Election 2004  
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The South Will Rise Again

The old conservative bulls in the Senate who have run the South for decades are giving way to a new kind of southern politics.
 
 
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On a recent trip through South Carolina, I visited the Museum of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Charleston. The charming curator there, June Murray Wells, is a trim 70-something raconteur who remembers being asked to pull tight the corset stays for bird-like nonagenarians in the 1940s whose daddies really had worn the grey in the Civil War.

With Hurricane Charley bearing down on us, Mrs. Wells reminisced about the last big hurricane to slam Charleston — Hugo in 1989 — and walked me over to a display case which, she said, held the single most precious object in the Museum’s entire collection, one that provoked thousands of concerned letters from across the South after the big storm, inquiring about its safety.

On a bed of red velvet, I saw what pearl of great price had survived. A single coiled yellow-gray strand of Robert E. Lee’s hair, purportedly trimmed from the actual corpse’s head.

Medieval relic worship cannot surprise anyone who has spent any time at all in the Palmetto State, where state legislators famously refused to take the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse dome in this new millennium. Charleston is, after all, home to the Citadel, whose towering pink faux-feudal crenellated walls still cloister fresh generations of Southern men who sport spit-shined swords and memorize the fine and not so fine arts of war.

That Old South, though, is crumbling away, notwithstanding the integrity of those walls. The change has not been sudden, but more of an erosion. Slowly, slowly – as slowly as the hundred long years of Strom Thurmond’s life – the reign of white and black men who came of age in an era of separate drinking fountains and burning crosses is ending.

Republicans – as they are wont to remind black voters – freed the slaves under Abraham Lincoln. The South was dominated, though, by white male Democrats throughout the first half of the twentieth century, until LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Southern majority turned to the Republican Party, which has been quadrennially tossing racist red meat to poor whites ever since. LBJ predicted that was ahead, remarking, when he signed the law, “I have signed away the South for a generation.” It turned out to be two.

But forty years later, with Thurmond’s death, the retirements of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and now, Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia in 2004, the old conservative bulls in the Senate who have retarded the South’s social progress for decades are finally letting go.

There are to be sure, relics still in power. But with each passing year, their luster dims, their strength wanes. There’s the oleaginous disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. As slick in person as a shiny patch on the Missisippi Delta – and nearly as toxic – he’s still befuddled over being betrayed by his fellow Republicans after publicly pining for the good old days of separate but equal, a sentiment with which, he surely thought, any Southern man would concur.

Turncoat Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia put in a career-zapping performance that marked the end of his political life when spoke before Dick Cheney on the convention podium on Wednesday. The Democrat running for his Senate seat is an African-American woman, United States Rep. Denise Majette.

The departure of the old white boys isn’t the only needed change. It’s possible that the black civil rights leaders themselves, men like John Lewis, must move on too before the Old South can finally rest in peace. The rhetoric and imagery of black men who cut their political teeth marching in the 1960s, while genuinely heroic, will have to give way to make room for younger black men and women speaking for a generation of Southern blacks whose problems are more complicated than separate drinking fountains.

The change-over couldn't come soon enough. In spite of conventional thinking that says the Voting Rights Act changed the South, poor Southern whites and blacks are still paying the ultimate price for the continuing lock-hold of Old South values on the region’s – and the nation’s — politics. Those quaint-sounding values – chivalry and honor through military heroism – have justified centuries of anti-feminism and countless unnecessary young dead men.

An analysis by The State, a South Carolina newspaper, on Iraq casualties shows the war's death rate for South Carolina – the 26th-largest state – is eighth in the United States, with almost one death per 200,000 residents. That's 50 percent above the national average.

To his credit, Sen. Fritz Hollings has proposed reinstating the draft "because of the inequality for those who have to serve.” Fighting to replace Hollings are Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, state superintendent of schools and Republican Rep. Jim DeMint. Both of them were too young to have voted before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In North Carolina, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John Kerry's running mate, won his seat from the outrageously Old South pig-farming millionaire Lauch Faircloth, who made his fame by handing over his Senate offices for the use of anti-Clinton hate groups in the 1990s. Edwards served just one term, then opted out of the Senate, leaving former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles as the Democratic candidate this year, who lost to Elizabeth Dole in his first try for a North Carolina seat in 2002. Bowles is widely expected to win against his opponent, Republican Richard Burr, a five-term U.S. House member. Edwards and Bowles, and some of their Republican counterparts represent the new South in their focus on economics — not race – to win over the potential swing vote comprised of Nascar Dads.

It might take a while for the political transition in the New South to emerge and triumph, but signs of its arrival are evident everywhere in South Carolina. Governor Mark Sanford, for example, is a young and relatively moderate Republican who cut his teeth in Congress as part of Newt Gingrich’s wild-eyed Contract-with-America freshman class of 1995. He had the cunning, however, to cut and run back to the executive post in his home state rather than continue associating himself with the extremist wing in Washington. Famous for his ascetic style (he slept in his Congressional office rather than spend taxpayer money on an apartment) he has promoted and signed into law various reforms aimed at opening the South Carolina political process.

So political change is afoot in the South, and the people and landscape are changing as well. After leaving the charming Mrs. Wells in protective charge of Robert E. Lee’s hair at the museum, I moseyed into the countryside beyond Charleston and into the live oak swamps on the Magnolia Plantation, a 600-acre former rice farm turned wildlife refuge.

After bicycling around the old gardens, planted by a member of the Civil War generation who lost his house to Sherman, but who managed to hang onto the property, I met the current owner of the plantation. Taylor Nelson, 27, wears his long hair in a pony-tail and sleeps in a small cabin on the grounds. Committed to conservation, he worries about the effects of the proliferation of nearby housing subdivisions on the region’s fragile wetlands. This 12th generation descendant of slave-owners lives with the Old South ghosts in his own blood, perhaps that's why he wears a red Kaballah string on his wrist.

Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine. As a reporter for Time magazine, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.