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For Civil War geeks like me, the events of the past ten days have been strange and exhilarating. We’re accustomed to measuring change in American attitudes towards the war over decades or generations. Now the ground has shifted almost overnight.
Clearly, the immediate cause of this earthquake was the massacre in Charleston and the dignity and forgiveness displayed by families of the victims. This grace struck a particularly deep chord in the Bible-belt South. As others have observed, the call by conservative white lawmakers to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds represents “a reciprocal gesture of reconciliation.”
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But the fact that events in South Carolina sparked such a swift and mass disavowal of Confederate symbols across the South reflects longer-term factors.
Here are five I’d highlight:
- On the political front, so-called “heritage groups” in the South have for years taken a page from the National Rifle Association playbook. They demanded allegiance to Confederate symbols from conservative officials and candidates, and punished any who strayed from this orthodoxy. In the 1990s, when Republican South Carolina Gov. David Beasley proposed a compromise on the flag’s placement in Columbia, he came under bitter attack from heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, contributing to his defeat in the next election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also suffered when he waffled on the issue in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, and later admitted he’d betrayed his beliefs out of fear of the political consequences. Memory of these incidents has been a strong, restraining influence on efforts to take down the flag altogether. The Charleston massacre gave conservative lawmakers an opening to defy the heritage lobby.
- African-Americans and white liberals in the South have been waging a low-grade war on Confederate symbols for decades, and in recent years that campaign has gradually turned in their favor. Compromises led to the battle flag being lowered from atop the statehouses in South Carolina and Alabama and placed on monuments instead. The University of Mississippi, Washington and Lee in Virginia, and other institutions have taken down flags and changed street names and mascots. Texas refused to issue rebel-flag license plates and recently won support for this stance in the Supreme Court. So what’s happened over the past ten days represents the dramatic culmination of a protracted struggle. In Civil War military terms, it’s like the fall of Petersburg Va., in 1865, when the long siege by Union forces finally succeeded in breaking through the last Confederate defenses. Within days the war was over.
- The change we’re seeing isn’t just about race and politics; its about business. Chamber of Commerce conservatives have long recognized that the flag and other symbols perpetuate stereotypes about the South and taint its reputation. This sentiment has strengthened as the South has become a much more vibrant part of the national and international economy. South Carolina, for instance, has foreign car plants, a huge tourism and convention trade, and retirees and others flocking to the state’s coast. Business leaders there and elsewhere are eager to project a modern and welcoming image, rather than one that seems stuck in the South’s divided and provincial past.
- More broadly, it’s impossible to overstate the South’s changing demographics. The bastion of Confederate heritage has always been native-born white Protestants with family ties to the Old South. This constituency is now an aging and fast-diminishing portion of the South’s population. Americans from other regions, including large numbers of African-Americans, continue to migrate South, and there’s been a phenomenal rise in Latin, Asian, and other immigrant communities. In just one decade, 2000-2010, the region’s minority population grew by more than a third while that of whites rose only 4 percent. Few of the South’s incomers have ancestral or other ties to Confederate symbols, and many are hostile to them. The South’s identity, in this sense, is simply catching up to the region’s 21st century reality.
- One part of this sea change is the growing divide between the urban and rural South. Diverse and politically liberal cities like Nashville, Houston, and Atlanta have more in common with hubs in other regions than they do with nearby rural and small-town communities. This factor will be interesting to watch as the fight over Confederate symbols continues to play out. In Southern cities—many of which have black mayors—there will be strong pressure to change the names of streets, parks, and schools, and to take down or reinterpret towering monuments to Confederate leaders. The same may not be true for the ubiquitous stone soldiers in the courthouse squares of smaller communities from Virginia to Texas.
Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “Confederates in the Attic,” about Civil War memory in the South. He is currently at work on another book about his travels in the former Confederate states.
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