Money  /  Q&A

On the New Book, "Hillbilly Highway"

Recovering the long-overlooked significance of the “hillbilly highway” in the US, with implications for labor history as well as US history broadly.

A core argument I make in the book is that something which set migrants along the hillbilly highway apart from other groups of white working people during the mid-twentieth century was the way the complex networks created by their movements between the Upper South and the Midwest gave their working, communal, and cultural lives a fundamentally “transregional” character. The hillbilly highway always moved in two directions—much more so for white southerners than for black southerners during these years, for obvious reasons—and as Transappalachian migrants and their families cycled back and forth between rural lifestyles and places of origin in the South, and the more urban industrial settings and communities where they sought employment in the North, their attitudes, behaviors, and worldviews in various ways came to reflect this unique, regionally-blended existence. Most of all, then, Transappalachia is the geographic terrain across which that very specific intertwined experience of race, class, and cultural identity played out.

You mostly focus on the cultural and community spaces that emerged from the networks of the hillbilly highway, but within this broader framing the industrial workplace seems central as well. For labor historians, why is it important to understand the role of Transappalachian migrants in workplace struggles?

Most fundamentally, I’m trying to correct the dominant narrative about the place of southern whites in the Midwestern labor movement of the mid-twentieth century, which has largely described them as anti-union holdouts too-blinded by their all-consuming race hatreds, or their Bible-thumping traditionalism, or simply their provincial backgrounds to join up with the great factory uprisings of these decades. As I try to demonstrate at some length in discussions of places as varied and in many ways unalike during these years as Muncie, Akron, or Detroit, their actual record of participation in the establishment and growth of the modern industrial labor movement completely confounds this rather widespread mischaracterization in the historiography.

And in allowing this mischaracterization to stand largely uncorrected, even some of our best historical accounts of the period, I would argue, are ultimately incomplete. If this substantial population of poor white southerners was in fact more likely to be sit-downers than scabs, what motivated them to so buck the expectations of not only their bosses but many of their co-workers—not to mention the trade unionists and left-wing radicals who often viewed these “hillbillies” as little more than a demoralized and dangerous lumpenproletariat? What did this regionally-distinctive, displaced rural working class bring to the complex shop-floor and movement culture of the early CIO? Hillbilly Highway tries to fill in some of these gaps—and in doing so, to push back against some of the lazier arguments that have been made about why the labor movement has struggled to make inroads, both historically as well as in our present moment, among this particular category of the white working class.