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  • Front Porch
  • Harry L. Watson

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Figure 1.

If southern identity is changing as much as Larry J. Griffin, Ranae J. Evenson, and Ashley B. Thompson say it is in "Southerners All?", some of us are still determined to find a place where old-style Confederate commemoration enjoys a free rein. In "Playing Rebels," James O. Farmer tells us that those upset by a changing South can find weekend relief by donning the grey and charging into battle against outnumbered and reluctant Yankees. Preparing for battle, courtesy of Ginny Southworth, Aiken Standard.

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Who is a southerner? There have been many answers to this question, but until most recently they have all had something in common. Writing in 1928, Georgia-born historian Ulrich B. Phillips famously proclaimed that "a common resolve, indomitably maintained—that it shall be and remain a white man's country . . . is the cardinal test of a Southerner and the central theme of Southern history." About a dozen years later, Carolina journalist W. J. Cash offered his own, decidedly more complex definition of southerners, invoking the enduring power of the frontier interacting with what he took to be the folk traits of Anglo-Celtic ancestry. The result, he declared, was a set of mental characteristics that included individualism, romanticism, and hedonism, and which Cash summed up in his well-known book The Mind of the South. Cash did not limit his list of mental traits to opinions about race relations, but in one key respect, he and Phillips agreed: true southerners had to be white people.

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Figure 2.

"Southerners," Shelby Foote memorably declared, "are very strange about that war." Soldier at the reenactment of the Battle of Aiken, courtesy of James O. Farmer.

It is not entirely clear when fundamental assumptions about the racial character of southern identity began to waver. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the seminal essays of C. Vann Woodward quietly devastated Phillips's claims for white supremacy as the test of southernness. Enlightening a whole generation, Woodward illuminated a path for southern identity that could outlast Jim Crow, but even for him "southern" history and destiny were largely the province of white people. Perhaps it was Martin Luther King who began to integrate southern [End Page 2] identity with his stirring hope "that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Certainly it was not until the triumph of the Civil Rights movement that the phrase "black and white southerners" began to come naturally to popular writers. Today it is still commonplace to see the word "southerner" used as if it only applied to whites, but when forced to think about it, most southern whites will also agree that nonwhite southerners have an equal claim on the regional label. The most conspicuous exceptions I can think of are the members of the neo-secessionist League of the South, who declare on their website that "the League seeks to protect the historic Anglo-Celtic core culture of the South because the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English have given Dixie its unique institutions and civilisation [sic]."

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Figure 3.

"Rebels in the Wake of 9-11," a photo essay by Katy Vinroot O'Brien, depicts a homecoming celebration at the University of Mississippi in October 2001, just a few short weeks after the infamous attacks. Photograph courtesy of Katy Vinroot O'Brien.

After all the historians who have casually written black southerners out of the South's regional identity, a team of sociologists has finally come along to set the record straight. Larry J. Griffin, Ranae J. Evenson, and Ashley B. Thompson have studied the results of the Southern Focus Poll, a decade-long survey of southern and nonsouthern opinion, to find out what southerners of all races and ethnicities have to say about the matter. Contrary to all the historical pundits, they find [End Page 3] that blacks in the South are more likely than whites to call themselves "southerners...


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