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Redneck is a slang term originally applied to poor whites in the U.S. South, although black intellectual Thomas Sowell says it applies to modern urban blacks as well.[1]

  • Books, businesses, technology, and science were not the kinds of things likely to be promoted or admired in the world of the rednecks and crackers.[2]


Historically the term redneck was derogatory, suggesting a beefy, bestial white southern workingman or farmer and his scrawny, sallow-looking wife and nasty children. By extension it now refers to any uncouth person. In recent years the term has been favorably adopted by less educated white Southerners.

The term "redneck" was in use by 1890; the first known print usage of the term appears in an 1891 Mississippi newspaper in reference to an upcoming Democratic primary. The exact origin of "redneck" is undetermined. Perhaps it refers to the sun burnt necks of people who worked in the hot fields all day, or to red necks characteristic of sufferers from pellagra (a disease caused by poor diets).
MacNelly 1995 cartoon depicts President Clinton as redneck

"Cracker" and "White Trash"

"Cracker" has a similar negative meaning; it was commonly used before the Civil War; Georgia became known as the "Cracker State." The term was in use by 1766: it was

"a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their place of abode."[3]

By the antebellum period, rural southern poor whites with a striking avoidance of hard work, seemed increasingly out of place in a nation of yeoman farmers, Yankee tradesmen, and urban artisans. Northern abolitionists blamed the slave system for its degrading and dehumanizing effects on poor whites. Conversely, southern proslavery spokesmen saw the same poor whites as victims of their own laziness and immorality. In either case, the categorization of that group as "white trash"—a term in use by 1855—helped define a stigmatized, dishonored, and despised identity.[4]

In the early 20th century social workers discovered environmental causes for laziness such as hookworm (which drains victims of their energy). About a third of all Southerners had hookworm in 1900; and few dwellings had an outhouse. The Rockefeller Foundation launched a major, successful campaign to eradicate the disease.[5]

African Americans, beginning with house slaves who worked for rich whites, often ridicule poor whites as "white trash."

Social and political history

After the Civil War the status of the independent white farmers (called "Yeoman") fell drastically in the South. Many became sharecroppers or tenants—they worked land owned by landowners in town. In the towns the rising southern middle class rejected the celebration of rural life associated with the yeoman. They denounced as "demagogues" the radical leaders who appealed to the poor farmers, for example "Pitchfork Ben Tillman who was governor and senator from South Carolina. As the poor Democrats endorsed lynching of uppity blacks, the middle class townsfolk denounced lynching in the name of Law and order. Some poor farmers moved to mill towns, especially to work in the textile mills of the Carolinas. The money was much better than on the hard-scrabble farms, but this again represented a fall in social status. By the end of the century the middle class was ridiculing the former yeomen as "rednecks" and "hillbillies."[6]

Appeals to the redneck vote angered the middle class but they were a minority, and redneck oratory proved successful in stirring resentment against cities like Charleston, South Carolina. A major breakthrough came in the 1899 Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Senator in Mississippi between the last of the middle class Redeemers, Congressman John Mills Allen (1846-1917), and Governor Anselm Joseph McLaurin (1848-1909). Supported by the railroads, landowners and bankers, Allen won support because of his effective humor, clean political record, and reputation as a persuasive speaker. But McLaurin ignored Allen's attacks and skillfully reinforced his image as a poor dirt farmer sacrificing himself for his own people to fight single-handedly the organized corporate and political powers. Allen lost partly because of voting frauds, and, mostly because he did not understand the power of the new redneck rhetoric. He did not think that oratory which fanned the flames of class hatred could withstand criticism, and he was wrong.[7]

In the 1900s to 1930s leading reneck politicians included senators Tom Watson of Georgia, Ben Tillman and Cole Blease of South Carolina, Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi and, especially, Huey Long of Louisiana. In the 1960s Governor George Wallace of Alabama made national headlines in his two runs for the White House using redneck rhetoric.

Recent usage

Beginning in 1960s poor working-class white Southerners started to call themselves rednecks, redefining the word to mean an honest, hardworking man who respects traditional Southern values. Their use of the term also suggested a racial and class solidarity that set them apart from the upheaval of the civil rights movement, the 1960s counterculture, and the women's liberation movement.[8]

See also

Further reading

  • Carr, Duane. A Question of Class: The Redneck Stereotype in Southern Fiction. Bowling Green State U. Popular Press, 1996. 188 pp.
  • Ettling, John. The Germ of Laziness: Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health in the New South (1981) excerpt and text search
  • Goad, Jim. The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Huber, Patrick. "A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity." Southern Cultures 1995 1(2): 145-166.
  • McKern, Sharon. Redneck Mothers, Good Ol' Girls, and Other Southern Belles: A Celebration of the Women of Dixie. (1979). 268 pp.
  • McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988) online edition
  • Roebuck, Julian B. and Hickson, Mark, III. The Southern Redneck: A Phenomenological Class Study. (1982). 210 pp.
  • West, Stephen A. From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1850–1915. (2008) 262pp
  • Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006) excerpyt and text search


  1. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Page 2, by Thomas Sowell
  2. Sowell page 5
  3. see McWhiney, Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988)
  4. See Wray (2006)
  5. See Ettling (1981)
  6. "Hillbillies" lived in remote mountain areas. Stephen A. West, From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1850–1915. (2008)
  7. Clyde J. Faries, "Redneck Rhetoric and the Last of the Redeemers: The 1899 Mc Laurin-Allen Campaign." Journal of Mississippi History 1971 33(4): 283-298 0022-2771
  8. Huber (1995)

External links