What is not to like about the American South? It has New Orleans, where you can listen to the big band at Snug Harbour or watch Kermit Ruffins fry sausages between his gigs. And it has Charleston where you can sip your drink on a porch and eat yourself into a coma.
Wherever you travel south of Washington, you can expect to be greeted with a booming: “Hi, y’all.” Just make sure you leave before you get roped into a conversation about religion or politics since this could make your experience less relaxing.
Before you go, you need to know that the Civil War has never ended. Rural Virginia is dotted with battlefields such as the one in Manassas close to Dulles Airport. I used it as a backdrop for the an article about the battlefield Virginia in the 2008 elections.
To this day, the South also remains a battlefield for America’s Culture Wars that have replaced the Civil War. States like Virginia or South Carolina have the highest concentration of evangelical churches and gun shows in the country.
And they stick to their own interpretation of history. It was a bizarre experience to report from South Carolina on Martin Luther King Day in January 2008, when Barack Obama participated in a walk to honor the civil rights activist – while the Confederate flag flew in front of the Capitol in Columbia.
Southern conservatives will tell you that the flag is part of their cultural heritage and has nothing to do with slavery, which the South fought to maintain in its War of Secession (a.k.a. the War of Northern Aggression). Needless to say that the descendants of the enslaved do not share this view.
But black support for Obama was not self-evident either at that point in the race. Many African-American civil rights activist and businesspeople thought that Hillary Clinton would be better positioned to fight for their rights, stepping in the foot steps of her husband Bill. I wrote a feature story about their hopes and fears.
There was such a focus on African-Americans in that election year, that even Republican candidate John McCain tried to appeal to them on a bizarre image trip to Alabama. I accompanied him to Selma where he gave a speech on the bridge that civil rights activists had crossed on their march from Montgomery, as well as on a boat ride with the quilting women of Gee’s Bend who intoned gospels for him. I used these scenes for a McCain profile for the German Vanity Fair, another publication that has since ceased to exist.
McCain did not get any black votes in Alabama, but he won the state easily without them. But Obama made historic inroads in the Old South by winning North Carolina and Virginia. Benjamin Dierks and I reported from the victory party in McLean.
Ever since, Southern conservatives have been vigorously opposed to President Obama. Republican Governors criticized his stimulus bill as a spending binge – but in the end most of them took the money to prop up their schools and help the unemployed.
Southern politicians resisted most initiatives of the Obama government as intrusions into their freedoms and as the imposition of big government. It is no wonder that the new Tea Party movement had its first national conference in the Southern state of Tennessee – a place to which many pensioners relocate because of low tax rates.
According to the Tea Party, the state should stay out of their lives – at least in theory. It was interesting to see how the chants of “Drill, baby, drill” at the Republican Convention in 2008 gave way to impatient calls by Republican governors for federal help after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Southern Democrats shifted uneasily between calls for restrictions on drilling and promising to protect the interests of the coastal regions that are tied to the oil industry. I reported about an unusual hearing the House Energy Committee held outside of New Orleans instead of Washington.
The South remains deeply conservative politically, but culturally and racially it is changing like the rest of the country. South Carolina just sent an African-American into the Senate, and its current female Republican governor Nikki Haley is of East Indian descent.
In September 2012, I talked to African-Americans in Charlotte before the Democratic Convention. The past years had been hard for them economically, but most were still proud of their President.
In his elegant architecture firm, Harvey Gantt reminded me of the symbolism of 2008. He had always been a pioneer: He sued his way into Clemson University in 1963, when the South was segregated. From 1983 to 1987 he served as the first black mayor of Charlotte.
But all of this paled in comparison to what happened on November 4th, 2008. That night, he called his old mother who cried because she never thought to see the day when America would elect a black President. The Civil War had receded a bit further into the past.