You’ve been there before. It’s a cold fall night and you’re sitting back in your easy chair with a Dixie cup of iced Coca-Cola (with maybe a pinch of whiskey) resting on your end table. You’re wearing your tattered Alabama or Auburn cap with pride (the one you bought at the game when you were eight years old) as ESPN cuts to a commercial break. The camera focuses in on a fan that looks like the Missing Link cloaked in your team’s favorite jersey and grumbling words that sounds like Middle English. “Oh Lord,” you think. “I wonder what the rest of the country thinks about us.” As Alabamians (and Christians), it is important for us to embrace all walks of life—even the toothless Bubbas of the world. But a Southerner’s greatest fear is to be labeled “dumb,” “ignorant,” or “redneck” simply because our domicile is south of the Mason-Dixon.
Case in point. About a month ago, I met a guy from “The North” who had moved to Alabama for a job opportunity. During our conversation, I asked “So, did the South surprise you when you moved here?” He said, “Very much so. It’s nothing like I thought it would be. There are some very smart, talented people down here. Not what I imagined.”
Why, pray tell, is the South viewed this way?
TV is ever to blame. The South as a respectable region in America has seen an abrupt death at the suffocating hands of Reality TV, which drives the nail into the Southern coffin. A September 17, 2011 article in the New York Times by Karen L. Cox, entitled “The South Ain’t Just Whistlin Dixie,” underscores TV’s attempt to typecast the South as “Dixiefied”—rural, agrarian, hokey, backwoods, and dumb. Cox writes, “Such shows promise new insight into Southern culture, but what they really represent is a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century…These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists. Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners.”
Today’s Southern documentaries, parodies, and satires have blown away the erstwhile winds of Tara to make way for the gales of Jeff Foxworthy and other blue-collar Southern gurus. Southerners may laugh at these illustrative attempts, due to the fact that they understand that characters such as these do exist in the South, but the point where Southerners get fist-shaking angry occurs is when the South, as a whole, is typecast as “Bubba” in the American production. Southerners know that the perspectives seen from the small windows of culture that Reality TV asserts do not aptly portray the entirety of the Southern panorama. The South is not a Pleasantville of Forrest Gumps or a Truman Show of Buford Pussers. “Hello. My name’s Forrest, For-rest Gump. We lived about a quarter mile of Route 17, about a half mile from the town of Greenbow, Alabama. That’s in the county of Greenbow.” Yes, as a Southerner, to be viewed like this is highly insulting.
The South is more than cutoff flannel shirts and Confederate flag stickers on the rear windows of pickup trucks. The South is more than just a parking lot for corroded iron-wheel tractors. The South is more than the governor that stood in the Schoolhouse Door and the police chief that turned on the water hoses. The South is greater than 48th, 49th, and 50th in standardized test scores. The South is more than mama-pass-the-mustard-and-biscuits and daddy the spittoon.
Historically, the South has been viewed as a more agricultural, rural area that lacks industry and growth. The metropolises of Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis have gone to great lengths to rebut those contentions, as their wingspans continue to sprawl into neighboring towns. Sorely underrepresented in the depictions of the Deep South are its achievements and successes as part of the greater American story.
The South is no longer the industry-absent region that existed antebellum and during Reconstruction. The South is home to CNN, FedEx, Coca-Cola, Delta, Regions Bank, TBS, TNT, The Weather Channel, Nissan, and The Home Depot. A major research park is located in Huntsville, Alabama, and automotive companies such as Volkswagen (Chattanooga, Tennessee), Hyundai (Montgomery, Alabama), BMW (Spartanburg, South Carolina), Honda (Lincoln, Alabama) and Mercedes-Benz (Vance, Alabama) have opened plants in the South. “Almost every foreign auto factory that’s opened since the ’90s has sprouted below the Mason-Dixon Line. Two of the three auto plants under construction also are in the South,” says Kristi Keck of CNN.com.
A quick study of students and institutions from the South will also show that the South can stand toe-to-toe with the big boys in the academic coliseum. The 2015 Harvard graduating class will be 18% Southern, the second highest regional percentage after the Mid-Atlantic states (22%). In public universities, the University of Alabama Law School is tied for tenth with Ohio State University in the latest U.S. News & World Report for “Best Law Schools.” In terms of medical research, the University of Alabama’s Medical School is currently twelfth in public universities (ahead of the private school triumvirate of Dartmouth, Boston University, and Georgetown). With respect to primary medical care, the University of Alabama ranks ninth in public universities (ahead of the private institution trinity of Harvard, UCLA, and Johns Hopkins). Auburn University hosts top-tier engineering, veterinary medicine, and architecture programs. Arguably the top-two schools in the Deep South, Vanderbilt University and Emory University, are dependably ranked among the top institutions in the country.
The South has also demonstrated an aptitude to draw major events and franchises to its soil. The 1996 Olympic games were held in Atlanta, and Nashville added the Tennessee Titans to the National Football League in 1999. The annual Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival on a 700-acre farm outside of Manchester, Tennessee is one of the largest festivals of its kind in the U.S and dubbed the “ultimate over-the-top summer festival” by Rolling Stone magazine.
Conclusion: Southern success can be attributed mostly to its talented people.
Mississippi, last in almost every statistical category, can boast that possibly the greatest American writer (William Faulkner) the greatest playwright (Tennessee Williams), and the greatest entertainer (Elvis Presley) are Magnolia State-born. Others natives include just Oprah Winfrey, Civil War historian Shelby Foote, and writer Eudora Welty.
Alabama produced the greatest home-run hitter outside of George Herman Ruth and the steroid-breathed era of Major League baseball (Hank Aaron) and possibly the greatest novel ever written in American prose, To Kill a Mockingbird, along with other famous figures as Bobby Bowden, George Wallace, Author Rick Bragg, Kathryn Tucker Windham, Nat King Cole, Joe Louis, Mia Hamm, Coretta Scott King, and Carl Lewis.
Georgia is home to the highly-criticized pacifist President Jimmy Carter and the iconic Martin Luther King Jr., and also Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Jackie Robinson, Ted Turner, Joel Chandler Harris, Ty Cobb, and Senator Sam Nunn.
Tennessee claims Aretha Franklin, Quentin Tarantino, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Morgan Freeman, sportswriter Grantland Rice, Tina Turner, Robert Penn Warren, and Justin Timberlake.
Arkansans include former President Bill Clinton, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Johnny Cash, J. William Fulbright, John Grisham, and General Douglas MacArthur.
South Carolina trumpets Joe Frazier, Dizzy Gillespie, writer Pat Conroy, President Andrew Jackson, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, artist Jasper Johns, and Senator Strom Thurmond.
Others that were not born in the Deep South, but grew up there: Cormac McCarthy (Knoxville, Tennessee), President James K. Polk (Nashville, Tennessee), Samuel L. Jackson (Chattanooga, Tennessee), Maya Angelou (Stamps, Arkansas), and Alex Haley (Henning, Tennessee).
Indeed, the South has become famous for its storytellers, but the tales told of Southern idiots were never written or produced by idiots. They were stories told by highly-intelligent, imaginative Southern artists—men like William Faulkner, Winston Groom, and James Agee; women like Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Carson McCullers. Their Southern gothic sagas of eccentrics, morons, and bumpkins gave rise to great acclaim and approbation over the last century, but more importantly, helped to write the biopic of the Deep South against the backdrop of a purposefully slower and desperately polarized society. The door to this sweeping Southern depiction was flung open in the 1920s and 30s with the advent of writers such as Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, and Agee, whose channeled themes included race, poverty, family, and romance.
To tell the stories of the Southern academics and intelligentsia indeed would be boring and mundane. Comedian Jerry Clower describing the character of Marcel Ledbetter: “Marcel didn’t like his school, none. He didn’t like ‘em teachers, he didn’t like ‘em books. But Uncle Versey made him stay in school ‘til he was old enough to get his driver’s license.” Characters such as Benjy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Carl Childers in Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade, John Singer in Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (and who could forget the toothless rapist and the banjo pickin’, rustically mysterious, slit-eyed young boy in John Boorman’s Deliverance) have added a saucy flavor to the Southern checkerboard table, which is further set by Pulitzer Prize winners, Rhodes scholars, Phi Beta Kappas, Oscar winners, Grammy winners, Nobel Prize winners, and yes—Presidents of the United States. You might not be a redneck if you’ve achieved these honors, but you might be called a redneck if you live in the South.
This region that has been portrayed by American media outlets as the backwards, hokey, ignorant, hillbilly/redneck, rustic, idiotic slice of the American pie quickly proves to be much more clever and progressive.
Isn’t it time to give credit where credit is due?
 In the 2012 list of U.S. News and World Report National University Rankings, Vanderbilt was ranked 17th and Emory 20th. The University of Alabama was ranked 75th and Auburn University was ranked 82nd.