ATLANTA » One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.
A bartender asked if they would they mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.
Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.
The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.
After a week’s worth of testimony in September, a judge decided in favor of the bar.
Certainly, the owners conceded, filling the bar with women offers an economic advantage because it attracts more male drinkers. But in the South, they said, giving up a seat to a lady is also part of a culture of civility.
At least, it used to be. The Tavern at Phipps case, and a growing portfolio of examples of personal and political behavior that belies a traditional code of gentility, has scholars of Southern culture and Southerners themselves wondering if civility in the South is dead, or at least wounded.
"Manners are one of many things that are central to a Southerner’s identity, but they are not primary anymore. Things have eroded," said Charles Reagan Wilson, a professor of history and southern culture at the University of Mississippi.
To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens.
In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, to keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say.
As those issues faded, proper manners remained an important cultural marker that Southerners have worked to maintain. Since the Civil War, any decline in Southern civility has largely been blamed on those "damn Yankees."
Newcomers still get much of the blame. In the past decade the South has seen an unprecedented influx of immigrants from both other states and other countries. The population in the South grew by 14.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it the fastest growing region in the country.
But there is more behind the social shift, scholars say. Digital communication and globalization have conspired to make many parts of the South less insular. Couple that with a political climate as contentious as anyone can remember and a wave of economic insecurity rolling across the region, and you’ve got a situation where saying "thank you, ma’am" isn’t good enough anymore.
"There are just so many more complexities," Wilson said. "Manners and a code of civility can’t help you negotiate everything."
Some say the South’s great cities seem to be losing civility faster than country communities, where stopping to ask for directions can still end in an invitation to supper.
Too many outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities have migrated to Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., said Saahara Glaude, a media specialist who works with clients who include some members of the Martin Luther King Jr. family.
As a result, reliable affinities once based on race or religion are gone.
"It used to be that an African-American could trust an African-American down here," she said. "Those days are long gone."
Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say "yes, sir" or "yes, ma’am." Too demeaning, they say.
But she and others point out that manners are on the slide everywhere. Mason blames a faster pace of life and the demise of the home-cooked family meal.
"You don’t need to know all your social graces to sit down at McDonald’s and eat a burger and fries," she said.
Civility is also waning at that most civil of events, the Southern wedding. How comfortable a bride made guests feel was once the mark of a successful event. Now, weddings are more selfish affairs, said Barbara S. Clark, the owner of An Elegant Affair in Raleigh, N.C., and a graduate of the Emily Post Institute.
"It’s more about the bride and groom and what are we going to get out of it," she said.
The ability to pour Southern charm over the political process has served many politicians well as they rose to national prominence, among them presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and, more recently, presidential hopeful Herman Cain, said Todd Shields, director of the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Manners also helped create the South’s famous "bless your heart" culture — a powerful way of seeming to be polite without being genuine.
"Manners are often a way of distancing and maintaining space, said William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist who edited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture with Wilson. "If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils."
But it is no longer as effective as it once was, he said. The nation’s political discourse has become more aggressive. When played out in the South, it just seems more shocking.
"We are not as oblique as we used to be and perhaps that was interpreted as civility," said Nathalie Dupree, the Southern cooking expert who last year waged a fanciful campaign against Sen. Jim DeMint, R-N.C., with the slogan "Cream DeMint."
"As a whole, we are now more willing to say what we think," she said. "And that is a good thing for the South."
The country will have a chance to see Southern civility on display next fall, when Charlotte, N.C., hosts the Democratic National Convention.
Life in Charlotte is not as pleasant as it once was. Like many U.S. cities, it has its share of road rage and rudeness. And although crime rates have dropped, in May the city called out its Civil Emergency Unit and arrested 70 people who rioted two hours after the end of a NASCAR event.
But in the best of Southern tradition, the city will try to lead with its manners come September.
"It’ll be all sweet tea and hush puppies," says Michaele Ballard, a writer and lifelong Southerner.
Keepers of Southern civility maintain that manners will always be a defining characteristic of the region.
One of them is Dorothy McLeod, 70, of Augusta, Ga., who has spent decades teaching thousands of children ballroom dance and etiquette through her program, Social Inc.
McLeod attributes the slide of civility on the stress of families with two working parents and children who have not been held accountable for their actions.
But she is undaunted.
"I will not give up," she said, firm in her belief that Southerners still want to raise children who are kind and well-mannered. "They must, or my classes wouldn’t be full."