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Twilight of the Old South?

Understanding others

Rural Southerners are fighting to save the values that have long defined the region. But they worry they are losing ground. 

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    Jerry Hawn, a Vietnam veteran, talks about President Obama in Madison, Ga.
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    Madison, Ga., is famous for its well-kept antebellum mansions.
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John Bostwick founded this cotton gin town back in 1902. Today, 114 years later, Mayor John Bostwick, looking like a weekend duffer in a short-sleeve button-down shirt, still runs the town.

The two John Bostwicks are three generations removed from one another. Yet, as in so much of the rural South, the past here seems present. Tradition is not only tangible but personal.

If the town of Bostwick (pop. 365) has changed, it seems more a victim than victor. The old rail spur that took away ginned cotton is long silent. The turn-of-the-century hotel now serves as Mayor Bostwick’s office, in which a stuffed fox squirrel forever grips a slab of bark. The town hall is open only three hours a week. The ancient and dusty hardware store became a video rental joint before it finally closed in 2009.

Yet that old cotton gin in the open tin barn still runs every fall, the only such machine still clawing cotton bolls in north Georgia.

“Our main mission here is to keep sprawl at bay,” says Bostwick. And by “sprawl,” he says, he means not just physical urbanization, but an ideological one, too – one culture, increasingly progressive, subsuming an older way.

The Old South, it seems, is on the ropes.

In Bostwick and many other rural towns throughout the South, recent years have come like a whirlwind­ – the Confederate flag abandoned and gay and transgender rights embraced.

To many, those shifts mean a more pluralistic, open-minded country. But here in the land of lost causes – from the Civil War to Jim Crow – there’s a keen sense among a vocal minority that where the federal government once came to crush the South’s institutions, it now comes, emboldened by court decrees and the leftward social tilt of the Millennial generation, to suppress Southern culture itself.

As one church sign here reads: “Legalizing sin doesn’t make it right.”

The backlash of the Old South is most apparent in recent state laws that rein in transgender rights in North Carolina and protect religious freedom at the expense of gay rights in Mississippi.

But it is centered in towns like Bostwick, Between, Good Hope, Fair Play, Monroe, and Madison, which see the spread of blue-state values as a tyranny of the majority.

“I think we’ve just become class-less – and, by that, I don’t mean upper class or lower class, I mean class as in, people have no class in the way they speak and dress, or what they do,” says Bostwick.

Southern values face 'wrecking ball'

So far, the closest to Bostwick that the cultural cannon rounds have rung is the nearby Target. The Minneapolis-based retailer recently established a policy that transgender customers could use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.

This was a “mistake,” Bostwick says, and he is not alone in that view.

“It’s a hardy perennial in Southern discourse: saying to hell with what outsiders think,” says Trent Brown an American studies professor at the Missouri University of Science & Technology and author of “White Masculinity in the Recent South.”

In Madison, Ga., just a few miles down Route 83 from Bostwick, Sandra echoes Bostwick’s sentiments.

Madison, Ga., is famous for its well-kept antebellum mansions. Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

By the measure of the Old South, Sandra says she feels like an “outsider” – the middle-age woman moved to Madison as a grade-schooler. Yes, the town can be insular and judgmental, so as a store owner she doesn’t give her last name. But there’s also a warmth that she doesn’t want to leave. Indeed, she’s even willing to vote for Donald Trump – albeit reluctantly – to save those values.

“I’m being forced to vote for him, because anything else will ensure that the wrecking ball will continue to destroy our society,” she says.

Mr. Trump is a curious avenger for the Old South, being neither Southern, religious, nor an avowed culture warrior – he once said Caitlyn Jenner could use whichever bathroom she wanted at Trump Tower.

Yet in his candor, many Southerners cheer a willingness to speak hard truths and unpopular opinions that seemingly can no longer levied, on fear of social, even legal, retribution.

Jerry Hawn, a Vietnam vet, sounds downright Trumpian in his harsh comments about the president and first lady – criticizing their stance on gay and transgender rights. And like Trump, he’s not concerned about being labeled a bigot or racist.

“When they’re calling me names, it gives someone else a rest,” he says. “Besides, I can call people names, too.”

In Trump’s message of making America great again, many here hear notes of a return to a time when their society was not being pushed toward America’s cultural margins. 

“A lot of Americans feel like they’re on the defensive [on both cultural and economic issues], which explains some of the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “You’ve got a group of Republican primary voters [especially in the South] who feel under siege and resentful, to the point where the fact that Trump himself is clearly not one of them doesn’t seem to bother them.”

Threating the traditional order

In Madison, Tice Clark has noticed many townspeople bracing against a push from the Obama administration to expand transgender rights.

“They’re angry,” says Mr. Clark, a native Marylander who arrived here with his antique business via California.

That view is echoed in Mississippi, where educators have been told to ignore the Department of Justice and its opinion that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to deny transgender people the right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Yet not all the change is being imposed from Washington. The New South has seen 10 million newcomers set up fresh stakes since 2000 – transforming urban areas from Atlanta to Birmingham, Ala., to Charlotte, N.C. And some of the businesses lured to the South by low taxes and weak unions have used their clout to push for social change that, to many here, smacks of blue-state values.

Those changes are increasingly threatening the South’s traditional order.

For the Southern elites who once guided society, “It’s a time of great change, and the old elite resists change, because it brings about the possibility of losing their elite status,” says Jonathan Bryant, a historian at Georgia Southern University whose current research focuses on “law, fraud, and war in the making of the Deep South.”

Meanwhile, poorer white Southerners, both economically and culturally, also “feel a distinct decline in their status. There is a pining for something they have created, a romanticized understanding of what things were like in ‘the past,’ when it was better.”

Southern politics is showing signs of those shifts.

Acknowledging that “discrimination” has no place in the modern South, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who is not running for reelection, removed Robert E. Lee day from the state calendar and vetoed a religious liberty bill. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) demurred on the transgender bathroom issue, saying such laws address problems that don’t exist. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) vetoed a bill that would have made the Bible the official state book.

“The amount of fallout has basically been meaningless, reflecting what a very small minority actually remain wedded” to Old South ideals, says Professor Bryant.

Two flags, one town

In Bostwick, however, the Confederate flag still flies from a sprawling compound strewn with boats and beach buggies across Route 83 from the Dixie King One Variety cotton gin.

Yes, prejudice still tempers the place, says resident W.D. Stone. But in looking around at his family and friends, he sees a more nuanced picture of the rural South – one where, perhaps, elements of the old and new can comingle. His family, he says, “has never been prejudiced, because we all eat the same food.”

Mr. Stone remembers picking cotton as a boy, with crews of black women being bused in to work in the field. Their gospel singing filled the fields like “a chorus of angels.”

Even though those field songs are gone, “I don’t think the town will ever change much.”

But to Boots Veasley, a black laborer who cuts and stacks sod for one of the biggest landowners in Morgan County, Bostwick is already changing.

As the country goes, Bostwick will eventually follow, he says.

After all, he notes, Bostwick’s Fourth of July barbecue picnic is becoming even bigger than the more Georgia-centric Cotton Gin Festival in the fall.

“I personally don’t know nothing about no Confederate flag,” he says. “The only thing I care about is the American flag.”

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