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The reinvention of the American South

Shifts in thought

The backlash against LGBT rights is front-and-center. But the cultural shift on the Confederate flag shows how things are changing – and faster than it might appear.

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    Confederate flags at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. The US House has voted to ban the display of the Confederate flag on flagpoles at Veterans Administration cemeteries.
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As quietly as if a church mouse did it, the Georgia state holiday known for decades as Robert E. Lee Day this year became the decidedly more generic “State Holiday.”

In a state where the “Dukes of Hazzard” once careered around in a Confederate flag-emblazoned Charger named the General Lee, the decision by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to scratch the Southern war hero from the official celebration list should have elicited at least a few rebel yells, surely.

Instead … nothing.

The decision was followed last week by a congressional vote last week to remove Confederate flags from federal cemeteries – again to only minor protest. 

Clearly, this shift is a product of the backlash against the shooting of nine black church members by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., last year. But even so, the rapidity with which Confederate symbols are being erased after 150 years of deep cultural poignancy is astonishing.

The trend lines suggest a culture in warp-drive, with rapid shifts fueled by broader trends such as the rise of Millennials and social media. But closer to home, big business is bringing in its own set of values and outsiders – both Yankees and immigrants – are reshaping the South’s big cities.

More deeply, experts add, the movement also concerns a quiet recognition that heritage can, in fact, be hate in a society where increasingly, as North Carolina historian David Goldfield says, “diversity is not just accepted, but expected.”

And it is not only the Confederate flag. Despite the backlash to same-sex marriage and transgenderism rippling across the South, there is the sense that, beneath the politics, the people have shifted significantly. In North Carolina, for example, only 36 percent of residents support the new law that bans transgender people from using the bathroom they wish, according to a Public Policy Polling poll.

The transition might be uneasy, and the support for lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender (LGBT) shallow, but there is an acknowledgment that society has changed. In the words of Adam Grogan, a retired Marine and Southern Baptist from Rockmart, Ga., "We have other things to worry about."

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The changing politics of the Confederate flag came into full display last week in the House of Representatives. In an about-face from last year, House Republicans agreed to bar some displays of Confederate flags at federal cemeteries.

The move came as Sen. Marco Rubio, a recent Republican presidential contender, applauded a move by the Florida legislature to remove a Confederate monument – and suggested replacing it with a statue of former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

To be sure, Charleston changed the political calculus on the flag. But shifts were already at work beneath the surface. And those same shifts are now subtly shaping the debate over LGBT issues.

For example, corporations have had a growing influence over policy – especially in their outspoken opposition to laws they deemed discriminatory. Indeed, corporations have become far more willing to wade into hot-button debates in order to signal inclusive values to increasingly picky consumers.

One such moment came in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996, when a local theater company put on a play by a gay playwright, sparking outrage over arts funding from the conservative Mecklenburg County Commission. Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl issued a passionate response, in essence telling state and local leaders that if the state wants to compete in the global economy, it has to strive for a free and open society.

Mr. McColl’s admonition is now widely seen as a major waypoint in the shifting tides of culture, business, and social attitudes in the South. Being a friendly, pro-business landing spot for corporations – with lower taxes, less regulation, and weak unions – has been a cornerstone of Southern economic policy, after all.

But that approach has brought other consequences beyond CEOs promoting blue-state values. It has brought new residents from blue states and beyond, widening a rift between increasingly moderate cities and persistently conservative rural areas.

“It used to be that Southern cities reflected the countryside, and Southern cities were places where segregation actually began, the places where white supremacy was held onto very strongly,” adds Mr. Goldfield, the historian. “Southern cities are now breaking away from those conservative traditions, creating a tremendous gap between urban and rural areas.” 

Fueling that trend, cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C. – key centers of the Southern economy – are seeing a massive influx of career-focused Millennials. Just a decade ago a sleepy town of state bureaucrats, Raleigh now draws more young, childless adults with advanced degrees than almost any other city in the United States, per capita.

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It’s not as if those who have fought against the rise of more-liberal social values have completely lost their voice. Far from it. They remain a potent force that still guides politics. But the intensity of the political pushback on issues such as LGBT rights feels increasingly out-of-step with how society has evolved, some say.

“There’s … been some effort in Georgia to try to stop some localities from removing Confederate memorials and symbols,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “That’s still an issue that resonates with some part of the white electorate, but definitely a shrinking part of the white electorate.”

“There’s going to be pushback and efforts to revive these issues … but it’s not going to get very far, because of the economic interests.”

For Mr. Grogan, the Marine, it’s more than business pressure. He says his views on issues like same-sex marriage and transgender bathroom choice has changed. "Like a lot of people around here, I feel like it's time to get beyond all that," he says.

Pew found in 2014 that 61 percent of Republicans age 30 or younger favor same-sex marriage.

“Tempers rise and fall on these issues, and, yes, while you had Southern politicians in the 1960s running as openly segregationist candidates, the voter demographics and the voter mood and opinion changed, and the politicians followed suit rather than led,” says Trent Brown, author of “White Masculinity in the Recent South.”

“You’re always going to have that kind of hardcore group of people who see these changes as apocalyptic, but I think that whether out of pragmatism or good will, most Americans – and most Southerners – are going to come to terms with transgender rights because, just as happened in the mid-’60s, a lot of Southern communities said, ‘We may not like [integration] but it’s the law, and we’re going to obey the law, at least to the degree we have to.’ ” he says. “And as a Southerner myself, my attitudes are different than my parents. The law changed, we grew up under a new order, and we’re different.” 

Over time, countries change their ideals and values, he says, and the South – like the rest of America – is simply seeing that play out in its own way.

“In America, if you look back 100 years, and not just in the South, public places and public symbols have always been about power and exclusion and inclusion: Who has the right to march in a parade? Whose holidays will be commemorated? Who will be on a postage stamp or a coin?” adds Mr. Brown, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. “These things are about power to define community, power to say who ‘we’ are and who ‘we’ are not. Communities are living organisms and they have the right to change their heroes and the issues that they commemorate.”

[Editor's note: The original story gave the wrong date for a Charlotte, N.C. performance of a show by a gay playwright.]

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