Tricky Dixie

The history behind current events.
Jan. 24 2001 3:00 AM

Tricky Dixie

The mainstreaming of the Confederate ideology. 

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As much as we want to believe that the moral questions about the Civil War were settled long ago, the Confederacy's legacy remains contested ground—as the 2000 campaign reminded us. Last March, George W. Bush and John McCain both shrank from calling for the Confederate flag's retirement during the South Carolina primary for fear of offending GOP voters. And in November, the nation's electoral map showed us to be as divided along North-South lines as at any time since the Civil War.

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Now Bush has populated his administration with proponents of decidedly Southern values—fundamentalist Christianity, states' rights ideology, conservative views on race—and two of his Cabinet nominees, aspiring Attorney General John Ashcroft and would-be Interior Secretary Gale Norton, have expressed a measure of sympathy for the ideals of the Old South. How did defending Dixie suddenly become fashionable? Is this the onset of reactionary chic?

Romantic views of the Confederacy have a long history. After their defeat in the Civil War, white Southerners faced bleak prospects: They were devastated economically, stripped of their pride, and forced to accept leadership from Northerners and even African-Americans. Naturally, many looked to extract dignity from their loss. "They nurtured a public memory of the Confederacy," historian Gary Gallagher has written, through holidays, monuments, veterans' reunions, and other rituals. Artists and writers celebrated the goals for which Southerners fought, and extolled the rebels' bravery. They founded groups devoted to cavalier heritage, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The "Lost Cause" was born.

For a time, Lost Cause advocates secured their rose-colored interpretations of slavery (a benign, paternalistic institution) and their dim view of Reconstruction (the exploitation of Dixie by predatory carpetbaggers) in American history books. The vanquished Robert E. Lee became canonized as a great general, while the man who bested him, Ulysses S. Grant, drew scorn as a plodding butcher. The Civil War was rewritten not as a fight over the expansion of slavery into the West (as most historians view it again today) but as a tug of war over the principle of states' rights or, in some versions, over federal tariffs. Popular culture too—notably the films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939)—etched Lost Cause history into many minds.

But much as Confederate sympathizers downplayed the role of racial strife in Southern history, it could not be kept off center stage. After all, if you believed the war was about a clash of cultures, or of economic systems, you still had to note the key difference between those systems—slavery. And if you argued that the war was about states' rights, you still had to identify those rights the Confederates were defending—the right to enslave African-Americans. The notion that one could separate the goals of states' rights and of racial equality might make sense in the abstract (as Gale Norton apparently was trying to say), but in practice and in history it has had no real meaning. The position of blacks remained, as the political scientist V.O. Key noted, the South's overriding issue.

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With the rise of racial liberalism in the mid-20th century, historians revised their assessments of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and support for the Lost Cause mythology waned. But, paradoxically, the advance of civil rights also contributed to the revival of symbols and language of the Confederacy, as white Southerners saw their system of legalized segregation endangered. During Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for the presidency, his Dixiecrat supporters brandished Confederate flags and photos of Robert E. Lee. Within a couple of years, the rebel banner became, in one historian's words, "a nationwide fad, foreshadowing coonskin caps and hula hoops."

The Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down segregated schools, fueled the backlash. Confederate lore and imagery accompanied a widespread Southern campaign of "massive resistance" to federal desegregation orders. Dozens of U.S. congressmen signed the "Southern Manifesto" pledging to fight federal intervention, and federal troops and Southern whites faced off at schools in Little Rock in 1957, Montgomery in 1961, and the University of Mississippi in 1962. The star-studded X of the Confederate battle flag began appearing on redesigned Southern state banners, and demonstrators waved the Dixie standard at anti-integration protests.

In response to civil rights advances, new Southern heritage groups also sprang up, devoted to such efforts as schooling children in their own version of Civil War history. One 1954 "catechism" discovered by author Tony Horwitz taught kids that slaves "were always ready and willing to serve" their masters and that the "War Between the States" was caused by "the disregard by those in power for the rights of Southern states." That language was telling: for although many Southern whites openly espoused white supremacism, they nonetheless insisted—again like their Lost Cause predecessors—that they were really championing the cause of states' rights. The new Southern resistance was most famously epitomized by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose defiant defense of segregation shocked liberals but found unexpected legions of followers in Maryland, Wisconsin, and elsewhere outside Dixie.

Wallace's popularity highlighted an unusual divergence in American values in the '60s. On the one hand, the civil rights movement succeeded smashingly—not just in dismantling segregation but also in making the belief in equal rights and the tolerance of differences a broadly accepted national creed. Racism had been routed, discredited. Yet at the same time, as Wallace realized, resentment toward Washington and the welfare state was burgeoning around America, and the ancient call of "states' rights" now resonated with those whose complaints had little to do with forced desegregation. In particular, Westerners such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan realized they could tap into the anti-Washington ardor of the once solidly Democratic South to build a new Republican coalition. Goldwater's inroads in the South came at the expense of his popularity elsewhere (his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, hurt him), but Nixon and Reagan—and later Bush père and fils—brought the South decisively into the GOP tent.

The simultaneous, rival triumphs of civil rights and states' rights sparked new political battles in the late-20th-century South. Groups like the NAACP now felt emboldened to challenge state governments that continued to wave the Confederate flag, build monuments, or devote holidays to rebel leaders. As they saw it, they now had the power and the moral high ground to demand the elimination of these badges of slavery and Jim Crow. But the new round of activism also provoked a new neo-Confederate backlash, as whites organized to oppose reparations for slavery or the removal of flags, as well as policies such as affirmative action and busing.

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