Wednesday’s Book Review: “Looking South”

lookingLooking South: Race, Gender, and the Transformation of Labor from Reconstruction to Globalization. By Mary E. Frederickson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.

Historian Mary E. Frederickson presents in Looking South not so much a coherent analysis of labor, race, and gender in southern history as a collection of loosely organized essays on the general theme of this book. Of course, there has long been a tension between labor and business leaders throughout the American South, and many times it has been turbulent and sometimes there have been outbreaks of violence. Often, this resulted from efforts to unionize and as often as not came from authoritarian efforts to break strikes. She insists that the South of the latter nineteenth/early twentieth centuries modeled a new form of industrialization that relied on “cheap labor, anti-unionism, and occupational segregation by race and gender” (p. 3). She contends that this approach has been the pattern followed by all American industrial entities the more recent past, and that it is affects every aspect of “industrial modernity” in the “Global South.”

Some of the essays presented here are excellent; some are less interesting than others. If there is a thesis to this work it is that the South industrialized later than other parts of the United States, the industrialization was largely non-union, and this effected race, class, and gender in the New South. This labor model has proliferated around the world as globalization has made it possible for corporations to move easily from one place to another in search of ever greater profits, in no small part because of the lessening of recompense available to laborers.

Frederickson’s essay on Plessy v. Ferguson offered an enlightening discussion of how the interplay of race, industrialism, and southern culture related to each other in Gilded Age America. It ensconced in national law racial segregation as long as it was “separate but equal”; we all know of its place in this arena. At the same time, what most people have not recognized is that it also countered a set of national initiatives—such as the Interstate Commerce Act—that brought greater primacy to the federal government. This court case tipped back the pendulum by privileging laws enacted at the state and local levels over their national counterparts.

The last two chapters, relating to labor in the “Nuevo New South,” focuses on the post-1960s era and how southern industrialism has changed. Profound modifications have taken place during this fifty-year period. Southern industrialism defeated most of the pro-union movement during that period and salaries, benefits, and economic security suffered. This was counterbalanced by the range of new immigrants who took up many of the industrial jobs left in the region.

This is a fascinating story, although presentation is both disjointed and I looked long for a thesis unifying the various essays. While the essays are interesting; the larger place of the stories they relate is left for others to create meaning from; Frederickson should have related them better. This work is a starting point for a much more involved discussion. I would recommend this book be read in conjunction with Timothy J. Minchin’s Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II, a book published in 2004 by University Press of Florida.

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