Such statements are not likely to echo throughout this region. Tennessee is, after all, a solidly red state and many are likely to agree with President Trump finding fault on both sides. Yet Southern literature is filled with critiques of conditions past and present. Think of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It is hard to deny that for all of our willingness to assume the moral high ground on such social issues as abortion and gay rights, Southerners have been fundamentally wrong on basic moral issues. We need only to think of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The persistence of racism and a sense of moral superiority make it difficult for those wanting to work for social change in the region, and our great writers have long been aware of this.
The keynote speaker at SouthWord did offer an insight that might help. Now in his eighties, Wendell Berry is a major author as well as an environmentalist and social critic. Referencing environmentalism, he said that people should not get involved in creating change because they expect to win, but because it is right. This is important for anyone interested in any area of social change. It is particularly true in our region where so many seem to offer up tradition as they fly Confederate flags and look fondly back upon an era of inequality. Don’t act because you think you will win, act because it is right. And in doing so, you can draw inspiration upon the great well of Southern literature. That, too, is our tradition.