Gathering marks a half-century since Southern Exposure's founding

Five people holding up the Southern Exposure banner

The founders and earliest staff of Southern Exposure gathered at an event on March 11 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to mark the 50th anniversary of the journal's launch. From left, they are Leah Wise, Bob Hall, Sue Thrasher, Chip Hughes, and Howard Romaine. (Photo by Earl Dotter.)

More than 150 people gathered in-person and online last weekend to celebrate the legacy of Southern Exposure, the acclaimed journal of politics and culture published by the Institute for Southern Studies from 1973 to 2011.

"Pages from the Movements for Justice," held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on March 10 and 11, reunited dozens of early staff, writers, and others who worked closely with Southern Exposure over its 38-year history, and also included new generations of scholars, journalists, and activists reflecting on the journal's legacy and what it means for our work for change today.

The weekend kicked off with two events focused on staff and other close associates of Southern Exposure and the Institute: a Friday evening reception at the Love House — headquarters of the Center for the Study of the American South, a co-sponsor of the weekend events — and a Saturday morning program that included roundtable discussions around the themes of democracy in action, environmental justice, labor, and racism and the right.

"Being able to walk through the legacy of the Institute and Southern Exposure with some of the original founders and staff showed the importance of preserving this history and using it to guide current movements of Southern struggle," said Benjamin Barber, coordinator of the Institute's Democracy Program and a coordinator of the event's intergenerational roundtable conversations.

Saturday morning, participants also had the chance to peruse a wealth of archival material from Southern social movements — including many flyers, documents, and images featuring people and groups connected to the Institute — organized by Biff Hollingsworth of the Southern Historical Collection, another event co-sponsor. UNC's North Carolina Collection and Southern Oral History Program also partnered with the Institute to produce the weekend program.

Attendees were able to explore the Southern Exposure digital archive, a project spearheaded by Institute archives editor Olivia Paschal, who was also a lead organizer of the weekend events, to bring issues of the journal online. The archives now include Southern Exposure issues from 1973 to 1981; more issues will be added throughout the year.

"Delving into our shared Southern history of civil rights and social justice struggles, while having a conversation across the generations, is a key piece of the essential learning that all of us need," said Chip Hughes, a staffer at the Institute in the 1970s and co-coordinator of the anniversary celebration. "This weekend we saw why the teaching of an inclusive, grassroots history, including all voices, not just those of the traditional great white male leaders, is such an important part of the educational process."

Saturday afternoon shifted to a program open to the public and featuring two panels. The first, "Why We Did What We Did," featured early Southern Exposure and Institute staff Bob Hall, Sue Thrasher, and Leah Wise, exploring how the Institute and Southern Exposure came to be. Thrasher, a civil rights veteran who grew up in rural west Tennessee and was a driving force in founding the Institute with Julian Bond and Howard Romaine, reflected on how the Institute and Southern Exposure came out of a need to better understand Southern progressive history and how that history could help activists navigate a key turning point for social movements in the South in the early 1970s.

"[W]hat was important about the founding of the Institute [was] our belief that we could create our own institutions and sustain them, and then we could manage them. We had the freedom then to do the kind of work that we knew had to be done," Thrasher said. "And we didn't feel that we could do that in the organizations and the institutions that were already there. So the only real alternative was to create, and try to make possible, our own institutions."

Thrasher also noted that, out of three regional institutes created by 60s activists — similar organizations had been created in the Northeast and West Coast, with much more funding and academic connections — "the Institute for Southern Studies is the only one that lasted."

Saturday afternoon featured a panel including two current Institute staff — Benjamin Barber and Olivia Paschal — and Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt, a historian who will begin teaching at North Carolina State University in the fall of 2023 (and grandson of former Institute board chair and longtime activist Ajamu Dillahunt). This panel reflected on the legacy of Southern Exposure, and what lessons it holds for today. As Paschal later reflected,

"The collision of past, present, and future throughout the weekend — especially in the two back-to-back panels — reminded me that this 50th anniversary isn't about looking back, but about taking stock and looking forward. Hearing from the staff of Southern Exposure about the revolutionary, justice-oriented work they were trying to do with the magazine as we sat at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of many educational institutions under fire from censorious right-wing forces in the present moment, emphasizes that the sort of history we commemorated this weekend is not over."

The weekend events closed with a party at The Story venue in Chapel Hill, featuring more reminisces of the Institute's past, thoughts from current staff on carrying forward the Institute's legacy, inspiring music from the Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble and Good Rocking Sam — and, of course, a fundraising call to invest in the Institute and the next 50 years of work for change in the South.

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