John Hayes: “Those People”

John Hayes, Hard, Hard ReligionToday we welcome a guest post from John Hayes, author of Hard, Hard Religion:  Interracial Faith in the Poor South, on the history of class and race in the American South.

In Hard, Hard Religion, his captivating study of faith and class, John Hayes examines the ways folk religion in the early twentieth century allowed the South’s poor–both white and black–to listen, borrow, and learn from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in a world of severe struggle. Beneath the well-documented religious forms of the New South, people caught in the region’s poverty crafted a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the margins of capitalist development, giving voice to modern phenomena like alienation and disenchantment. Through haunting songs of death, mystical tales of conversion, grassroots sacramental displays, and an ethic of neighborliness, impoverished folk Christians looked for the sacred in their midst and affirmed the value of this life in this world.

Hard, Hard Religion is now available in print and e-book editions.

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“Those People”

The classic 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird conveyed a clear message about white supremacy in the South: it was distinctly class-based, sustained and zealously supported by a certain class of whites. The viewer meets this class in the characters of Bob and Mayella Ewell. They wear clothes suited for manual labor, talk in a drawl, get drunk on moonshine, and live a rough cabin in the countryside. They are poor whites, and they present a sharp contrast to the film’s hero Atticus Finch. Finch wears seersucker suits, talks with eloquence and precision, displays the manners of respectability, and lives in a spacious house on one of the town’s prime residential streets. He is middle class, and he stands up for equal justice in the face of the deep racism around him. Despite his heroic stand, though, Finch is unable to secure justice for the falsely-accused Tom Robinson; in the climactic courtroom scene, the Ewells’ deceptive testimony pushes all the emotional buttons of white supremacy and sways the jury into a guilty verdict for Robinson.

Other cultural productions of the time—Eudora Welty’s 1963 essay “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, for example—set forth this class-based account, but my hunch is that To Kill a Mockingbird, both the film and the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1960 novel on which it was based, endures as its most popular expression. It endures, I think, not primarily because it is well crafted (though both the novel and film certainly are), but rather because the message it delivers is consoling: racism is primarily attributable to “those people,” uncouth people on the social margins.

My research for Hard, Hard Religion took me to a number of unexpected places, and what I encountered in the source materials pushed me to fundamentally rethink some of my initial assumptions. Early on, the salience of class in the early 20th century South surprised me. I certainly wasn’t looking for it, but it kept asserting itself in a variety of directions. Later on, immersion in an array of cultural material and attempts to make sense of it all led me slowly to what became the core thesis of the book: that poor blacks and poor whites exchanged religious culture with each other, learning from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in the confined world of New South poverty. Or, put differently, in excavating a hidden folk Christianity, I found a world of interracial exchange among the poor.

Poor blacks and poor whites exchanged religious culture with each other, learning from each other about what it meant to live as Christians in the confined world of New South poverty. Or, put differently, in excavating a hidden folk Christianity, I found a world of interracial exchange among the poor.

This insight I arrived at has led me to think differently about class and race in the South, to ask questions of the historiography and emphasize what have been subdued themes. When I read of “whites” in the maintenance of white supremacy, I want to know which class of whites, and how their participation was related to their class position. I’ve ruminated on how W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Fred Hampton looked for interracial bridges and alliances not among the educated elite or upright middle class, but rather among the poor. I want to see solid evidence to test the long-established cliché that poor whites zealously supported white supremacy because it told them that they were better than somebody else. And I’ve gone back to a common-sense explanation: that it stands to reason that the principal beneficiaries of any society are also those with the most invested in its maintenance—that, for example, whites who prospered in the Jim Crow South were Jim Crow’s most committed supporters.

Attention to class is indeed important for making sense of the power of white supremacy. But it won’t do to shift the burden to the poor or working class, whether in the early 20th century South, in the Civil Rights era, or in the contemporary United States. Such shifting may be consoling for those engaged in it, but it is a distorting exercise in displacement. It imagines racism as extrinsic and peripheral, the work of “those people” on the margins. Such an account blinds us from seeing that white supremacy is intrinsic and central, deeply interwoven in the fabric of American society. It is not a problem of “them,” but rather of “us” and “we.”

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John Hayes is associate professor of history at Augusta University.