Rehnquist's Inclusion of 'Dixie' Strikes a Sour Note |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 1999; Page B1
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist led a sing-along of "Dixie" at a judicial conference in Virginia last month, upsetting some lawyers who view the anthem of the Old South as an expression of fondness for the days of slavery.
Rehnquist's sing-along on the annual conference's first night has become a favorite among lawyers and judges who enjoy the chance to mingle with the Supreme Court justice in casual circumstances. More than 100 attend in most years.
At Rehnquist's sing-along, he stands at the front of the room leading lawyers and judges as they sing from a songbook distributed for the event. The songs are mostly American standards, including "America the Beautiful" and "Anchors Aweigh." The evening typically ends, say those who have attended, with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," a song written for the Union in the Civil War, and "Dixie."
The 4th Circuit Judicial Conference brings together hundreds of federal judges and lawyers from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The gathering alternates between two resorts, the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., where the conference ran this year from June 24 to 26.
An invitation said the "Old Fashioned Sing-along" would start just after dinner. "We hope you will plan to join in singing favorite old songs with the Chief Justice!"
"Dixie" was penned by a "black-face" singer from the North before the Civil War. But with the opening line "I wish I was in the land of cotton," it has become a racially charged symbol of Old Southern pride.
"The song is offensive to African Americans," said Brent O.E. Clinkscale, a black South Carolina lawyer who said he was among several lawyers at the conference who avoided the Rehnquist sing-along because "Dixie" had been sung there in earlier years. "I think it's nostalgic for slavery."
White lawyer Zoe Sanders Nettles, also of South Carolina, did attend the sing-along and said she was uncomfortable with the playing of "Dixie."
"This hurts people's feelings who are here," Nettles recalled thinking. After the song ended, she approached Rehnquist in the crowded room to register her objections, saying, "I really don't think we should sing 'Dixie.' "
After a brief exchange, she said he replied, "Well, okay."
Others who have attended the sing-alongs defend the song as a piece of Americana appropriate for a mostly Southern conference. Historians say that it was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln and that he had it played in the days after Richmond fell in 1865.
"I've been to a number of the sing-alongs. I think he's always sung 'Dixie,' " said Richmond lawyer George C. Freeman Jr., who is white. "I think all this stuff about reliving history is overblown. . . . I really think that the past is the past."
Rehnquist, 74, who declined to comment for this article yesterday, is known for his fondness for singing and songs. He adorns his robes with gold stripes inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. He once borrowed the words of a popular song in writing a memo to fellow justices: "Accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative/Don't mess with Mr. In Between."
Rehnquist has been involved in another dispute over symbols, resisting calls for the Supreme Court's annual Christmas Party to be renamed a "Holiday Party." He also leads the singing of several Christmas carols and has a 25-foot tree erected at the court.
Battles over Confederate symbols have become common in the South. Virginia is replacing its former state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," because former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, objected to its racial references. Richmond struggled over whether to hang a giant picture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on a downtown floodwall. And a University of Mississippi band member boycotted "Dixie" at football games in 1993.
"Both the battle flag of the Confederacy and 'Dixie' gained a racist cast to them as they were taken on by segregationists," said Howard L. Sacks, co-author of "Way Up North in Dixie," which said the song may actually have been written by black performers in Ohio.
Federal Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham, who is African American, said the song "symbolizes a determination to keep things as they were, that is, to keep blacks in a subservient position."
Beverly McQueary Smith, the president of the National Bar Association, a group of 18,000 African Americans in the legal profession, said the Supreme Court under Rehnquist has become insensitive to minority concerns.
"We would be very, very troubled to learn that the chief justice did that," McQueary Smith said of the "Dixie" sing-along. "To us, that song is a vestige of the badges of slavery."
Daniel Decatur Emmett, who performed in the "black face" style later popularized by Al Jolson, is said to have penned the song in 1859. Its lyrics are in the stereotyped voice of African Americans as they supposedly long for a return to plantation life and slavery. Misspellings and ethnic pronunciations of words do not appear in most contemporary versions of the song.
"It's for some people like the [Confederate] flag," said David L. Smiley, a North Carolina-based historian of the South. "Either you love it, or it's an insult."
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