Old Totems Tumble in New South

Some states reject racist songs, policies, and Confederate flags

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR decades, Confederate symbols and emblems have been as much a part of Southern life as grits, collard greens, and black-eyed peas.

The Confederate battle flag flew unabashedly over statehouses across the region. Students whistled "Dixie" at public schools. And monuments honoring Confederate heroes went unchallenged.

But the "New South" is now reexamining its Civil War roots, racial practices, and some of its most cherished icons. Both black and white Southerners are questioning whether such symbols and policies appropriately reflect current community sentiments and the image that one of the nation's fastest-growing regions wants to portray to the world.

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Among the recent actions taken to redress historic wrongs:

* In Atlanta, the Southern Baptist Convention this week passed a resolution acknowledging the role slavery played in the founding of the church and apologizing to blacks for past racism.

* In Mississippi, lawmakers last March ratified the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery - 130 years after it became part of the Constitution.

* In Virginia, the state Senate this spring passed a bill to rewrite the Old Dominion's official song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." A new version replaced the terms "darkie" and "massa," but the bill died in the House.

These steps underscore a trend among Southerners to reconcile the past, say academics here.

"There is a deep sense of healing as a cultural process that is going on," says William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford. "We are seeing a truly 'New South' in that many of these old symbols ... are being shed."

At 'Ole Miss, the rebel flag, a school symbol for years, has been banished from football games, as has the singing of "Dixie." Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse a year ago. The building of civil rights museums in Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss., and the naming of streets in Southern communities after Martin Luther King Jr. also reflect this theme of redemption and reconciliation, says David Goldfield, history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

"What is going on is that blacks are entering into full citizenship in the South, and the symbols aren't their symbols," says John Shelton Reed, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

But the apologies and eradication of symbols are no substitute for action, says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. "I'm glad they've done all these things," Dr. Lowery says, "but while they're doing this, chain gangs are being reinstituted and there's an assault on affirmative action. I welcome the symbolism but unless it's transferred into substance it becomes blasphemous."

Still, many of the symbols - which embody not just racist views but also feelings about Civil War independence and Southern traditions - aren't falling without a fight.

One fraternity, Kappa Alpha, known for its veneration of Civil War South icons, continues to hold a spring dance at some chapters where members dress in Confederate uniforms and dates come in hoop skirts. The Confederate flag still flies over the South Carolina State House as a battle goes on to bring it down. Georgia and Mississippi have kept the rebel stars and bars as part of their state flags.

John McGlone, executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Columbia, Tenn., says the flying of the Confederate flag is not intended to offend people. "It's a symbol to remember a proud history. We're looking back to a heritage we're proud of," Mr. McGlone says.

The organization, which counts blacks among its members, has seen membership rise from 8,000 in the 1980s to about 24,000 today, an increase McGlone attributes to education efforts and heightened interest in the Civil War.

McGlone is also upset by moves afoot to tear down monuments of Confederate heroes. "It would appear that everyone has a right to express their heritage except white Southerners," he says.

In Atlanta, the Southern Baptist resolution asking for forgiveness for racism is a historic moment for the nation's largest Protestant denomination, says Rev. Richard Land, executive director of the Christian Life Commission, the church's agency concerned with minority issues.

"There's no other resolution we've passed that has as expressly apologized to African-Americans and asked for their forgiveness," Dr. Land says. "My African-American brothers and sisters tell me it will be an enormous help to them in dispelling an erroneous image in their communities that Southern Baptists are not progressive on the race issue."

Says Mr. Ferris: "When you see change come to the Southern Baptist Convention ... and the University of Mississippi, this is the deepest, most bedrock level of change."

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