06/10/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2012

The South's New Race Game: Hard History, Ugly Democracy, and Practical Politics

At his 1963 inauguration in Montgomery, Governor George C. Wallace pledged racial defiance forever in the heart of Dixie:

"In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny... and I say... segregation today... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever."

A few short months later, in his "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated an alternate vision of Southern race relations:

"I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Neither of these guys -- the two most prominent protagonists in Southern racial history -- had a clue back then about how Alabama and the South would look a half-century later. Little did Wallace and King know that, as I will illustrate, both races would embrace ironic and un-visionary accommodations in the 21st century.

King was killed by an assassin's bullet five years after his "Dream" speech; so he never saw the fruits of his labor. Wallace was shot and paralyzed a decade after his inaugural remarks about "segregation forever"; he died years later, a changed politician and repentant man grieving about his role in history and history books.

So, what would I tell King and Wallace about Alabama and the South if somehow I could communicate with them today? How would I explain -- from my perspective and position inside Southern politics -- about where we are now? And how did we mangle history and democracy to get here?

A Tale of Hard History, Ugly Democracy, Practical Politics

Sadly, I would have to admit to them that racism extends into the new century. But I also would relate an intriguing story of evolving race relations in this region.

That story -- as told in this series of posts -- is that the South changed unpredictably and considerably, for practical reasons embraced by both blacks and whites, since the civil rights movement; and in many respects, this region now practices an ironic but somewhat normalizing version of national politics.

Then, for rhetorical purposes, I would ask Dr. King and Gov. Wallace to imagine Rosa Parks finally agreeing to ride in the back of the bus, now equipped with La-Z-Boy recliners across that back row. Imagine Bull Connor serving Southern sweet iced tea to demonstrators as they stroll amiably along the sidewalks of Birmingham. Picture the Bloody Sunday marchers being shuttled respectfully from Selma to Montgomery by Alabama State Troopers in air-conditioned squad cars, lights ablazing and sirens ablaring.

Or, I would tell them to imagine George Wallace cheering Tuskegee and Alabama State at the annual Turkey Day Football Classic and Martin Luther King tossing the ceremonial coin for the Auburn-Alabama Iron Bowl a couple days later?

And all of these "imagines" occur under the vigilant and approving guidance of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

A Striking Evolution

Such conjured scenarios are weird exaggerations. But they serve to emphasize a striking evolution in Southern politics. A new race game prevails in this part of the country in the 21st century. In a land still wrought with race and racism, white and black cultures now co-exist, often co-mingle, and routinely cooperate in strange, unprecedented fashion. Clearly the game favors white majorities and their conservative priorities, but black minorities now participate and their concerns sometimes take center stage with constructive outcomes .

Of course, there's not much public talk among the politicians themselves about a new system of race relations, especially if the conversation smacks of race-mongering or unprincipled racial compromise. Southern officials -- black and white -- have to be wary in their comments, lest they offend mainstream society or run afoul of their own racial constituencies. So, even while pursuing positive change, they tend to respect the norms and traditions of the divided cultures, negotiating contentious problems on an ad hoc basis, sometimes openly and sometimes privately, and in a way that allows personal political flexibility or, if necessary, tactical resort to the old ways of Southern history.

So, What Is Going on in the South?

I am no longer a practicing participant in contemporary Southern politics, and surveying current officials about this phenomenon would probably prove useless. But I am sufficiently wired into the regional system through focused observation and informal conversation with friends and associates to have a continuing, solid basis for my assessment of the new racial relationships.

The academic community and professional media have yet to focus on this aspect of black-white relations; obviously, there's no proclaimed code of procedures for such politicking. Therefore, it is difficult to articulate -- clearly, concisely, and authoritatively -- the changed role of race in real Southern politics.

But I will try, in this eight-part series of posts, to explain the new system as a sophisticated yet awkward and sometimes unsavory -- but generally biracial and functional -- accommodation of regional change among both Southern politicians and the Southern people.

Some readers will be appalled (and even angered) by this series; but they'll likely derive a better understanding of contemporary developments in this part of the country. And I hope that this series will evoke a candid discussion of racial politics in the rest of America.

Disclosure and Acknowledgement: This series includes edited, updated material from one of my books: The South's New Racial Politics: Inside the Race game of Recent Southern History (2009): and portions of these posts will be included in an upcoming book. I'm grateful to NewSouth Books for allowing me to borrow from those publications for my discussions on the Huffington Post.