The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JULY 17, 1938


The No. One Problem:

Roosevelt Looks to Odum

--Economic Primer, by W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: Shortly after getting the suggestion from the Knopfs to write a book-length version of his thesis propounded in "The Mind of the South" Mercury piece of October, 1929, Cash, in November, wrote to noted sociologist Howard Odum, a professor at Chapel Hill, and outlined what he wished to say about the South--essentially that he saw it as a complete system unto itself, virtually distinct from the rest of the country, and flowing in one continuous pattern from its past out of the Old South to the present, with no fundamental temporal or social break in between the two, as others argue to this day was brought about by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Odum would continue to be a valuable resource of feedback and occasional criticism as the manuscript progressed during the Thirties. In the fall of 1938, a few months after Cash wrote this piece for the News, the Knopfs sent the manuscript thus far completed, about sixty percent of the eventual work, to Odum; after reviewing it, he stated in a letter to Cash via the Knopfs that "the body of the text not only approximates a brilliant interpretation, but reads like a story". It was Odum who suggested that Cash replace his somewhat prosaic original introduction titled "To Begin With--" with the more proemial and personal "Preview to Understanding". (W.J.Cash: A Life, by Bruce Clayton, L.S.U.Press, 1991, pp. 92-93, 150-151)

At the time, Cash thought he had only a chapter and a half to wrap the manuscript for publication--something he hoped to have done by January, especially as he was receiving three weeks vacation in the summer of 1938 rather than the standard one. Instead, it would continue for 300 more pages and two more years until July, 1940.

(See more on Cash's unfavorable opinion of syndicated columnist Hugh S. "Old Ironpants"Johnson and his isolationist, traditionalist Southern views in "Hell-Bent for War" - April 16, 1941, one of the last book-page contributions offered by Cash before departing for Mexico on May 27.)


I HAVE seen a good many editorials and pronouncements by Southerners which exhibit a sizeable amount of peeve at the President's deliverance in regard to the South as the No. 1 Economic Problem of the Nation. General Old Iron-Pants Johnson sneered down his nose at it and plainly inferred that it was only some more of the dirty Red nonsense of Tommy the Cork and his pal, Ben, and that it hadn't any truth in it. And down in the tall grass a lordly statesman raised his noble head and brought up the ancient chestnut which has it that all the South needs is to be let strictly alone.

This sort of thing has been the curse of the South ever since Reconstruction. The attitude itself is understandable enough, certainly. That ordeal made men--and women--hotly patriotic and hotly sensitive, and at the same time made them suspicious of all change, as likely to bring the racial contest back. But it is essentially puerile and unintelligent, and has never been more so that in this case.

The President invented no part of what he had to say. Most of it came straight out of a book called "Southern Regions," written by native Georgian Howard Odum, now on the faculty at the University North Carolina. And all of it is backed by vast masses of data carefully collected and analyzed over many years by Dr. Odum and a large body of assistants.


The South is the Number One Economic Problem of the nation. In natural resources it is the richest area in the western world, but it is also the area of the United States where natural resources are most inefficiently exploited and turned to human use. That isn't because the people are inherently vicious or inferior, or anything of the sort.

Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of a vast complex of historical forces. One of those is slavery and what has come down to us from slavery--a social system in which economic ends are continually secured by considerations of racial feeling--a surplus of labor cheaper than that to be had anywhere else in America--the competition of the Negro with the white man, and the consequent beating down of the living standard of the latter--and the army of cheap Negro labor living in slums, dealt out a most inadequate justice in our courts, and left to wallow in poverty, crime, and disease, with inevitable results on the social status, the crime-rate and health of the white race--and so on and so on.


Another is the fact that the South's economy rests primarily on the growing of cotton. Indeed, that is probably the great central fact of all. Slavery itself came about through cotton. Or rather, the South hung on to that anachronistic institution and developed it on a large scale, not because of any moral obtuseness but because it was well-suited to the cotton plantation. Any other people, placed in the same circumstances, would have done precisely what the Southerners did.

Well, but to get on. Cotton is a commodity the price of which is fixed in a world market. Its price, indeed, is fixed mainly by European economies, and everyone of these economies is pitched to a lower scale of living than that which has prevailed in the Northern part of the United States. And the result has been that the South's scale of living has tended to be like those of lands which fixed the price of its staple rather than its northern neighbor. In some sense, in truth, it is really just an extension of the European economy into America.


The Yankee has stupidly complicated that problem, too. For the benefit of his manufacturers, he has for more than a hundred years imposed high tarriffs on imports. And that meant higher prices for everybody, including the South. Selling its goods on the basis of prices fixed by European economy, it has had to buy what it needed from Yankeedom at prices kept abnormally and unjustifiably high. The result has been that its wealth has been flowing steadily into Northern coffers throughout its history. In effect, it has been giving away to the Yankee a great part of its rich resources. And it is some inadequate perception of that which has undoubtedly lain at the root of the hatred of "Wall Street" preached by many demagogues and agrarian leaders.

More--whenever the South has sought to do anything to get out of the vicious circle, it has invariably started promptly to upsetting the economy of Yankeedom. The development of the cotton mill as the basis of cheap labor in Dixie has half-ruined New England. And it has done it without making the South very much richer. At this very moment the states in the deeper South, and to some extent the Carolinas, are threatening to ruin Philadelphia, by drawing off its factories with the bait of cheap labor. But that won't, I think, really help the South. All it means, when you analyze it a little closely, is that while it is ruining Philadelphia as a town, it is handing over to Yankee capitalists a bigger and bigger share of its resources without getting anything in return.


It isn't a pleasant picture, and a really adequate solution--the bringing of the South up to the general economic level of the country at large without upsetting and ruining other sections--the getting of ourselves into position really to use our resources--is one most devilishly hard to come at. But it isn't going to help to close our eyes tight, stick out our tongues at Yankeedom, yell "back at you," and swear that the obvious isn't so.

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