The Dream World of the Southern Republicans

tags: Civil War, Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials

Howell Raines is a former editorial page editor and executive editor of The New York Times.

Unlike previous Alabama governors, Robert J. Bentley is not a fount of oratory. Nor is he a champion of “kinder and gentler.” His dyspeptic refusal to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion, in a state where more than one million of 4.8 million residents depend on the program, betokens a stunning indifference to the Hippocratic oath. (The governor is a dermatologist.) Yet Mr. Bentley recently took a page from the Obama playbook and used a surprise executive order to remove four Confederate flags from the Alabama Capitol grounds, not far from the very spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy.

On the morning of June 24, Mr. Bentley had the flags, and the poles they flew on, removed before either the public or the state’s famously retrograde legislators had time to protest. George C. Wallace — who placed the flag on the Capitol dome in 1963 as a sign of contempt for a visiting integrationist, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — himself never did a better job of bumfuzzling the lawmakers. In South Carolina, where nine congregants were murdered at a historic black church in Charleston, the flag didn’t come down until Friday, following action by its Legislature.

It was not the first time Mr. Bentley, a two-term ultraconservative with a broad base among Sheetrock hangers and country-club grandees, has bowed to the zeitgeist. He has done so while assuring his white supporters that not much will change in Alabama except the industrial boom represented by Mercedes, Hyundai and Airbus factories and, it was announced last month, a $600 million Google data center near Huntsville. In 2011, for example, Governor Bentley spoke magnanimously at the funeral of Birmingham’s civil-rights lion, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. In 2013, he denounced the University of Alabama’s snootiest sororities for rejecting black rushees.

Such public-relations acumen is a relatively new thing in Alabama, whose residents complain constantly about being looked down on. But the more intriguing story is that Mr. Bentley is among the Southern Republican officeholders who, despite the smart occasional concession, do not fully understand that their dominance will not be a feature of the region’s two-party future. They still act as if tomorrow will be exactly like today, their tenure assured by unbendable evangelical Christians and testy white suburbanites.

But, as in the time of Henry W. Grady, the post-Reconstruction journalist who popularized the term “the New South,” inexorable forces will in a few decades reshape Southern society, this time in a more progressive direction. Witness the flood of gay weddings in Mobile and the mounting alarm of evangelicals across the region, the latter being the driving force behind the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s retro presidential campaign. Like their peers in other regions, secular Southern whites under 40 care less than their elders do about cultural issues like flags, racial and ethnic purity, or private sexual conduct. ...

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