Song of the South Gets Nationwide Exposure

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS growing up as one, white Southerners did not have the best reputation with the rest of the country.

Among other things, white Southerners had used our social institutions - laws, schools, churches - to strip black Southerners of basic human and civil rights. Our best-known white political leaders tended to meet challenges to the old order with snarling police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs.

That image of the South, of white Southerners, of white Southern political leaders was battered into the nation's awareness 30 years ago this week, when television showed cops beating the hell out of civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The image had consequences.

On one hand, it gave President Lyndon Johnson the gumption to send in federal troops to protect the marchers and Congress the backbone to pass the Voting Right Act. It drove a stake through Jim Crow's heart and changed a good many things about the South, if not everything. On the other hand, the image gave the rest of the country a smug sense of self-righteousness about racism - Lord knows, it couldn't exist in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis.

Most of us can see clearly the evidence of stereotypes we despise; we're blind to those we embrace. And the image also created white Southerners' reputation, and a Southern accent, for example, became shorthand for bigotry, ignorance and stupidity.

Now, though, something else is happening. You might have noticed that, lately, a lot of our national political talk is in Southern voices, if not accents. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are from Arkansas and Tennessee. Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are trying to become president. Then there's the House Leadership - Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas; Majority Whip Tom DeLay, another Texan.

They are not "warmed-over" George Wallaces, as Merle Black, political scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, puts it. Merle and his twin brother, Earl, of Rice University in Houston, are experts on Southern politics. They also see this rise of Southerners as striking.

It comes, they say, from many things: a generational change since the Selma march, a population shift from the old Rust Belt states to the South, the ideological appeal of the Republican Party. …