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Saturday, 15 July, 2000, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
US South: Old habits die hard
Street scene, Jackson, Mississippi
Jackson, Mississippi, has changed a lot since the 1930s
By Jonathan Marcus

General Meade looked fairly relaxed for a man who was about to act out one of the decisive moments in the American Civil War.

All around him, at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, were the preparations for battle. Blue-clad federal soldiers packed up their gear and checked their cartridges and percussion caps. Water bottles and haversacks were slung.

A drumbeat called the troops to fall in. Rifles were checked, bayonets fixed.

The general pulled on his uniform tunic, sweating in the July heat. Though tired, he was confident of victory. His resemblance to the real General Meade was uncanny.

"General," I said, "you look the spitting image of your predecessor".

He fixed his gaze on me from the saddle of his horse.

"Predecessor, sir," he muttered, "I don't know what you mean".

And with that he turned and, accompanied by an ensign and a bevy of staff officers, rode out to supervise the positioning of his men.

Flag battle

The preparations for the real battle of Gettysburg must have looked a little like this 137 years ago, when the ranks of blue and grey formed up for the third day of the battle that determined the ultimate course of the Civil War.

General Lee's defeat at Gettysburg thwarted the last great Confederate invasion of the North. The war would continue, but its outcome was less and less in doubt.

It is a symbol of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement

I was in the United States to make a programme on the contemporary American South. The rolling farmland of Pennsylvania may seem a strange place to begin such a programme.

But this re-enactment of Gettysburg's third day involved a representation of General Pickett's famous charge that almost broke the Union line. If it had succeeded, Lee might well have been able to march on Washington. Subsequent history might have been very different. And Pickett's doomed charge is now seen as representing the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

In the American South history still matters. The battle flag that fluttered over the Confederate lines at Gettysburg still flies in front of the State House in Columbia, South Carolina - almost as divisive today as it was in the 1860s.

Lorry, with picture of Confederate flag on the front
Some in America's South are still proud of the Confederate flag
Up until the start of this month the flag flew at half-mast over the dome of the State Capitol itself.

It was first raised in the early 1960s to mark the centenary of the Civil War - a tribute to more than 20,000 Confederate dead in South Carolina alone, almost one-third of the total male population.

But African-Americans see the Confederate Stars and Bars as a symbol of slavery. Leading black groups have mounted an economic boycott of South Carolina, forcing state legislators to reach a compromise.

The flag has been removed from the State House dome and is now flown at a Confederate war memorial in the State House grounds. But it is a compromise in name only. Nobody seems happy. And the boycott looks set to continue until the flag is removed altogether.

Colour of money

The passion aroused by the flag issue is both a symbol and a distraction. It is a symbol of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement and the continuing disadvantage felt by many African-Americans.

But it is also a distraction from the real business in hand: the need to educate, the need to empower African-Americans economically to ensure that they take their rightful share in the economic boom that is patchily taking hold, at least in the urban areas of the South.

Riding on the train from Memphis to New Orleans it is hard to see much of this boom.

The small towns of the Mississippi Delta appear as pastel patterns of decrepit clapboard and rusting automobiles. This is the old Illinois Central Railroad linking New Orleans with Chicago - the lifeline that took so many blacks northwards from field to factory, in search of jobs and a small slice of the American dream.

Gracey Camper is a sprightly woman in her early 70s. Riding in the dome car back to Jackson, Mississippi, she tells me how she left the South as a child in the 1930s. She speaks of the very different world she found in the North, but also of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the South itself - changes that she could never have dreamt of as a young woman.

But the true promise of that dream is yet to be realised.

The Asia Baptist Church in New Orleans is in one of the poorest parts of the city, surrounded by municipal housing projects. Its charismatic pastor, the Reverend Zebbedi Bridges, has seen it all. A contemporary of the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, he has built up this community from almost nothing.

When I asked him what he had achieved here he gave a somewhat surprising answer for a man of the cloth. When he came to this church in 1961, he said, the congregation had assets of a mere $20,000. Now the congregation was worth more than $6m. With this he can fund housing, youth centres and a whole variety of activities to care for the elderly and give youngsters a leg up.

The reverend had seized upon an eternal truth of the US system. I was reminded of a comment made to me earlier in the trip by Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a feisty black South Carolina Congresswoman. Racism was still an issue, she said. Blacks who believed that it no longer existed were kidding themselves.

She pointed to the South's virtually segregated school system - underfunded public schooling for the poor blacks, private schooling for anyone with money.

Black or white, she said, the only colour that really matters here is green - that of the dollar bill. And without more resources those who have always been on the bottom of the pile in the South will stay there.

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See also:

17 Jul 98 | Americas
America's forgotten black heroes
20 Jan 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
The sky's the limit in Mississippi
13 Apr 00 | Americas
Half-mast for Confederate flag
03 Nov 99 | Americas
Confederate 'swastika' under attack
18 Jan 00 | Americas
Thousands march at flag rally
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