H-Net Review: Frederick on Tullos, 'Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie'
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Subject: H-Net Review Publication: Frederick on Tullos, 'Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie'
Allen Tullos. Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart
of Dixie. Athens University of Georgia Press, 2011. xii + 364 pp.
$69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-3048-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed by Jeff Frederick (University of North Carolina at Pembroke)
Published on H-South (November, 2012)
Commissioned by Matthew L. Downs
Add Allen Tullos's _Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the
Heart of Dixie_ to the growing list of works documenting the
deplorable yet enduring culture of power that shaped Alabama history.
No state has been more important to the unfolding of southern history
and yet no state carries the burden of its history so onerously. Less
personal than Hardy Jackson's _Inside Alabama: A Personal History of
My State__ _(2004), and less missional than Wayne Flynt's memoir,
_Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives__ _(2011_)_,
Tullos's work, largely about the last forty years or so of state
history, situates Alabama into a context where change occurs
infrequently if at all, and, when it does come, accomplishes little
in the way of shattering hardened beliefs or altering traditional
corridors of power.
Tullos's political imaginary--others might use the term "political
culture"--is the collections of power, perceptions, and beliefs that
have characterized the state over time. The "Heart of Dixie" is the
author's appellation for Alabama's default reflex of intransigence,
intolerance, distrust of outsiders, and refusal to veer away from
fundamental practices and beliefs about race, class, gender,
religion, and sexuality. Tullos cites common ground between the high
and mighty--former governor Guy Hunt--and the ordinary--a cashier at
a pecan store--who share a common response to those suggesting the
state has serious problems: "Alabama is doing just fine" (pp. 2,
278). In fact, Tullos argues, this is just another variation on a
theme of a state that has collectively answered "Sez you" to
virtually all outsiders and most natives who've had the temerity to
suggest that a second- or third-class education, medieval prisons, a
sorry record of violence, a regressive tax code, and powerful
unchecked interest groups may not be the best way to construct a
Tullos, who has written about folk culture and music across several
different media platforms, marshals a tremendous amount of evidence
in support of his Heart of Dixie theme. Politicians like Hunt,
Governor Fob James, and especially George Wallace played to
deep-seated beliefs about space and place. The net result was
maintaining the status quo, keeping power in the hands of the few,
and generally limiting women and minorities to a handful of
peripheral roles in state government. Judge Roy Moore and James
shared an affinity, probably learned from Wallace, for turning
ordinary Alabamians into victims of religious persecution. Wallace
used the refrain that Alabamians were just as good and just as smart
and just as cultured as the snooty northerners so wont to castigate
them as knuckle-dragging, white-sheet-wearing Neanderthals. Moore and
James used school prayer and the public posting of the Ten
Commandments as a way to argue that Alabama's heritage and way of
life was under attack. In the end, Tullos argues, this manner of
political discourse served mainly to provide a distraction, "an
Alabama getaway from the real problems of education, poverty, and
health care" (p. 140).
If politicians were one component of a political culture where
"change" was a dirty word, interest groups were even more formidable.
The Farm Bureau, utilities like Alabama Power, and other groups like
the Alabama Education Association controlled the flow of
legislation--almost always preferring stop to go--and used their
funds to elect hand-picked candidates and construct sophisticated
media campaigns to prevent changes to the stultifying state
constitution of 1901. At their most powerful, these pressure groups
created faux-reform: state government committees and study groups
seemingly dedicated to ferreting out abuses and formulating
meaningful regulations. Most such fact-finding groups, however, were
stocked with majority representation from the very industries they
were seemingly charged with overseeing.
One outcome of these "oafs of office" and powerful pressure groups
was that much of the governing in state history was actually
accomplished by federal court orders. Tullos identifies many of the
court cases which forced Alabama to modify mental health practices,
prison overcrowding, fair pay, racial gerrymandering, and educational
discrimination and segregation. Though recent governor Bob Riley
"tidied up costly, long-lingering federal lawsuits and consent
decrees," other Alabama governors resisted court order as long as
possible or made political hay out of their Heart of Dixie worldview
(pp. 177-178). "The only way that the Ten Commandments and prayer
will be stripped from Alabama's courts," Fob James once bellowed,
"will be a force of arms. This is just one more demonstration of
hostility toward God by the U.S. government" (p. 139).
The persistence of this political imaginary and the concomitant
"habits of judgement" it championed are all the more curious given
Alabama's authentic history as ground zero in the civil rights drama.
For as much heartache as violence, discrimination, disfranchisement,
and segregation wrought, the freedom movement seemingly won. The
state legislature now features a demography in approximate racial
symmetry with the population at large. De jure segregation is less
pronounced than at any time in state history and the Confederate flag
seems unlikely to ever fly over the capitol again. Civil rights
tourism is on the rise and the annual Selma-to-Montgomery March
commemoration has become institutionalized as an element of
progressive Americana. Half a decade ago, Alabama even elected
Patricia Todd, the first legislator in state history to lead an
openly gay life.
Yet for all this positive momentum, Tullos understands that Alabama
remains a place where the state government can be counted on to
manifest a collective indifference to real responsibility. Poverty
and dropout rates haven't changed much in a half-century, and, no
matter how many foreign car companies are enticed to relocate to
Alabama, the state's best and brightest still find greener pastures
elsewhere. "How far has Alabama come?" Tullos ponders. "Not so far,
Mobile's Satchel Paige might say, that it can look back and not find
the past gaining on it" (p. 272).
The strength of _Alabama Getaway_ is not the new ground that it
breaks, for much of the story and the conclusions the author draws
are familiar to specialists. Rather, Tullos excels at compiling
evidence from sources some historians might overlook and packaging
them for intellectual consumption. He weaves, for example, lyrics and
interview material from contemporary southern rockers The Drive-By
Truckers and interjects material about the racial composition of the
University of Alabama's powerful Greek system into his narrative.
Tullos is a skillful writer, deserving of the best compliments a
reader can offer: passages of the book merit re-reading because of
both stylistic grace and thoughtfulness of conclusion.
Yet other passages are burdened by unnecessary snark and interpretive
asides. The author persists in derisively referring to former
Governor James as Thumper and notes almost bumptiously that
Condoleeza Rice "trod the ideologue's path in countless pairs of
expensive new shoes" (p. 227). In fact, the entire section on Rice
seems only tangentially connected to Tullos's larger premise. His
characterization of NASCAR fans at Talladega, while vivid, seems
unnecessarily derivative. In one paragraph, Tullos makes sweeping
judgments about political figures that seem better fodder for the
local tavern than this book. Former Mississippi governor Haley
Barbour is "shrewdly sinister," Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is
"self-aggrandizing," and Jeb Bush is a "right-wing Christian
grandstander" (p. 178). One factual error notes, "In 1990, nearly two
years after Wallace's death" when in fact the governor did not pass
until 1998 (p. 120). Even so, this is a book that should be read by
any Alabamian willing to think beyond "Sez you," and willing to
consider the promise of an Alabama capable of breaking with its past.
. To be completely accurate, Tullos quotes the cashier as saying,
"Alabama is doing all right," and Governor Hunt as saying, "Alabama
is doing just fine." Having lived in Alabama and interviewed plenty
of Alabamians, I understood the sentiments to be congruent.
. Jeff Frederick, _Stand Up for Alabama: Governor George Wallace
_(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
. In the interests of disclosure, it should be noted that I served
as a consultant and expert witness for the plaintiffs in the _Lynch v
Alabama _property tax discrimination suit.
Citation: Jeff Frederick. Review of Tullos, Allen, _Alabama Getaway:
The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie_. H-South, H-Net
Reviews. November, 2012.
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