It’s been noticed by just about everyone except what we call the “liberal establishment” that of the eight Senate seats now up for grabs, four are in the South – Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina. H. Brandt (Brandy) Ayers, the publisher of The Anniston Star in Alabama, has certainly noticed the neglect. And, boy, is he frustrated.
Ayers is both a staunch liberal and Southern to the core. If the Democratic Party wants to establish a healthy dialogue in the Southern states, he told me, it has to first say, “We like you.” Liberals can’t just sigh at the troublesome region’s sharp move right and say, “That’s a Southern thing.”
Now pushing 80, Ayers has suffered many heartbreaks. He recounts them in a book, “In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal.”
Southerners do know how to tell a story. How did a region once devoted to FDR and his New Deal turn into a conservative Republican stronghold? With eloquence and wit, Ayers describes the warring forces – above all, the central role of race. Key to this is understanding the Southern way of experiencing the universe.
Ayers was born into a bubble of Southern white privilege so tightly sealed he didn’t know he was in it. In 1953, the headmaster at his Connecticut boarding school asked whether he had heard of a school desegregation case then winding through the Supreme Court. It was Brown v. Board of Education, and no, he hadn’t.
“I ultimately chose the liberal side,” Ayers said, “but it was long in coming.”
Journalism was Ayers’ calling, but he didn’t stay north to become a Southern sage on The New York Times. He returned home, first as a reporter on The News & Observer in Raleigh. There he saw the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed and the birth of the “New South” – centered on the booming economies of Atlanta and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
His father died, and Ayers returned to Anniston to take over the family newspaper. “Home was on old South time,” he recalls.
In 1965, a drunken gang of Ku Klux Klan members shot up a Pontiac carrying four black laborers from the late shift at a pipe factory. One of them, Willie Brewster, was hit and died.
Ayers raised a $25,000 reward from local donors, who signed a full-page ad condemning the attack. These were tough days.
“The FBI told me not to go to certain places for beer after work,” Ayers said, “and that the Klan had stolen an enormous cache of munitions from nearby Fort McClellan.”
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then a primitive segregationist, referred to The Anniston Star as “The Red Star.”
Time moved on, and the South took on a mellower “Sun Belt” persona. “The South was a newly discovered kingdom,” Ayers said, “where the sun shines and nobody is mean anymore.”
But politically, the golden age of the New South – with its new people, new money and progressive governors – ended in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In Ayers’ view, the all-Republican South was built on a core of racial resentment that pulled in many working-class Southerners.
Today’s liberals add to his frustrations, especially their weak-tea prescriptions for confronting a growing economic insecurity.
“The liberalism of FDR’s time was not an airy-fairy philosophy,” Ayers said. “It was about something: a right to a job, a place to live, a bit of joy and self-respect.”
Democrats need to channel that passion and return to the South. And it shouldn’t be that hard. He concludes:
“The first rule of politics is showing up. The second is to be nice.”