South is new, but still facing up to the old

From Charleston to Selma, Southerners still treasure the tendrils of the Old South, as tourists crowd into a hallowed region legendary for its cotton fields, moss-covered oaks, and piquant cuisine.

At the same time, though, the 13 former Confederate states are swarming with immigrants from Cairo and Kenya, Chicago accents leap out of latte shops, and some Southern kids are learning a whole new ballgame: hockey.

The dichotomies are part and parcel of the New South - even as many second-generation Southerners start saying things like "I might could" and worshiping pickup trucks.

But the furor over Sen. Trent Lott's praise for Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist bid for president is making clear that the "old" South can sully, as well as enrich, the new.

Indeed, the storm over the Senate majority leader points to an enduring problem for the South: How to remove the blemishes of the past while maintaining the distinctiveness of a unique region?

"It's like the saying goes, 'The Old South never dies," says Virginian Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War." "Every time it seems as if it has, someone like Lott reminds us that the Confederacy and its legacy are still very much alive. And I think we ignore the potency of the Old South allegiances at our peril."

On Monday night Mr. Lott tried to confront, more effectively than in his prior apologies, his own baggage on the issue of race. In an interview on Black Entertainment Television, he discussed how the region's unsavory past had shaped the world he grew up in.

"There was a society then that was wrong and wicked," he said. "I didn't create it and I didn't even really understand it for many, many years."

But he added: "In order to be a racist, you have to feel superior. I don't feel superior to you at all. I don't believe any man or any woman is superior to any other."

Lott's travails, as he tries to salvage his hold on a powerful Senate post, won't likely change the course of history for the region of magnolias and peanuts.

But the senator's fight for political survival is prompting some soul-searching in a corner of the country that has undergone a major social revolution in the past 50 years. It has made great progress, yet is a region where race is still talked about in code, and where interracial dating is in some places still frowned upon.

What's more, the recent battles over Confederate symbols on T-shirts and state flags have not gone unnoticed by voters. Gov. Roy Barnes (D) of Georgia, many say, was defeated in November because of his push to miniaturize the Rebel insignia on the state flag. Moreover, Lott's comments about the country "being better off" if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 is a view still shared by many in the Deep South, though rarely articulated so bluntly and publicly.

There's a growing impetus among revisionists to take down portraits of old Confederate generals from county courthouses. Yet ugly symbols of the South's Jim Crow days still occasionally flare up in the public square.

Last week, in a one-minute speech, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made an impassioned plea against cross-burning as a Virginia case was heard. A few months ago, a Ku Klux Klan lair was raided near Dunn, N.C., and its members charged with planning to bomb the county courthouse. Half-burned crosses were found behind the barns on the property.

WHAT many Southerners forget, however, is that the March on Selma and "Bloody Sunday" are as important to black Southerners as Gettysburg and the attack on Little Round Top are to white Southerners.

"There's a great deal of traditionalism among both white and black Southerners, but the challenge is finding a way to bring both groups together," says Jim Langcuster of Auburn, Alabama, who is active in the Southern heritage movement. "And the sad fact is that's never going to happen under the Confederate banner."

Despite the lingering problems, the battles of civil rights have already been fought in the South - and largely won. In fact, many experts say that race relations today are as good, or better, in the South than in places such as Boston, Chicago, or Detroit.

That's partly why Southerners have been among the quickest to call for Lott to step down, if not from his office, from his leadership post. On Monday, the Mississippi Press, his hometown paper in Pascagoula, Miss., said Lott "doesn't deserve" to be majority leader.

"A lot is at stake here, and [Lott's comment] may well reinforce negative stereotypes about the South across the entire country," says Merle Black, an Emory University political analyst.

Indeed, some Southerners say, one challenge for the region is that the rest of the country won't let the Old South die.

"Being Southern is a blessing and a burden at the same time," says Mr. Langcuster. "You never feel completely American, you feel something separate and apart. If you say you're from Alabama, you realize that you're sticking your neck out, because of the prejudice that some people feel for Southerners."

For the Republicans, meanwhile, Lott's comments seem to intrude the past into what they see as a new strategy in the South.

The newly rising black middle class in the South is part of the Republicans' new base, with some 20 percent of wealthy blacks supporting "the party of Lincoln."

"The fact is, [past] Republicans have used racial issues here as a way of attracting white support, but modern Republicans would really prefer to move far beyond that," says Mr. Black. "Even Reagan had a whole lot of other issues that appealed to [Southern whites]: a smaller federal government, less taxation, and cultural conservatism."

Race relations are still a defining issue for this broad region of 100 million Americans.

But many experts agree that it's possible for the South to excise race from its daily politics - and still retain their beloved cuisines and the cadence of their unique speech.

"There's been a lot more distinctiveness about the South than race relations," says retired sociology professor John Shelton Reed, the coauthor of "1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South." "And I think we can change that without changing our literary and culinary traditions."

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