The Institute for Southern Studies is a media and research center based in Durham, North Carolina, that advocates for liberal political and social causes in the Southern United States. The Institute conducts research, especially investigative journalism, with a left-of-center viewpoint on issues such as economics, labor unionism, environmentalism, racial identity, and voting rights as they relate to the American South.
History and Goals
The Institute was founded in 1970 by a group of civil rights activists, including Julian Bond, first president of the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center and later longtime chairman of the NAACP. Bond and others said they hoped to challenge the South’s “reputation as a monolithic, conservative stronghold.” 
In the early 2000s, scholars and activists associated with the Institute re-purposed the Institute’s mission, stating that they were focused on ushering in a “Third Reconstruction” of the South (after the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s). Scholars envisioned the Third Reconstruction as a multi-racial movement “ to grapple with the persistent barriers to economic, racial and political equality in the South” and to transform the region’s politics while advancing left-wing policy goals.  Chriss Kromm, the Institute’s executive director, stated that the Third Reconstruction would be focused on how the modern South “relates to … global issues” such as racial identity, environmentalism, corporate overreach, and money in politics. 
The Institute has also incubated a number of other left-wing advocacy groups working in the region, including the Brown Lung Association, Carolina Public Press, the Miami Workers Center, North Carolina Asian Americans Together, and Southerners for Economic Justice. 
In recent years, the Institute has been a leader in efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public lands throughout the South, with a number of articles in Institute publications arguing that there was a “long association between racial terror and Confederate symbols” and decrying Confederate statutes as “monuments to white supremacy.”  The Institute has also argued that many Confederate monuments have their origin in Ku Klux Klan efforts to solidify and extend racial segregation. 
The Institute has been very active in efforts to reinstitute the “preclearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required states and local jurisdictions throughout the South to gain prior court approval of changes to election processes. The Supreme Court struck down many applications of the preclearance provision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Throughout 2018 and 2019, the Institute produced reports and articles arguing that the end of most preclearance requirements and the passage of voter identification and other laws relating to voting had suppressed minority voting registration and turnout.  In August 2020, Institute-affiliated writers called for the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 4263)—which would have restored the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement—and excoriated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for refusing the bring the measure to a vote. 
The Institute was also critical of efforts by Republican legislators in North Carolina to give the state legislature new powers over the appointment of judges and other officials, and to limit the power of the state supreme court. In 2015, Republican state legislators passed a bill changing state supreme court elections to “retention” elections in which incumbents face a “yes or no” vote on whether they should be retained. That law was struck down by the state supreme court, as was another law that stripped the state’s governor of the power to appoint justices when a vacancy arose, and a third limiting the governor’s power to make appointments to a state ethics board. The state legislature then moved to reduce the state supreme court’s budget and to give citizens a greater voice in nominating judicial candidates in 2018. 
Institute-affiliated writers called the moves “a power grab” by Republican legislators, and they were rolled back by subsequent legislative action.  In 2019, the Institute applauded a North Carolina state judge’s ruling that the state legislature did not have the power to pass constitutional amendments, including two that had passed regarding voter ID requirements and a cap on state income taxes. State legislators have appealed the ruling. 
As it regularly does during election seasons, the Institute provided updates about candidate spending and activities in the South during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary season.  These updates were widely reported in the mainstream press.  These activities carried forward into the 2020 general election, where Institute researchers provided press commentary on black voters’ concerns about mail-in voting, attributing those concerns to fears that their votes would be suppressed.  The Institute also provided regular updates of Black early voting numbers in North Carolina and other Southern states, which somewhat lagged 2016 numbers. 
In 1973, ISS began publishing Southern Exposure, the group’s flagship journal, with an emphasis on investigative journalism and Southern culture. Southern Exposure published quarterly from 1973 to 2000 and from 2002 to 2005. Since 2011, it publishes twice per year. 
In 2003-2004, Southern Exposure published “Banking on Misery,” an investigative series on predatory lending practices to subprime borrowers by financial conglomerate Citigroup.  The Columbia Journalism Review later credited Southern Exposure for foreshadowing the 2008 collapse of the subprime home mortgage lending industry, which caused a long economic recession.  Notable authors who have contributed to Southern Exposure include Julian Bond and the writers Stetson Kennedy, Lee Smith, Studs Terkel, and Alice Walker. After a two-year hiatus, Southern Exposure resumed publication in 2011 with an issue about the health challenges facing Gulf Coast communities after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 
In 2007, the Institute launched Facing South, a web-based journal for political and investigative reporting.  In 2008, an investigative report in Facing South raised questions about potentially illegal robocalls to black voters by Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, a political advocacy group with close ties to the presidential campaign of then-U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY).  Eventually, the group would pay a $100,000 fine and apologize for the robocalls. 
The executive director of the Institute and publisher of Southern Exposure is Chris Kromm, who regularly appears in the Institute’s publications as well as television and radio shows throughout the region.  He is known as an “astute watcher” of political trends in the South and was one of the first analysts to note that Democratic strength was growing in the region in 2017 and 2018, when Democrats gained state and federal legislative seats in peripheral Southern states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas. 
Kromm is also the board chair of Progress NC, a political advocacy group created with the goal of shifting North Carolina’s policies to the political left, including increasing taxes, expanding government involvement in health care, and supporting environmentalist initiatives.