Focusing on the cultural conflicts between social reformers and
southern communities, William Link presents an important
reinterpretation of the origins and impact of progressivism in the
South. He shows that a fundamental clash of values divided
reformers and rural southerners, ultimately blocking the reforms.
His book, based on extensive archival research, adds a new
dimension to the study of American reform movements.
The new group of social reformers that emerged near the end of the
nineteenth century believed that the South, an underdeveloped and
politically fragile region, was in the midst of a social crisis.
They recognized the environmental causes of social problems and
pushed for interventionist solutions. As a consensus grew about
southern social problems in the early 1900s, reformers adopted new
methods to win the support of reluctant or indifferent southerners.
By the beginning of World War I, their public crusades on
prohibition, health, schools, woman suffrage, and child labor had
led to some new social policies and the beginnings of a
bureaucratic structure. By the late 1920s, however, social reform
and southern progressivism remained largely frustrated.
Link's analysis of the response of rural southern communities to
reform efforts establishes a new social context for southern
progressivism. He argues that the movement failed because a
cultural chasm divided the reformers and the communities they
sought to transform. Reformers were paternalistic. They believed
that the new policies should properly be administered from above,
and they were not hesitant to impose their own solutions. They also
viewed different cultures and races as inferior.
Rural southerners saw their communities and customs quite
differently. For most, local control and personal liberty were
watchwords. They had long deflected attempts of southern outsiders
to control their affairs, and they opposed the paternalistic
reforms of the Progressive Era with equal determination. Throughout
the 1920s they made effective implementation of policy changes
difficult if not impossible. In a small-scale war, rural folk
forced the reformers to confront the integrity of the communities
they sought to change.