Why a monthly letter from the South in a national (indeed, international) publication like this one? A good question that deserves a thoughtful answer.

When Thoreau heard about the construction of a telegraph from Maine to Texas, it’s said, he asked whether Maine and Texas had anything to say to one another. He meant, of course, that they were different, mutually incomprehensible worlds. A skeptic today, on the other hand, would probably ask whether they have anything new to say to one another. Many people simply assume that the messages emanating from Maine and Texas have become virtually identical.

Obviously, I disagree with both views. I believe that Texas does have something to say to Maine, the South to the rest of the United States. Certainly Texas, and the South, are still different. If you doubt it, a study paid for by your very own tax dollars has recently proved it yet again. Looking at activity level, drinking, obesity, and so forth, the Center for Disease Control turned up—well, let Dr. James Marks of the CDC’s epidemiology division tell it: “The main thing we were surprised at,” says Dr. Marks, “was the amount of variation from state to state. We expected some, but nowhere near as much.”

Good-sized differences still remain in attitudes, values, and beliefs, as well, as I hope to illustrate in this monthly letter. Americans need to be reminded of this. I believe that Southerners are one of those exemplary minorities—like Catholics, like Jews, like Blacks—who ought to be allowed to keep sticking their oar in, reminding their fellow Americans that there are other ways to look at history, other ways to do things in the present, other visions of what the future ought to be like.

There’s another species of impatience with the South, exemplified by one of Helen Hokinson’s New Yorker matrons, standing in a bookstore, saying, “I feel sorry for Mississippi, but I just don’t like to read about it.” I won’t ask you, every month, to read about Mississippi. This letter is from the South, but it won’t by any means always be about the South.

And it won’t presume either to present “the Southern point of view” on whatever its subject happens to be. The fact is that on many subjects, there’s no such thing. And when there is, sometimes I don’t share it.

Still, I do believe that most Americans (and nearly all Americans that are worth a damn) reflect in their opinions and even in their beliefs the region they come from. So this monthly letter will doubtless reflect a Southern viewpoint—my Southern viewpoint. If my fellow Southrons don’t like it, no doubt they’ll make themselves heard.

And that’s as explicit as I plan to get about what I’m doing here. Let me tell a story.

Not long ago, some of us went fishing down on the North Carolina coast. The group included my buddy Peter, a recent immigrant from Boston. When we stopped in a general store for provisions, I spied a cap emblazoned with crossed Confederate and U.S. flags and the motto, “American by birth/Southern by the grace of God.”

I coveted that cap. (I know it’s wrong, but I’m weak.)

When I asked the trailer-camp mama behind the counter how much it cost, Peter (who, as a matter of fact, was wearing a New York Yankees’ baseball cap) started giving me a hard time: “No real Southerner would wear one of those things. Nobody but a deracinated, self-conscious, effete”—and so forth.

The woman at the register gave the Flatbush Flash a pitying look. “Honey, she said, “a real Southerner will wear any damn hat he wants to.”

From Alabama in early July came word of the acquittal of the “Marion Three,” Black political leaders who had been charged with ballot-tampering. This must have been a disappointment not only to the Justice Department, which brought the case, but also to those liberals who longed for a replay of the glory days of the Civil Rights Movement, if not of the Scottsboro case. On the other hand, it was clearly a relief both to the defendants and to many other Black Alabamians who, after all, have had no very good reason to trust the good intentions of white electoral officials.

Frankly, Alabama strikes me as an unlikely place and this case an unlikely way, to begin to clean up the electoral system. But the situation that gave rise to the indictments clearly wasn’t what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

“You can’t win an election in the Black Belt of Alabama if you don’t have a sophisticated get-out-the-absentee vote effort,” one organizer told a Southern Regional Council reporter. What that means in practice is that campaign workers locate potential voters among rural Blacks often illiterate, sometimes old and infirm. They help them register, get absentee ballots for them, and “assist” them in filling out the ballots. It’s the sort of practice that would pass unremarked (and probably does) in Chicago: good old-fashioned American machine politics.

All of this is unquestionably legal—which does not, of course, make it particularly edifying to watch., Nor does it excuse even unintentional violations of the law, and a grand jury found grounds to believe the law had been violated (specifically that the ballots had been filled in incorrectly, or altered). But the trial jury decided that there were no such violations.

Now, there’s a great deal to be said for literacy tests for voting, but white Alabamians forfeited whatever right they had to say it by their behavior prior to 1965, which was far shabbier than anything the “Marion Three” were even accused of. Still, let’s hope that some day every American will be too well-informed, too self-respecting, too proud to let someone else fill out his ballot for him. And, in fairness, those who still reproach Alabama for the sorrier aspects of its past should recognize how much the situation has changed. Who can doubt that 20 years ago a “not guilty” verdict in a case like this would have been unthinkable? “Alabama justice” should no longer be pronounced only with a sneer.