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Because I live in the Boston area, people often ask me why I'm involved in the South, including serving on the board of The Highlander Center. I answer that I spent my formative teenage years living with my parents on a farm in Maryland, and that experience shaped me culturally. But all you have to do is show the slightest interest in hearing more and I'll tell you the political reasons I feel the South is a crucially important focus of progressive work.

The most widely shared view of the South emphasizes its history of racial oppression and anti-union "right-to-work" politics. According to this analysis it's the part of the country where you can pay workers less, extract coal, lumber and minerals without bothersome opposition, and count on Republican voters to support ultra-conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and gay unions. The military is a huge employer and sweatshops and low-wage poultry factories blight everyday working life. Despite the careful creation of the metaphor of the "New South" was an attempt to counter that view of the South, southern states still lead in indices of poverty, especially poor educational opportunities and substandard housing.

Yes, there's no part of the country that presents more challenges to progressive ideals of social justice than the South. But it's also a place where a rich heritage of struggle, solidarity, culture, and courage make it a part of the country particularly worth fighting for. First, the South doesn't have a monopoly on racism. Institutional racism pervades the country as a whole, and segregation is as pronounced, if not more pronounced, in the North as in the South. White supremacy, certainly present throughout the South, is also enshrined in every city in the country. And, despite migration to the North, the South remains the region with the largest percentage of Black population in the country. With its history of enslavement, this community has known the most extreme oppression, as have the Native American communities in the South, and both have fought tenaciously against oppression. The practice of resistance does not have to be constructed in the South - it is of the South.

Today, African American and Native American "minorities" have been joined by immigrant laborers have come to the South for low-wage jobs in factories and agriculture. The ultra-conservative Right has used right-wing populism - the appeal to conservative cultural issues, and the creation of resentment against enemies from above (Washington politicians, especially liberals) and enemies from below ("lazy welfare cheats") - to turn Southern whites into solid Republicans. Because the South is still in the grip of the same white power structure that has ruled it since the 1950s, nationalism and militarism are politically and culturally embedded in the region, and scapegoating the "other" (especially immigrants and gays) who have "ruined it" for everyone else is still a common practice.

White economic and political powers have encouraged wedges among the communities they seek to dominate and exploit. But this 21st century right-wing populism is more subtle than its predecessor in the Jim Crow South. In the "New South," it isn't nightriders who maintain control over low-wage workers of all races; it's labor subcontractors and Secretaries of State who exercise control through the use of much more subtle carrots and sticks.

The Democratic Party, and much of the progressive movement, seem to have written off the South as a hopeless cause. As a result, the South is stunningly under-resourced by liberal foundations, large individual donors, and corporate giving plans. With a few notable exceptions, the South is simply off the radar of national progressive politics.

This neglect of the South costs the progressive movement in two ways. Just as the South is the American exemplar of racist oppression and labor and resource exploitation, it is also the cradle of resistance and survival. As we progressives become more and more disinterested in history and prone to quick fixes, we get what we deserve. We fail to learn lessons from past experiences and we overlook resources right under our noses. In the South today, progressive activists face all the challenges and contradictions that soon will be faced by activists across the country - attacks on unions, a "kinder, gentler" racism, right-wing populism that legitimizes institutional power, the increasing decimation of the middle class as the gap between rich and poor becomes a chasm. The South is a bellwether of these conditions and they are headed for the rest of the country.

If only we realized these facts, we would see how shortsighted it is to fail to address the conditions in the South that make it such an exploited and exploiting region. And, even more important, we will fail to learn from the Southern progressives how to resist when the odds are so stacked against you. The South is not just an area that serves as a template for how right-wing political and economic forces will come to dominate in other parts of the country. It is a goldmine of ideas, wisdom, strategies and tactics of resistance. The progressive movement neglects this resource at its own peril. As a northern progressive, I am acutely aware of how much I have to learn from Southern activists.

The Highlander Center is emblematic of the story of the South. It's long history is one of learning from local people how resist oppression from the bottom up. There is no more honest form of resistance. And, if only we were more aware of it, there is no more effective form of resistance.

I implore my progressive sisters and brothers to look to the South. To the extent that we are able to see it, we have global lessons to be learned from within our own borders. I hope you will see the importance of supporting our southern progressive organizations.

• This piece appeared as a fundraising letter sent by The Highlander Center for Research and Education, New Market, TN. Donations can be sent to: The Highlander Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN 37820 or email: hrec@highlandercenter.org.

March, 2006