CHARLESTON, S.C. » In a rambling home at the edge of a salt marsh, a proud graduate of the Citadel, the storied Southern military college whose cadets fired the opening salvo of the Civil War, was deep in prayer with a Bible study group.
That graduate was Lidia Bonete, 26, an Ecuadorean-American who moved to South Carolina from Chicago in 2007. The subject of her prayer on this particular Wednesday was the racially motivated massacre, a week earlier, of nine African-Americans in a church basement a few miles away.
In a region where church and faith are woven into every strand of society, prayer was one common, almost instinctive, response. But just as a Hispanic woman from Chicago might not be the first image to spring to mind of the of the Citadel, long a male bastion of Southern traditionalism, the South last week felt barely recognizable, as many of its politicians called for longstanding Confederate symbols to come down.
It was as if one horrendous act – and the response in Charleston and across the South – had thrown all the contradictions and changes defining and redefining the South into stark relief. They revealed a place that is at once reinventing itself on the fly while, remarkably, keeping up with many of its traditional values.
To many, it became abruptly clear how out of place the iconography of the Old South had become in this, the nation’s fastest-growing region. It is a place of Japanese and German auto plants and polyglot international communities, where the Democratic mayor of Houston is openly lesbian, two governors are Indian-American and the junior senator from South Carolina is an African-American Republican.
Yet some realities have endured. Whites hold nearly all the statewide levers of power, much as they always have. The South is still struggling with high poverty and ill health, with little state assistance for those left economically behind, many of them black. And last week, officials throughout the region spoke defiantly of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, invoking the same states’ rights language that has echoed in Southern halls of power for decades.
"It’s pretty remarkable, and I think we’re all trying to digest it," said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham, North Carolina, nonprofit founded in 1970 by veterans of the civil rights movement. "I think the difference, this time around, is that the South is undergoing this period of rapid and dramatic change. That’s changing the South and the very idea of what it means to be Southern."
Bonete said her adopted state had not fully cured itself of racism. "I have seen it, especially at the Citadel," she said. "People who were from the South, they were more about being Confederate, and the whole representation of the flag."
But she also said she was comfortable in South Carolina. After graduating in 2011, she landed a good job at a Charleston bank. She joined an interdenominational congregation called Awaken Church, which, while mostly white, has been keen to attract minorities and make them feel at ease.
"And now that this whole thing has happened," she said about the church massacre, "I feel now more than ever that this is where God wants me."
A little after 8 a.m. Wednesday, on the grounds of the Alabama Capitol, where in 1861 Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy and where, more than a century later, George Wallace was snarling about segregation forever, workers quietly took down the battle flag at the Confederate memorial. Before the morning was over, they would take down three other flags of the Confederacy and even uproot the flagpoles.
By the time they had finished their work, Gov. Robert Bentley, who had ordered the removals the previous afternoon, was in a small town in the state’s northern hills to make an announcement. Google was coming to Alabama, building a $600 million data center to be powered completely by renewable energy.
"We have so many premier automobile and aerospace industries in the state, and I want this progress to continue," the governor said in an interview. "I don’t want anything to be a distraction to my ability to recruit jobs."
He continued, "A flag is not worth a job."
And so the Old South gives way to the New, one economic development announcement at a time. Lured by the South’s call of cheap land and labor and limited regulations, business have flocked here from around the world.
Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz build cars in Alabama. Volkswagen and Nissan build them in Tennessee, while Kia does the same in Georgia. Workers in rural east Mississippi build unmanned aerial systems for an Israeli aerospace company, and at an assembly line under construction in Mobile, Alabama, jetliners will soon be put together for the European company Airbus.
Small businesses that have exploded into major corporations, most notably Wal-Mart, are now throwing their corporate weight around, pressuring the South that produced them to change on issues like gay rights.
People have followed the business boom; from 2000 to 2010, the South’s population grew more than 14 percent, while the Northeast grew less than 4 percent. More than a third of Southerners identify as Evangelical Christians, the highest proportion in the country, and yet the region as a whole is becoming more of a mosaic. Nashville, Tennessee, has its little Kurdistan, for instance. And Metropolitan Atlanta is home to 38 binational chambers of commerce, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Hispanic and Asian newcomers are transforming towns and cities their ancestors never knew. At the same time, more than half of the U.S. black population lives in the South, a figure that is growing as African-Americans leave the Northeast and Midwest. And metropolitan Houston has emerged as the most ethnically and racially diverse city in the United States.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, hundreds of blacks have been elected to Southern state legislative bodies. At the same time, politics has become racially polarized, with blacks in the South voting overwhelmingly as Democrats and whites overwhelmingly as Republicans. And in every Southern state there are more whites than blacks.
Every state south of Kentucky and Virginia has a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, and all run on the fuel of small government and some version of the tetrad touted by Arkansas’ onetime governor, Mike Huckabee: God, guns, grits and gravy. This allegiance to the old values was on display even last week when Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American Rhodes scholar, reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage with a line of argument that has never gone out of style here.
"The Supreme Court decision," he said in a statement, "tramples on states’ rights that were once protected by the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that."
Reckoning With the Past
Defenders of the Confederate battle flag, of which there are many, have reacted to the events of last week by insisting that history should not simply forgotten.
"I think this is one of the most cowardly things I’ve seen done since I’ve been in office," state Rep. Clay Scofield of Alabama told The Sand Mountain Reporter of Bentley’s decision to remove the flags. "It is part of our history."
But many critics of the flag say they are not urging Southerners to look away from history, but rather to fully reckon with it, and with the persistent legacy of white supremacy.
"We’ve never had a frank discussion of race," said Jerry N. Govan Jr., a Democratic state representative in South Carolina.
Govan, who is black, bears a literal scar of the South’s legacy. It is just under his left eye.
When he was 6 years old and fishing in a creek by the roadside, a truck full of white boys rode by, brandishing the Confederate battle flag and shouting racial epithets, and threw a bag of nails at his face. That kind of vicious racism Govan had not seen in years, at least not until the massacre in Charleston.
What Govan sees today is more subtle.
He recalled an episode at the Statehouse during the last debate over the Confederate flag in 2000. A young white lawmaker approached him after an intense discussion one afternoon, telling Govan that he had been moved by the talk of slavery and Jim Crow. But, the white legislator concluded, "I believe after all these years that you’ve had time to catch up."
While Southern states are among the poorest in the country, with some of the starkest levels of income inequality, the safety nets administered by these states are thin.
Three of the four states with the highest number of uninsured residents are Southern, and none of their governments have elected to expand Medicaid. In Alabama, an adult in a four-person household with an income of $4,400 a year earns too much to qualify for his or her own Medicaid benefits. In 10 Southern states, a single, childless person is not eligible for Medicaid at all.
Because of this, nearly nine of 10 people across the country who fall in the "coverage gap" – making too much money to receive Medicaid but too little to receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act – live in Southern states, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Of the Southerners in the coverage gap, the foundation found, 6 in 10 are black or Hispanic.
To address such disparate impact, one must start with schools, said Gerald Wright, the mayor of the small town of Denmark, South Carolina, which lies among the dairy farms and cornfields south of Columbia. Once a prosperous railroad junction and lumber mill town, Denmark has had a rough few decades. The schools are not in good shape; a few years ago, the ceiling of the elementary school cafeteria collapsed.
"When schools integrated, we were about 60-40, black to white, but from 1970 until 1984 we went from 60-40 to maybe 85-15," said Wright, a retired superintendent. The racial makeup of the schools now? "About 98-2."
Nearly all the white children in the district attend school elsewhere, including the private school up the road that was founded in the early 1970s: Jefferson Davis Academy. But Wright said the problems of opportunity were more complicated than race alone.
A recent decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court, finding that poor rural school districts had been underfunded for years, did not consider race as a factor. And that, Wright added, had everything to do with history.
Being forced to do something by the courts – whether to increase funding for schools, integrate or allow gays to marry – is not a new experience for the South. Indeed, court orders are so loathed that state Sen. Cam Ward of Alabama, a Republican, used the threat of federal litigation to pass a plan that would significantly reduce the population in Alabama’s badly overcrowded prisons.
But while Ward fully acknowledges the South’s particular burdens of poverty and history, he does not see the aversion to government here as an issue of race, but rather as something innate, akin to what the historian W.J. Cash, a native South Carolinian, described more than 70 years ago as an "intense distrust of, and, indeed, downright aversion to, any actual exercise of authority beyond the barest minimum."
"It’s a very different way of problem solving," Ward said. "Per capita, Alabama and Tennessee are two of the largest charitable contributors in the country. Yet we loathe the idea of state and federal government being involved in our lives."
The degree to which change is brought about by changes of policy and changes of heart is something that has come up a lot in conversations in the South over the past week or so. Many white Southerners said it was the grace of the victims’ families that moved them to reconsider the Confederate battle flags with a rapidity that politics alone had not accomplished in the past. Most people, black and white, agree that lasting change will take both, and that it will have to go beyond the South.
"The South is uniquely burdened," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama. "But the problem is fundamentally American."
"We still haven’t done the hard work of talking about our history," he continued, "and that’s going to be done county by county, community by community. And there’s no substitute for that."
At the Bible study group in Charleston on Wednesday, Bonete formed a circle and joined hands with some 25 other members of her church. Most of them were younger than 30. There was a black man, and a black woman and an Iranian-American. The rest were white: a mother and son newly arrived from Ohio, a few products of small Southern towns, a couple of fellow Citadel graduates who were unsure if the state should abandon the Confederate battle flag.
They prayed for the nine victims that they called martyrs, and for a faith that transcends race, and in the hope that the people of Charleston, in their response to the shootings, might inspire others.