lives. Poverty and race are becoming increasingly synonymous. Both blacks and whites are the losers.

* Politically, with some exceptions, the South has had its so-called ''new breed'' of governors for at least 60 to 70 years. The South has ''probably gotten better political leadership than we deserve, considering the wretched state of Southern politics - the one-party system, the disenfranchisement of blacks. . . .''

Northerners have often romanticized the South, Carter says. ''I mean, after all, 'Gone With the Wind' was enormously popular not only in the South but in the rest of the country as well, and still is.''


Carter speculates that, in addition to being a ''good soap opera,'' the story presents ''the notion of a society at peace with itself . . . in contrast to American society, which is constantly built upon conflict, upon striving . . . getting ahead.'' Of course, that view has to ignore that the basis of the society pictured was slavery, he points out.

Except for slavery, the story ''looks nice, real nice.'' But, he says, ''it's an imaginary thing: It's like we wish it were. It's like we wish the rest of the country were, at times . . . a kind of escape from the way that we are.''

However, there do remain ''vestiges of Southern distinctiveness'' from the genuine past - some good, some bad - he says.

What gave the South and Southerners their distinctiveness in the first place? A number of things, according to Carter: a heritage of poverty, of being mostly rural; a strong, conservative emphasis on both individualism and the family as well as on church (the region was and is overwhelmingly Protestant, much of it evangelical); a defensiveness about their way of life; a strong, regional history. These characterisitics have existed in other regions, but seldom together to the same degree as in the South, he suggests.

Today, Southerners, both black and white, still have ''an attachment to place , a sense of having come from somewhere, strong family ties, continuing verbal commitment to religious values and to church membership,'' says Carter. But he stresses, sometimes with obvious frustration, the opportunity the South has to learn from its past in shaping a better future.

He made these further observations on:

Blacks: The South, like the rest of the United States, practices a kind of ''collective amnesia'' on race issues and hopes the problems will ''go away.'' In fact, they are getting worse in some respects, he notes.

''What you've got now is the beginning of the development of class racial differences . . . an underclass that is heavily black. . . .'' While legal segregation has ended, ''because blacks are disproportionately represented among the poor, that means that just in economic terms we've succeeded in segregating blacks pretty much.'' What is seen as an antiblack attitude on the part of some whites is often a desire on their part to be separate from the poor, he says. And some of the ''traditional steppingstones out of poverty are disappearing'' as demand for skilled labor increases more rapidly than for unskilled labor.

Civil rights campaigns by blacks in the South date not back to the late '50s and early '60s but to voter-registration efforts in the 1930s.

Education: While education alone can't close this gap between the poor and the rest of society, much greater efforts are needed to ensure that the poor, as well as others, get a good education in order to reduce their problems in the future.

Economic growth: ''In some ways, Southerners are the most gung-ho Americans right now (about growth). We don't live in a cotton patch anymore, we live in a very complex, urban, industrial kind of society. And yet we still have many of the same kinds of values (from the past): . . . a lack of concern about the community, and this emphasis upon individualism. I'm a great believer in individualism, but I think it has to be tempered. . . . We have to be conscious of the community values as well.''

Politics: While economically the South is becoming more like the rest of the nation, catching up with it, the rest of the nation is becoming more like the South, politically. ''American politics in general have become more conservative and, in a sense, have moved toward Southern politics. . . .''

And, he adds, 'There's nothing more ironic, I think, than to hear Sunbelt politicians gripe and complain about the federal government . . . how we are all going to cut back on the federal government, and, of course, no group in the United States was more desperate to get federal government (help) than Southerners were in the 1930s.''

''The South is still quite different from the rest of the country,'' Carter says. Though it's rapidly becoming more like the rest of the nation, ''it hasn't been that long'' since the South was mostly rural. And still many families either lived or had immediate families that lived in a rural setting in the South, he says.

''Traditions die very hard,'' said Carter at the close of the interview.

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