…And that book is Frank E. Smith’s Congressman from Mississippi.
Although it’s occasionally classified as an autobiography, the work is less a strict retelling of the events of the titular subject and more of a sad assessment of the racial and political history of the South. Frank E. Smith, a progressive Democrat in Mississippi who fought fierce (and generally unsuccessful) battles against the Dixiecrats of his day, both highlights and laments the formative role slavery and racial injustice have in Southern identity.
The tone of the work is weary but defiant–the voice of a man who’d fought so many in his own party and saw the coming fight for the New South’s identity as one men like him would lose. He saves some of his greatest ire for those in his own party–including himself, in his own time, who lacked the courage and morality to have the New South confront the truth of the Old South, rather than just “moving on” or “moving ahead.”
What do the sometimes-bitter recollections of a nine-year Democratic congressman who last held office in 1962 have to do with today’s GOP?
Because between’s Smith’s regrets and frustrations about what he saw as the South’s failure to come to grips with terrible legacy of race in the South, he lays out what he sees coming in the future. It is in these passages that Smith seems an eerily and depressingly accurate prognosticator.
Anticipating Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” by six years and Donald Trump’s demagoguery in the GOP by five decades, Smith correctly predicted the Republican Party’s shift towards a white, Southern identity and warned of the moral dangers of constructing a political strategy based on Southern identitity while ignoring the honest history of race in the South. The final chapter of his book looks ahead to a future in which he correctly predicts the South to be in the hands of the Republican Party, although I don’t think even he fully understood how much the relationship would be reciprocal. While some of his predictions about GOP success and strategy took longer go come about than he predicted, come about those predictions have.
What Smith failed to see was how much the message directed at the South would resonate in other areas of the country–he did not forsee Confederate flags flying, as I have seen them, in rural Ohio, nor how much the subtly insidious racially-coded messages in the South would play with white voters in the West, with Latinos standing in for blacks. Although Smith would have probably been surprised at the election of a black President (Smith died in 1997), he would have found vague slogans about “taking our country back” without explicitly saying who had taken it or where it had gone all too familiar.
I am as proud a Southerner as they come, and considered myself a fairly astute student of history and politics before I read the book, but no author–aside from Faulkner–has so challenged what I thought I knew about the South and Southern identity.
Interestingly, I am not the first in my family to have wrestled with the questions and truths Smith lays out. The copy I have belonged to my great-grandfather, an unrepentant New Deal democrat and newspaper editor in Durham, North Carolina. Sometime in the mid 1960s, he found it compelling enough a read to mark it up with notes aplenty, scrawled in pencil in the margins and white space at the end of its chapters.
Any politcal observer, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, who wants to understand the modern GOP’s metamorphasis from the Northern “party of Lincoln” to the South’s standard bearer should do the same.