BY MILTON READY
For those caught up in the current but really unceasing debate about whether the Confederate battle flag represents the heritage of Southerners or their hatred of blacks, let me suggest some different and more far-reaching meanings that, in sum, point to a changing South. First, has anyone noticed the stampede by Southern politicians who suddenly want the flag removed?
From governors and senators like Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina to Robert Bentley in Alabama and Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran in Mississippi, everyone wants it gone forthwith. South Carolina? Alabama? Mississippi? All represent the honest-to-God solid South, unreconstructed rebel states wrapping themselves in the Confederate flag and extolling all things Southern. Yet why the sudden rush to remove the Confederate flag? Did the massacre at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston really touch political hearts and stir them to action? Certainly not. Political expediency did.
In truth, from Reconstruction to the present day, a majority of Southern governors, senators, congressmen and representatives have never liked their necessary association with the Confederate battle flag and with the “ruffians” and “lower classes” they thought so fervently embraced it. The Charleston massacre gave them the temporary moral high ground to do away with it. Indeed, the current debate over the Confederate flag symbolizes not only racial but also social and class divisions in Southern society, all papered over by the election of a black president but exposed by the massacre in Charleston. While largely overlooked by an obsession over race, many contemporary films about the South such as The Help and Sweet Home Alabama also have class and gender as major themes.
For many Southern politicians, Dylann Roof became a chilling reminder of a potential lawlessness, violence and dangerous unpredictability inherent in the lower classes of Southern society, the “bottom rungs” of the poor and uneducated. Although many Southerners have redeemed and even promoted the term “redneck” along with its culture, most politicians — heirs to country clubs, private schools and clubby associations — shun such chumminess except at election time and the obligatory barbecue. Then, as Jesse Helms once predicted, they needed “the hick vote” to win.
Of the more than 90 percent of South Carolina senators who voted to take down the Confederate battle flag, how many would you think send their children to public schools with lower-income whites and blacks, live in a gated or restrictive neighborhood, belong to a country club or exclusive association or go to NASCAR races in an RV and tailgate? In one of the many ironies of class in the modern South, white Southerners don’t mind hobnobbing with middle- and upper-class blacks, who, to them, represent their “values.” Moreover, those same blacks now see themselves every bit as “Southern” as their white counterparts.
The controversy over the Confederate flag largely dooms the presidential bids of Southerners like Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry. All had trouble with the issue, and, in the end, sounded as if they just wanted it to go away. Graham seemingly pleaded with South Carolinians to take down the flag while Huckabee, in typical dodgeball fashion, wanted to leave it up to the states. Not anymore. Perry? He actually wanted to invite blacks to become Republicans, a move that surely will cost him Southern white male votes. That neo-Latino Jeb Bush? He worried if the nation would once again elect a Bush and a Southerner. Quién sabe?
The Confederate flag debate likely will also convince many Americans that the South has skewed the nation’s culture far too much and far too long. America’s decades-long embrace of Southern culture from country music to Krispy Kreme doughnuts officially is ending. In the 1980s, the South successfully exported its ideas of family values, hospitality, religiosity, community, sense of place, patriotism and reverence for history to the rest of the nation. No more.
Bill Johnson, a retiree who lives in Savannah, openly wondered, “You know how a Southerner defines patriotism? He supports any and every war.” Church going? The Bible Belt? Not as much. Folks in the Midwest are more likely to attend church than Southerners, whose children largely have abandoned their parents’ religion in record numbers since the 1980s. Family values? Six of the top 10 states in divorce rates also can be found in the South. Moreover, the South hosts seven of the top 10 states in out-of-wedlock births with, surprisingly, evangelicals in the forefront. The writer Michael Lind maintains that the nation has tired of the false virtues of the South and also of its history of violence, lack of social mobility, fundamentalist religion, chauvinism and its basic anti-democratic nature.
Yet all this should be contrasted with the surge in popularity of all things Confederate after South Carolina took down its battle flag. When Wal-Mart, eBay, Amazon and Sears stopped stocking and selling Confederate memorabilia, other vendors and Internet sites reported record sales. At the recent NASCAR race in Daytona, one of the largest in the nation, you could find Confederate flags far more easily than a beer stand.
Confederate-themed clothing, tattoos, coolers, boots, T-shirts and shorts abounded. Paul Stevens, a Floridian, echoed the mantra for long-suffering Southerners. “Let everything die down,” he insisted, “just let it pass,” and the South would rise again. Still another, Steven Rebensdorf, sipping a beer beneath his limp flag, defiantly proclaimed, “They’d have to come and get it.” Not really.
As the percentages of older, white, male Southerners declines and as immigration, minorities, urbanization and demographics marginalizes them, a new, more divided and pluralistic South led by neo-Southerners like Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz will replace them. Except for Coca-Cola and Krispy Kreme, the South likely will have less to offer the nation in the future.
Milton Ready is a retired UNCA history professor and Mars Hill resident.