Why the South still whistles 'Dixie'

Confederate symbols are still alive, but coming under increasedscrutiny

There was a time when Matt Hawkins thought his grandmother's obsession with an erstwhile war was antiquated, perhaps even a bit bizarre.

As a boy, he didn't fully understand why she took him to Civil War battle reenactments, he says, or why she demanded that he show respect at memorial services for Confederate martyrs.

These days, however, Mr. Hawkins needs no explanation.

"It's a heritage I am proud she shared," he drawls. "Once I was embarrassed about it; now I think those are some of my best childhood memories."

Over the years and in recent months, some of these symbols - from Confederate flags to state mottoes - have come under increasing scrutiny for their ties to slavery and oppression. But many Southerners' steadfast support for these symbols offers a glimpse of a culture intensely proud of its past and intimately linked to it.

Indeed, for those like Hawkins, the War Between the States, which still echoes through street names and family trees, remains a powerful part of everyday life.

"All cultures want to memorialize and romanticize their pasts," says Jim Cullen, author of "The Civil War in Popular Culture." To many Southerners, "Southern culture is a repository as a whole for American values, those lost things that matter more than materialism - like civility and honor."

In the past few months, several battles over Civil War iconography have popped up across the region.

*The Sons of Confederate Veterans want to place rebel battle flags on state specialty license tags. A lawsuit on the subject will be heard this week in Roanoke, Va.

*The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for a boycott against the State of South Carolina because it continues to fly the Confederate flag over the State Capitol. When asked about the controversy, presidential hopeful and Texas Gov. George W. Bush said civil rights outsiders should "butt out."

*Upset by license plates that call Alabama the "Heart of Dixie," a state Rep. Alvin Holmes has introduced a bill that would force the state to offer two versions of the tag. One would not have the motto.

*Last month, the Natchez, Miss., Visitor Reception Center removed the Confederate battle flag from its building. The flag, however, was quickly replaced with the first Confederate national flag, known as the Stars and Bars.

Many scholars say the region continuously thrives thanks in no small part to its desire to remain distinct from the North. "If the South continues to be backward, the North doesn't have to look at its own background," says Susan Glisson, chairwoman of the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

In many ways, the goal is to keep the South as something of a foreign country - a separate world of palatable cuisine, sugar-dripping accents, and old-fashioned manners.

For instance, the Kappa Alpha fraternity, founded at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., espouses the beliefs of former university president and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Moreover, most Kappa Alpha houses fly the Confederate flag - even though Lee never encouraged flying it.

No event in American history has captured Southerners' imagination more than the Civil War. Part of that can be attributed to the cost of defeat and the lingering imprint of Reconstruction - from Jim Crow laws through the civil rights movement.

Numbers alone can give a sense of the fascination.

"Gone With the Wind" sold 50,000 copies in one day and 1 million - at $3 a pop during the Depression - within six months. Even now, the book continues to sell 40,000 copies a year. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has a membership of 27,000 in 650 camps, all dedicated to preserving Southern history and heritage.

And on any given weekend, Civil War reenactments draw hundreds of participants and spectators at battlefields around the country.

And to all Southerners, says Hawkins, the Civil War is the historical narrative that unites them.

"I know where I come from," he says. "And it's a great feeling to know what happened in the past, to know history and your heritage, to have that bond in such an uncertain world."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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