I’ve always believed I would make a good Yankee, mainly because every place in the North I’ve visited, I’ve liked. Pristine Wisconsin won my heart during a college summer job that carried me all over the state.
If Boston has any alleys that aren’t clean and shiny, I must have missed them. All of the ones I have peered into were as clean as the streets. Portland, Maine, had me even before I walked through the house of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Oh, those seafood restaurants and the friendly locals who frequented them. In Chicago at the world-famous Moody Church, I observed that the auditorium full of congregants was about one-third black, one-third white and one-third Asian. That was nice.
Unlike other regions of the nation that are quite happy with who they are, too many leaders of the South have succumbed to the smearing of the South-hating Southern Poverty Law Center and to Hollywood’s portrayals of the South. Former Emory University professor Boyd Cathy recently wrote, “A South whose leadership cannot or will not say a good word about Robert E. Lee is in serious decline, if not already dead.”
How sad that in the South we now have virtually no political leaders who will defend the South from the slings and arrows thrown her way. How many Southern governors, mayors or community leaders have resisted the numerous attacks on Southern monuments? Indeed, how many of them have led the way in getting rid of them?
Robert E. Lee was no more imperfect than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Lee was a man of honor. Like many of our founders, he owned slaves. Unlike many other slaveholders of the era, he treated them kindly. Who is defending this good man from the onslaughts of those whose aim is the cultural cleansing of the South?
Recently, presidential candidate Joe Biden used a stump speech opportunity to bring up Jim Crow laws and to claim that Republicans will take us back to Jim Crow. How productive, how healing was that? Has Biden visited Atlanta lately? Or Charlotte? Or Mississippi, the state that has more elected black officials than any other? Biden’s remarks were pure bigotry, the rattling of old bones.
Before the Civil War, the South was leading America, providing the fledgling nation with its first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Jackson), not to mention its supreme debaters of all time, Calhoun and Clay. Of that stellar quartet (Washington, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay), who transitioned America from a loose confederation into a nation, two were Southerners. The nation’s eleventh president, James K. Polk, who extended America’s territory across the continent from sea to sea, was a Tennessean. In fact, all of the nation’s land mass beyond the 13 original states was acquired by Southern presidents. Since 1900, the South has provided five presidents.
Because of the tragic racial events in Charlottesville, we can count on one hand the Southern political leaders who will remind the nation of the South’s virtues and contributions. It’s even harder to identify those who will defend the South against cultural cleansing. Fearing the media, they keep quiet.
In 1930, 12 Southern men of literature, most of whom were professors connected with either Vanderbilt University, Yale or University of the South, penned the book, “I’ll Take My Stand.” Dubbed “the Nashville Agrarians,” these men held forth on what the South has lent the nation. Long before “green” was in vogue, they argued for the value of agriculture and against the evils of excessive industrialization. No silly dreamers, these historians/novelists/poets invoked the simpler values of family, home, tradition and community. They decried the forces of materialism, love for power and all compulsions of society that mediated against strong families and communities.
If the Agrarians were alive, they would speak out against the false piety of those who point fingers at Southern monuments. They would defend those who won’t sell their land to corporations simply because they love their land, and would rebuke Southerners who cave to the South’s critics.
The Agrarians were not “sufferers from nostalgic vapors.” They foresaw the cultural breakdown of hearth and home we are now seeing on the 6 o’clock news. They knew the South had much to offer. Would that more Southern leaders today could be so positive instead of allowing themselves to become shameful deniers of their heritage.
I’m proud of the South for its self-reckoning, its racial healing and its genuineness. And I’m still proud of Robert E. Lee.