‘For Those Who Still Hear the Guns’

When it comes to the South, too many non-Southerners are ugly Americans.

We love making fun of all those ignorant bohunks with their Southern twangs.

As the Confederate battle flag comes down in South Carolina (and elsewhere), perhaps Civil War re-enactments will end, too. Then maybe we can also stop talking about American slavery as if it ended only yesterday.

We’re supposed to learn from history, not keep reliving it. The South, though, has been held hostage by American central casting.

I made my first visit to the South in the 90’s. My dad was from a small town in Arkansas, just over the Mississippi state line. He left the South as a young man to fight in World War II and never went back. He rarely talked about his childhood. The only references he made to it were with certain Southern expressions (“poke and grits,” for example, or “raw-heads and bloody bones”).

When I told him I was going to visit his hometown and the Mississippi Delta, he was unimpressed.

“Why the hell would you want to go there?” he said, which was pretty much what he said years earlier when I visited some WWII sites.

Of the two childhood photos I have of my dad, the best one shows a boy dressed in farmer’s overalls, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyes defeated, as if whatever’s coming next can’t be good. He looks to be about 14, which was roughly the age he was when he dropped out of school.

I didn’t learn why he had dropped out until after he was dead. His family moved around so much, he couldn’t keep up in school. After being held back, one grade after another, he was so much bigger than the other students it was embarrassing so he left.

Was he also embarrassed to be from the South? It’s often portrayed as the closest thing to visiting a foreign country without leaving the U.S.

It’s not unlike traveling in parts of Germany. When you get off the bus in the city of Dachau, the driver doesn’t wait to be asked. He knows exactly what you’re looking for and points you in the direction of the camp.

Likewise, if someone in the barely-there town of Money, Miss., sees a stranger stopping at the dilapidated remains of a grocery store, he knows exactly what she’s looking for.

In Oxford, Miss., (home of the Ole’ Miss Rebels), the town’s celebrated independent book store on Courthouse Square sells a magazine called “Blue & Gray,” a contemporary magazine devoted to the Civil War.  Its motto: “For Those Who Still Hear the Guns!”

In Vicksburg, the Old Courthouse Museum displayed its memories with no gussying-up. I don’t know what the museum is like now, but when I visited it, what struck me was its simplicity. At times I felt like I had stepped into a parlor and was looking at the family heirlooms, some of them valued for their notoriety.

At the Duff Green Mansion in Vicksburg, the innkeepers readily told stories of when it was used as a hospital for Confederate troops – and later Union soldiers – during the siege of Vicksburg. A member of the staff pointed out scars left from the cannonballs. Later when she learned I was planning to also visit Natchez, she became slightly defensive.

“They’ll tell you they have more beautiful homes than we do,” she warned. “That’s because Natchez surrendered. We didn’t.”

Yes, they still hear the guns. How can they not? The rest of America won’t let them forget. Do non-Southerners ever contemplate the sound of their own gunfire in the street gangs that dominate some of America’s inner cities – even in abolitionist states?

Typical of this condescension was a comment by L.A. Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds, which I found while planning my trip to the South. He described a scene at a bar in Oxford, Mississippi: “After a long Saturday of re-enacting skirmishes from 1863, several dozen Civil War fanatics, all white and most of them dressed in Confederate uniform, feel comfortable leaping to the tabletops in The Gin bar in downtown Oxford, swilling beer, and shouting along with the lyrics to ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy.’ With restraint astonishing to a Californian, the bar’s handful of black customers waited quietly and patiently for the retro-soldiers, some of whom had come from neighboring states, to finish and leave.”

What’s astonishing about Reynolds’ astonishment is that he wrote that just two years after his own hometown – Los Angeles – erupted into a race riot that left 53 dead and at least 2,000 injured. Who was he to lecture white Southerners on how to behave? Or was he astonished that the blacks in Oxford did not start rioting?

Blacks and whites have lived together in the South a lot longer than they have in other parts of the U.S. They don’t hate each other as much as non-Southerners want to believe.

It’s not surprising that when a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, the black study group welcomed him. Neither is it surprising that Roof’s father and uncle immediately offered up his identity to police after recognizing him in the church video. Nor is it surprising that a white woman spotted Roof’s car, recognized the driver, alerted authorities and followed him until the police could stop him.

There’s a quote attributed to Martin Luther King that goes something like, “In the South, whites like blacks as individuals but don’t like the race. In the North, it’s the other way around.”

The North has its own history of racism, but it doesn’t attract tourists or re-enactments. In fact, next month there will be an anniversary for a race-related riot that was one of the deadliest in American history.

The New York City Draft Riots in 1863 began when white men – especially poor, white men – objected to being drafted to fight in the Civil War. About 115 people died, including almost a dozen black men who were lynched.

The rioters who took to New York’s streets didn’t need a Confederate battle flag to rally around.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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