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Government Power and Rural Resistance in the Arkansas Ozarks

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Blake Perkins received his Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University in 2014 and is Assistant Professor of History at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, near his childhood home and family farm. He has published a number of articles in recent years on rural working-class and regional history. Perkins’s dissertation is titled “Dynamics of Defiance: Government Power and Rural Resistance in the Arkansas Ozarks.” His book manuscript is now under contract with the University of Illinois Press under the title Backcountry Defiance: A Hidden History of Rural Resistance to Federal Power in the Ozarks.

Can you briefly describe your dissertation?

“Dynamics of Defiance” is a composite of microhistories that narrates the long transformation of a rural populist culture from one that initially welcomed government support for a more democratic political economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s to a conservative rural society deeply suspicious of government by the 1960s and 1970s. It challenges the common scholarly and popular assumption that rural white Americans have always stood at the vanguard of opposition to outside authority and federal intervention.

In a series of case studies spanning the 1890s through the 1950s, in which it may have appeared on the surface that rural Ozarkers were resisting federal bureaucratic authority, I actually find a pattern of intra-regional conflict between small farmers and workers on the one hand and local business elites on the other shaping the central battle over applications of government power. The federal political structure’s typical deference to local control often enabled regional elites to turn potentially beneficial government programs to their own ends, thus undermining reformist possibilities and often triggering unforeseen consequences. Still, through the 1940s rural working families favored a relatively strong national government and many of its social programs as potential solutions for curbing inequalities and rural decline. By the 1960s, however, industrialization’s erosion of small farms and rural communities severely pummeled the old “Populist ethic” as thousands of working-class Ozarkers left the region en masse. In its place arose a new and increasingly dominant movement conservatism, which did explicitly oppose the idea of federal authority. This latter-day anti-government conservatism, however, was the product of a New Ozarks, rather than the heir of the region’s populist forbearers. Many of the most vocal anti-government activists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in fact, were middle-class and well-to-do white transplants from the urban Midwest who came to the region to play their hand in the low-wage and low-tax tourism, retirement, real-estate, and agribusiness economy that local business elites had built over the preceding decades, often with federal money. I have been transitioning this project into a book manuscript, which is currently under consideration for publication at the University of Illinois Press.

What drew your attention to this topic?

My historical interest in smallholder farmers and rural working people has grown and evolved since my childhood growing up on a five-generation family farm in the eastern Arkansas Ozarks. But my particular focus on rural resistance to government power began to take more definite shape between 2008 and 2012 as my studies of the rural past converged with new curiosities about the glaring anti-government political rhetoric and sentiments that seemed to characterize my home region amid the insurgency of Tea Party politics.

Whose work encouraged you to pursue this topic?

Many of my early readings, most published during the 1980s and early 1990s, employed modernization theory to document a long history of rural whites clashing with government-backed reformers. They usually explained these clashes as a result of country people’s determined defense of local “traditional” values against outside forces of “modernity.” Then in 2009 and 2011, respectively, Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise and Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism appeared, attempting to link a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century rural culture in the western South that they described as exceptionally parochial to the rise of New Right conservatism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Both of these books emphasized a longer origin story of the New Right and a tradition of  anti-government politics in which a past rural culture played a central role. Yet other histories I read, like Jarod Roll’s Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (2010) and Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006), for example, urged historians to adopt a longer and broader view of agrarian populism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to take notice of how rural working people frequently demanded radically progressive expansions of federal power as they genuinely yearned for a more democratic capitalism and an American society with the “Golden Rule” as its moral compass. My immersion into primary sources documenting particular encounters between rural whites and various arms of government during the long twentieth century unearthed some surprising findings and led me to examine other important historical studies on governmentality and social reform, such as James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) and Tania Murray Li’s The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics (2007).

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore it?

I decided early on that I wanted to take a microhistory methodological approach. I wanted to use a microscopic lens, so to speak, to really understand the particular local contexts for significant clashes over federal power. By thumbing through local history and genealogical publications and perusing contemporary newspapers, I identified several exciting case studies that illuminated the tensions between rural whites and various federal reform efforts in the Ozarks over time, particularly during the region’s long transformational period from the late 1800s through the 1970s. I then set out to dig up sources on these particular conflicts, the characters involved, and the issues confronting their families and communities. With this approach I frequently found myself challenged to see how these multiple microhistorical studies spoke to each other in a bigger, broader, and longer narrative that would help answer the important questions I had raised. Important patterns began to emerge as I began to put the pieces together. A microhistory approach helped me cut through broader generalizations and assumptions in order to better capture the real-life dynamics and important contingencies and changes over time that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work? How did you find these sources?

Documenting the lives, thoughts, and motives of rural working people who typically left behind a scant paper trail. But this fact made finding those rare “nuggets” all the more rewarding. Clues gleaned from local tax rolls and manuscript census records, court records (particularly those files that contained juicy depositions and witness examinations!), local and regional newspaper accounts, oral histories, and occasional letters penned to government officials and newspaper editors all proved valuable for composing and re-creating revealing pictures of rural Ozarkers’ lives as they encountered and contemplated decisions about federal power and its agents and merits. Though professionally run archives and special collections libraries provided valuable source materials, my hunt for some harder-to-find local sources also sent me on some interesting journeys to small county courthouse vaults. Some of these trips became stories in and of themselves. Without question the most interesting was a stop at one local courthouse where the staff directed me to the basement which housed the old records that was only accessible from outside the courthouse since the rickety stairs from the inside were deemed unsafe. Once inside this basement “vault,” I stepped through water that was nearly ankle deep in some places and swept away animal feces and decomposing remains from the randomly placed stacks of records as I searched for a set of tax ledgers I needed. Overall, though, most of the people I encountered were exceptionally helpful and hospitable, and I count these research expeditions among the most enjoyable parts of the dissertation project. Without the help of many enthusiastic local historians and genealogists I met or talked with via phone or email at various points I would never have found many of my most important leads on stories and sources to begin with.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

I would probably make two suggestions above everything else. First, choose a research focus that you can obsess over, one that can literally keep you up working into the wee hours of morning without even realizing it. Your levels of passion will inevitably ebb and flow throughout the duration of any long-term project, of course, but a deep, foundational enthusiasm or lack thereof will shape the overall dissertation experience and quality of work. Second, cultivate connections and relationships with people—both scholars and non-academics—who share your interests and want to see your research project succeed. Establish a broad network of people who are eager to chat with you about your ideas and offer insights, steer you toward new sources, read over written drafts with a critically constructive eye, or simply provide much-needed moral and emotional support to help keep your confidence strong throughout the many phases of your project.