Analysis: The Rise and Fall of Progressive Regionalism in the South
The “Golden Era of Southern Governors” led to multi-state institutions that helped Southerners advance education, economic development, banking, and technology, says the former head of two regional agencies. The dismantling of many of those multi-state groups has left the South with a long list of unfinished business.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author served as the head of two organizations described in this article. Jesse L. White Jr. was Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board from 1982-1990 and was Federal Co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission from 1994-2002.
Perhaps it comes from losing a war together, but the South has had periods of great regional solidarity in the contemporary era. There is a sense in which folks in Mississippi care about their brethren in Georgia, South Carolina, and other Southern states in a way that it is difficult to imagine people in Indiana caring about their counterparts in Illinois. This sense of regional identity is the fuel for collective action that can promote reactionary causes (opposition to civil rights, for example) or progressive efforts (for example, education reform).
This is the story of the rise and fall of progressive regionalism in the South from the 1970s to the present. As always, it was determined by the make up and outlook of the political leadership in the states. The ascendance of positive regional action was led by a remarkable group of Southern governors in the 1980s and 1990s in what I call the “Golden Era of Southern Governors.” The ideological fracturing of the governors and the growing political polarization of both the region and the nation in turn caused the demise of those efforts from the 1990s to the present.
Progressive Regionalism’s Beginnings
Regionalism has a long history in the 20th century South. Much of the intellectual ferment emanated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the 1920s. (The other approach to regional problems was The Agrarians at Vanderbilt University.) It was led by the pioneering sociologist Howard Odom and his colleagues, especially Rupert Vance. They published works that dealt with uniquely Southern problems. One of the bedrocks of their work, as George Tindall laid out in his magisterial work, The Emergence of the New South, was to distinguish between sectionalism (mobilization based on conflict) and regionalism (a positive program to help the South integrate into the national fabric). Of course, Southerners inherited both traditions.
The modern era of Southern regionalism can be dated back to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Based on the 1916 creation of Muscle Shoals, FDR proposed in 1933 a bold regional project called the Tennessee Valley Authority. In addition to producing affordable energy, it conceived of regional planning in a vast multi-state watershed. TVA brought together leaders not only from Tennessee but also from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky. This regionalism was the type envisioned by Odom and colleagues.
The year 1934 was pivotal in the Southern regional movement. The Southern Governors Association was founded under the umbrella of the Council of State Governments. In that same year, FDR hosted nine governors at Warm Springs, Georgia, to discuss regional action in opposing discriminatory railroad rates, which many argued kept the South in a “colonial” relationship to the industrial North and Midwest.
In this ferment of regionalism, several other organizations followed: the Southern Regional Education Board in 1948, the Southern States Energy Board in1960, the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965, and the Southern Growth Policies Board in 1971. In all four cases, the governors were engaged and, in fact, served on and in some cases dominated the boards. (The Southern Legislative Council, also formed under the Council of State Governments, was created in 1947 as a part of this regional consciousness to serve state legislators.)
The Role of Governors
The caliber and vision of the governors determined the effectiveness of this regional infrastructure, and there was great variation over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, racial issues dominated politics in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Massive resistance to integration crowded out other public policy agendas like education, economic development, and sound governance. The governors of that time reflected this agenda: Orville Faubus in Arkansas, Claude Kirk in Florida, Lester Maddox in Georgia, Ross Barnett in Mississippi, Jimmy Davis in Louisiana, and Strom Thurmond in South Carolina. To be fair, there were exceptions to the segregation mania: Frank Clement and Buford Ellington in Tennessee, Leroy Collins in Florida, Linwood Holton in Virginia, and Terry Sanford in North Carolina.
The 1970s saw the beginning of change. While some of the racist governors remained, like John Bell Williams and Paul Johnson in Mississippi and George Wallace in Alabama, a new brand of governors began to emerge. These governors included Reubin Askew in Florida, Jimmy Carter in Georgia, James Holshouser and Jim Hunt in North Carolina, John West in South Carolina, and all the Arkansas governors—Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor. These governors paved the way for an even more remarkable group in the 1980s, as good a crop of governors as could be found anywhere in the nation.
There was William Winter and Ray Mabus in Mississippi, Jim Hunt and Jim Martin in North Carolina, Dick Riley in South Carolina, Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles in Virginia, Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Bob Graham in Florida, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris in Georgia, and Martha Layne Collins in Kentucky. Even the ribald Edwin Edwards focused on progressive reform in Louisiana and seldom if ever played the race card.
These governors had been shaped by World War II. William Winter, for example, experienced a multi-racial world hardly imaginable in the bucolic, white-dominated Grenada County in which he was raised. These politicians knew that the South must move beyond the obsession of race to advance. Before World War II the per capita income of the region was only half that of the nation as a whole, and they knew that education reform and economic development would be key to moving the South beyond that region which was, in the words of FDR, “ill fed, ill clothed, and ill housed.”
These governors were for the most part FDR Democrats with a few notable exceptions: Linwood Holton in Virginia, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, and Winthrop Rockefeller in Arkansas. They were Republicans but generally progressive. Holton was a hero to the civil rights community. He personally walked his children to the newly integrated schools in Richmond during a time of racial animus and threats of violence. Alexander was, likewise, a governor focused intently on education reform.
Examples of Regional Action
These governors were committed to regionalism. Whereas the massive resistance effort could be seen as “sectionalism,” they embraced “regionalism” as a positive way to help the South integrate into the U.S. economy and become nationally competitive. Examples of regional action include the following.
The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) created The Academic Common Market, a program by which a student could attend a college or university in another SREB state for in-state tuition if his or her state of residency did not offer that particular degree program.
The Southern Governors’ Association (SGA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., organized the region to fight for federal grant-in-aid policies and formulas that benefitted the South. It also laid the groundwork for regional organizations like the Southern Regional Emergency Management Assistance Compact. This compact facilitated states in helping each other through natural disasters and other emergencies.
The Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) managed the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, a national project designed to find locations for storing CO2. A national program that was divided into regions, the SSEB managed the compact for the South.
The Southern governors took the lead in literally saving the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) from abolition during the Reagan administration. The President submitted a zero budget for the ARC every year. However, since the governors served on the Commission, and one was Co-Chairman every year, the governors presented their own budget to Congress that would fund the ARC. Although unprecedented, the strategy worked; and even though the budget was drastically cut, the Commission did survive until it could again thrive under a more supportive administration.
The Southern Growth Policies Board (SGPB) developed the broadest and deepest agenda for action in the 80s and 90s. The Board oriented its work around the concept of “economic development” which emphasized long-term capacity building rather than short-term growth. The Board developed portfolios in human resource development, globalization, emerging federal issues, local governance, technology deployment, and growth and environmental management. The ultimate aim was capacity building in all of these areas considered essential for the development of the region.
One of the notable examples of collective action was interstate banking. In 1982 under the chairmanship of Governor Bob Graham of Florida, the board created the Southern Regional Banking Committee, which called for reciprocal banking agreements among Southern states so that they could consolidate and strengthen. The first states to pass enabling legislation were Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. When national banking inevitably occurred, the South had survivors and in fact became a banking capital of the nation.
Every six years the board convened a Commission on the Future of the South to chart the course for the next six years. The 1986 commission was appointed by Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Former Mississippi Governor William Winter chaired the commission of distinguished Southerners that included former governors, U.S. Senators, educators, and professional economic development professionals. Their report, Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go, is considered one of the most influential documents ever produced in the post-war South. It set forth 10 regional objectives, drawing a connection to economic development from human resource development, education and training, strengthening at risk families, technology, small business development, leadership training, and good governance.
In an extraordinary act of leadership, Governor Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky, who followed Bill Clinton as chairman, devoted her chairmanship to implementation efforts of Halfway Home instead of creating her own set of themes and priorities. She addressed the North Carolina General Assembly on the report. In Mississippi, Governor Winter and Jesse White addressed the state Legislature, as well.
One area highlighted by the report was the crucial role of technology. Out of that report sprang a subsidiary organization called the Southern Technology Council, created and headed by Southern Growth’s research director, Dr. Stuart Rosenfeld. The council did pioneering work with community colleges and other institutions of higher education.
The spirit of regional thinking and acting could be seen in the Appalachian Regional Commission. (ARC). Almost eliminated in the 1980s, it was rejuvenated in the 1990s by the Clinton administration. Led by a federal co-chairman, appointed by the president, the administration engaged the governors in helping create a new strategic vision and in launching regional initiatives in export trade, leadership development, and entrepreneurship. The agency was reauthorized by Congress for the first time in several decades and received record levels of funding. In addition, it helped create a new, sister organization serving the Mississippi River Delta counties. The Delta Regional Authority was built along the same model as the ARC, in both of which gubernatorial involvement was critical.
The Retreat of Progressive Liberalism
This progressive landscape began to change in the 1990s. Although most of the governors were “new South” progressives, more conservative Republicans began to be elected, partly a result of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and Reagan’s appeal to white voters in the region. One thinks of Bob Riley in Alabama, Kirk Fordice in Mississippi, and David Beasley in South Carolina. They served alongside progressives like Lawton Chiles in Florida, Roy Barnes in Georgia, the four-term Jim Hunt in North Carolina, Ned McWherter in Tennessee, Doug Wilder in Virginia, and Ann Richards in Texas.
The first decade of the 2000s saw more fracturing of the progressive consensus. Jeb Bush was elected in Florida, Sonny Purdue in Georgia, Mike Foster in Louisiana, Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Mark Sanford in South Carolina, Bob McDonald in Virginia, and Rick Perry in Texas. These men were all Republicans who, more or less, embraced the ideological agenda of a deeply conservative GOP. In some ways the region regressed to “sectionalism,” organized around resisting federal policies in health care, abortion, gay rights and other culture fights.
It became increasingly difficult to build consensus around regional issues. Cooperating with governors of the other party was not a priority. The ideological split was too great. Gubernatorial participation on the boards and at the annual meetings deteriorated. Although the staffs of the organizations continued to produce some excellent work, there was little ownership of the work by the governors and legislators themselves. Producing a Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go (the 1986 report of the Commission on the Future of the South) became unthinkable.
This fragmentation, along with the recession, took a toll. The Southern Growth Policies Board was abolished in 2013, while its host governor, Pat McCrory, was chairman. Many of its long-time supporters from throughout the South were caught by surprise. They were stunned that an organization that was founded by N.C. Governor Terry Sanford in 1971 and that grew into one of the most respected think tanks in the country could be so quickly dismantled. Two of the governors who had chaired the board went on to become president of the United States: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Other governors who had been active on the board became cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and the Secretary of the Navy. Such was the quality of governors during the “Golden Era.”
The Southern Governors Association soon followed and was abolished in 2016. The Tennessee Valley Authority abandoned its once robust work in planning and economic development and, for the most part, became a power company. The ARC survived because of powerful senators and congressmen from the region. Even so, Trump zeroed it out in his budget recommendations. It remains under assault. The once robust regional infrastructure created in the 1930s-1970s was largely dismantled.
Economists and other social scientists have agreed for decades that in the American system of government, regionalism is important. There are state, local, and federal dimensions to national issues, but there are regional inputs as well. Interstate organizations like those of the South in its “golden era” were vehicles for examining these regional dynamics and educating policy makers about them. In some cases, they also served as vehicles for regional action.
It is a shame that this regional infrastructure and energy are largely dissipated. Much remains to be done in the South. Perhaps another golden era of political leadership will emerge. Southerners can both hope and work to make that goal a reality.
Jesse L. White Jr. is a Professor of the Practice in City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly he headed the university’s Office of Economic and Business Development, served for nine years as Federal Co-Chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and for eight years as Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Southern Governors Association was abolished in 2006. The association was abolished in 2016.