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ESSAY Elvis, Martin, and Mentors The Making ofSouthern History in Britain by Brian Ward EricBurdon stoned in Mississippi on theAnimals' UStour. Mardi Gras Indians, segregation, 1964! — TheMekons, "Amnesia" Ij)ndon, 1996. 5° t the end of 1997, a series of advertisements for a new "One-2One " mobile telephone service began to appear on televisions and in cinemas around Britain. Most of these adverts took die form of a British celebrity explaining why he or she would es- •_5 pecially like die opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with a particular figure from history. Two of the first three featured icons from the modern South. Supermodel Kate Moss chose a young Elvis Presley, cinematically embalmed in his 1956 pomp. Ian Wright, a black England soccer player at the forefront ofa national "Kick It Out" campaign to end racism on the terraces, chose Martin Luther KingJr. The Wright advertisement was an especially powerful, rather moving piece of work—even if some have questioned the ethics of using the martyred King essentially to sell phones. It cleverly interposed Wright into familiar scenes ofblack protest and southern white violence from civil rights campaigns in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. The most poignant moment came when Wright admitted in a voiceover, heard as images of Bull Connor's flesh-peeling fire hoses played across the screen, that what he would most like to have asked King is how he had maintained his commitment to nonviolence amid so much provocation. This had added piquancy—or irony for the more cynical—for British viewers, who know Wright as a brilliant but highly volatile player, as an engaging, effervescent character off the pitch, whose frightening intensity and commitment on it has frequendy led him into violent clashes with opponents and officials. Yet, here was Wright embracing King, the nonviolent warrior, as a readily intelligible symbol ofthe best he would aspire to be. One of the most striking things about these advertisements is the simple fact that two of me modern South's most celebrated sons, Martin and Elvis, are obviously still such powerful cultural forces in Britain some thirty and twenty years after their respective deatiis. Their images immediately conjure up a particular set of resonances, serving as shorthand for a time, a region, a set of values, beliefs, and modes of expression that are marked distinctively soudiern in British minds. I have seen this phenomenon in my own experience teaching southern history at the University of Newcasde upon Tyne. Each year, I ask new students, few of whom have previously studied any American history—let alone any specifically southern history—to complete a simple questionnaire testing their knowledge of the region. King routinely gets more than twice as many votes as anyone else in the "famous southern men" category. Presley is the second most frequendy nominated figure, a litde way ahead ofthat other famous southern pelvic thruster, Bill Clinton. King and Presley also head the list of figures who these British students believe are heroes or heroines to southerners. Not surprisingly, Elvis is the most often cited "southern artist," followed not too closely by Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, country rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks, and the group rem. Elvis, Martin, andMentors 5 1 Perhaps even more revealingly, only the Civil War and Our educationemancipation are cited more often than the death ofMarL j. J.L ç J.Ltin Luther King as an event that "decisively shaped southern history. initially COmeSNow,this spotquizispossiblyoneoftheleastrigorously / , . · / conducted or statistically reliable public-opinion surveys almost entirely, , u c , ^ , n . c .,, s ever devoted to the South. For example, Bessie Smiths from the mediaunusually strong showing in the "famous southern t , 7 women" category one year probably happened because I ana uojjuiar, , , r , , ., , , -* r played a couple ot her songs while the students comCulture .pleted their questionnaires, disingenuously introducing the tracks with "tiiis is Bessie Smith, she was a famous female southern blues singer." Nevertheless, the quiz does provide some interesting insights into the origins and nature of contemporary British ideas about the Soudi. For this generation ofstudents, and an even younger one not yet imbued with the deep sensitivity to the southern way of things American displayed by my fledgling undergraduates, such...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 50-71
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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