VOICES: As Obama lays out progressive agenda, white South slips into political irrelevancy

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

On the Bibles of two men once reviled in the South, President Obama took the oath of office for his second term Monday, a day that also honored one of those two men, Martin Luther King Jr.

After a first term in which he relied heavily on Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner, Obama outlined a decidedly progressive-minded agenda for his second term. It's one that the South's white oligarchy of business, political, religious and media leaders will fight tooth and nail.

In his speech, Obama made clear his commitment to pay equity, immigration reform, gay rights, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He offered "hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice." This country "cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," he told Americans.

In the words of writer John Nichols of The Nation, Obama in his speech "completed the arc from FDR and LBJ to today."

Tea Partyers and the rest of the GOP's right wing -- groups with distinctively Southern accents -- are bound to decry the speech and the man who made it for declaring "class warfare," as if a declaration of war hadn't been declared long ago by their own financial backers.

Obama called for equal pay for "our wives, our mothers and daughters." He reached out to "the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity." He called for equal treatment for gay men and women.

All powerful words from a former community organizer and the nation's first black president.

And bitter medicine for those who opposed him. "Needless to say, we are disappointed that, by re-electing Mr. Obama, the majority of this country has assured that we will see four more years of negligent leadership," said the Oxford, Miss., Tea Party in a December open letter to Mississippi Republican Congressman Alan Nunnelee. "WE WILL NEVER THROW IN THE TOWEL EVEN THOUGH THE CARDS ARE STACKED AGAINST US!!!!" (capitalization and exclamation points provided by the writers of the letter.)

It's a typical view across much of the white South, which shows every sign of slipping into a kind of political backwater, increasingly irrelevant in a forward-moving nation where non-Latino whites are expected to become a minority over the next three decades.

"Now the South is becoming isolated again," writes George Packer in The New Yorker.  "The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone."

Southern Republicans in Congress are so far to the right of everyone else that they opposed by an eight-to-one margin the hard-fought fiscal compromise hammered out on New Year's Day. Most of the nation, shocked, saddened and disgusted by the violence in Newtown, Conn., that slaughtered innocent children as well as adults, wants stricter gun controls. Not in the South, where a recent poll showed a plurality of folks oppose any restriction on their freedom to buy and keep guns. That includes Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

In some ways, the South indeed seems to be seceding again, just as it did after the election of Abraham Lincoln, a man as much or more hated in Dixie as Martin Luther King Jr.  and perhaps even Barack Obama.

The hatred for King came not only because he challenged the racial code but also because he challenged the class system inherent in the Southern economy.

Here's King on the Southern way of doing business:

"We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with the daily basic necessities of life."

"In the Right to Work law, there is no right to work and there is no work, and this is the fraud we need to stop."

And, finally, in a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis shortly before his death: "You're commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth. You are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."

No wonder King had enemies across the South. Think of all the plantation owners and cotton mill owners -- joined by their political, religious and press advocates -- who vowed never to "throw in the towel" to racial integration and labor rights at the workplace.

Obama's choice of Bibles Monday was heavy with symbolism. Like the Bible itself, his speech was full of powerful words. Now comes the test of those words.