Southern pride rising ... rankling

In a surge of regionalism, more Southerners are waving flags and defending Confederate icons.

Vicky Poston is a Reb with a cause.

When Alcoa Inc. banned Confederate symbols from workers' cars at its North Carolina plant last year, Ms. Poston did something rare for a propriety-conscious Southerner: She took to the streets in protest.

As big rigs honked in support and a protester waved the battle flag from a Ford Mustang convertible, Poston and 150 activists pushed the big aluminum firm to scale back its ban on Confederate license plates, bumper stickers, and other regalia.

After years of enduring similar prohibitions on things Confederate, emboldened Southerners are increasingly donning their Dixie duds and unfurling traditional state flags in defense of embattled Southern heroes and symbols.

From the palm-fronded streets of Charleston, S.C., to the historic storefronts of Selma, Ala., the movement reflects a reawakening of traditional Southern pride and a strong sense of regionalism.

Indeed, the growing backlash against efforts to take down the flag - including the recent legislative battles in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi - may signal a deeper shift in Southern culture. The rise of a new political class of Confederate sympathizers indicates that many are ready to reawaken Confederate ideals such as states' rights and sovereignty.

To be sure, Southern partisanship evokes images of Jim Crow and slavery to much of the country. And ominous motives may well lie behind some of the activists. Yet experts say many of those embracing the new movement are driven more by regional pride, resistance to the Federal government, and a desire to reconnect with a lost heritage. They'd like to recast the South as the last bastion of civility, independence, and constitutional ideals.

Critics, though, see darker tones in the surge in Southern pride - and a collision with the values of the New South.

"These guys are very much building the intellectual capital which they hope to make the foundation for a ... reborn Confederacy," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report in Montgomery, Ala. And the size scares him. "You have 9,000 and 15,000-person membership rolls, huge groups littered with PhDs, doctors, and lawyers, which are vastly more politically dangerous than any Klan or neo-Nazi group could ever be."

Southern partisans are certainly rallying the troops:

*Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people showed up in Atlanta to celebrate the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee - most years, the celebration draws about 300 people.

*Southerners are increasingly putting up new Confederate monuments along the South's tobacco roads. A statue of a controversial Civil War general went up near a black neighborhood in Selma, Ala., late last year.

*This weekend, League of the South will open its North Carolina State University chapter in Raleigh - one in a string of recent gambits to bring Southern youths back to Confederate ideals. The director says the league's South Carolina chapter saw a 300 percent increase in membership last year.

*After a five-year planning period, the Southern Party was formed last year in Asheville, N.C. It advocates regional independence and the end of the South's role as "the nation's whipping boy."

In perhaps the greatest show of Confederate unity yet, thousands of battle flags went up on memorials and front lawns across South Carolina the day they removed the flag from the statehouse last June. "It was like Christmas in Cuba," says Mike Tuggle, the leader of a Southern independence group in Charlotte, N.C.

Some say the pro-Southern activities are in part a reaction to anti-Southern efforts. "People are having to stand up for what they believe in," says Chris Sullivan, editor of the conservative Southern Partisan magazine in Columbia, S.C.

Despite an explosion in their numbers, these new Confederate sympathizers, like their forefathers, are still outnumbered.

Southern partisans are losing the big battles. A travel boycott by the 500,000-strong NAACP finally pushed the South Carolina legislature to move the Southern cross state flag from the top of the State House to a nearby soldier's memorial. On Wednesday, facing a similar boycott threat, Georgia's House of Representatives voted to redesign the state flag to minimize the Southern cross.

And in what promises to be a bellwether gauge of the feelings of the New South, Mississippi residents will go to the polls for an April referendum to decide what to do about the Confederate insignia on their state flag.

While many Southerners claim the St. Andrew's cross is a proud symbol of a heritage and principles their forefathers fought to save, others call it an "ugly memory." They recall the 1950s, when many state capitols unfurled it as a show of Southern defiance against federal desegregation measures.

And the idea that the country has decided to erase all things Southern is unfounded, says Potok. "The war occurred, and there's no point in pretending it didn't. Besides, removing all signs of the Civil War is a little akin to the Soviets airbrushing assassinated leaders out of photographs."

In the end, the reawakening of Confederate ideals is about much more than tugging on an old flag. Deeper historical, religious, and political forces are at work, says Walter Williams, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "A lot of this might be the resurrection of some ... issues that led up to the War Between the States in 1861," he says. "Specifically, the heavyhandedness of the federal government. And that's why you're seeing a lot of renewed interest in the 10th Amendment and states' rights."

At least in the South, the old Confederate ideas have found fresh root in the red Dixie clay. "I think it comes down to the simple fact that [people] are alienated in modern life," says Mr. Tuggle. "There are a lot of changes going on.... The Confederate heritage gives you something very important to hold onto."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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