Ghosts of the south
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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Cover Date: April 30, 2001