The Rise of the Southern League
Tuscaloosa -- Rooted in what is known as the Deep South, the state of Alabama is still a jagged edge in the world. Powerful historical forces -- the black and the white, an old Southern economy and the new Atlanta-based one -- converge here. Alabama is interesting for that and dynamic, even volatile, its reputation for public graciousness notwithstanding. Because these forces come up against each other in their elemental form, what is happening here speaks to much of the furious political fragmentation and retrenchment across the country. The Confederate battle flag, which was jerked loose from decades of neglect by white mobs and opportunistic politicians during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, and thus made over into the insignia of white supremacy, is resurgent.In several Southern states, including Alabama, the question of flying the flag over public buildings has become bitterly controversial. It appears regularly on belt buckles, T-shirts, car bumpers, on the grilles of big rigs, and occasionally flutters in the front yards of the audacious. The view of most African Americans, of course, is that the battle flag cannot easily shed its role as a symbol of hate, and yet its defense is taken by some, such as Alabama's Republican governor, Fob James, as a political opportunity. Others have used the battle flag to channel their seemingly random anger and frustration. A two-year-old organization based in Tuscaloosa -- the Southern League -- uses it as the standard under which a far-from-random case for a revitalized Southern white identity can be made.The Southern League argues for a '90s-style, right-wing, race-and region-based nationalism that is intended to lead to secession from the union. The league's bimonthly newsletter, Southern Patriot, acknowledges a debt to other ethnic-identity movements by Greeks, the Lombard League of northern Italy, the Quebecois, and, most chillingly, the Serbs. Mirroring what has become mainstream in national politics, the Southern League opposes welfare, affirmative action, "the enormity of multiculturalism," and multinational corporations. It embraces what its president, Michael Hill, terms "organic traditionalism," and the "proud legacy of (the South's) Anglo-Celtic civilization," or a kind of heroic Cracker Culture, which is an epithet league members take up proudly from a book of the same title by the prominent Southern historian and Southern League Board Member, Grady McWhiney.Indeed, the league's leadership is hardly a motley collection of marginal criminals or militia members, but is composed of the likes of McWhiney and Thomas Fleming, editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. These are figures drawn from a growing number of academics Michael Hill describes as "a Southern literati and intelligentsia." It becomes clear that what is important about the league is its leadership's capacity for weaving an elaborate white man's dream work, or mythology. Within it the pent-up anger and potential for violence of a less articulate constituency can be housed. By hiding race hatred behind a sophisticated facade, the Southern League has the possibility of emerging as a potent national force.Founded in Tuscaloosa in 1994, the Southern League soon grew, according to Hill, to 1200 members and 10 chapters throughout the South. Following last year's installation of a Web site, its ranks mushroomed in several months to more than 3000. It has also advertised for membership in the Southern Partisan and in a "race conscious" newsletter out of Memphis, Tennessee, Confederate Underground. Chapters now exist in 26 states, including California and Arizona, with a Northwest regional chapter based in Big Fork, Montana. Texas has one of the larger chapters, comprising some 200 members, who are in the process of breaking up into smaller units. The league holds annual conferences and is planning to put a Cultural and Educational Institute at an antebellum plantation in rural South Carolina, where the first Southern League Summer School is scheduled for this June. The organization receives its income, Hill says, from memberships, subscriptions, and donations, as well as through two foundations attached to it.Michael Hill himself is a University of Alabama Ph.D. and a tenured professor of history at, interestingly, Stillman College, an African American college in Tuscaloosa. By all accounts he is a seductive lecturer, and his history courses are popular among Stillman students. At the same time, Hill argues that the Confederate battle flag has been sullied by misuse, and condemnations of it represent a "hypocritical movement to demonize Southerners and their symbols."His position on the flag comes clear in connection with a well-publicized case in the South -- the murder last year of Michael Westerman of Guthrie, Kentucky, by a group of young black men. The killing followed an altercation over the battle flag Westerman was flying from his pickup bed and is seen by some Southern patriots as an engagement between their heritage and the forces of evil. Hill appeared at a rally in Westerman's home county where he compared the murder to FBI attacks against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Westerman's assailants to the "compliant and deadly underclass that now fulfills a role similar to that of Hitler's brown-shirted street thugs in the 1930s."The heat of such rhetoric is particularly frightening in the contemporary Southern landscape, where incendiary terrorism has begun to kick up again. Since 1989, there have been at least 32 arson fires at Southern black churches, including five in the last six months in Alabama counties south of Tuscaloosa in the old "Black Belt" cotton plantation region. These fires rage against a backdrop in the state that includes defacements of African American monuments, reinstituted prison chain gangs, a state attorney general and now U.S.-Senate candidate (Jeff Sessions) who has used a sodomy law to wage high-profile hate-baiting campaigns against homosexuality, and a legislative bill that would grant private militias the right to conduct military-style training.Recently, Fob James, who won the governorship by a slim margin in 1994, backed off from an expectation his campaign created for the white right wing that the Confederate battle flag would be raised again over the State capitol dome (where it flew between 1963 and 1991). Instead, he issued an executive order to fly another flag of the Confederacy (which has the battle flag in its upper-left-hand corner) at state welcome centers. State senator Charles Davidson, now vying for the Republican nomination to Congress from Alabama's 4th District, has proposed legislation to return the battle flag to the capitol. In early May, Davidson attracted national attention with a speech that defended slavery and characterized any suggestion that the battle flag is racist as "blatant bigotry." Davidson's position reverberates hauntingly, if clumsily, with Southern League views, but Michael Hill, while acknowledging that he provided information to a Davidson aide for historical sources in the speech, disavows any association with it. Asked if the speech reflects his views, Hill responded, "No. He is not a Southern League member. I have never met the man."In the 13-page speech, which Davidson was unable to deliver in the legislature, though he later distributed copies to the media, he states, "The Confederate battle flag represents all Confederates, regardless of race or religion, and (it) is the symbol of less government, less taxes, and the right of a people to govern themselves." Even more telling is his justification of slavery on Biblical grounds: "Slavery was a family institution in the Old South, just like it says in the Bible. It was on these small family farms that Southern blacks were taught about and converted to Christianity. I am sure that those converted black Southerners are most grateful today." Davidson clearly establishes the link in the thinking of some between white identity, literalist Christianity, and antifederalism. "Our ancestors in the old South were fundamental Christians, which means, they believed that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, were the opinions of Almighty God, Who does not change....On the other hand, the abolitionists from up north were humanists."Spiver Gordon, vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Greene County (where three church fires occurred), would disagree. He had protested the governor's compromise order, saying that Confederate flags are "racially divisive," and if flown at welcome centers would only invite "hate mongers" into the state.I met Gordon in March at the Little Zion Baptist Church in Tishabee, a village in a region dependent on cotton, cattle, and catfish farming. We regarded the rubble of the burned church...heaps of brick, a twisted furnace and metal duct work, metal fasteners, filing cabinets, and knotted-up folding chairs. A crew of church members and a handful of white volunteers were cleaning the site in preparation for reconstruction. The church is perched on a rise. Below, hardwood trees and tangled bush trace the streambeds and strike the dark margins at the edges of fields that are turned now to grain and hay. Not far from the ramshackle village of Tishabee lie flanks of huge catfish ponds dug out in a grid, a state-of-the-art hatchery and mechanized harvest system. Above it all, visible a mile and a half away, stands the big house, a huge, grandly becolumned white mansion from the old cotton plantation days. This is hardly the vestige of a small, Christian family farm, but of what Faulkner viewed as the South's original sin -- slavery. That history is still hardwired into the terrain, as is the durability of fire as a weapon of repression.Of the battle flag, Gordon told me, "If they want to worship that flag in private, they can. But they should not be flying it in public places. That chapter's over."Despite demands from black leaders and others for a systematic investigation into the epidemic of fires, government response has been slow and seemingly disorganized. There have been complaints about the appointment to the task force of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents who attended one of the notoriously racist Good Ol' Boys rallies over the last few years. Deval L. Patrick, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, states, "With the exception of the (African American) fellow who left (the rally) and lodged a protest, anyone found to be in attendance at a Good Ol' Boys rally has been removed and referred for discipline."While the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center cites the 32 cases of arson at black churches since 1989 in the Deep South, Patrick nearly doubles the ante to 57 reported cases at places of worship nationwide since 1990. Of these, 18 have been solved by arrests or prosecution and two more affirmed to be accidental burnings. The Justice Department investigation, Patrick says, is now getting "the full-time (attention) of several hundred federal and state investigators. We are following every lead made available to use. State-of-the-art investigative tools are on the scene. The Attorney General (Janet Reno) and I get regular briefings on the evidence from the FBI and ATF. We are really bearing down on this."Patrick declined to speculate on whether or not the fires might be linked to a conspiracy of hate, but did observe, "It is fair to say that to the extent the fires are caused by hate, we all know that intolerance is on the rise." What is troubling, Patrick says, is that so far as frequency of church arsons is concerned, "There's been a real spike in the last 18 months." That spike would include the five Alabama fires during the last six months, two of which occurred on the same night within several miles of each other, and only one of which has been solved.In February, Michael Hill appeared as the speaker at a Capstone Roundtable dinner, a forum for students and faculty held regularly in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. There were moments in the otherwise polite, if edgy, colloquy when the demons of the Deep South threatened to break loose into the breach. One occurred prior to the proceedings, which drew perhaps 100 invited black and white participants, with others crowded in the hall. An English faculty member and assistant track coach, Pat Hermann, confronted Hill in a hall behind the dining room. Hermann is short and built electrically like a runner. Hill is tall and rangy, a good six-feet-four. Through the open double doors Hermann could be seen looking up and gesturing tautly at Hill. His voice rang out loudly enough to rearrange the clusters of gathering participants in the dining hall: "You know, I'm glad to finally meet you in person, you sonofabitch! You and your group of fucking pinheads have disgraced the university and the state of Alabama!" Hill absorbed it and moved away toward his friends.Being an ideological organization with intellectual ambitions, the Southern League recruits at universities, and Hill had been asked to speak in response to a controversy that had been boiling on the Alabama campus since autumn. The university fracas began with the efforts of the league's student chapter to obtain university funding as an educational organization, like the African American Association. The chapter discouraged Eric Perkins, the lone black student who dared to attend its meetings, from continuing to come after he questioned the members' habit of referring to the Civil War as the War for Southern Independence. Perkins noted that "all Southerners would not be free with a Confederate victory."The chapter requested that the university create a Southern Studies Program staffed by faculty educated in the South. When it appeared that funding would be denied, Findlay threatened suit and issued a set of demands that included a specially designated Confederate Heritage Week, provisions for the University's marching band to perform "Dixie" at home games, and for Southern League members to fly the Confederate flag at all sporting events under the protection of university police. April England, a black law student and member of a prominent Tuscaloosa family, typified the feelings of many students when she told me, "I don't agree with this right to fly the flag on common ground. They should understand that we don't want to be constantly reminded of that. To us, the flag represents oppression and hatred and slavery."In November, the public relations officer of the Southern League student chapter, Thomas Stedham, published two letters in the student newspaper, The Crimson White, that mocked affirmative action and cited Bell Curve-style statistics on African American crime rates and educational testing performances. Stedham said that if African Americans could call each other "nigger," then whites could call them that too. His letters provoked a rain of protest on the newspaper's editorial pages by black and white students. Though not known to be connected to the Southern League, around the same time an anonymous white-supremacist letter was sent to a black female professor, and a makeshift cross, wrapped in issues of The Crimson White, was ignited outside the newspaper's offices. Meanwhile, chapter president Findlay threatened English professor Diane Roberts (according to Roberts), a Southerner, for "indoctrinating" her students with a Yankee view of Southern heritage in a Southern literature course. The Southern League student chapter was finally advised that it would not be eligible for funding on the grounds that it was a political organization.As the leading university in a Deep South state (a position of importance to state affairs unparalleled in northern states), the University of Alabama has a particular sensitivity to racial issues. It has its own long history of racial tension, including mob violence in 1956 and Governor George Wallace's famous (and hyped) anti-integration "stand in the schoolhouse door" of 1963. Many within the institution, black and white, and in the way that black and white people here are able to be in each other's company because of what might be termed their "history of intimacy" (also unparalleled in the North), have labored arduously over the years to create an atmosphere that is open and fair. Many faculty and students as well as citizens across the state are outraged by the Southern League's agenda."They dress up the message of the Klan, the skinheads, the Aryan Nations in a way that makes them even more dangerous," Pat Hermann told me. "They're like David Duke because they appear slightly better groomed than the Klan, better tailored, and better educated. For that reason, critical discourse with them resembles a rational discourse with Herr Himmler on a population problem in Germany."Well into the gathering's question-and-answer mode, a student asked Hill why he excluded black culture from his vision of Anglo-Celtic Southern culture. Previous questions had been well-reasoned, polite, and faintly ironic in the quintessential manner of the Southern educated class, but this one was tart. The questioner suggested that Hill was living in a fantasy time, that African American culture had been a part of the South as long as the Anglo-Celtic culture had been, that Hill was out of touch with what Southern culture had become since the Civil Rights Movement."Remember," Hill responded. "I said Southern Culture was not monolithic. I was saying that only one segment of Southern culture (Anglo-Celtic heritage) was under attack."Indeed, Hill had acknowledged the existence of African American culture in the South, and he credited some of its contributions. He'd also mentioned, with rather steamy regret, the fate of the conquered Native Americans. But what was bewildering was his slippage from an all-inclusive South to the exclusive white South. He would acknowledge the contribution of, say, Louis Armstrong or separatist writer Zora Neale Hurston (but not Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, or Alice Walker), then abruptly shift gears into a whites-only panoply of white Southern culture. His view of Southern history is rooted in his academic specialty -- Celtic history in the British Isles -- and in the constitutional scholarship of Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama and Grady McWhiney, the Southern League board member who had also taught at the University of Alabama before taking up his post as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Professor of American History at Texas Christian University.McWhiney's book, Cracker Culture, asserts that the principal settlers of the antebellum South emigrated from the English uplands and Celtic regions of Britain -- Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall. These people were anti-English herdsmen, McWhiney writes, living woodsy lives and given to loquacity, music, wanton pleasures, indolence, and most tellingly, to violence. The Civil War, he argues, was not so much about the plantation system and slavery, or even economics, as it was about a clash between two cultures -- the Anglo-Celtic South and the North, which had been settled by English lowlanders and others, such as Germans -- a different, far more regimented breed. This is the historical cloth that Hill uses as the piecing for his political dream work.At the Roundtable, the student, wishing to call Hill out, challenged him again: "And that's the only part of the culture you choose to celebrate."Hill drew up to his full height behind the lectern. He has a mellifluous, gently cadenced speaking voice, capable of generating power. "The other cultures are not under attack," he said. "But anytime you try to have a Confederate ball or ritual and the first thing that you do is turn on Bryant Gumbel the next morning, and it's all over the news, then somebody's blind if you don't see that attack." He went on, "Or if you don't see what happened to young Michael Westerman, 19 years old, the father of six-week-old twins, driving down the road with his wife in the truck across the border from Kentucky into Tennessee, and five black men drive up alongside him and shoot him dead because he's flying the Confederate flag."An Alabama history professor in the audience, Bruce Mactavish, broke decorum by speaking out to question the incompleteness of Hill's version of the case, which might include not only the act of murder and the flag in the pickup bed, but Westerman's reputation for pugnacity, the previous altercation between him and the young black men in a gas station, a hometown with a history of conflict, a high school that has a pair of flag-wielding Confederates as mascots and whose teams are called the Rebels.Mactavish's repeated charge at the Roundtable -- "Tell all the facts, Mike" -- and then the chorus from the rest of the audience, suddenly accelerating to a din, lifted David Cooksey, president of the Southern League's Tuscaloosa chapter, out of his seat in the second row. An irate lieutenant defending his wounded captain, Cooksey turned and shouted at the audience: "I fly a Confederate flag in my yard, and I had two carloads of blacks come by there and tell me if I didn't take it down they were going to blow my brains out." (This case, one of local notoriety, brought police patrols to Cooksey's house.)Cooksey's harangue triggered an uproar in the dining hall of attacks and counterattacks. A woman's voice soared over the rest: "How many lynchings have there been?" Cooksey, who at that moment was flying a small Confederate flag from his breast pocket, responded in a fury: "That has nothing to do with it."Once the commotion had subsided, Hill leaned into the microphone and said, "My point is that if you stand up for your Southern heritage in that way, you are ridiculed, made fun of, sometimes even assaulted. Nobody ought to have to put up with that, no matter what the circumstances." His self-absorbed answer evaded the question about his vision of Southern culture. His indignation seemed transparent and extraordinarily ironic as it pertains to the condition of the black minority in the South, as did his selection of a black news anchor -- Gumbel -- in his effort to characterize the Yankee media's prejudicial treatment of what he calls "Southern heritage." So, too, his indictments of Yankee fascism, black thugs, and Nazi brownshirts rub peculiarly against his own efforts to fashion a nationalist mythology.The DixieNet Web site, designed by the Southern League's Texas chairman George Kalas, has become increasingly elaborate since late 1995. It reprints the tendentious scholarship on Southern heritage from the Southern Patriot, and for a time, it ran an urgent endorsement of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. The Web site has a list of "Heritage Violations" intended to repel the "mean-spirited campaign of 'cultural ethnic cleansing' being waged by the 'politically correct' elements of American society."DixieNet also has a caveat against "hate mongers," which, according to Hill and Kalas, was introduced after they learned that several other Web sites that openly promoted racial hatred had established links to DixieNet. The statement disavows any association with groups espousing "doctrines of institutional racial oppression," and as examples of such groups, it names "the Aryan Nations, the KKK, the NAACP, (and) the Nation of Islam." The inclusion of the NAACP is provocative -- a little stinger attached to the high-minded hug -- and so is the impression embedded in the syntax that the Southern League somehow floats between the extremes held by the Aryan Nations and the Nation of Islam.Language and rhetoric are tools used expertly by Southern Leaguers. The January-February Southern Patriot advocates the use of British orthography -- "colour, maximise, sympathise" -- to counteract the "Yankeefied invention" of Webster's Dictionary. "Unlike the Puritan or his spawn, we don't clone or standardize well." This might be charming were it not for the way Southern League writings are otherwise fragged with echoes of Hill at his most inflammatory. In them the Yankee presence is referred to as a "barbarity" and a "scourge." Its program for the South is a "genocide." The "abstract commitment to Equality and human rights" is characterized as "degenerating into totalitarianism and mass murder."In the battle against this tyranny, believers are urged to "not shrink from their moral duty," to "wage the good fight," to enter the "struggle," take up the "righteous cause," to "seize control." The idea of secession (although Hill himself would tell me that his advocacy of it was "rhetorical and political"), in particular, attracts to it exhortations for action. What this language fabricates is a romance of violence in which angry white men, befuddled by the explosion of meaninglessness around them, may imagine themselves dressed up in camouflage, toting guns, poised for the attack. What they seek in the romance is a reborn, impossibly heroic version of themselves."I have talked to a lot of people from various economic levels all over the South," Michael Hill said the day after the Roundtable. We sat facing each other across a scuffed wooden table in a cramped University of Alabama history department office. "I find that most of the resentment is not against blacks and Hispanics. It's basically against the federal government. 'They're taking too much of my tax money. They make fun of my religion. They make fun of my culture."'The ridicule he condemns, and with justification, is the drumbeat of demeaning caricatures of white Southerners in the media and film of the last 30 years: the barbarous police chiefs spun off of Birmingham's infamous Bull Connor, cigar-chomping, corrupt politicians, shotgun-wielding hicks in their pickups, wilting Southern belles, anarchic lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and neo-Fascists draping themselves in the Confederate flag."America has failed," Hill said. "Nobody can argue today that racial relations are good anywhere in America. Look at L.A. and New York. What we would like to do is approach this from a devolutionary standpoint, return power to the states and local communities and let people work out problems among themselves. We like to call ourselves radicals and to use the term properly. We're looking for a return to roots. We're opposed to what a lot of conservatives call capitalism. Simply put, America gave the world the Cold War and in so doing destroyed the last vestiges of a stable, traditional Western society and cleared the way for the rise of purely materialist regimes, be they communist, national socialist, or democratic capitalist."I put my hands on the table and looked across at him. I felt myself being drawn into the ever-deepening tangle of heritage and race-based political arguments, which are sometimes cogent on their face. Certainly, they express anxieties felt all across the political spectrum. Hill and I had entered the hazard of "rational discourse."Economics were not his specialty, Hill admitted, adding, "It sickens me that the Democrats and Republicans both can only concentrate on economic matters. There's something more important than jobs and the economy, and there are very few politicians who express any sentiments to the nonmaterialistic side of things."What Hill seems to envision is an economic devolution to a white agrarian lifestyle that simply ignores the class system so profoundly ingrained in Southern culture. We discussed the arrangement made by state and local politicians in 1993 to bring a Mercedes-Benz plant to Tuscaloosa County, between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. The company received a $253 million package of incentives and tax breaks. This was the new nonunion, multinational economic hardwire in the South, for which Atlanta is the matrix and Birmingham a brightening circuit. The deal-cutting politicians clearly were not the sorts Hill had in mind to usher in the South's return to its roots. "I detest that plant being here," Hill said.Strangely, these anticorporate sentiments put me in touch with the spirit of a fellow writer, an African American born and raised in the South, and himself something of a separatist. Since his move to the North in the '60s, he has closely observed white supremacist movements in America. "My sense of things is that the real issue, for most white people, is not really 'race,"' he wrote to me. "It is, rather, the fog around them that tends to mask an unknown world. All the old assumptions are being undermined, from all directions, by invisible forces. And people are scared. When people are scared, they tend to fall back on the familiar." What my friend hits on is something dangerously endemic to the Southern League -- the desire "to fall back on the familiar," which for Southern Leaguers would be their place, their home, the familiar symbologies, the familiar hatreds, the familiar xenophobia, the familiar Hebraic sense of nation, the familiar sense of defeat.Of his almost exclusively black students at Stillman College and his ability to connect to them, Hill says, "There's nothing wrong with various groups of people who are obviously different in their physical appearance and culture. I encourage my students to be proud of who they are." He is opposed to race mixing, or amalgamation, and in favor of what he calls a "natural social order." Here is a little social Darwinism mixed in with patronage and apartheid, and these, too, are comforting familiarities. What is familiar is sewn into a field of meaning that includes the stuff of dreams, the shaky theory of Anglo-Celtic origin, and the smoky heroism of the old Confederacy. To this is affixed the familiar generic scapegoat--the Yankee elite -- and the familiar implied but very specific scapegoat -- the tide of dark-skinned people threatening to rise up from the bottom.A few days after meeting with Hill, I visited the home of David Cooksey, president of the Southern League's Tuscaloosa chapter. His Confederate flag flew on a pole in his impeccable suburban front yard. Inside, his house was loaded with books, antiques, and a vast collection of ruby glass. Cooksey is a stocky man with a soft, heavily boned face. We covered the topics -- states rights, local control, Christian heritage, and Michael Westerman, whose assailants, he believes, haven't received stiff enough sentences. We spoke at length of the Confederate battle flag, gun control, and the news media.Our conversation was cordial, if cautious. I was aware that I was an outsider and a representative of the media, which he detests. "For the last 30 years," he said, "the South has been badgered by the media." He said that he himself had never owned a gun, had never felt the need. "But now, I've decided I have to buy one."Cooksey pointed out, as had every Southern Leaguer I'd spoken with, that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had done a poll on flying the Confederate flag over Southern statehouses, and that the results showed 65 per cent of the population in favor of it, which is roughly the proportion of the white population in the South.When we were finished and as I made my way from his living room to the hall, Cooksey said that when George Wallace raised the Confederate flag over the statehouse in 1963, he was telling Bobby Kennedy to "Go to hell." I stopped at the door and thanked Cooksey for talking to me. "When I fly the flag in my yard," he said, "I'm saying, 'Go to hell.'" Cooksey's demeanor had taken an abrupt pitch toward combative, so that I felt a breach of etiquette. He had clicked over into his obsession. I put my hand on the door latch."If my neighbors don't like it," he said, "I say, 'Go to hell.'" He fixed me with his milky blue eyes and said, "When I fly the Confederate flag, it means: Go to hell."