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A new book argues the U.S. South shapes the nation's political and cultural landscape

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The South shapes the nation's political and cultural landscape for good and bad, according to a new book from journalists Cynthia Tucker and Frye Gaillard. It's called "The Southernization Of America: A Story Of Democracy In The Balance." Cynthia Tucker is a syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner as former editorial page editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Welcome.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Historian Frye Gaillard is author-in-residence at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, and he is also with us. Welcome.

FRYE GAILLARD: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: So let's start with the concept for this book. You took your inspiration from a book another Southern journalist wrote back in the 1970s in the period just after the civil rights movement. Tell us about that.

GAILLARD: Yeah, John Egerton was a great Southern journalist and historian, and he wrote a book in 1974 called "The Americanization Of Dixie: The Southernization Of America." And the thesis was that as the isolation of the South began to diminish because of television, because of interstate highways - and John's thesis was that the South and the nation were influencing each other in - sometimes not in very good ways. I remember thinking when the book came out that he was too pessimistic, that - he said the South and the nation were mostly exchanging sins. And I thought, well, what about the civil rights movement? What about the South of Martin Luther King? What about the South of John Lewis? What about the South of Jimmy Carter? But as time has gone on, it seems to me that John was more prescient than I realized at the time.

ELLIOTT: So, Cynthia, when you started to think about what Egerton had proposed 50 years ago, and you looked back at that with the lens of today, did you think he was right as well?

TUCKER: Egerton was pessimistic, but he also said that it was possible that the South would lead the nation in the right direction. There are these parallel impulses, parallel strains that you see in the South, one of which is malevolent. We know that one all too well - the South of the post-Reconstruction period and violence. But there is also the more noble impulse, which we see, as Frye just said, in John Lewis and Jimmy Carter and other white Southerners over time.

ELLIOTT: You're both Alabama natives. Cynthia Tucker, you're an African American woman. Frye Gaillard, you're a white man. Could each of you share a little bit about where you come from and how that's reflected in this collection of essays? And I'll start with you, Cynthia.

TUCKER: Frye and I grew up on opposite sides of the color line. I am old enough that I remember Jim Crow. Most of my pre-college education was spent in segregated schools. I remember white and colored water fountains, as ridiculous as that is. However, I think that we both loved the South, and I know that we both hope that the South will overcome its malevolent and violent past of discrimination.

GAILLARD: I grew up in a very traditional, white, Southern family and shared, without really thinking it through as a kid, most of the assumptions that the segregated order was just fine. And for me, that began to change by happenstance when I was on a high school field trip to Birmingham and I witnessed the arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King. And it happened right in front of me. And I found myself looking into the eyes of Martin Luther King, and there was this sadness in his eyes. And it just hit me that something's bad wrong here. And so that set off a kind of troubled wrestling with the issue that continued through college until, finally, I wound up firmly on the side of the civil rights movement and those kind of changes.

ELLIOTT: Frye, it seems to me that this book is really sort of digging into the major political and social upheaval that our country has experienced in the past decade or so. But it really, like, looks at that with this lens that goes through the South. Why is that the right frame for this conversation?

GAILLARD: I mean, there are other ways to look at it, too, but the South has always played a very significant role in the history of the country. I mean, our first presidents were from the South. And Thomas Jefferson, on the one hand, gave us the sort of noble North Star, those words about all men being created equal, that makes America the greatest idea for a country. And yet, he also owned slaves. So that kind of contradiction, the South has always exported to the rest of the country. And we think it continues to do so.

ELLIOTT: There are new states passing laws that restrict the teaching of racial bias in classrooms and this whole debate over critical race theory. Why do you think there is so much pushback to fully interrogating the country's flaws?

TUCKER: I think it is partly the fact that every people has a heritage based on mythology, and those myths are usually about what a noble people they are. So I think partly for many whites in America, disassociating from those myths is frightening. What do you mean to tell me that my ancestors held slaves, that my ancestors were racist? The reason it is important to confront our history as it really was is that it helps us moving forward.

ELLIOTT: Despite the book's focus on what you both see as the nation's political decline and a growing threat to democracy, you both also appear to hold on to the promise that there's a path to redemption. Cynthia, where do you see that hope?

TUCKER: Well, I see that hope in Americans who understand that democracy is, in fact, in the balance here. I know that it is up to everyday Americans to decide which way we are going to go in this country. It would be easy for people to follow the political leaders who are demagoguing on fear and resentment. That is the easy path. But it is also quite possible for everyday Americans to turn away from that and to say, no, I understand that America can continue to be a great, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, and that's the way we want to go. So I hold out hope that that is the path Americans will choose going forward, to do as the late, great John Lewis said, and get in good trouble.

ELLIOTT: Cynthia Tucker and Frye Gaillard - their new book is "The Southernization Of America: A Story Of Democracy In The Balance." Thanks to you both.

TUCKER: Thank you, Debbie.

GAILLARD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.