Friday Top Five: Don't know much about Southern history

Here at Facing South, we're often asked: why do you have so much hope about the possibilities for progressive change in the South? There are lots of reasons for optimism, but one of the biggest is the South's rich and unbroken history of progressive movements for change.

It's a history that's often hidden from Southerners themselves, who come to believe the bizarre (and often self-serving) stereotypes of national pundits who say the South is a monolithic backwater of corruption and prejudice. And it's precisely this lack of historical understanding that causes political strategists today to allege that progressives must either forsake their values to win in the region, or should write off the South completely.

History shows that there has always been a "third way" in the South -- an ebbing and flowing, but always present constellation of forces working to expand justice and democracy. There are many signs that these progressive forces are again on the rise today -- the revival of economic populism; discontent over current policies on everything from Katrina to Iraq and "free trade" deals; increasingly engaged young and immigrant voters/activists; etc.

As always, the question is whether this nascent new progressive majority in the South will be nurtured and strengthened, or neglected and undermined.

Here's a starter list of five books on the South's powerful progressive history. The usual caveats: this list (of course!) is not comprehensive, just some I've found useful in understanding key points in the South's history.

What sources on Southern history have you found most interesting and useful? Add your recommendations in the comments!

RECONSTRUCTION: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 -- Eric Foner
Are you one of many who were taught that post-Civil War Reconstruction was at best a noble blunder, forced on the South by armed Yankees? Foner's opus is the most in-depth account, and best summary of existing scholarship, about Reconstruction, the moment after 4 million slaves were (legally) freed and America made perhaps its biggest attempt at full equality and democracy. See also W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America, the first major history to counter the "Reconstruction-as-mistake" story.

"Populist" is one of the most abused labels in U.S. politics, slapped on everyone from Lou Dobbs to Pat Buchanan and Sen. Jim Webb. These two books, although old, take you back to the original populist movement that flourished in the 1880s and 1890s. Hahn's book uses north Georgia as a microcosm; his 2006 update looks at how his book stands up to recent scholarship. Goodwyn's book came out in 1978, but the former Texas Observer editor has a great eye for the building blocks populists used to create a powerful movement.

DAYS OF HOPE: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era -- Patricia Sullivan
During the 1930s and 40s, progressives made major inroads in the South, pushing a program of economic uplift and civil rights. Sullivan gives eye-opening examples of how the New Deal opened political space for the NAACP, CIO, Southern Conference on Human Welfare and other progressives to build a base of support and win political victories. But compromises and backlash were always waiting in the wings.

SPEAK NOW AGAINST THE DAY: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South -- John Egerton
The Southern civil rights movement didn't spring out of nowhere. Egerton's epic tome reveals a broad network of reformers and radicals, from political leaders to grassroots activists, who kept the faith in the difficult 1940s and 50s. They laid the groundwork for the "Second Reconstruction" of the black freedom movement -- which in turn inspired the peace, women's, gay rights and other key movements of the 60s and 70s. A good read for those who despair of the potential for progressive change in the South, and a lesson for how rapidly the course of history can change.

For many, the story of civil rights goes something like this: Rosa Parks sits on bus; Martin Luther King starts marching; Voting Rights Act passed; MLK killed; movement ends. Payne, now a professor at Duke University, looks at the movement in Mississippi to tell a deeper story of unsung community leaders, especially women, who carried the struggle day-to-day, and the radical vision for democracy that flourished in the movement -- a legacy that continues in many communities today. Another good one in this vein: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransby.

And if you're wondering whether this history is relevant today, I have to give another plug for Bob Moser's excellent piece in The Nation, The Way Down South, which touches on how history is playing out in Southern politics now, and what it means for the future.

What are some of your favorite books on Southern history?

UPDATE: What about fiction? ask several readers. Good point -- let's make that the next Friday Top Five. Add your nominations below ...