Ghosts Of The South

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It was over a lunch of Confederate fried steak in Columbia, S.C., that I realized something crucial about North and South. A passport ought to be required to travel from one to the other. Despite decades of economic and cultural homogenization, the regions remain as different as basketball and NASCAR. That thought occurred when my lunch partner, a man named Chris Sullivan, told me this: "To say the War Between the States was about slavery is like saying the Revolutionary War was about tea." And he meant it, sure as the pear trees bloom in sun-washed Columbia, the South is rising once again.

Sullivan isn't exactly representative of mainstream Southern thought; he's the editor of Southern Partisan magazine, which celebrates the Confederate cause and employs writers allied with self-styled "white-rights" groups. The magazine was publicly flogged last winter during the nomination hearings for John Ashcroft as Attorney General, when Northern Senators demanded to know why Ashcroft had granted it an interview. Sullivan, who denies his publication is racist, says the North just can't understand some Southerners. "There's an old joke about a Yankee who comes down South and drops into a country store," he says. "Something comes up about the Civil War, and he says, 'When is the South going to get over that?' The guy tells him, 'When it's over.' So the Yank says, 'What would you call what happened at Appomattox Court House? And the Southerner says, 'Longest cease-fire in history.'"

For some, the war is still raging. Migration, immigration and technology kill off a little more of Dixie every day. Southerners are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods than people in other parts of the country, and racial attitudes are changing for the better. In 1970, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 55% of white Southerners agreed strongly that blacks shouldn't push for inclusion where they are not wanted; 26.5% agreed slightly. Last year 19% agreed strongly, and 30% slightly. Most of the progress, social scientists say, has come in metropolitan areas; in the rural South, old ideas die hard. And progress has made loyalists more militant about holding onto their idea of Dixie: its history and heritage, its family and sovereignty, its thumb in the eye of Northern culture and, for some, its codes of racial superiority and subjugation. The culture of rebel remembrance was captured in Confederates in the Attic, a 1998 best seller by journalist Tony Horwitz that chronicled the fanatical popularity of battlefield re-enactments and the marketing of the war to tourists and hobbyists. But since his book appeared, the arguments about the Confederacy and its symbols have only got louder. The rebels are alive and kicking.

Last week Mississippians voted 2 to 1 to retain a state flag dominated by the rebel emblem--the last one in the South, since Georgia redesigned its flag Jan. 30. A coalition of business and civil rights leaders spent close to $700,000 arguing that the old flag insults African Americans and repels investment, but only 18 of Mississippi's 82 counties voted to change it. The reformers concluded that people just need more time to get where they're going.

South Carolina last year removed the Confederate flag from atop the state capitol, but the N.A.A.C.P. still boycotts the state because the flag now flies elsewhere on the capitol grounds. Last month in Virginia, when Governor Jim Gilmore replaced the old, pro-rebel state proclamation of Confederate History Month with a new one honoring "all Virginians who served in the Civil War," the Sons of Confederate Veterans condemned him for "honoring people who...murdered, raped and pillaged." In Selma, Ala., a battleground in the 1960s civil rights movement, whites are militant in defense of a new statue of Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, even though he was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Robert Penn Warren said when the Confederacy died, it became immortal in the South," says Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. "Southern white ministers were the center of a kind of civil religion that sacralized the Confederacy after the war was over to help keep it alive, so they made Robert E. Lee into a saint and Stonewall Jackson into a martyr." Outposts of rebel theology can still be found. At the Confederate Presbyterian Church in Wiggins, Miss., parishioners enter the chapel by passing through a room lined with framed photographs of Generals Lee, Forrest and Jackson. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Pastor John Thomas Cripps, a member of a white supremacist organization called the League of the South, is one of 30 neo-Confederate ministers preaching a mix of white Christian dominance and succession.

The Civil War ended 136 years ago this month. Why are we still fighting? I spent a few weeks rambling around the South trying to figure it out, and saw that most of us aren't fighting. The vast majority have long since moved on. "The real ideology of the contemporary South is economic development, not the Confederacy," Wilson says. But for "an intensely committed ideological group," the right-wing politics of the '80s and '90s--smaller government, state's rights, the racially charged dismantling of welfare--echoes the old rebel yell. And for poor whites who missed the boat in the New Economy, flags and monuments to heroes may, he says, "be a kind of last stand."

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