An archive for a time of crisis

Stacks of Southern Exposure issues on a table

(Photo by Jenny Warburg.)

In 1970, as the civil rights and antiwar movements entered a new moment, several Southern organizers and activists asked what the times demanded of them. Their answer was a counter-institution, conceived as a hub for movement-oriented research and organizing. The Institute for Southern Studies was a scrappy collective of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Student Organizing Committee veterans that in its early years focused on research about racism, labor, and the military in the South. A few years after its founding, the Institute launched Southern Exposure as a journal to disseminate its research with corporate investigations, oral histories, cultural pieces, and reporting meant to inform the Southern struggle for justice.

Throughout the last year, I have been working with a team of folks — including Marc Miller, one of Southern Exposure’s earliest editors, and Kevin Gomez-Gonzalez, a journalist and student at UNC-Chapel Hill — to digitize Southern Exposure’s archives for the first time. Now, on the 50th anniversary of the inaugural issue, the journal’s first nine years of issues are available to download as PDFs. Additionally, many standalone articles are now available to read online in full, which we hope will make them accessible to a broader public.

I write this on a beautiful spring morning in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the acute recognition that we are in a time of crises — crises that the stories and statistics contained in the pages of Southern Exposure remind us are not new. Racist violence, ecological devastation, economic exploitation, and the rupturing of communities and social fabrics due to capitalist profit-seeking are apparent throughout our region and our world as they were a half-century ago. The injustices unfolding across the U.S. South and the country — legislation restricting trans people’s access to health care, banning books and curriculum from schools, restricting women’s reproductive choices, restricting even the freedom to protest these state incursions on freedom — mount each day. The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have made clear the ways in which workers are imperiled on the job by the corporations they enrich.

Where do we go from here?

The Southern Exposure archive, which will be released in four installments throughout the year, contains a wealth of information that will be useful to researchers, writers, historians, journalists, and organizers seeking to answer questions of what came before and to understand what lies before us. The journal’s writers and editors were audacious — taking big swings at the powerful, publishing the groundbreaking work of grassroots researchers and organizers, looking to history for lessons for their time. They asked cultural, political, racial, gender, and class questions of the region’s past and its present — always in service of a better future. These archives provide not just material for historicizing movement-oriented work, journalism and research in the 20th century, but also possibilities for imagining how we might engage in the struggles of our 21st century moment.

“It wasn’t about putting out a journal,” Sue Thrasher, one of the founders of the Institute and an early editor of Southern Exposure, said during a panel at a recent event at UNC’s Wilson Library celebrating the 50th anniversary. “It was, how do we make our work useful to people? It goes back to the question of what we’re about. We were about, how do we build a movement?”

Southern Exposure was known for corporate investigations that shed light on the history and exploitative practices of companies like J.P. Stevens during the campaign to unionize the textile giant in the 1970s and ‘80s, and poultry producer Perdue Farms in the 1980s and '90s. It was also a pioneer of Southern oral history: The magazine’s third issue, No More Moanin, featured interviews with the organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the Arkansas Delta and organizers of the UAW sitdown strike in Atlanta in the 1930s, while Florence Reece, wife of a Harlan County, Kentucky, coal miner and the composer of the classic labor song “Which Side Are You On,” interviewed a veteran of the East Tennessee coal mining battles of the 1930s who had composed “Little David Blues.” Stayed on Freedom, a 1981 issue, featured oral histories with civil rights leaders including Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marion Barry, and James Orange.

Southern Exposure’s body of work speaks to the questions of our time not just in method, but also in content. Issues like Just Schools, published on the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools, asked hard questions about racial equality in the school system, and of public education’s curriculum, resources, and role in civic life — questions that are still being debated today. The 1981 Festival issue celebrated Southern literature in its many forms and included an essay from longtime feminist and anti-racist organizer Mab Segrest on lesbian writing in the South and others on Cherokee, Hispanic, and Black literature. Working Women was a handbook of resources meant to help Southern women navigate and organize their workplaces. Issues on the military-industrial complex highlighted the South’s role in manufacturing nuclear weapons and other elements of the war industry, calling attention to its specific harms and profiteers. In The Future is Now, Southern Exposure writers called attention to what would later be understood as questions of environmental justice — toxic waste and other environmental disaster concentrated near communities marginalized by race and class.

For me — and I hope for you, the organizers, researchers, and students who are reading this — spending time in the Southern Exposure archive has helped me understand my work as part of a long tradition. This is a powerful thing, to understand ourselves as part of a generation-spanning community invested in justice, struggle, and change — a community of people who love this region and its people deeply and want it to be better, to be just, for its people to be free. Seeing the ways that past generations experimented with new ways of writing, of research, interviewing, collective action, and popular education can give us permission and inspiration to be audacious as we work together against the many crises of our time.