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Ghosts of the south

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The Civil War ended 136 years ago. But as Mississippi votes to keep the Confederate emblem on its state flag, Steve Lopez travels the South and asks, What's all the noise about?

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."

Blacks and whites grapple with the rebel-flag issue

I know more black people than you do," William Earl Faggert is telling me in the office of the Heidelberg Academy, a private southeastern Mississippi school where he is headmaster. We are sitting in his office--or is it a Confederate museum? It has more than a dozen rebel flags, a portrait of Jefferson Davis, a beautifully bound Bible. His shirt pocket is stitched with a Confederate symbol and the words WAVE THE FLAG. I wonder how he could possibly determine which of us knows more black people.

"I know them on a personal basis," he says. "I have helped more black people than you have."

This kind of defensiveness was not uncommon on my tour. Many Southerners rightly resent the caricature of Southerners as tobacco-chewing bigots. That kind of guy still lives and breathes, but he's got plenty of cousins up North, which is arguably no less racist than the South. In today's South, defenders of the Lost Cause are likely to be educated, professional and mainstream. Like Faggert.

A longtime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Faggert helped gather 212,000 signatures in favor of the successful effort to leave the rebel symbol on the state flag. The flag has flown since 1894. (In other Southern states, the Confederate symbol wasn't raised until after federal antisegregation legislation was enacted in the 1960s, a fact that routs the "history-and-heritage" argument the way Grant routed Lee.) Faggert tells me that anyone who understands history respects the flag and rejects the notion that it is a sign of slavery or hatred. It was under that flag that his ancestors defended home and family against an invading army. "The whole issue of race is being used by our opponents to inflame emotion," he says. I ask him if it was possible that the flag on his shirt, in his office and on the pole out front of his school might inflame the emotions of African Americans, and if that was the reason not one of his 237 students is black. It was at this point that Faggert began telling me he knows more black people than I do.

One black guy I know is named Dolphus Weary, and it should come as no shock that Weary sees the flag issue differently from how Faggert does. Weary was on the committee that recommended the removal of the Confederate symbol, and I meet him in his downtown Jackson office, across from the Governor's mansion, where the flag flies, to find out why. "I've invited a white friend to join us," Weary tells me as I arrive. "I just want you to hear his side of this."

The friend is Lee Paris, a neighbor of Weary's who runs an investment and real estate business. Weary is executive director, and Paris is chairman, of a religious group called Mission Mississippi. "There's a cliche that the most segregated hour in the South is 11 o'clock on Sunday," Weary says. Since most blacks and whites in Mississippi are Christian, their idea was to use that common ground to find common ground on other issues, such as race. Paris, 43, spends a few minutes telling a heartfelt story about his Jewish great-great-grandfather, who escaped European persecution in 1859, landed in Mississippi and became a successful merchant in an economy built on slavery. "He went from persecution and obscurity to a place of prominence in the postbellum South. I am a son of that," Paris says. That same man fought on the Confederate side, and his battlefield mementos were passed down through the generations to Lee Paris.

"I love that flag, and I love my heritage," says Paris, who doesn't defend slavery but argues it was accepted in both the South and the North, and "Old Glory flew over slavery as well." To Paris, the rebel flag was not a symbol of slavery or hatred. Especially not after he went to Ole Miss and waved it at football games.

Weary, 54, listened respectfully and then told his story. When he was growing up, that flag meant he wouldn't ride the nice new bus to the better school. It meant he wouldn't live on the right side of the tracks. It meant his relatives could cook and clean for white people but couldn't sit at the same table. "And I was taught that the reason we seceded from the North was to maintain that system," Weary says. He says that through his friendship with Paris, he has understood the history-and-heritage argument for the first time. Paris says although he will always love that flag, the Ku Klux Klan stole it from him and made it a symbol of hate. Because of his friendship with Weary and other African Americans, and because "as a Christian man I cannot do that which harms my brother," he voted last week to bring the flag down.

In Selma, a monument to a Confederate--and Klan founder

The South often feels to me like one small antimodernist town, with the same twisted vines and story lines running through it. The last person I spoke to in Mississippi, ex-Governor William Forrest Winter, told me about sitting on his granddaddy's knee as a boy and hearing stories about how the old man fought under the fearless Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose last name became Winter's middle name. This same hero, however, was accused of slaughtering black Union soldiers who surrendered in a battle at Fort Pillow, Tenn. He went on to become the first Imperial Wizard of the K.K.K. Winter, now 79, began his political career as a segregationist but today is one of the most eloquent proponents of a new flag as a symbol of a new day.

Selma seems stuck in an old day. Last fall, not far from where blacks were beaten as they marched for the right to vote 100 years after the end of the Civil War, and not far from the "I Had a Dream" monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a statue of Forrest was raised on city property. The slate-gray memorial and its bright rebel symbol were approved during the 36th and final year of onetime segregationist Mayor Joe Smitherman's time in office. It was unveiled five days after the first black mayor in city history, James Perkins, was inaugurated.

"My position has not changed. It needs to be moved," Perkins says in his office as the city council dickers over his recommendation to find somewhere other than city property to plant Forrest. Perkins was offended that the statue was raised at all in a town where he grew up under Jim Crow, knowing he could get locked up for mere eye contact with a white woman. And he was offended that instead of beginning his term by getting a jump on job development and education reform, he was dragged into a 150-year-old conflict about race.

One day at the statue, I watch a car pull up and follow a young man who goes to have a look at Forrest. "They want this statue moved because he started the K.K.K. That's the only reason," William Greene, 22, a white, unemployed local guy says indignantly. "To me he's a hero who represents what we're about. The K.K.K.--you could take it as you want. There's n______ that are black and white and other groups...The Klan is against scum of all types."

To hear him tell it, the Klan is like a United Way agency. "The Klan has changed over the years," Greene continues. "It's not as bad as it used to be. Some of my best friends are in the K.K.K., and they have black friends, so what does that tell you?"

None of this surprises Rose Sanders, a take-no-prisoners African-American attorney who disrupted council discussions on Forrest with speeches and prayer, once getting ejected when she wouldn't keep quiet. "The tragedy is that they really believed we would not be offended," she says. "We're not expected to react like first-class citizens. You could take the poorest white child in town, and that child will feel superior to me with my Harvard law degree."

That Forrest made his way onto city property, next to a museum named for ex-Mayor Smitherman, is odd given that Selma now has a black majority among residents and council members. By the time Smitherman left office, 12 of his 16 cabinet members were black. The man's politics had evolved. His heroes had not. Perkins has the best explanation for how the Forrest monument could still be standing: 10% hate him, 10% love him, he says, "and 80% are tired of fighting." Finally, after weeks of fighting, the council in February voted 5 to 4 to cart the Forrest statue to a cemetery where Confederate veterans sleep. One white council member voted for removal. Two blacks voted to leave it where it stood. One explains, "The statue had to do with something in the past. It has nothing to do with what's going on currently."

If statues need to come down, says historian Robert Rosen, "how far back do we go? Should the Washington Monument be brought down because George owned slaves?" Rosen argues for a more nuanced attitude toward Civil War symbols. "Of course the South seceded because they were worried about Lincoln and an attack on slavery," he says. "But racism was part of American life. Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were racists in the sense that they didn't believe black people to be equal to white people. Everyone was a racist, so it's not fair that the South should be singled out. The Federal Government was segregated through most of the 20th century. The U.S. Army was segregated until the end of World War II. Are schools in Baltimore, Md.; Boston; and New York City integrated now?"

In the shadow of the Stone Mountain Confederate memorial

Chuck Burris is the first black mayor of Stone Mountain, a historic town of 8,000 known for the dramatic Confederate memorial carved into the mountain above it and the rebel-theme park that draws 4 million visitors a year. Burris lives in the former home of an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. That's progress, but when it comes to wiping out color lines in the South, it's often a case of one step forward, two steps back. Burris says he has received bomb threats since the city stopped an effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to fly the battle flag over the tombstones of 150 unknown Confederate soldiers, and he makes a point too often lost on the neo-Confederates. "I'm as Southern as any other person," he says. "The Confederate flag is not a symbol of my heritage. When we define the South only in terms of the Civil War, do you know how much of Southern history we lose?"

Burris is optimistic despite divisive issues like the cemetery flag. In 1991, when he ran for city council, Stone Mountain's population was 15% black. Now, with blacks accounting for more than 60%, it is increasingly multicultural. Recently the city council helped some 400 Kosovo refugees settle here. "I'm as proud of that as probably anyone would be of their ancestors fighting," he says. "I'm not saying racism is gone. But we're beyond having the challenge of racism to deal with. We have to learn how to live in a multicultural society."

Paradox has long been a part of life here, says Georgianne Christian Allen, who is writing a history of Shermantown, an African-American neighborhood in Stone Mountain. According to oral tradition, the neighborhood was created after Union General William Tecumseh Sherman made his fiery path through Georgia and freed slaves, some of whom congregated in the small area between Main Street and the mountain. Elderly blacks remember the injustice of separatism and Shermantown as one of the last areas in DeKalb County to get sewers and paved roads. But even when separatism was perpetuated by law, "Stone Mountain blacks and whites got along harmoniously," says Ralph Shipp, 68, a lifelong resident. Other African Americans also recall warm relationships between the races. And yet the Klan had a strong presence in Stone Mountain, its leader occupying the two-story white house the black mayor now lives in. James R. Venable, Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was also a lawyer. According to local historian Walter McCurdy, Venable once successfully defended two Black Panthers accused of killing a white policeman in Louisiana. Venable took pay from the Black Panthers, McCurdy says, and gave it to the K.K.K. But that's a long time ago now. Too long for some black residents here to worry about. Let the rebel flag fly over those graves, says Ralph Shipp. "That's all right. They are dead, and it's a thing of the past. Let's move on."

South Carolina
The man behind a controversial neo-Confederate magazine

The storm came out of nowhere. A magazine most people had never heard of was in the spotlight. On TV, John Ashcroft was getting fire-tested at his nomination hearings for a interview he'd given in 1998 to Southern Partisan. On Meet the Press, Delaware Senator Joe Biden called it "a white supremacist magazine, so I'm told." How could Ashcroft be a fit Attorney General if he agreed with it? "We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect," Ashcroft told the magazine, "or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

Like slavery, for instance? The same issue of the magazine that ran the Ashcroft interview had an ad for the Southern Heritage Association, asking, "Is the war over? Perhaps, but the cause lives on." Another ad, for a book about Lincoln, began, "If you think Bill Clinton has a character problem, take a look at...Lincoln." But rather than judge it from afar, I decide to drop by Southern Partisan, based in downtown Columbia, to find out who these people are.

Chris Sullivan, the current editor, had faxed me a 10-point response to national press accounts calling Southern Partisan racist, segregationist and secessionist. So I expected to find a considerable operation, one equal to the wrath against it. But at an unremarkable strip mall, I entered an office that contained the entire paid staff: Sullivan and one assistant. The quarterly magazine has 8,000 subscribers and generally runs between 50 and 60 pages. Sullivan uses free-lance writers--columnists and essayists, mostly--who are paid between $200 and $500 per article. "We're not in the news because of our influence or vast number of subscribers. We're an issue because we're a stick liberals can use to beat their enemies," says Sullivan, 38, who seems not entirely opposed to such exploitation. "I guess no publicity is bad publicity," he says.

A soft-spoken single guy who drives a pickup truck with a gun rack, Sullivan comes from a family of Greenville jewelers. A nonvet and nonjournalist, he got his start at Southern Partisan by writing about the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a member and officer. Sullivan is Christian, antiabortion and a supporter of small, decentralized government. His magazine is all those things and also a passionate defender of the Confederate flag. Sullivan says it's fair to call the publication right-wing with a Southern twist. But not racist.

"We've taken a few digs at the N.A.A.C.P.," he acknowledges. "Is the N.A. really for the A.C.P.?" Several years ago, he says, a series on racism began with the argument that in order to move on, the South had to reject racism. In a later installment, a writer took issue with that. Sullivan remembered the gist of the article being, "Why I will not condemn Southern racism: we've got nothing to be ashamed of."

Over my lunch of Confederate fried steak, I ask Sullivan if he would run such an article today, or one that defended slavery. He has to think a little too long before answering. The Ashcroft backlash has had a chilling effect, he says, so if such an article ran, it would run with an opposing companion article. Later, he changes the answer to no. He would not run such an article. In a subsequent telephone interview, he says he wants to make it absolutely clear that he does not and would not ever defend slavery as an institution. But he could conceive of running an article in which "we might talk about how slavery was different from the public perception of it."

My guess is that Sullivan isn't talking about the kind of viewpoint I'd seen at an art exhibit the day before I visited him. In "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money," at the Avery Research Center in Charleston, an African-American artist named John W. Jones took the romanticized slave-labor scenes from Confederate currency and reproduced them in oil paintings paired with the bills. The effect is to punctuate the exploitation of blacks for profit. One scene depicts a sun-lit goddess of good fortune in repose, counting her gold as slaves toil in the fields behind her.

But back to Chris Sullivan's America. The South is becoming too much like the rest of the country, he tells me, listing immigration and the homogenizing, obliterating effects of commercial development among the culprits. Many Asians are settling in the South, he says. And "Chamber of Commerce types are turning the South into one big subdivision." The problem isn't the Asians so much as the development, he clarifies, and the idea that if you were dropped blindfolded into the South, you might think you were anywhere else in America.

What the North doesn't understand about the South, he claims, is that these same issues have guided its political thought for 200 years. In the spirit of states' rights and sovereignty, the South doesn't want the North telling it what to do. That's what the war was about, he says, that's what the flag represents, and that's why, in every issue of Southern Partisan, there's a "Confederate States of America Today" news roundup. In one issue, Missouri gets a dart because a hotel tried to have rebel flags removed during a Sons of Confederate Veterans shindig. And Trent Lott gets a nudge to enact a strong, committed, antigay agenda.

"There's some truth to the argument that the [Confederate] flag represents the idea of resistance to tyranny," Sullivan says. "While it might be unglamorous in modern-day politics to say this, I don't want to integrate the schools simply because the Federal Government wants us to do it."

If the magazine is so in touch with Southern politics and values, I ask him, why is its circulation a measly 8,000? You can't blame that on the North too. Sullivan suggests it is because the magazine hasn't been marketed well, but that's about to change.

After leaving his office, I flip open the second-quarter 2000 issue, with slave shackles on the cover and the headline DID SLAVERY CAUSE THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES? The magazine fell open to a two-page ad for a book called The God of War. The book is about the same Civil War hero and Klan co-founder celebrated on the wall of the Confederate Presbyterian Church in Wiggins, Miss., the same man memorialized by that monument in Selma. The clip-out order form for the book said, "Yes, I want to ride with General Nathan Bedford Forrest!" It has been too long a ride, and the travelers seem pretty well exhausted.


Cover Date: April 30, 2001



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