I am a Southerner. I was born in Florida and lived in the South* for most of my life. My high school was named after a Confederate general and my university degrees are from institutions in Alabama and Georgia. I grew up eating grits and fried chicken (but not together!) and we drank iced tea (my British husband thinks this is sacrilege) even in the winter I am proud of my region’s reputation for hospitality, our slower way of life, our willingness to stand up for what we believe, our regional cuisine, and our accents.
Am I proud of some of the things that happened in the distant and recent past? Of course not. I am a citizen of the twenty first century, not the eighteenth or nineteenth. We have different values and understanding of what it is to be human, especially regarding race, religion, gender, and sexual preference. We are appalled at the behaviour that our ancestors thought was perfectly normal. We may have attitudes, such as segregating students by religion in faith-based schools, that will seem as wrong in the future as slavery and racism are to us.
Following the defeat of the Confederacy, President Lincoln proposed a reconstruction of the devastated areas and economies to bring the southern states back into the union. After his assassination, however, a group wishing to punish the South rather than help it rebuild took control. Laws were passed that applied only to the South, although slavery and racism existed in the North as well (Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the slaves in the South. Those in the North were still slaves). Schools in Alabama were desegregated in 1963 but those in Prince Georges County, Maryland, not considered part of the South and located just outside Washington, DC, weren’t fully desegregated until 1973 and arguments about forced busing to desegregate schools in Northern schools continued into the late 1970s.
While these targeted laws did much to make the South a fairer, more tolerant society, they also perpetuated antagonism towards the people the laws were meant to help. No one likes being told what to do by an outsider, even if it’s the right thing to do. Over the years progress has been made and some of the laws have expired. In 2011, 45% of the African-American mayors were from cities in the South. More needs to be done, not only in the South but all across the US. As long as there is poverty and lack of opportunity, people, regardless of race, will look for some other group to blame for their misfortune.
Being proud to be a Southerner is no different from being proud to be a New England Yankee, Welsh, Scottish, or French Canadian. It is our choice of symbol that causes problems. These other regions have flags and banners that have lost their negative connotations while the banner of choice for the South has not. The wrongs committed in its name are too fresh in our minds and those of the descendants to whom the wrongs were committed. Perhaps the South should look to Atlanta for inspiration and choose a Phoenix rising above our red clay soil for the new symbol of the new South.
* The South is normally considered to be those US states that seceded to form the Confederate States of America: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Phoenix from deviantart.com