Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Songs of the South

The American South, region of contradictions — gentility juxtaposed with violence, emotional warmth neighbors with a punitive streak — revealed its dichotomous ways recently.

The war between the New South and the Old showed itself with two examples of how warring ideas and ideals manage to coexist in the same body, two more of the plus ├ža change moments that define us historically and today.

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Last week James Young, 53, was elected the mayor of Philadelphia, a town of about 8,000 people in east-central Mississippi. The victory made Young the first black mayor in the history of the town. Despite the town's 55 percent white majority, Young beat back Rayburn Waddell, the white incumbent, winning office by only 46 votes. Young, a paramedic and a Pentecostal minister, described the victory for CNN as "an atomic bomb of change."

Those formerly casual students of history who don’t recognize the name of Philadelphia, Miss., may recognize the names of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner instead.

The bodies of those three men were discovered by FBI agents near Philadelphia, Miss., on Aug. 4, 1964. The three men, civil rights workers who came south to register African Americans to vote, were shot to death sometime on June 21 of that year. Their Ford station wagon was set ablaze, their bodies were bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam.

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms between three to 10 years. Killen, a former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but beat the rap when one juror refused to vote to convict him. Nearly four decades later, in January 2005, Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. He was convicted of manslaughter in June 2005.

Jim Prince, publisher of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper, told CNN that “Philadelphia will always be connected to what happened here in 1964, but the fact that Philadelphia, Mississippi, with its notorious past, could elect a black man as mayor, it might be time to quit picking on Philadelphia, Mississippi.”

For Young, who takes office in July, the future also begins now. “"The places where we were locked out, I'm gonna have the key," he said. "The places we couldn't go, I've got the key. No better way to say it than that."

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For some folks in Florida, the future begins … some other time.

The Confederate flag, that old touchstone of emotion in the South, is the issue in a dispute between the NAACP and the tens of thousands of Floridians who brandish the flag at one entertainment site as a point of pride in their heritage, a heritage whose banner symbolizes the enslavement and persecution of millions of African Americans not long enough ago.

Some of those in the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP want the flag banned from the Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway. A boycott of a NASCAR event planned for Nov. 20-22 is being contemplated, an NAACP official told Fox News on Wednesday.

In an interview with Fox News, Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway president Curtis Gray articulated speedway policy on large flags of any kind in the stands.

But Gray also reflected an understanding of the limits of control on individual behavior. “We don't regulate the lawful behavior of our fans or prohibit free speech and expression of our guests,” Gray told Fox. “We can’t tell people what to wear. Where do you start? Where does it end, as far as individual expression?”

Chuck McMichael, leader of Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a group that promotes Confederate heritage, ominously told Fox that any attempts to block Confederate flags at the Speedway will be met with “some action.”

“Any time somebody starts talking about that, of course there's cause for concern,” he said. “The bottom line is I don't think they should ban [Confederate flags] because there's nothing wrong with them. It's just people showing pride in their heritage.”

We've gotten accustomed — maybe even spoiled — by the sense of a new America in the post-Obama-election world. In some ways there's a lot to celebrate. In other ways ... not so much.
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Image credits: James Young: Still from CNN. Missing poster: FBI.

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