The Cult of the Country Boy: Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, and LBJ’s Great Society - DEGENERATION OF THE MERICAN BREED - White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

Part II



The Cult of the Country Boy

Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, and LBJ’s Great Society

I’m a self-confessed raw country boy and guitar-playing fool.

—Elvis Presley (1956)

Lyndon wasn’t upper class at all. Country boy, grown up in the hills.

—Virginia Foster Durr, Alabama civil rights activist (1991)

Most will remember the famous photograph of Elvis Presley standing alongside President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. But why is it forgotten that Presley gained the friendship of Lyndon Baines Johnson? At Graceland, Presley added a three-television console like the one LBJ had in the Oval Office; “the King” also hung in his home an “All the Way with LBJ” bumper sticker from the 1964 presidential campaign, and posed for a publicity photo with the president’s daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, who at the time was dating the actor George Hamilton. Presley and Johnson at first seem to be the oddest of couples—but they had more in common than their separate celebrity worlds would suggest. Both became national figures who challenged—whose very lives disrupted—the historically toxic characterization of poor whites.1

When Elvis stormed onto the national scene in 1956, he seemed to be doing everything he could to act nonwhite. He openly embraced black musical style, black pompadour hair, and flashy outfits that had been associated with blacks as well. His gyrations caused his critics to compare his wildly sexualized dancing to the “hootchy-kootchy,” or burlesque striptease, and the rebellious zoot suit crowd. His phenomenal fame and adoring fans helped to propel him to The Ed Sullivan Show, and from there to the silver screen. He soon owned a stable of Cadillacs. Elvis had achieved what no white trash working-class male had ever dreamt possible: he was at once cool and sexually transgressive and a “country boy.” No longer a freakish rural outcast, as in the past, Elvis was a “Hillbilly Cat,” someone many teenage boys wished they could be.2

Lyndon Johnson’s sudden elevation to the office of chief executive on November 22, 1963, came as a great shock to the nation. Eerily replaying what had happened a century earlier, a second unelected Johnson entered the presidency after a shocking assassination. But this time, instead of the sorrow-laden, war-weary Lincoln, the nation had lost the vigorous, photogenic, East Coast elite John F. Kennedy. In the wake of tragedy, the seasoned southern politician pursued an aggressive legislative agenda in favor of civil rights and social reform—the most dramatic foray since FDR. The “Great Society,” as his vast array of programs became known, called for the elimination of poll taxes and voting discrimination, the promotion of education and health care funding, and daring new programs in an effort to eradicate poverty. Yet what made LBJ different from his Democratic predecessor was the necessity that he reinvent himself by shedding the predictable trappings of a southern backwater identity—which he did without unlearning his famous Texan drawl. The accidental president had to transform how he was perceived on television, how he was judged by Washington reporters, how he was received as a national leader. Though Johnson had a proven record as a New Dealer and modern progressive, on the national stage he was still regarded as a regional figure. He refused to go easy on white rule in the South. In his 1965 inaugural address, he made progressive change a matter of national survival. He wanted to use his powers to work toward broad social equality.3

In many ways, Johnson’s insistence on change echoed what the sociologist Howard Odum had prescribed in earlier decades: southerners had to free themselves from their misplaced nostalgia for the Old Confederacy. He wasn’t afraid of modernity. “I do not believe that the Great Society is the ordered, changeless, and sterile battalion of ants,” Johnson put it bluntly upon inauguration in 1965. Mindless conformity, whether Soviet or southern in style, was stifling and repressive.4

His heroes had not been Andrew Johnson or James K. Vardaman; Franklin Roosevelt was the politician he most admired. During the Depression, Johnson was a strong proponent of rural electrification, and he ran the jobs corps program, the National Youth Administration, in Texas. He had no patience for country-bumpkin antics either. LBJ loved modern technology, campaigned across Texas by prop plane before World War II, and was the first to use a helicopter in his Senate campaign of 1948. That year, winning in a close race, he presented himself as a worldly politician, jettisoning the folksy style of his opponent, whom a Johnson aide described as “old hat, old ways, old everything.” As majority leader of the Senate, and during his vice presidency as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, it was Lyndon Johnson who first promoted “stepping into the space race” and making it a national priority to put a man on the moon.5

There were no red suspenders in this southern boy’s closet, no blustering race-baiting to mark his career. The public had no difficulty understanding the high moral tone of LBJ’s presidential oratory. He despised the false rhetoric of those Dixiecrats who feigned class solidarity with poor whites—rhetoric that typically involved angry appeals to white supremacy. As president, when he advocated civil rights, Lyndon Johnson spoke the language of brotherly love and inclusiveness. In spite of all this, the old country-boy image still haunted him.6

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Presumably by coincidence, as President Johnson stood tall under the glare of the national spotlight, TV network executives discovered the hick sitcom. Three of the most popular shows in the 1960s were The Andy Griffith Show;Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; and The Beverly Hillbillies. All revived the homespun, albeit unassimilable, traits of good old “Sug,” the rural pol of the 1840s. Lyndon Johnson fondly remembered Roosevelt as “a daddy to me,” and as town sheriff, Andy Griffith served as the paternal caretaker of Mayberry, North Carolina. The Andy Griffith Show had the feel of the thirties, not the sixties; it was a nostalgic rewrite of the Great Depression, featuring a town of misfits. Speaking about his role, Griffith insisted that he was not playing a “yokel”; the creator of the show described the sheriff as a clever man with a “wry sense of humor” on the order of the late Will Rogers, the good-natured Oklahoma humorist and film hero. As for Mayberry, most problems were solved around Andy’s kitchen table—reminiscent of how Americans huddled around the radio listening to FDR’s fireside chats. Outsiders were welcome in Andy’s world, where the virtues of small-town democracy shone.7

Though the actor stopped short of saying it, Sheriff Andy was indeed surrounded by yokels, because television traded on the worst stereotypes. Mayberry’s population included the gullible gas station attendant Gomer Pyle (before he got his own show) and his cousin Goober, and Ernest T. Bass, a screeching mountaineer who went on wild rampages. As a writer for Time noted of Jim Nabors’s Gomer, the naïve enlistee “spouts homilies out of a lopsided mouth and lopes around uncertainly like a plowboy stepping through a field of cow dung.” He is a “walking disaster,” who in his subsequent spin-off show single-handedly fouls up the bureaucracy of the entire Marine Corps.8

With the Clampetts of Beverly Hills, as the comedian Bob Hope joked, Americans had their embodiment of TV “wasteland”—a wasteland with an outhouse. Episode after episode, Granny and her kin were stymied by the science of the doorbell and the unbearable complexity of kitchen appliances, giving viewers the saddest sort of reminder of the culture shock experienced by real sharecroppers in FSA resettlement communities. Buddy Ebsen’s prime-time hillbillies appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, sketched as characters in Grant Wood’s iconic painting of 1930, American Gothic. This was yet another unsubtle allusion to the long-held belief that white trash were an evolutionary throwback.9

The Beverly Hillbillies recast as Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting, American Gothic.

Saturday Evening Post, February 2, 1963

The Beverly Hillbillies had its defenders. To the creator of the show, “our hillbillies” were clean and wholesome, and the network was actually doing a service in uplifting the image of rural Americans. “The word hillbilly,” he insisted, “will ultimately have a new meaning in the United States as a result of our show.” His optimism proved to be misplaced.10

Jed Clampett was no Davy Crockett, even though Buddy Ebsen had in fact played the gruff sidekick to Fess Parker’s coon-capped Crockett in the fifties Disney saga. The differences between Jed and Davy were stark. Hollywood hillbillies could only be crude objects of audience laughter—mockery, not admiration. They conjured none of the frontier fantasy of the rugged individualist Crockett (or Fess Parker’s TV Daniel Boone). Nothing could redeem them. The Clampetts drove a 1920s-era Ford jalopy, and Granny sat on board in a rocking chair—a camp version of John Ford’s desperate Joad family.11

Fess Parker’s buckskin champion was a jaunty country boy, a genial Gary Cooper-style suburban dad. All viewers understood that Parker’s Crockett represented the best qualities imagined of early America. The 1955 Davy Crockett craze caused adoring fans to mob the actor in a way that momentarily put him in a league with Elvis; coonskin caps flew off store shelves as Disney Studios staged a publicity tour. Parker, a towering Texan, even made a stop on Capitol Hill. In a photograph distributed over the wire services, then-senator Lyndon Johnson and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn struck up a pose with “Davy” and his rifle, Ol’ Betsy.12

Their signature laugh track aside, sixties comedies were not purely escapist fare. They tapped into a larger anxiety amid the mass migration of poor whites who headed north and created hillbilly ghettos in cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, and Cincinnati—which only fueled existing prejudice against “briar hoppers” (recalling the nomenclature of an Odum respondent). Writing about poor whites in Chicago in 1968, the syndicated columnist Paul Harvey drew a practical connection for his readers: “Suppose a real-life likeness of TV’s Beverly Hillbillies should move to the big city without those millions of dollars in the bank.”13

The trio of sitcoms tapped into suspicions that modern America had failed to create a genuine melting pot; the cultural distance between rural and urban life, between rich and poor, was immense. Don Knotts’s slapstick character Barney Fife, Sheriff Andy’s bumbling cousin, didn’t belong in the big city any more than the corn cracker of Davy Crockett’s Almanack of 1837 did in the 1830s. Despite his drill sergeant’s unrelenting badgering, Gomer, the hapless private, failed to conform to military culture; he wasn’t fit for the Marines, let alone for white-collar corporate America. And the Clampetts may have bought a mansion in the heart of Hollywood, but they had not moved even one rung on the social ladder. They didn’t even try to behave like middle-class Americans.

Hal Humphrey of the Los Angeles Times observed in 1963 that the joy of watching The Beverly Hillbillies was linked to the fact that “most Americans are extremely class-conscious.” No matter what the plotline, every episode pitted the mercenary banker Milburn Drysdale, his “social-climbing wife,” and “boob” of a son (a young man of questionable virility) against the low-down Clampetts. In Humphrey’s opinion, the “Joe Doakses,” or average viewers, got to see a bunch of “ragged hill people,” who were “obviously … inferior,” outsmarting equally undeserving “big shots.” Theirs was, in short, a contest between “snobs” and “slobs.” As far as the critic was concerned, the show’s creator had come up with a formula that camouflaged class conflict with laughs. Finally, he joked, the class-bashing TV series “cashes in on Groucho Marx’s theory of class struggle—or was that Karl Marx?”14

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In the face of social upheaval, as so many old boundaries and prejudices shifted, Americans generally denied what they remained: highly class conscious. The interconnected civil rights movement and culture wars of the fifties and sixties were marked by social stratification. As ownership of a home in the suburbs came to represent the American dream, the most controversial housing option was, significantly, the trailer park. Segregation, then, was more than simply a racial issue. Zoning laws made it inevitable that housing would adhere to a class-delineated geography. The working class had its bowling alleys and diners, and “white trash” its trailer park slums, both of which contrasted sharply with the backyard barbecues of all-white neighborhoods in favored suburbs, zoned for the middle class. We forget that President Johnson’s Great Society programs targeted both urban ghettos and impoverished white areas of Appalachia. Vietnam has been referred to as the living-room war, yet on their black-and-white television sets in 1957, Americans had already watched a racial and class war, as angry poor whites screamed curses at well-mannered black students as they tried to enter Little Rock’s Central High School.

It is for reasons such as these that the poor country boy Elvis symbolized a lot of things for the generation that came of age in the fifties. While whitening African American music and challenging conservative sexual mores, he retained a social identity that was close to the story line of The Beverly Hillbillies. Here was a son of a white sharecropper, suddenly catapulted to a place of wealth and fame; he purchased Graceland, a mansion outside of Memphis, where he lived with his parents. For his beloved mother he bought a pink Cadillac, and to make the house truly a home she could appreciate, he built her a chicken coop in the backyard.15

As Elvis became the “country squire” of Graceland, middle-class Americans found themselves promoting the merits of suburbia more generally. Vice President Richard Nixon, for one, saw the expanding housing market as a powerful tool in waging Cold War diplomacy. In 1959, the world’s two superpowers agreed to a cultural exchange: the Soviets prepared an exhibit on Sputnik and space exploration, which was put on display in New York City; for its part, the United States chose an earthbound emblem of its national pride, a typical ranch-style home, which was set up in Sokolniki Park for the edification of Russian crowds.16

Speaking at the opening ceremony in Moscow, Nixon took stock of the thirty-one million American families that owned homes, the forty-four million citizens who drove fifty-six million cars, and the fifty million who watched their own television sets. At this opportunistic moment, the vice president did his best to wear multiple hats, sounding on the one hand like a Madison Avenue ad man, and on the other as a prophet of the new middle class. Either way, he explicitly denied being representative of a shallow materialism. The real wonder of America’s achievement, he professed, was that the “world’s largest capitalist country” had “come closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.” These words strike at the heart of the matter. For Nixon, the United States was more than a land of plenty. Democratic in its collective soul, it had nearly achieved a kind of utopia. For the first time in history, capitalism was not the engine of greed, aimed at monopolizing wealth and resources; free enterprise in the 1950s was a magic elixir that was succeeding in erasing class lines, especially through home ownership, or so he wanted it understood.17

The Nixons sold themselves as the perfect suburban family. Not long before his Moscow trip, the vice president and his family took a trip to Disneyland, which made the front pages. During the 1960 campaign, when Nixon contested John F. Kennedy for the presidency, it was Pat Nixon who praised her husband (and included herself) as the personification of the American dream. In anticipation of her husband’s nomination, she told reporters that their success embodied the promise of the postwar generation, “where people of humble circumstances can go up the ladder through sheer hard work and obtain what they work for.” If she happened to become First Lady, she said, she would be the first “working girl” ever to inhabit the White House. Republican marketers used Pat aggressively, producing tons of campaign materials that included badges, flags, brochures, combs, jewelry, and a variety of buttons, all of which boosted Pat as the ideal suburban homemaker. Party organizers stormed the barricades of suburban shopping centers with “Patmobiles” and “Pat Parades.” Unlike a stunning young Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy decked out in “French couture,” Pat Nixon picked her clothing off the store racks and chose those items she could easily pack.18

The Nixons hailed from Whittier, in southern California, an area of the Sunbelt that underwent dramatic changes from 1946 to 1970. As millions of Americans bought new homes, suburban enclaves arose in the orbit of metropolitan Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Miami, and elsewhere. One of the best-publicized housing developments of the era grew in Levittown on the outskirts of New York City. The Levitts thought big, putting up 17,400 houses and attracting 82,000 residents to their Long Island development. This sweeping success led them to construct two massive subdivisions in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Willingboro, New Jersey. As skilled promoters, the Levitts did more than simply build homes. Like their earliest progenitor, Richard Hakluyt of old Elizabethan England, they were planting self-sustaining colonies in the hinterland. The Levitts imagined suburbs as middle-class consumer outposts, geared for leisure activities: baseball fields, bicycle pathways, and swimming pools complemented commercially zoned areas for shopping centers.19

The key to the Levitts’ system was not just cheaper housing, but homogeneous populations—in their phrasing, “stabilized” neighborhoods. They meant racial and class homogeneity, which led them to endorse “restrictive covenants” prohibiting owners from selling their homes to black families. The Levitts knew the South, because their first large-scale project was an all-white facility for wartime workers in Norfolk, Virginia. By planting suburbs in quasi-rural areas, the Levitts recognized that the value of land was not determined by industry or commerce. As isolated outposts, land values were tied to the class status of the occupants. Buying a home here required the male breadwinner to have a steady income—a mark of the new fifties middle class.20

Levittown was dubbed a “garden community.” But the new style of tract homes uneasily occupied this rustic space. During the fifties, the pastoral image of suburbs was applied to all kinds of bedroom communities. Popular magazines featured wives tending their gardens, husbands grilling at their barbecues. This was a fanciful recasting of the Jeffersonian ideal: suburbanites were the new, let us say, “backyard yeomanry.” To add to the Jeffersonian call for exurban procreative strength, the new suburbs acquired unsubtle nicknames like “Fertile Acres,” owing to the high birthrates in young families. Yet many critics saw uniform homes and neat lawns as hollow symbols—a far cry from genuine democratic virtues.21

Instead of eliminating class distinctions, suburbs were turned into class-conscious fortresses. Zoning ordinances set lot sizes and restricted the construction of apartment buildings, emphasizing single-dwelling homes to keep out undesirable lower-class families. In Mahwah, New Jersey, for example, the local government attracted a Ford plant to the town, and then passed an ordinance that required one-acre lots containing homes in the $20,000 price range, ostensibly meaning that low-paid workers in the plant would have to live elsewhere. In New York’s Westchester County, the board of education agreed to build a deluxe school in a wealthy neighborhood, while doing nothing for schools in depressed-income areas where lower-class Italian and black families lived. In Los Angeles, suburbs were appraised by the Federal Housing Authority along class lines: high marks were given to places where gardening was a popular hobby, and low marks to places where poor whites raised food in their backyards. Elvis’s mother’s chicken coop would have been frowned upon.22

In this and other ways, the federal government underwrote the growth of the new suburban frontier. Tax laws gave homeowners who took out mortgages an attractive deduction. Government made it profitable for banks to grant mortgages to upstanding veterans and to men with steady jobs. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, created the Veterans Administration, which oversaw the ex-soldiers’ mortgage program. Together, the FHA and the VA worked to provide generous terms: Uncle Sam insured as much as 90 percent of the typical veteran’s mortgage, thereby encouraging lenders to provide low interest rates and low monthly payments. Along these same lines, when potential buyers queued up for Levittown homes, the builder initially privileged veterans. With such perks, it became cheaper for “desirable” white men to buy a home than to rent an apartment. And rather than lift up everyone, the system tended to favor those who were already middle class, or those working-class families with steady incomes.23

Suburban subdivisions encouraged buyers to live with their “own kind,” constantly sorting people by religion, ethnicity, race, and class. The esteemed architectural critic Lewis Mumford described Levittown as a “one-class community.” In 1959, the bestselling author and journalist Vance Packard summed up the suburban filtration process as “birds-of-a-feather flocking.” As we have so often seen, the importance of animal stock, and of “breed” generally, remained on the tip of the American tongue when idiomatic distinctions of class identity were being made.24

In 1951, the Levitts opened their second development, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, after U.S. Steel decided to build its Fairless Works in the area. It attracted steelworkers, as well as a community of construction workers who established a trailer camp. Although little actually separated the two working-class communities—the families were stable and had about the same number of children—the Levittowners felt that their community was a “symbol of middle-class attainment,” while the camp’s residents were labeled “trailer trash.” To expel the trailer families, local officials quickly passed ordinances. Offended local residents dismissed the trailer families as “transients,” saying that they should be “gotten rid of as soon as possible.” One of the arguments marshaled against the trailer enclave will sound familiar: the preservation of property values. The construction workers were deemed trash not because of their class background per se, but because they lived in trailers. It was their homes on wheels that carried the stigma.25

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The trailer occupies an important, if uncertain, place in the American cultural imagination. Representing on the one hand a symbol of untethered freedom, the mobile home simultaneously acquired its reputation as a “tin can,” a small, cheap, confined way of life. When you live in a trailer, you are literally rootless, and privacy disappears. Neighbors see and hear. At their worst, such places have been associated with liberty’s dark side: deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringe of the metropolis.

Trailers had been controversial since the 1930s. Aside from the sleek streamlined capsules that traverse the open road, these rickety boxes tend to be viewed as eyesores. Almost as soon as they were turned into permanent housing, many were associated with slums built on town dumps. As an object, the trailer is something modern and antimodern, chic and gauche, liberating and suffocating. Unlike the dull but safe middle American suburb, trailer parks contain folks who appear on the way out, not up: retired persons, migrant workers, and the troubled poor. This remains true today.

Prior to World War II, the first generation of trailers were jerry-rigged contraptions built in backyards, expressly used on hunting and fishing trips. When they hit the road in the thirties, right when Okies took to their jalopies along Route 66, one journalist called them “monstrosities,” shanties on wheels. War changed that. Faced with a severe housing shortage, the federal government purchased trailers for soldiers, sailors, and defense workers. As many as thirty-five thousand trailers were drummed into service, and because military and defense installations were everywhere, trailer towns suddenly popped up in unexpected places from Maine to Michigan to Texas. In places like Hartford, Connecticut, defense workers living in “trailer villages” were easily compared to colonists and gypsies.26

The most remarkable account of trailer camps formed in defense centers came from the talented reporter Agnes Meyer of the Washington Post. Her dispatches as a “war correspondent on the home front,” as she called herself, were compiled and published as a book titled Journey Through Chaos. Well-bred American women were not supposed to see “chaos” up close. Indeed, though her family considered higher education inappropriate for a young female, Meyer graduated from Barnard College, studied at the Sorbonne, published a scholarly work on Chinese painting, and became the first woman hired by the New York Sun. Momentously, she went on to marry a multimillionaire who decided to purchase the floundering Washington Post. Their daughter, Katharine Meyer Graham, grew up to be the most influential editor of the family’s paper.27

In 1943, Agnes Meyer was on a fact-finding expedition when she traveled to twenty-seven war centers. From Buffalo to Detroit, and all the way out to Puget Sound, Washington, south to California, and back east by way of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, she described the people she saw with unsparing detail. Her most disturbing encounters occurred, not surprisingly, in the Deep South. She shone a light on the rows of tents, trailers, and run-down shacks in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. She bemoaned the “neglected rural areas,” and called the white trash who migrated from there pitiful, ragged, illiterate, and undernourished. They had refused to move into respectable housing projects out of fear of the law—but mostly, Meyer believed, because they feared the “restraint of being members of a decent community.” Overwhelmed by the condition of their lives, by their physical and mental health and lack of prospects, she asked incredulously, “Is this America?”28

It was the shipyards that brought workers to Pascagoula. Nearly five thousand new workers and their families crowded the small town on the Gulf of Mexico, quickly unleashing a panic among local residents. Many of the workers were backwoods people, and their trailers were quite unsanitary. Meyer met a fifty-one-year-old man who looked eighty—a clear throwback to the 1840s, when clay-eaters were identified in the same way: old before their time. Townspeople denounced them as “vermin.” The manager of the shipyards told the weary female reporter that unless these people were lifted up, “they will pull the rest of the Nation down.” On to Mobile, where she learned that the illegitimacy rate was high and getting higher, and that a black-market trade in babies existed. By the time she reached Florida, she found the poor whites to be handsome on approach, but strange-looking as soon as they smiled and exposed sets of decaying teeth. Still, they were less repulsive to her than “the subnormal swamp and mountain folk” she had already encountered in Mississippi and Alabama.29

It was the southern war camps that set the tone, but after the war “trailer trash” became a generic term, no longer regionally specific. They appeared on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and Flint, Michigan, as well as in North Carolina and parts of the upper South. In far-off Arizona, trailer trash doubled as “squatters,” photographed in weedy areas and with outhouses in their front yards. To be displaced and poor was to be white trash.30

Trailer trash as squatters in Arizona (1950).

Photograph of mobile homes described as “squatters,” in Winkelman, Arizona (1950), #02-4537, Photograph Collection of the History and Archives Division of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Phoenix, Arizona

Responding to bad publicity, trailer manufacturers launched a campaign to dramatically change their image. By 1947, they were calling their product a “trailer coach,” emphasizing more attractive, more convenient interiors, so as to “woo the feminine trade.” The determined trailer manufacturers’ association pressed for improved trailer “parks”—an image that conjured well-manicured, family-friendly garden sites and was meant to cast off the temporary-sounding, refugee-bearing trailer “camps” of World War II. In sum, to make the mobile home more acceptable, manufacturers had to domesticate it. These sharp, socially attuned promoters worked hard to reinvent the trailer as a miniature suburban “bungalow-on-wheels.” They did everything they could to remove “trailer trash” from the American vocabulary.31

It proved difficult for the trailer to compete with the tract house. Potential buyers were placed at an economic disadvantage. The FHA did not get around to insuring mortgages for mobile homes until 1971, so until then, even though trailers were cheaper, owners faced other hidden costs and penalties. Trailer parks were exiled to the least desirable lots, a sorry distance from the nicer, better-protected residential areas. Many park managers forbade children and pets, the two most obvious attractions for young couples living in suburbia. More parks emerged with smaller lots, tiny lawns—or no lawns at all. In many cities and counties, even retirees found their welcome worn out, resented because they lived on tight budgets, contributed too little to commercial growth, and failed to pay property taxes.32

Hollywood captured the uneasy fit between suburban ideals and life on the road in a farcical film of 1954, The Long, Long Trailer, which starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The couple suffered mishap after mishap as they proved that mobile homes undermined privacy in general, and sex life in particular—not to mention providing inadequate space for the husband’s treasured golf clubs. The scene that makes the mobile home problem most disconcerting occurs when the ten-foot-wide trailer flattens a relative’s rosebushes, ruins her yard, and upends what began as a lovely home in a quaint neighborhood. Trailers were shown to be hazards and nuisances—out of place in the suburban dream landscape.33

As trailer living became increasingly popular, opposition grew apace. In the late fifties, more mobile homes were built than prefabricated homes, yet municipalities continued to look down on them. In 1962, in an important New Jersey court case, the majority ruled that a rural township could prohibit trailer parks within its limits. Still, the judge who wrote the dissent exposed the dangerous implications of this decision: “Trailer dwellers” had become a class of people, he explained, through which discrimination was tolerated under the vague language of protecting the “general welfare.” For at least this one jurist, inherited social biases had reduced the owners of mobile homes to “footloose, nomadic people,” a group of “migratory paupers.”34

Retailers and real estate agents once again sought to change public perceptions. Since they could not effectively regulate the quality of mobile home parks in general, they decided to add an upscale version, and turned to advertising more exclusive mobile home communities. To separate the dumpy and dirty trailer slums from five-star dwellings, they rebranded the upscale sites as “resorts.” “Trailer park” became a dirty word. Exchanging his coonskin cap for a Realtor’s jacket, the actor Fess Parker became an investor in and leading promoter of high-end trailer playgrounds. “Carefree living,” Parker boasted, coining a new motto for a new class. In the hands of Sunbelt speculators working hard to attract a lucrative clientele, trailer life was meant to invite comparisons to luxury hotels. Fess Parker’s resort in Santa Barbara offered ocean views, a golf course, and a stock market ticker tape.35

Davy Crockett’s call of the wild did not completely disappear either. Trailer life updated the once-catchy cry of the open road by declaring freedom from the thirty-year mortgage. In 1957, drawing on a playboy motif, a writer for Trailer Topics magazine promised a well-earned respite from the “well-harnessed Suburban life.” (The story was accompanying by a photograph of a sexy blonde sitting coquettishly on a trailer couch.) Other mobile home dealers promised residents freedom from the suburban rut and the tedious routine of playing “nursemaid to lawns, patios, and plumbing.”36

In Richard Nixon’s birthplace of Yorba Linda, California, what was called “primordial Nixon country,” a remarkable trailer community went up. (Nixon country meant Republican, conservative, and deeply class conscious.) Lake Park offered a “country club” style of living, replete with man-made lake, swimming pool, landscaped greenery, and gently winding streets; to a New York Times reporter, it was “suburbia in miniature.” The developers, two men from Los Angeles, spent three years trying to find a city hall in Orange County that would allow them to build, and were repeatedly turned down. In order to convince Yorba Linda officials that it was not their intent to impinge upon the class consciousness of existing residents, they recast the prospective community as a “private club,” highlighting the beautiful environment and ensuring that residents would pay added expenses to maintain their lots. When that was not enough, the developers added one final touch: a five-foot-high wall around the entire complex. As one city administrator observed, “We don’t even know they’re there.” Another local resident, without any apparent shame, admitted, “We call them ‘the people inside the wall,’ and we’re ‘the people outside the wall.’” Was there any better symbol of an undisguised belief in class stratification than the construction of a wall?37

But the Yorba Linda trailer community hardly fit the typical profile. Further down the scale, of course, were the many low-down trailer parks that dotted the map of America. By 1968, only 13 percent of mobile homeowners held white-collar jobs, and a sizable percentage of those who lived in the poorer trailer parks came from rural, mainly southern areas. Families that could not afford to buy a new trailer were buying or renting depreciated—that is, secondhand, possibly thirdhand--trailers. A new used market emerged, fueling what two sociologists called “Hillbilly Havens” that cropped up on the periphery of cities in the Sunbelt, the Midwest, and elsewhere. Scattered along highways, often near the railroad tracks, run-down trailer parks were barely distinguishable from junkyards. Trailer trash had become America’s untouchables.38

To make matters worse, poor and working-class trailer communities were believed to be dens of iniquity. The charge actually went back to the World War II “defense centers,” to which prostitutes migrated, in a scattering of whorehouses on wheels. By the fifties, pulp fiction, with such titles as Trailer Tramp and The Trailer Park Girls, told stories of casual sexual encounters and voyeurism. In the parlance of the day, the female trailer tramp “moved from town to town—from man to man.” Alongside such tales was Cracker Girl (1953), soft-porn pulp that titillated readers and capitalized on the thrill of crossing the tracks and getting sex on the lowdown. Tramps and trailer nomadism, like drugs and gambling, identified social disorder on the edge of town.39

The poor dominated the mobile home picture. In 1969, the thirteen Appalachian states were on the receiving end of 40 percent of mobile home shipments, and, not surprisingly, the cheapest models (under $5,000) headed for the hills. In 1971, New York City approved its first trailer park, after Mayor John Lindsay found support for a policy of housing the homeless in trailers. These were not Bowery bums, but people who were being uprooted as a result of urban renewal—yet somehow the solution was to stow them away in a most nonurban sort of accommodation. From Appalachia to the Big Apple, then, those without economic security and with the least political clout were seen as the most likely candidates for the trailer park.40

Cheap land, a plot of concrete and mud, and a junkyard trailer—the updated squatter’s hovel—became the measure of white trash identity. By the 1960s, class was deeply imprinted onto most residential landscapes through zoning, housing, and school funding. As rural southerners relocated to metropolitan areas in search of work, a new kind of class tribalism emerged. Poor whites fought for a shrinking territory, and class conflict was played out in residential spaces. Which brings us to Hazel Bryan and the crystalization of the modern media circus.41

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Nineteen fifty-seven was a crucial year of social experiment and consciousness-raising. Little Rock, Arkansas, grabbed national and international attention when Governor Orval Faubus thwarted the racial desegregation of Central High School. On September 4, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter the school building, but was blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. Outside the classroom building, reporters had gathered. Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat and Johnny Jenkins of the Arkansas Gazette set the tone for how the day would be remembered. Their almost identical photographs of the lone student’s stoic walk ahead of an angry crowd seemed to capture the way class and race were defined in the confrontation. Each of the photojournalists focused his lens on Eckford and the unnamed white girl behind her who was yelling insults, her face distorted. Eckford looked calm, was dressed modestly, and appeared earnest. Her white adversary wore a dress that was too tight, and as she propelled herself forward, menacingly, mouth agape, she projected the crude callousness of the recognized white trash type. That contrast was precisely what the photographers intended to record.42

The mysterious girl in the photo was one Hazel Bryan. A year later, at the age of sixteen, she would drop out of high school, marry, and go to live in a trailer. But it is what she was at fifteen that matters: the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the pathetic life into which she was born.

Hazel and her family were part of the influx of poor whites into Little Rock after World War II. Her father was a disabled veteran, unable to work; her mother held a job at the Westinghouse plant. They had left the small rural town of Redfield in 1951, when Hazel was ten. Her mother had married at fourteen to a man twice her age. Neither of Hazel’s parents had earned a high school degree, her father having joined the circus. Their Redfield home had had no indoor plumbing and an outdoor privy; the Bryans’ move to the city granted basic amenities that they had not enjoyed before. The house they purchased in Little Rock was in an all-white, working-class neighborhood in the southeastern section of the state capital.43

Hazel Bryan is the ugly face of white trash in Will Counts’s famous photograph taken on September 4, 1957.

Will Counts Collection, Indiana University Archives

The day after the photograph appeared, Hazel Bryan made herself visible once more, telling newsmen positioned outside the school that “whites should have rights, too.” If black students were let into Central High, she declared provocatively, then she would walk out. She knew enough about the social hierarchy in her adoptive hometown to understand that the reputation of working-class whites hinged on the system of segregation. Permeable racial boundaries would pull down people like her even further. A principal at Central High said that Hazel was known to have been beaten by her father, was emotionally unstable, and was not one of the “leading students” by any measure. As a troubled girl—a bad seed, one might say—she confirmed her dubious class origins by her antics.44

Benjamin Fine of the New York Times compared Hazel Bryan to one of the frenzied girls who attended Elvis Presley concerts. (Some of the reporters at Central High even egged on the high schoolers to dance rock and roll in the streets.) During the first attempt to usher the black students into the school, a student ran down the hall yelling, à la Paul Revere, “The niggers are coming.” Parents outside began screaming for their children to flee. A group of girls stood at a window, shrieking. Under the direction of teachers, the majority gradually filed out of the building, though some, including Hazel’s best friend, Sammie Dean Parker, later claimed to have leapt from the second-floor window.45

Two new schools had been built in Little Rock: Horace Mann High for black students, and R. C. Hall High (nicknamed “Cadillac High”) for the wealthy families on the west side of the city. Only Central High, built in the 1920s and catering mostly to working-class families, however, was selected for desegregation. Armis Guthridge of the Capital Citizens’ Council, the lead spokesman for antidesegregation forces, willfully fanned the flames of poor white resentment when he announced that the rich and well-to-do were going to see to it that the “only race-mixing that is going to be done is in the districts where the so-called rednecks live.” “Redneck” was a loaded term, as he well knew. His purpose was to remind the white working class of the city that the school board elites looked down on them.46

Arkansas governor Orval Faubus also exploited class rift. He distanced himself from the “Cadillac crowd” and constructed himself as the victim of upper-class arrogance. The national media painted him as the “hillbilly” from Greasy Creek, in the Ozarks. Time caught him entertaining visitors as “milk dribbled down his chin”; he could be heard “belching gustily” like a backcountry rube. A large photograph in Life identified as the governor’s “kinfolk” one Taylor Thornberry, a cross-eyed, crazy-looking man in overalls. At a private meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, away from the unfolding drama, President Eisenhower tried to convince Faubus to accept the court-ordered desegregation plan; the southern governor left the meeting angry and humiliated. He later admitted that he knew full well that Eisenhower’s advisers had thought him as nothing more than a “country boy.”47

From the start of the crisis, Faubus used dual fears of racial and class violence to justify ordering the Arkansas National Guard to Central High School. In his announcement the day before the school year opened, he claimed to have reports of white “caravans” ready to descend upon Little Rock from numerous outlying areas. Whether or not a race war would arise from the conflict, he let it be known that white thugs, rabble-rousers, and rednecks were contending for a place in history.48

Taylor Thornberry, the cross-eyed kin of Orval Faubus, as depicted in Life magazine (1957). His features underscored Faubus’s hillbilly and degenerate roots.

Life magazine, September 23, 1957 Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Faubus loved playing the redneck card. His continued defiance infuriated Eisenhower, who dispatched the 101st Airborne Division and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. Military protection ensured that the nine black students slated to attend Central High were not barred. On the national stage, and standing before the cameras, the governor of Arkansas embodied the southern stereotype to a tee. He was a complete caricature of folly and backwardness. A reporter for Time accused him of “manufacturing the myth of violence” and then “whipping up” a mob to make it a reality.49

Little Rock was the most important domestic news story of 1957. It transformed the Central High neighborhood into a newsroom, attracting reporters from the major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. By the end of September, the number of press people had grown from a handful to 225 highly visible journalists and cameramen. The standoff between the courts and the governor—the “crisis” environment swirling about the school grounds—grabbed the world’s attention. On September 24, when President Eisenhower gave a televised speech announcing that he would send troops to the Arkansas capital, 62 percent of America’s television sets were tuned in. As mobs descended, reporters were themselves targeted for violence. A black journalist, Alex Wilson, was beaten and kicked, the attack recorded on film. A Life photographer was punched in the face and then carried off in a police wagon and charged with disorderly conduct. “Thugs in the crowd” pushed his colleagues, said newsman John Chancellor, and heckled them with nasty slurs. One reporter took the precaution of disguising himself. He rented a pickup truck and wore an old jacket and no tie. For a reporter to go undercover safely, he had to alter his class appearance, passing as a poor white workingman.50

The media easily slipped into southern stereotypes, depicting the “many in overalls,” “tobacco-chewing white men,” or as one New York Times article highlighted, a “scrawny, rednecked man” yelling insults at the soldiers. Local Arkansas journalists similarly dismissed the demonstrators as “a lot of rednecks.” Unruly women who stood by became “slattern housewives” and “harpies.” One southern reporter said it outright: “Hell, look at them. They’re just poor white trash, mostly.” In Nashville, mob violence erupted that same month, after the integration of an elementary school. There, a Time reporter had a field day trashing the women in the crowd: “vacant-faced women in curlers and loose-hanging blouses,” not to mention a rock-throwing waitress with a tattooed arm. One obnoxious woman yelled to no one in particular with reference to the African American children: “Pull their black curls out!”51

These were all predictable motifs, serving to distance rabble-rousers from the “normal” good people of Arkansas and Tennessee. Even President Eisenhower, in his televised speech, blamed the violence on “demagogic extremists,” and assumed that the core population of Little Rock were the law-abiding, taxpaying, churchgoing people who did not endorse such behavior. If the women in curlers and the waitress boasting her tattoos reminded readers of trailer trash, the rioting rednecks were more like the wild-eyed, off-his-rocker Ernest T. Bass of The Andy Griffith Show. By 1959, the Times Literary Supplement acknowledged that it was the “ugly faces” of “rednecks, crackers, tar-heels, and other poor white trash” that would be forever remembered from Central High.52

Despite the embarrassment he caused, Orval Faubus did not disappear. Freed from the national media spotlight, he secured reelection in 1958, and went on to serve three more terms. As a governor who refused to lay down his arms, he continued to portray himself as a staunch defender of white people’s democratic right to oppose “forced integration.” Praising his “doggedness,” one southern journalist traced Faubus’s characteristic strength to his Ozark mountain days, when he trudged five miles, dressed in overalls, to a dilapidated school. A hillbilly could get ahead down here. Thus Faubus strategically accepted a loss of support from among the better classes, who resented redneck power in any form. Like Mississippi’s Vardaman and his own state’s Jeff Davis before him, Orval Faubus used the threat of poor white thuggery to stay in power. And it worked.53

In the same year that Little Rock consumed the news media, Hollywood produced a feature-length film that capitalized on the redneck image. Starring Andy Griffith and directed by Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd was a completely differently vehicle for Griffith than his subsequent television role as the friendly sheriff. It was a dark drama that followed “Lonesome Rhodes,” a down-and-out man discovered playing guitar in an Arkansas jail, and traced his rapid rise into the national limelight as a powerful and ruthless TV star. For reviewers, Griffith’s performance was a cross between Huey Long and Elvis Presley—a hollering, singing “redneck gone berserk with power.”54

The plot of A Face in the Crowd was only a part of its story. The surrounding publicity focused on Kazan’s directing technique. To get Griffith into character, he exploited the actor’s childhood memories of being called white trash. In this way, it was an unusual film, and it offered a two-part message about class. First, it reminded audiences of the danger in elevating a lower-class redneck above his accustomed station and giving him power—for the redneck personality on-screen was a volatile mix of anger, cunning, and megalomania. Second, Kazan’s exploitation of the backstory on Griffith delivered a stern rebuke of southern culture, where the poor were treated like dirt.55

Kazan tried his hand at another southern story, this time set during the Depression. Wild River (1960) concerned the TVA, as the construction of a dam was displacing an old matriarch and her family who were living on an island in the Tennessee River. The matriarch’s sons were shown as lazy and oafish, unwilling to work or leave the island, and dependent on the black sharecroppers who farmed their fields. The daughter was a bit trampish, more than willing to sleep with the TVA agent because she saw him as her only ticket off the island. A group of surly whites beat up the agent while the local sheriff and his deputy looked on. As in the earlier film, Kazan provoked a news story when he cast real poor whites to play the extras. The “white trash squatters” of the film lived in a place called Gum Hollow, which was an existing shantytown literally situated on the town dump in Cleveland, Tennessee. Community leaders were furious at the appearance of such unappealing men in the movie. Kazan gave in to pressure and reshot the offending scenes, this time hiring what the townspeople referred to as “respectable” unemployed. In this strange episode, proud small-town arbiters of morality refused even to acknowledge the extreme poor.56

While Kazan’s films reached middle- and upper-brow audiences, another film of the era was geared for drive-ins and became a smash hit in 1961. This was the second incarnation of Poor White Trash, which had first been released under the title Bayou in 1957 and flopped. An aggressive and slick marketing campaign turned this turkey into a hit. Exploiting the new title, the production company placed provocative ads in newspapers: “It exists Today! … Poor White Trash.” To entice prurient adults, the cagey promoters warned local communities that no children would be permitted to see the movie. But the film turned out to be less lurid than voyeuristic. Its most fascinating scene featured a massively built poor white Cajun (played by Timothy Carey, an actor from Brooklyn) performing a wild, almost autoerotic dance. Learning his moves from Elvis, the sweaty, shaking giant doubled as a frightening ax-wielding bully from the swamps. Oversexed and violent was the featured poor white, a primal breed.57

Of all the films that belong to this cultural moment, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) was the most highly regarded, and offered the most damning picture of poor whites. Based on Harper Lee’s bestselling novel, it tells the story of a small southern town in the thirties. The movie highlights the limits of justice in a society where law and order give way to a defunct code of southern honor. A black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. Watching the trial, the audience becomes the jury, one might say, forced to choose between the hardworking family man and the pathetic, ill-educated girl. Does race trump class, or does class trump race? This is the choice the audience must make. Robinson represents the worthy, law-abiding blacks in the community. He is honest and honorable. The Ewells are white trash.58

Viewers never see the Ewells’ dilapidated cabin, which in the novel Harper Lee describes as the “playhouse of an insane child.” Nor do viewers see the white trash family picking through the town dump. Lee’s eugenic allusions are muted in the film, but the viciousness of Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, is underscored. He spits in the face of Atticus Finch, Robinson’s heroic, morally impeccable defense attorney played by Gregory Peck, and he attempts to murder Finch’s two children. Of course, nothing could be more insidious than child murder. There is only one possible verdict for Bob Ewell. Just as Atticus Finch shoots a “mad dog” in the street, the same fate awaits the vicious, vengeful poor white villain in the film’s denouement. It is not the father who resorts to violence, though; it is his ghostly neighbor, Boo Radley. A social outcast with a troubled past, Radley acts the part of a guardian angel, saving the children on Halloween night.59

The Ewells may have been caricatures, as the New York Times movie critic directly claimed, but they were familiar ones. Hollywood did not expose the seamy economic conditions of poor whites so much as emphasize their dark inner demons. By the fifties, “redneck” had come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry. The actor playing Bob Ewell was scrawny, and one reviewer even called him “degenerate,” suggesting the persistence of the older hereditary correlation between a shriveled body and a contracted mind. Sensationalizing redneck behavior did not just occur on the big screen, however. In Nashville, in 1957, the racist troublemaker at the head of the mob (with an affected southern accent) was a paid agitator from Camden, New Jersey.60

For filmmakers, the allure of redneck characters was doubled-edged. On the one hand, they were ready-made villains; on the other, they were men without inhibitions. Unrestrained and undomesticated, they stood in sharp contrast to the boxed-in suburbanite and could occasionally be appreciated for their earthy machismo. Sloan Wilson’s male protagonist in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), another novel made into a Hollywood film, starring Gregory Peck, was a pale imitation of the primal Cajun doing his dance to drumbeats. James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and even Timothy Carey, as poor white trash, were all unreformed Americans, undomestic and unconventional. They planted a wild seed, taunting conformist male spectators who might be itching to break loose.61

“Redneck” and “white trash” were often used interchangeably, though not everyone agreed that the two were synonymous. In A Southerner Discovers the South (1938), Jonathan Daniels had insisted that not all humbly born southern men were “po’ whites.” He gave as examples Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, southern folk whose “necks were ridged and red with the sun.” He thus divided the poor into two camps: the worthy, hardworking poor who strove to move up the social ladder, and the vulgar and hopeless who were trapped on its lowest rung. His worthy poor, having the “stout, earthy qualities of the redneck,” borrowed from the older class of yeoman, a category that no longer meant what it once had. That said, Daniels’s observation was not historically accurate: as we know, Jackson was vilified by his enemies as a violent, lawless cracker, and Lincoln was disparagingly termed a poor white “mudsill.” But even Daniels had to admit that many other southerners defined the redneck as one who was “raised on hate.” He despised blacks and demeaned “nigger lovers.” In the mold of Bob Ewell, he stood prepared to stick a knife in the back of any who crossed him. That, then, was the label that stuck.62

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And what about the hillbilly? Though redneck and hillbilly were both defined by the American Dialect Society in 1904 as “uncouth countrymen,” the following regional distinction was offered: “Hill-billies came from the hills, and the rednecks from the swamps.” Like rednecks, hillbillies were seen as cruel and violent, but with most of their anger directed at neighbors, family members, and “furriners” (unwelcomed strangers). Like the legendary Hatfields and McCoys in the 1880s, they were known for feuding and explosive bouts of rage. When they weren’t fighting, they were swilling moonshine and marrying off their daughters at seven. Like the squatter of old, they were supposedly given to long periods of sloth. Stories spread of shotgun marriages, accounts of barefoot and pregnant women. In a 1933 study of an isolated community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a woman being interviewed blurted out that marriage meant she was “goin’ to have her number” (of children). “I done had mine,” she explained. “Fifteen. Nine living and six dead.”63

Hollywood released Mountain Justice in 1938, a film based on the actual murder trial of “the Hill-billy girl” Ruth Maxwell, who had slain her father in self-defense when he came at her in a drunken rage. In coverage of the trial, Maxwell’s home of Wise County, Virginia, was described as a place where “slattern women and gangling men take up the dull business of living.” Warner Brothers made the film both hokey and violent. The film’s technical adviser told the studio to ship in “six coon hounds, 30 corncob pipes, 43 plugs of chewing tobacco,” and over a thousand yards of calico—all to make sure that a very dim portrait of mountain ways was presented. Advance promotion promised a “Gripping Melodrama of Lust and Lash.” The most shocking on-screen moment occurs as Ruth’s father towers over her with an enormous bullwhip.64

The thirties and forties saw the popularity of Li’l Abner as well as Paul Webb’s cartoon strip The Mountain Boys. Webb’s work was converted into a slapstick film, Kentucky Moonshine (1938), featuring the popular Ritz Brothers comedy team—it was a hillbilly version of The Three Stooges. A trio of New Yorkers disguise themselves as hillbillies, appearing in long, unkempt black beards while wearing tall conical hats and ragged pants (held up by ropes) exposing their dirty bare feet. The Grand Ole Opry radio station got its start in the same decade, and music groups appeared with names like the Beverly Hillbillies. Minnie Pearl, known for her famous hillbilly greeting, “Howdee,” began her career on the Opry in the 1940s, and later became a star of the long-running television series Hee Haw. She was by no means an authentic mountain gal. “Minnie” was born into a wealthy family, was well educated, and crafted a naïve persona that made her vaudeville act a success. The hillbilly “Minnie” was so out of touch with mainstream America that she wore her trademark hat with the price tag still attached.65

By the forties, then, hillbilly was a stage act, and a kind of catchall name for country folk. Politicians took up the role too, offering a milder version of the theatrics of Mississippi’s “White Chief” James Vardaman and Louisiana’s Huey Long. A sharecropper’s son named Jimmy Davis became Louisiana’s governor in 1944. Though he gamely called himself “just a po’ country boy,” Davis was peculiarly able to straddle class divisions. He was country crooner, a Hollywood actor (in westerns, of course), and a history professor. As one newspaper observed, the “hillbilly in Long’s Chair” was a new political breed. He didn’t yell, or give long harangues, or wave his arms, or make empty promises. He was, concisely put, a hillbilly with a touch of style. Of course, he was not beyond Hollywood theatrics either, riding a horse up the steps of the state capitol.66

As distinctive as he was, Jimmy Davis was not the only one of his kind. In 1944, Idaho matched Louisiana by electing the “Singing Cowboy” Glen Taylor to the U.S. Senate. Even earlier, Texas voters were charmed by the hillbilly ballads and good ol’ radio platitudes of Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour merchant whom they first sent to the governor’s mansion, then to the U.S. Senate. It was Lyndon Johnson, in fact, whom the Ohio-reared O’Daniel defeated in the 1941 Senate race. Missouri boasted the only Republican in the bunch, a candidate named Dewey Short. He did not sing, but still earned the affectionate nickname “Hillbilly Demosthenes.” As a philosophy professor, ordained preacher, and congressman, he wore several hats. His style did not borrow from the ancient Greek oratorical tradition, but relied instead on caustic, alliterative adjectives. He creatively called Congress a “supine, subservient, soporific, supercilious, pusillanimous body of nitwits,” and maligned FDR’s vaunted Brain Trust as “professional nincompoops.” Short’s constituency, described in the press as the cornpone crowd, kept reelecting him because he spiced up his prose with a fine assortment of sassy flourishes.67

Why this fascination with the hillbilly? In 1949, an Australian observer described this phenomenon best. Americans had a taste for what he called a “democracy of manners,” which was not the same as real democracy. He meant that voters accepted huge disparities in wealth but at the same time expected their elected leaders to “cultivate the appearance of being no different from the rest of us.”68

The positive mythology about hillbillies suited such appeals to authenticity. Beyond the image of feuding and wasting time fishing, hillbillies also tapped into a set of golden age beliefs: they were isolated, primitive, and rough on the outside yet practiced a kind of genuine democracy. They were once again William Goodell Frost’s rustic Americans of pure Anglo-Saxon blood. The fantasy underwent a revival during the 1940s and 1950s, in the form of stories of plain, honest mountain people with “no respect for money, nor fame, or caste.” But the vaudeville antics never lost their appeal either. Some hillbilly bands became glamorous, and a female performer named Dorothy Shay launched her career in 1950 by playing the “Park Avenue Hillbilly.” She dressed as a city sophisticate while singing “happy-go-lucky” tunes.69

The quintessential pop icon of the 1950s, Elvis Presley, was, some believed, part hillbilly. One of his earliest performances was billed as “The Hillbilly Jamboree,” and took place at Pontchartrain Beach near New Orleans in 1955, where the “Miss Hillbilly Dumplin’ Contest” was also held. He also toured with Andy Griffith. In the early years, Elvis’s musical style was seen as a mixture between hillbilly singing and rhythm and blues. In 1956, the music reviewer for the Times-Picayune was relieved to discover that the “self-confessed country boy” singing about his blue suede shoes lacked an “exaggerated hillbilly dialect.” That same year, Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood gossip columnist, was just as relieved to find that Elvis had not been offered the film part of Li’l Abner.70

The real Elvis was not a hillbilly at all. He was a poor white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. He was the son of a sharecropper. He was born into poverty in a shotgun shack situated in the wrong part of town. Yet when he put a guitar in his hand and millions ogled at his frenzied (some thought violent) dance moves, he was at once seen as defying middle-class norms and behaving as a sort of hillbilly—well suited to his new home of Tennessee. A friend of his confirmed the hillbilly image when he remarked to a reporter in 1956 that all Elvis had to do was “jes’ show hisself and the gals git to thrashin’ round and pantin’ like mountain mules.”71

And so it was in 1956 that country music, pop culture, and class politics all came together on the national stage. That year, Tennessee’s governor, Frank Clement, became the Democratic Party’s golden (country) boy. He was chosen to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an honor that placed him in the running for the vice presidential nomination. In anticipation of Clement’s big speech, a writer for the Nation called the thirty-five-year-old, six-foot-tall, dark-haired governor “one of the handsomest men in American politics.” He was known for stumping in the Tennessee mountains, and folks admired him for his “barefoot boy sincerity”—a clear allusion to the “honest hillbilly” myth. Even his store-bought suits projected allegiance to the common man: the “type of rig a successful mountain man would wear on a visit to Nashville.”72

His countrified eloquence covered the full range of registers: his voice boomed, then sank to a whisper, or, as one reporter claimed, he “sang like a mountain fiddle and died away.” He used brimstone threats and usually ended with a prayerful benediction. Like Dewey Short, he lit up with alliteration. To top it all off, he had the support of the grandest hillbilly governor, “Big Jim” Folsom of Alabama, who stood six foot eight and was known for taking his shoes off onstage and campaigning with his “strawberry-pickers,” as the Folsom band was called. In 1954, at a large Democratic primary gathering, he told Clement to use all his powers on the rostrum, saying he should “go out there guttin’, cuttin’, and struttin.” “Kissing Jim,” fond of whiskey and women, gave his blessing to the flamboyant Clement.73

John Steinbeck, the famed author of The Grapes of Wrath, wrote one of the most revealing appraisals of Clement’s keynote address. He adjudged that the governor had a future, whether it was in “statesmanship or musical comedy”; he saw the Democrat as part “old country boy” and part Elvis, with a dash of Billy Graham and Liberace as well. As Steinbeck put it, Clement’s voice had the “frayed piercing painfulness of a square dance fiddle,” and “in his most impassioned and rehearsed moments, … a refined bump and grind.” While the author thought Clement would shake up the party in a good way, at the same time he was suggesting that the “corn-shucker” style was a regional taste that might not be so easily cultivated elsewhere.74

Steinbeck identified the crux of the southern politician problem: was the governor merely a rabble-rousing entertainer, or could he truly speak for the whole nation? Reflecting on his bright moment from the perspective of 1964, Clement said he knew that people were cheering his speech, but he was just as sure that some in the audience were laughing at him. That year, the Texan Horace Busby, a special assistant to President Johnson, told Bill Moyers that LBJ, with his southern drawl, should in effect be the anti-Clement when he delivered his nomination acceptance speech. “Forensics should be modern, untinged with an old fashioned style,” Busby said. “Alliteration should be minimized.”75

The Tennessee governor with the Elvis-like movements did not win the vice presidential nomination in 1956. Second place on the ticket went instead to Senator Estes Kefauver, another Tennessean, but one who expressed a somewhat softer hillbilly persona—after all, he had earned a Yale degree. Back in 1948, Kefauver had worn a coonskin cap when he ran for office, after his opponent called him a sneaky “pet coon” who was flirting with communism. In 1956, Kefauver was meant to add to the presidential ticket what one reporter aptly referred to as the “calculated common touch”—the point being that there was nothing authentic about Kefauver’s pose. He was a “spurious hillbilly,” a cheap ploy to offset presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s lack of popular appeal. The Illinoisan was called an “egghead,” a bore. Stevenson and Kefauver lost, of course.76

Meanwhile, Clement hosted Elvis at the governor’s mansion, and in 1958 did the performer a good turn by speaking before a Senate Communications committee in defense of hillbilly music and rock and roll. Vance Packard, author of the bestselling Hidden Persuaders, was testifying before the committee, insisting that mountain music was polluting the national taste. An outraged Clement defended hillbillies as pure Elizabethans and their “nasal harmonies” as a genuine expression of the American dream. A tart Chicago reporter comically expressed his surprise that the governor “did not volunteer to fight a duel with accordions at ten paces.”77

Kefauver of Tennessee was a traditional liberal, Folsom of Alabama a populist, and Clement of Tennessee a moderate on race issues; yet they all had to play the showman to get ahead in political life. Clement had set his sights on higher national office, only to be shut down on the night of his keynote address. It was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the seasoned Texan, who—alone among the rural southern contingent that threw their hats into the vice presidential ring during the 1950s and 1960s—eventually captured the presidency on his own accord.

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As mastermind and deal maker in the Senate, Majority Leader Johnson was considered the second most powerful man in the nation after the president. He was an admirer of Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “great compromiser.” (As president, he would hang Clay’s portrait in the Oval Office.) Cultivating an at times paternalistic role among Senate Democrats, Johnson kept close watch on his colleagues’ tastes and interests. “A man who can’t smell the mood of the Senate,” he professed, “has no business being leader.” He seemed a cross between a schoolteacher (which he had been) and a sheriff, a tougher, more fearsome version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry character. What he had in common with the television sheriff was the rustic art of personal persuasion. His repertoire involved storytelling, verbal cudgeling, and physical contact, and he profited from an intimate knowledge of the psychology and personal quirks of every senator with whom he did business. The Senate was that “small town” over which Lyndon Johnson held sway as its modern-day lawman.78

When he accepted the largely thankless position of vice president in 1960, Johnson became Kennedy’s dutiful lieutenant. Only his unexpected elevation to the presidency on November 22, 1963, altered the public’s reception to his earthy southern persona. For a time, he acquired the kind of sympathy he had never enjoyed previously among the liberal intellectuals of his party. He was neither cool nor sophisticated like JFK, whose outward style reflected the jaunty confidence of his privileged upbringing. While some in the press continued to disparage his down-home ways, his close associates countered by insisting that he was “not some cornball rural hick.” Nevertheless, like the southern politician of the hillbilly school, LBJ loved to be flamboyant. On the campaign trail, he used his Texas vernacular to forge an intimate bond with the crowds. One columnist praised him for “digging down deeply into the basic urges of ordinary people.” Country-boy traits treated as liabilities before 1963 suddenly became an asset as the nation grieved the loss of its young president.79

In 1963, LBJ’s tour in Kentucky included photographs of the president conversing with poor Appalachian families.

#215-23-64, Inez Kentucky, LBJ Library Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas

Johnson’s signature set of programs known as the Great Society attached to a different, and positive, variant of his southern identity. Upon passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the president flew to Stonewall, Texas, to sign the bill at the one-room schoolhouse where he had taught during the Great Depression. While there, he referred to himself the “son of a sharecropper.” His willingness to tackle poverty could be traced to his embrace of a modern South. In 1960, when he first ran for president, he echoed Howard Odum’s creed: his goal was to prevent a “waste of resources, waste of lives, or waste of opportunity.” By the time he launched the Great Society, the legislation he promoted focused on two distinct classes: the poor urban black population and the mountain folk of Appalachia. Seeing the Great Society as the new New Deal, Johnson connected his reform to the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, invoking her sentimental appeal to hillbillies. Lady Bird Johnson went to the Kentucky hills, where she distributed lunches and dedicated a new school gym; her husband sat himself down and talked with families.80

As they followed him on his five-state tour, cameramen captured images of the president on the porches of run-down shacks, affectionately listening to the mountain people—it was nothing if not a James Agee/Walker Evans flashback to the thirties. The problems facing Appalachia were acute: a high rate of joblessness compared to the rest of the country (in some places three or four times the national average); deteriorating housing; an uneducated workforce; and a ravaged environment wrought by strip mining. Mountain farm families had been stripped of the legal right to their property when coal-mining companies, aided by state courts, were given the prerogative to ruin fields, destroy forests, build roads wherever they chose, and pollute the water supply. In the end, the Johnson administration secured passage of the Appalachian Regional Development Act, providing infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. The president subsequently stated that seeing the poverty there firsthand had convinced him of the necessity of the Medicare Act. And so fighting rural poverty remained a central plank in Johnson’s overall “War on Poverty.” But even these bold policies proved inadequate to manage the massive devastation that the blighted regional economy had already experienced.81

Lyndon Johnson was aware of every detail as he went about fashioning his public image. The hat he wore was not a ten-gallon cowboy, but a modified five-gallon version with a narrower brim. This was LBJ: a modified, modernized southerner. When he sought aid for Appalachia, he imagined himself as a kindly benefactor, making the “cold indifferent” government newly responsive to the “little fella.” He offered homespun logic in defense of basic human decency: “No American family should settle for anything less than three warm meals a day, a warm house, a good education for their children … and sometimes simply to plain enjoy life.” This was the Johnsonian translation of FDR’s 1944 exhortation on behalf of a second Bill of Rights that included “the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation,” “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” “the right of every family to a decent home,” and “the right to a good education.”82

In private, though, Johnson was not always kind to poor rural whites. He had this to say about white trash on driving through Tennessee and seeing a group of “homely” women holding up racist signs: “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Like the Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner, LBJ knew about the debilitating nature of false poor white pride. As president, he never lost sight of how central class and race were to the fractured culture of the South.83

Johnson’s promises did not convince his critics on either the left or the right. Malcolm X called him the “head of the Cracker Party.” In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff put together a fear-filled movie that showcased disturbing scenes of urban violence, pornography, topless girls, and striptease joints. Johnson’s name was never mentioned, but in the middle of the thirty-minute harangue on “American Decay,” a Lincoln Continental comes speeding across the dusty countryside as beer cans are jettisoned from the half-open window. It was a less-than-subtle caricature of LBJ on an aimless escapade along the perimeter of his Texas ranch, thereby reducing the tall Texan to a common redneck. (Jimmy Carter’s ne’er-do-well brother Billy would later say that a redneck threw his beer cans out the window, while a good ol’ boy did not.) Goldwater’s campaign revived the eugenic theme of moral degeneracy, as it turned the sitting president into a symbol of white trash. LBJ’s Lincoln said something. The larger-than-life president plainly indulged a defiant impulse when he drove around his ranch at high speeds while consuming beer from a paper cup. For one Time photographer, he posed behind the wheel and held up a squealing piglet for view. Taunting reporters was an exhibition of his country humor.84

The car one was seen in registered class in a very special way in the fifties and sixties and defined transgression as well as belonging. Elvis owned several Cadillacs, a Lincoln, and a Rolls-Royce. But when driven by the wrong class of people, the luxury car only exaggerated the underlying discomfort Americans felt about upward mobility. Nothing better captured this anxiety than the specially built padded seat in Elvis’s favorite Cadillac that was reserved for his pet chimpanzee Scatter. The owners of beautiful vehicles were supposed to display breeding that matched the glossy magazine advertisements readers flipped through. A lower-class man did not look right exploiting the fantasy of freedom by leaving the restraints of an imposed class identity in the rearview mirror. That was Elvis and his chimp. That was LBJ too, at least for those stodgy critics who insisted on seeing him as a Texas country bumpkin and not a Washingtonian.85

Even Arkansas senator William Fulbright, a Johnson ally who leaned in a liberal direction, complained that Elvis symbolized the class hierarchy turned upside down: “the King” earned more than the president. George McGovern of South Dakota was disturbed that Elvis earned more than the combined annual salaries of all the faculty members at the average university. And for what? The New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther lashed out: “grotesque singing” and “orgiastic” leg shaking.86

In mass media culture, lower-class delinquency was seen as something that could be contracted from pop idols. The “Mothers for a Moral America” that sponsored the negative campaign film about LBJ agreed, and linked his ostensible redneck ways to the danger of class disorder. As one of the Goldwater filmmakers explained, leadership at the top conditioned life at the bottom: if a president’s behavior was too common, too coarse, he gave license to immoral, lower-class desires. Wealth without hard work, sex without marriage, and success without proper breeding were all danger signs. Society suffered.87

Goldwater supporters may have seen Johnson’s behavior as that of a degenerate white trash father figure, but liberal reformers considered behaviors that attended poverty to be a matter of breeding as well. New terms reinforced pedigree: “the culture of poverty,” “the poverty cycle,” the “underendowed.” Class still retained strong hints of the vocabulary of bloodlines and inheritance in the transformational decade of the 1960s.88

Nor had class wholly divorced itself from the land as a source of identity. One of the most influential intellectuals of the decade, John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard, identified “islands” of poverty amid a society of affluence. Socialist Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America (1962) was instrumental in shaping policy debates, noted that the poor occupied an “invisible land,” a territory hidden from the social awareness of a middle class now living in safe, segregated suburbs. Harrington discussed the economic “rejects,” whom he identified as expendables, exiled from mainstream America’s pleasingly productive, upwardly mobile workforce. The old English idea of dumping the poor in a distant colonial outpost was not quite buried. Out of sight, out of mind.89

In his consideration of the ill-served underclass, Johnson, too, thought in terms of soil. The poor were, in his words, the “little folks living on little lands who want what we already have.” He had in mind the sharecropper of history who dreamt of acquiring a meaningful tract of land. Johnson retained his own attachment to the “harsh caliche soil” of the Texas hill country, acknowledging that his strength came from the “rough, unyielding sticky clay soil.” Lady Bird Johnson felt that it was the land of his youth that made him so unrelenting in his politics. Johnson reversed the older notion that living on wasteland killed the human spirit. Instead of being stuck in the clay, Johnson saw himself as having surmounted his class origins with the same drive that was needed to overcome the unforgiving land.90

James Reston of the New York Times captured Johnson on the day of his inauguration in 1965. Here was a man speaking both the “faith of the old frontier” and the new frontier of science. Here was a man who “spoke every word as if it was his last”; “nobody watching him up close could doubt his sincerity.” In LBJ, Reston found a full-blown “dramatization of the American dream,” the “poor boy, the country boy at the pinnacle of the world.”91

Two weeks later, Johnson spoke to students in the Senate Youth Program. He confidently assured them that it was not important who their ancestors were, or what the color of their skin was, or whether they were born to a tenant farmer and lived in a three-room house. In fact, though, he knew that all these things did matter. The country boy might have been enjoying his moment in the sun just then, but he knew in his heart that his place among the power elite was not really secured; he was not fully accepted. A country boy might at any moment reveal some telltale sign of a white trash character. He might say something inappropriate. He could never conceal the artless drawl or dust off the sticky red clay. Indelible marks of class identity were forever stamped on him, no matter how far he wandered from the inhospitable land of his birth.92