By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Weekly Commentary | Chicago Sun-Times
With the Republican takeover of the Virginia State Senate, Republicans now control the state legislatures in all 11 former confederate states. Now the reconstruction of the New South that was launched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson is under assault.
King’s movement and Johnson’s presidential power transformed the South after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The Voting Rights Act gave blacks the right to vote. Civil rights legislation opened up public facilities and launched an era of affirmative actions to overcome segregation. The War on Poverty extended Medicare, food stamps, housing aid, jobs programs and more to the impoverished.
The transformation generated its own reaction. Johnson predicted that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. Under Nixon, the Republican Party adopted a southern strategy, making itself the party of white sanctuary, displacing conservative Democrats. Slowly, Republicans began picking up seats and consolidating their position, even as the country grew more diverse. Barack Obama’s election shocked many white southerners, accelerating the process.
Now Republican governors and legislatures across the South are chipping away at the progress that has been made. Emboldened when the Supreme Court overturned key parts of the Voting Rights Act, they are passing legislation that makes voting harder for working and poor people, disproportionately minorities.
And when the Supreme Court affirmed state rights over the expansion of Medicaid in health care reform, Republican governors and legislatures across the South blocked the expansion, depriving millions of poor working families of decent health protection. Where governors once sought to stand in the schoolhouse door, now they stand at the hospital door.
These states are not opposed to federal money. Of the top 10 states with budgets containing the highest percentage of revenue from the federal government, five are in the South — Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina.
South Carolina, for example, suffers the third-highest poverty rate in the U.S., with nearly 20 percent of all residents and more than one-fourth of all children in poverty. Yet, Gov. Nikki Haley has turned her back on $11 billion in federal resources for Medicaid expansion and hundreds of millions for education. The state lobbies for more money for military bases, ports and highways, but turns its back on the poor.
Will the progress of the last decades be turned back? Will the Old South block the growth of a New South? The political threat is clear. Republicans consolidate their position as a party of white sanctuary and dominate elections across the South. National Democrats decide it is not worth investing in those states, with the exception possibly of outliers, like Texas and Florida. The Deep South descends once more into a region of racial reaction.
One problem with this is that a reactionary South can have an inordinate influence in our national politics. We’ve seen how a Republican minority in the Senate, constructed significantly of senators from the southern states, can obstruct sensible reforms, from raising the minimum wage to paycheck fairness to allowing refinancing of student loans at a lower rate. This Republican Party could block steps to strengthen civil rights laws, enforce labor laws, or provide a helping hand to the poor.
If the New South is to be revived, the battle must be fought at the state and local level. As Dr. King taught us, only the victims of oppression can stop their own victimization. A new movement of poor working people — joining across lines of race or gender — must rise to challenge the new reaction. When that movement builds, people of conscience across the country will respond.
In North Carolina’s Moral Monday demonstrations, we may be seeing the beginnings of that movement. It is spreading to Georgia and South Carolina. Once more, the battle for the future of the South is joined. We all have a stake in its outcome.