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Hillbilly Highway: Exploring the Migration Patterns of the White Working Class

Our guest for today is Max Fraser, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Miami and the author of the thought-provoking book "Hillbilly Highway." Max's book explores the crucial yet often overlooked element of the white working class's migration patterns and its impact on American politics.

Max's interest in the political shift of the white working class towards the right stems from his background in labor history and journalism. During his reporting days, he stumbled upon the massive mid-20th century migration of poor, white Southerners to the industrial Midwest, and this became the impetus for his book.

One of the central regions that Max identifies in his research is "Trans-Appalachia," an area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. It was in this region that economic crises in the early 1900s forced many rural whites to leave their homes and migrate north in search of work in the booming manufacturing centers around the Great Lakes.

The book struck a chord with our host, Robin Johnson, who grew up in Chicago during the 1960s. He vividly recalls a family from West Virginia who lived near him and faced discrimination and prejudice when they migrated to places like Akron, Ohio, where they worked in the rubber industry. These hardworking individuals were derogatorily referred to as "snake eaters."

Contrary to the stereotype that white Southerners were uninterested in unions, Max debunked this assumption. He explained how Northern companies actively recruited Southern whites, falsely assuring them that they would be anti-union. However, much to their surprise, these migrants enthusiastically joined unions themselves in the 1930s, showcasing their solidarity and determination to fight for better working conditions.

As the conversation progressed, Max highlighted the central role of country music in his book. He explored how the migration of the white working class nationalized country music, transforming its political implications. Initially, country music served as a music of class critique, representing the struggles of the working class. However, with the migration of white Southerners to suburban middle-class areas, country music began to appeal to a more diverse audience and reflected the changing political landscape.

Unfortunately, our time today was limited, and we couldn't delve deeper into the ironies and political impacts that Max uncovered through his research. However, Robin encouraged our listeners to read Max's book, "Hillbilly Highway," to gain a comprehensive understanding of this overlooked yet vitally important chapter in American history.

The emergence of the white working class as a key voting bloc in elections has had a profound impact on American politics. By understanding the history and experiences of this demographic, we can gain valuable insights into the complexities of our society and work towards a more inclusive and equitable future.

In conclusion, Max Fraser's book, "Hillbilly Highway," shines a much-needed light on the migration patterns of the white working class and their political transformation. It challenges stereotypes, highlights the struggles faced by migrants, and explores the significant role of country music in this narrative. By acknowledging and learning from this forgotten chapter of history, we can better understand the dynamics of American politics and foster a more united nation.

Robin A. Johnson is a governmental relations, public policy and political consultant. He is an expert on government reform issues and has consulted with numerous local governments on consolidation/merger, public-private partnerships and full-cost accounting of public services. Robin has also helped candidates win elections for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, state legislature, judiciary and local government. Robin served as a consultant to the Office of Statewide Performance Review in the Illinois Governor’s Office and is former director of the Illinois Center for Competitive Government, a partnership between the Illinois Comptroller’s Office and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Prior to that, he was Director of the Local Government Affairs Division of the Illinois Comptroller’s Office. Robin served on the Board of Directors of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP) in 1999-2000.