The 20th century wasn’t completely awful.
While we currently live in a cultural and political dystopia due to all the poison pulsating through our culture, the partisan polarization and the political gridlock in Washington, it is worth remembering the time that our grandfather’s generation landed on the moon.
This is a happy memory of the impossible being achieved:
It was “a giant leap for mankind.”
If you had surveyed the American South in, say, the year 1900 it would have been unfathomable. This was a year before the oil gushed out of Spindletop in Texas setting off the energy boom that revolutionized the economy of Texas and has lasted down to the present day with hydraulic fracking.
Florida was still a very poor, thinly populated, frontier state in 1900. Unlike Alabama, Florida was in the process of being taken over by Northern immigrants who had been arriving since Reconstruction. The Yankees had come south to Florida to build their railroads south through the peninsula. There was some progress going on though as Major Walter Reed had discovered that mosquitoes were the cause of yellow fever. From that point forward, Florida waged war against mosquitoes and began to wipe out malaria and yellow fever. It wasn’t until the invention of the air conditioner, however, that Florida’s economy began to soar. As late as 1960, only 18 percent of Florida households had air conditioning.
The Tennessee Valley which runs through north Alabama was at that time a land of impoverished sharecroppers. The land that they worked had been deforested and ruined by massive soil erosion from heavy rains. Malaria was endemic in the region. There were few paved roads and no one had electricity or supermarkets or countless modern conveniences like we do today.
Alabama entered the Progressive Era by establishing the Jim Crow system. Around 1900, Black Belt planters began to lose power to Birmingham industrialists and businessmen – later nicknamed the Big Mules – who had been their longtime allies. For the next 20 years, state politics was dominated by various reforms – railroad rate regulation, child labor reform, education reform, women’s suffrage, and especially Prohibition. Finally, America’s entry into World War 1 under President Woodrow Wilson brought an unprecedented level of government intervention in Alabama’s economy as the War Industries Board established precedents that would have major consequences in the years ahead.
From 1865 until 1920, Alabama remained a very rural state. 78.3 percent of the population still lived in rural areas in 1920. Alabama’s economy was still based on agriculture, specifically cotton monoculture, at the end of this period. 56 percent of farms were worked by sharecroppers and tenant farmers in 1920. By 1935, that number had grown to 65 percent, a majority of whom were landless White farmers.
In 1860, Alabama’s total population was 964,201, which included 437,770 blacks and 526,271 Whites. By 1920, Alabama’s population had grown to 2,348,174, which included 900,652 were blacks and 1,477,032 Whites. Meanwhile, cotton acreage had grown in Alabama from 977,000 acres in 1860 to 3 million acres in 1920. It took thirty years for Alabama’s cotton production to exceed its 1860 level of 843,012 bales, but cotton production peaked at 3,800,000 bales in 1914 as the boll weevil, which arrived in 1910, tore its path through the state in its own Sherman’s March from Mexico to the Atlantic seaboard.
The price of cotton was 13 cents a pound in 1861, 8 cents a pound in 1878, 7 cents in 1894, 9 cents in 1911, 7 cents in 1914 and peaked during World War I at 35 cents in 1919 before plunging to 15.9 cents in 1920. At the same time, the size of the average farm in Alabama shrank from 346 acres in 1860 to 93 acres in 1900 to 79 acres in 1910 to 76 acres in 1920. The result was the impoverishment of our ancestors.
In a nutshell, the Cotton Kingdom peaked in Alabama in 1914, not in the 1860s as so many people erroneously assume. In the 1910s, far more cotton was being produced on far more acreage. Yet the rural landscape had been utterly transformed from a world of wealthy planters running large plantations in the Black Belt and Tennessee Valley to a whole state given over to cotton monoculture. Instead of black slaves picking cotton on large plantations, Alabama had become a world of black and White sharecroppers and tenant farmers – with their children as a labor force – chopping cotton on ever smaller plots of land.
By 1935, the majority of White farmers in Alabama were trapped in a world of perpetual debt peonage to landlords and merchants. Not only had they been left behind by the 20th century, their standard of living was worse than it had been in the 19th century. Few sharecroppers or tenants owned an automobile or enjoyed access to electricity, sewer systems, or running water. Virtually none owned a tractor or countless modern conveniences produced by the Industrial Revolution.
Fortunately, all this would change in the late 20th century. It changed in part due to the creation of NASA in 1958 by the federal government, which was itself a response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the world’s first artifical satellite into earth orbit the previous year in 1957.
Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space and orbit the earth in 1961.
We’ve gotten a little cocky with the “end of history” koolaid and have largely forgotten that actually the Soviets beat us to space. It took an enormous volte face by the federal government, which conveniently set aside the ideology of free-market capitalism to go whole hog into government intervention in the economy, to “win” the Space Race with the Soviet Union and for Neil Armstrong to land on the moon in 1969. The Soviets had reached the moon in 1959 with the Luna 2 mission.
BTW, the Nazis were way ahead of us too in rocket science and all sorts of areas until we overcame our moral scruples to work with some of them like Wernher von Braun.
Could we do that today?
Could progressives work with a literal card carrying ex-Nazi to walk on the moon? Of course not, but this was before the cancer of political correctness took over the Left from the 1990s to 2019.
How did we do the Apollo 11 moonshot in 1969 which until recently was arguably the greatest scientific and technological achievement in the history of mankind?
We did it with Wernher von Braun on a rocket designed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida Atlantic Coast, FL, which was controlled from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. How much money was invested in these areas to accomplish this? Why has the world gone to shit over the last 20 years?