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Once so key to the plantation economy of the Deep South that politicians sometimes referred to their diplomatic strategy simply as “King Cotton,” the crop’s demand from US manufacturers is on an unrelenting — and accelerating — decline.

Companies often settled in places with “good enough roads to get the products in and out, but were sufficiently isolated so as not to encourage unionization,” said Peter Coclanis, an economic historian and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although in some cases, losing manufacturing jobs to overseas has ushered in a new age of high-income service jobs, many former textile towns, distanced from interstate highways or larger cities, are still struggling to bring in new employers or developers.

“Many parts of the rural South are in real crisis today,” Coclanis said. As global competition hurt American textile manufacturing, “these places lost a terribly high number of jobs and basically the whole community has collapsed.”