On the roots of Southern Exposure

Four people sitting in chairs on a stage

Participants in the Southern Exposure founders' panel at the event at UNC's Wilson Library celebrating the journal's 50th anniversary were, from left to right, moderator Chip Hughes and Leah Wise, Sue Thrasher, and Bob Hall. (Photo by Jenny Warburg.)

On Saturday, March 11, the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS) — the Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit publisher of Facing South online magazine — held an event at UNC's Wilson Library in Chapel Hill titled "Southern Exposure at 50: Pages from the Movements for Justice" to commemorate the founding of Southern Exposure and to launch the magazine's publicly available digital archives, which will roll out over the course of the year.

Southern Exposure was a groundbreaking journal of radical Southern politics, culture, investigative reporting, and oral history that ISS published from 1973 to 2011. Under the leadership of editors including Bob Hall, Eric Bates, and Chris Kromm, Southern Exposure won numerous journalism awards, including two George Polk Awards, a National Magazine Award, and the John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism, as well as recognition from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the National Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the White House Correspondents' Association.

Saturday's event featured a panel discussion with three co-founders of the Institute and Southern Exposure — Hall, Sue Thrasher, and Leah Wise — moderated by former Southern Exposure co-editor Chip Hughes. They discussed the genesis of the idea for the Institute for Southern Studies, how it grew out of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, and how Southern Exposure was conceived as a way to share ISS's research with people's movements. "We wanted to build the movement, to grow the movement, and to make sure that people had what they needed, the kind of information they needed to remain active," Thrasher said. Here is the transcript of her introductory remarks.

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The first question Chip asked us was about the roots. And I want to start as far back as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That's both a personal thing for me in terms of my own involvement, but it also was very much a part of the early Institute for Southern Studies.

There were three people involved in conversations in the beginning about forming an institute. One was Julian Bond, who was at that time was the communications director of SNCC, Howard Romaine, and myself. The first meeting that I remember was actually on a porch, on Raymond Street in Atlanta at one of the old SNCC offices, where we sat outside and talked about the work that Jack Minnis was doing inside SNCC, which was corporate research, power structure research, and how we could — what the movement needed to sustain itself over a period of time, and what kind of information might be needed, and whether or not we could look at that and build something from that. That was one of the early conversations, and those conversations continued for several years. That conversation must have taken place as early as 1966, or even earlier.

Eventually, I went off to the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., which is another key part of our history. I was on my way to the New School for Social Research to go to graduate school. But I never went to the New School because I thought the Institute for Policy Studies was really the graduate school that I wanted to be at. And about a year later, I was asked to become the administrative fellow at the Institute. The deal I made with them is that we would be able to work on creating a Southern institute over the next few years, and if they would support that work, which they agreed to do.

So over that period of time, Howard would occasionally come to D.C., Julian would be in and out of D.C., and we had ongoing conversations about creating a Southern institute. Our goal, I think — to go back and think about why we did what we did, you know, the quick answer to that is that we wanted to sustain the movement, we wanted to build the movement, to grow the movement, and to make sure that people had what they needed, the kind of information they needed to remain active.

Now, between the early conversations in the ‘60s and by the time we started in 1970, the movement, the mass movement, had really shifted in many ways by that time, and was much more not so much a mass movement, but more multiple movements, organizations, people beginning to come out of activism in the Vietnam War, beginning to get involved in environmental issues, beginning to look at corporations. Much more a broader movement as such and harder to identify as the kind of earlier mass movement, civil rights movement, that we had really came out of and were talking about. So I think when we started the Institute for Southern Studies and began thinking about what we were going to do to grow this movement, we had to recognize that shift. We were sort of making that road by walking it, in terms of trying to respond to what was going on. And eventually Southern Exposure came out of our conversations as a way to get out the work that we were doing.

But if you look at the first three issues of Southern Exposure, they represent two to three years of work at the Institute prior to that time. So the work on the defense study? Howard Romaine had talked endlessly about the defense industry in the South, and Richard Russell, and how we had to document that. The Georgia Power Project in Atlanta was key to the work we did in the second issue that came out. And then Leah [Wise] and myself and Jacquelyn Hall had started doing oral history work by this time.

And I guess you asked to talk about a particular issue, so I'm going to talk specifically about "No More Moanin'" here. Anne Braden was a mentor for me. And she at one point had said to me, "You really don't know your history. You really think that you're" — she said, "you're really sort of arrogant." And not me — she was talking about all of us. But she certainly meant me as well. She was showing that all of us — you really need to discover your own history, and you need to know about the people who were active in the 1930s and 40s. Because people have done this before. You think you're the first but you're not the first. So go find out your own history.

Well, to find out that history, it was not written in the books, so you really had to go find new ways of doing it. And so conversations with Jacquelyn and Leah — and I don't know whether you and Bob, probably Bob was involved in those conversations as well. But we developed an oral history project.

The Institute had very little money, and the three of us have talked about this, especially over the last few weeks. How did we do what we did? And to tell you the truth, we don't know; we just scrounged around and did it, and got little pieces of money here and there. But we did do a whole series of interviews on the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Leah went to Arkansas, I went to Arkansas on a trip to interview H. Clay East and J.R. Butler. Leah went back to Elaine, Arkansas, and found people who had been involved in the Elaine Massacre. We began interviewing people who had been involved in the early labor movement, we did the interviews with the UAW sit-down strike people in Atlanta. And just we began interviewing who we could and when we could, on a shoestring. And that eventually became the third issue of Southern Exposure. It was the first double issue because we had, I think, I refused to take anything out. But also, it was because we were behind and we needed a double issue. Bob insisted that we make it the rest of the year. So we did Southern Exposure based on that.

The other thing I want to say is that I think what was important about the founding of the Institute is 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. 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. I think back about that, and it's — I mean, talk about if Anne Braden thought I was arrogant about history, to create an institution like that and think you can sustain it over time, that takes real something or other to do that. And all of you in this room who worked on Southern Exposure, and I'm sure those people who are staff, people now, know exactly how you did that. You did it through incredible long working hours. You did it through commitment. And you did it by scrounging, because that's the way you keep those institutions alive. So that's the early part of what we did.

I think in terms of Southern Exposure ... I just want to say, Bob led us to Southern Exposure by saying we need to find a way to get out our information here. And it seemed like a very good idea at the time. The time I was sitting at midnight editing "No More Moanin'" I thought no, no this wasn't such a good idea. And how are we going to print the next issue, and what are we going to put in that? But it was — we did need to find a way to get out the information. And I think what's important about that is that we really were — it wasn't about putting out a journal. 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? And therefore we have to get this information out to people. We have to keep growing that movement. And the journal was one way of doing that.

Now, I happen to think that one of the things that we — a missed opportunity for us was not in doing some of the other things that we had talked about in terms of education, which was ongoing series of seminars, being we talked a lot about using the oral history work to develop alternative curriculum for public schools. Those were all great ideas, but we did not have the money and the resources to really focus on. But Southern Exposure we did make work. That became our major way of getting information out.

And it's — when you look back, when you look at the tables here of all of those issues, it really is an amazing legacy. I left early. I left in 1978 to go to the Highlander Center. So for me to look at all of the things, all of the work that has been done since then, it's just an amazing body of work that has been sustained throughout this time.

Just one more thing. There were three — I meant to say this earlier — there were three satellite institutes that came out of the Institute for Policy Studies. One was the Cambridge Institute in Cambridge, Mass. The people associated with that were Gar Alperovitz, Christopher Jencks, Mary Jo Bane. They had their own publication. There was the Bay Area Institute in San Francisco, California, with Chester Hartman and Barry Weisberg, really focused on environmental justice. And then there was the Institute for Southern Studies. Now the names I mentioned — the Cambridge Institute had all the Harvard academic cred, and a ton of money behind it. The Bay Area Institute had the academic cred and money behind it. The Institute for Southern Studies was, you know, two of us who had B.A. degrees and mine was in religion, of all things. We did not have the cred and resources. But we were where the other two institutes came to do a founding meeting of those three institutes. They came to Atlanta, and we were a part of that network, which I think was helpful in the early days in terms of being a part of something nationally that was going on. And certainly the Institute for Policy Studies — they gave us some money in the beginning and supported our work, and were very important in what we did. But of those three institutes, the Institute for Southern Studies is the only one that lasted.

We didn't have the academic cred, we did not have the money, we did not have the resources. But we sort of knew that we wanted to create an institution that we could sustain over time, and it's the only one still alive and well.