American Impressions, Chapter 27: South Carolina
We had barely begun cruising toward Fort Sumter on the calm waters of Charleston Harbor, about 100 of us making up the fourth of six daily tourist assaults on the poor island, when the history lessons started pouring out of the boat’s speaker. Everyone knew the story—how the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to secession, with South Carolina leading the way for the Confederate States of America, how no one wanted war but everyone saw it coming, and how it all began on April 12, 1861, with General Beauregard ordering the feds on Sumter to surrender or else, and else happened.
But this wasn’t history. Not in the South, certainly not in South Carolina. It was the retelling of events that have morphed into anthems—pompous, reverential, self-affirming—in a place where the state motto ought to be a line out of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”
I’d spent the previous three days slicing through that undead past in South Carolina, going from one geographical and ideological extreme to another, from the Uplands’ fanatical economic revitalization to the Low Country’s inertia and Charleston’s dilapidated, lost promise, which seems so much more grievous than South Carolina’s Confederate “Lost Cause.”
Yet all along I felt like I was in familiar country. It wasn’t because of the strip malls, the roadside franchises, the downtown towers and the suburban cookie-cuts that are making the state look as moneyed and plain as the rest of the country. It was because of the ambient symbols and beliefs. In so many ways, the old values of the South—the antipathy for federal power and taxes, the unholstered reverence for God, the zealotry of states’ rights, the fear of organized labor and the Dirty Harry approach to law and order—have never changed, they’ve never become “new.” They’ve simply spread to the rest of the country, which has become more Southern. The very day I was riding toward Fort Sumter, front pages of newspapers were celebrating an astounding states’ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that might as well have been written by John C. Calhoun.
The undercurrent to the presumed New South has been an excavation of old Southern symbols under the guise of heritage, a flourishing of neo-Confederate organizations like the Southern League and journals like Southern Partisan. Southerners love their past, they love their traditions, but as the writer V.S. Naipaul observed after his tour of South Carolina a decade ago, “that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.” It hasn’t been.
But since the airing of “Roots” two decades ago, blacks have realized that they, too, can peddle heritage as identity: Blacks’ opinion poll approval of the word “southern” rose from less than 50 percent in 1964 to more than 80 percent by the mid-1990s. “The result,” The New York Times’ Peter Applebome wrote in his book “Dixie Rising,” “has been an escalating war over the images that define the South fought on the level of symbols as vivid as blood.”
South Carolina is symbolism first, truth later. Even the boat taking me to Fort Sumter was named for General Beauregard, as if the Confederate is keeping watch of the island from beyond the grave. But if the Confederacy is having its day, its extremes, laughable but not benign, are never far in the distance. Sometimes they are hysterical fringes even neo-Confederates dutifully disavow. Sometimes they are official state spectacle. The gap between the two is not as big as New South worshippers like to believe.
Laurens is a town of fewer than 10,000 people in the South Carolina Uplands, a half hour from Greenville. The cotton mills and glass plant that kept its population busy for decades are almost all gone. But many wage-earners have made the transition to warehouse work at the immense Wal-Mart distribution center, or in some of the hundreds of foreign-owned factories that dot the Uplands along I-85, such as a BMW plant and nearly 50 other German-owned companies in Spartanburg County. When economists and political scientists talk about the awakening New South, the Uplands’ I-85 corridor comes to mind.
But the Old South persists. Laurens is proud of the fact that Andrew Johnson once had a tailor shop on the Courthouse Square and that every building around the square is in the National Registry of Historic Places. It is less proud about another marker. For years, a piece of rope hung from an old railroad trestle outside of town, there to remind people of the lynching of Richard Puckett in 1913. He was wrongly accused of rape, but a white mob lynched him anyway.
When the trestle was destroyed in 1986, taking the rope with it, Laurens thought it had finally moved on. But four years ago, John Howard and Michael Burden bought the crumbling Echo Theater on the Square and opened the Redneck Shop and “World-Famous Klan Museum,” displaying an arsenal of white supremacist memorabilia. It is open still, another rope dangling before Laurens’ racially mixed population, and there’s nothing anybody can (or should) legally do about it. The city tried to deny Howard a business license, but his attorney— Greenville’s Suzanne Coe, who four years ago defended Shannon Faulkner’s right to attend The Citadel in Charleston—has repulsed every attempt to shut him down.
The Rev. David Kennedy of the New Beginnings Baptist Church, who is black and says he is Richard Puckett’s great-great nephew, has led marches, demonstrations and petitions against the shop. A young white man “on a mission” rammed his pickup truck through the storefront and was arrested for his trouble. But like the television crews and other shock-mongers who have been descending on Laurens for the last four years—myself included—the attention has only strengthened Howard’s resolve.
”We’re stuck with it,” says Bobby Tucker, who worked at the Echo Theater as a boy and now owns B&T Tape Shoppe in a glass-bricked storefront across from the Redneck Shop. Like many Laurens residents, he marginalizes the shop’s presence by ignoring it. “Ninety percent of our customers are black. It doesn’t bother them. They laugh about it. It bothers you only if you let it bother you. There’s nothing there you wouldn’t find at a Myrtle Beach souvenir shop.”
The souvenirs Tucker has in mind are the T-shirts emblazoned with the cross of the Confederate battle flag, with portraits of Jefferson Davis, John Calhoun and Robert E. Lee, or with messages such as “YOU WEAR YOUR X, I’LL WEAR MINE” (a replacement of Malcolm X’s symbol with the Confederate cross) or “I Have a Dream,” with the Confederate flag flying over the U.S. Capitol. Tucker is right: veiled under the criticism-proof cause of Southern “heritage,” Confederate paraphernalia has proliferated enough to have become ideological white noise. But you wouldn’t find T-shirts with swastikas and pamphlets extolling the “Ideals of the Ku Klux Klan” at Myrtle Beach souvenir shops. A sign on the Redneck Shop counter says “No profanities please.”
When I appeared at Howard’s door and asked to see the museum, which is an assortment of corridors and backrooms behind the store, he not only invited me in but encouraged me to take pictures. But he wouldn’t answer questions. “I have to take my son to work,” he said, then disappeared, leaving the shop in care of his wife, Hazel—who, according to a certificate that hung on a museum wall, had earned a “Distinguished Service Award” in 1997 from the Invisible Empire of the KKK “in appreciation for service rendered to promote the growth and success” of the Empire.
The museum walls were covered with portraits of Klansmen and collages of 3-by-5-inch color photographs—arranged in the cluttered style of family pictures—of cross burnings, hooded whoevers, and regular men and women, soft drink or cigarette in hand, caught in the act of having a good time. Newspaper clips chronicling the shop’s defiant existence hung in frames alongside a few letters from people who did not like the shop at all.
”The only people I’ve had a problem with, who took it as an insult and a racial situation, have been blacks. I didn’t know that blacks were so prejudiced,” Howard is quoted as saying in an undated Time Magazine Notebook clip. Another clip relates how a KKK office in Pennsylvania booted Howard out of the organization because, in the words of Imperial Wizard Barry Black, “He’s gone commercial.”
The museum uses its space efficiently, filling every corner with smiling female mannequins draped in Klan robes, covering every wall with “No Dogs Negroes Mexicans” frames, blanketing every glass display case with the Klan’s endless publications (“The Kloran,” “The Kourier Magazine,” “The Klansman”), with nostalgic pins and needling flyers from the George Wallace presidential campaign, with predictable pamphlets on “The ugly truth about Martin Luther King,” the lot yielding the sense that it is all an obscene joke—which, of course, it isn’t.
Laughing off Howard and his shop as self-defeating extremes ignores the extent to which it taps into a strain of American life that remains undeniable. When Naipaul refers to “the squalor of the race issue,” the squalor’s tributaries spring above all from men like Howard. That the racism of a Jesse Helms or a Strom Thurmond is watered down enough to elicit acceptance and compromise down the line is an indication of how deep that strain runs, of its complicity with our culture, not how isolated it has become.
The sad joke in Laurens is not the shop, but who actually owns it and pays its taxes. When Howard and his partner, Michael Burden, had a falling out two years ago, Burden “repented” and turned to the Rev. David Kennedy. Because Howard had deeded the shop in Burden’s name, Burden was able to sell the shop to Kennedy and his church for a nominal fee. Kennedy thought he had won his fight and moved to shut down Howard. He didn’t know that Howard had included a clause in the deed, allowable under South Carolina law, that gave him a lifelong right to occupy and run the building as he pleases, regardless of who owns it. Much to Howard’s pleasure, Kennedy and his predominantly black New Beginnings Baptist Church now own the Redneck Shop. They cannot get rid of the deed because no one else will have it.
Stars In South Carolina, as in several other states, the acceptance—the banality—of Confederate mongering under the guise of heritage is as officially recognized as the Pledge of Allegiance.
The battle flag was incorporated into Mississippi’s flag in 1894 to honor the ideology of the Lost Cause. It was added to Georgia’s flag in 1956 at the height of the state’s resistance to desegregation. It was raised above the Alabama state house in 1963 by Gov. George Wallace, who had chanted “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” at his inauguration, and above the South Carolina state house in Columbia in 1962 with similarly defiant motives. When cadets of The Citadel, which was founded in 1824 to ward off the dangers of slave uprisings, wave their Confederate battle flags at ball games and sing “Dixie,” it isn’t because they’re fond of history.
So let’s not quibble: Flying the Confederate battle flag may have plenty to do with heritage, but it is to blacks what a swastika is to Jews, a symbol of hatred and superiority. “If a political movement in defense of the best of the southern tradition does not include blacks as well as whites,” the Southern historian Eugene Genovese wrote in “The Southern Tradition” five years ago, “if it is not deeply committed to racial equity and justice, it will degenerate into barbarism as fast as we can swallow our spit.” So far, the movement remains proudly exclusionary.
South Carolina’s and Georgia’s governors have tried and failed to remove the flag from its official perch. But in Columbia, like in other Deep South capitals, the confederate religion is imbedded in the city’s marble as deeply as it is in its soul. And nowhere is the writing of history in South Carolina as obvious a redrafting of myths—“an act,” as the black historian John Hope Franklin wrote, “of sectional allegiance and devotion”—as on the grounds of the state house in Columbia.
There are the obligatory bows to Calhoun and Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, the racist crusader whose rants were so popular that he took them on the road (“We will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him,” he said of the black man). But the silent, marble and brass chorus to the Confederacy reaches its crescendo with two monuments on either side of the Capitol. The monument to the dead of the Confederacy raised “by the women of South Carolina” is graceful and understated. Its engraving, however, refers to men “who have glorified a fallen cause by the simple manhood of their lives,” letting “simple manhood” overshadow a cause that is never defined. It is never defined anywhere the “cause” is mentioned. How could it be? How could the defense of slavery ever be made explicit in Confederate myth-making without corroding the whole foundation of the thing to its core? The monument was erected in 1879, a year before newspaperman Henry Grady coined the term “New South” in Atlanta.
On the other side of the state house, the Confederate men’s monument to the women of the Confederacy is an even more amnesiac retooling of the story. Antebellum Columbia was thick with brothels and slums and enslaved cracker girls in cloth-making sweatshops for Confederate soldiers, but the pseudo-classical monument of cherubs, goddesses and laurels, testifies “to the sublime devotion of the women of South Carolina” just as “their virtues stood as the supreme citadel with strong towers of faith and hope around which civilization rallied and triumphed.” The point isn’t that the Confederacy lost in 1865. That was a minor set-back. The point is that “with convictions that come from the ashes of ruin would come resurrection of truth with glorious vindication.”
The words were written by William Gonzales in 1911. Looking at the extent of the Southernization of America in 1999 -- with latter-day Calhouns running the Supreme Court, a Southerner in the White House, Southerners leading Congress, and with a gun in every pot and Garth Brooks about to surpass the Beatles as the highest-selling singer of all times—glorious vindication hasn’t taken that long. We are all Southerners now.
Aside from laying claim to having been to Fort Sumter, there isn’t much there to see but the reconstituted, irregular pentagon cluttered with the re-engineering of every national park’s conveniences. It is a modern structure that has little to do with the past, its past having been pounded to dust. But it is a comforting place, breezy with the salt air of the Atlantic and quiet but for the rhythmic flapping of the flags, Union and Confederate, that had risen there at one time or another. And it is very popular. If the Redneck Shop opened a stand under a more genteel name alongside the National Park Service’s gift shop, it would likely make a killing.
SOUTH CAROLINA IN BRIEF
SOUTH CAROLINA IN BRIEF
Total area: 31,189 sq. miles (rank: 40)
Population (1997): 3,760,181 (rank: 26)
State capital: Columbia Economy: Manufacturing, agriculture, tourism
Nickname & Motto: Palmetto State; While I breathe, I hope.
Entered union: Eighth of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution, May 23, 1788.
Notable facts: If Sen. Strom Thurmond, who will turn 100 at the end of his current term, is a hold-over from South Carolina’s Old South days, Ernest Hollings, a senator since 1966, is credited with raising the state from a somnolent backwater to a manufacturing power. As governor in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Hollings took to the road, internationally, selling his state’s virtues to investors. He also made several “hunger tours” of the state to improve social conditions.
The South in quotes: “The South, then, has been the Permanence of America: the defender—sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly—of principles immensely ancient, of conventions that yet have meaning . . . Without the South to act as its Permanence, the American Republic would be perilously out of joint. And the South need feel not shame for its defense of beliefs that were not concocted yesterday.”—Russell Kirk, writing in the journal Modern Age in 1958.
The literature of the South is rich, varied and constantly expanding. Valuable works include:
* “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” by Tony Horwitz (1998)
* “Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture,” by Peter Applebome (1996)
* “A Turn in the South,” by V.S. Naipaul (1989).
* The Southern League of Florida: www.the-south.com/SLFL/
* League of the South home page: www.dixienet.org
* South Carolina state page: www.state.sc.us
* South Carolina tourism: www.sccsi.com/sc