01/02/2015 03:00 PM
BATON ROUGE – Historians have long recognized the middle of the 20th century as a
turning point in the history of the modern South, owing to a convergence of social
change, political realignment and cultural expansion. In addition, sweeping economic
changes spread throughout the South in this period, permanently shifting the area’s
material resources. “Transforming the South: Federal Development in the Tennessee Valley, 1915–1960,” available from LSU Press, examines this transition from farm to factory and explores
the dramatic reshaping of the region’s economy.
Matthew L. Downs focuses on three developments in the Tennessee Valley: the World
War I–era government nitrate plants and hydroelectric dams at Muscle Shoals, Alabama;
the extensive work completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority; and Cold War/Space
Age defense investment in Huntsville, Ala. Downs argues that the modernization of
the Sunbelt economy depended on cooperation between regional leaders and federal funders.
Local boosters lobbied to receive federal funds for their communities while simultaneously
forming economic development organizations that would prepare those communities for
further growth. Economic reform also drove social reform: as members of historically
disenfranchised groups attained employment in the new industrial workforce, they gained
financial and political capital to push for social change.
“Transforming the South” considers the role played by the recipients of government
funds in the mid-20th century and demonstrates how communities exerted an unparalleled
influence over the federal investments that shaped the southern economy.
Downs is assistant professor of history at the University of Mobile.
Posted on Friday, January 2, 2015