Does History Still Matter in the New South?

In Beaumont, Texas, the focus of controversy was a park dedicated to a Confederate soldier.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., it was a middle school named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

In Memphis, Tenn., it is three parks commemorating the Southern cause, including one that bears the gravesite and name of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Rebel icon later vilified for founding the Ku Klux Klan.

Efforts in the three communities to rename the sites this year have enflamed the visceral emotions that still simmer in some places and people, even 140 years after the end of America’s War Between the States.

In most cases — such as in Palm Springs, Fla., where the school board in June changed the name of the majority-black and -Latino school to “Palm Springs Middle” — the partisans on one side are civil-rights groups such as the NAACP, as well as black or other minority lawmakers and citizens who denounce such tributes as reprehensible, government-sponsored monuments to slavery and white supremacy.

On the other side of the battle line stand descendants of Confederate soldiers, those with long family ties to the South, and, in some corners, extremists who preach white separatism and other racist goals.

“One hundred and forty years later, we’re still feeling the effects of that time,” said Jimmy Thomas, managing editor of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

Such conflicts have erupted occasionally since the 1960s civil-rights era _ particularly over the display of the Confederate battle flag _ and have flared with greater frequency in the past decade.

Experts expect the clashes will continue because of the confluence of two trends _ a proactive policy of the NAACP and allied groups to challenge remaining public symbols of the Confederacy, and a more activist bent by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the largest Southern-heritage groups.

But there’s evidence, as well, of a potential moderating force, as Southern cities — many now headed by black mayors and struggling to define themselves as the “New South” — wrestle with the consequences of such conflict.

In Memphis, for instance, the black mayor has refused to join the effort to change the names of Forrest, Confederate and Jefferson Davis parks because of the damage the controversy could do to the city’s national image and economy.

“Parks (and schools) are arenas for contests to determine what version of Southern history will be ultimately remembered,” said Derek Alderman, a cultural geography professor at East Carolina University who specializes in the South. “This is really about rewriting the Southern landscape.”

In recent years, change has also remodeled the Confederate sons’ organization, according to spokesman Brag Bowling Jr. and other members.

On one side of the schism are those who believe the group should continue its long focus on preserving Confederate graves and cemeteries, marching in parades and educating the public on its view of the complex origins and purpose of the Civil War, which they say was far from a simple conflict over slavery. Their intent is also to honor those in gray who fought gallantly and died for the causes of states’ and economic rights.

These traditionalists are being elbowed out of power by devotees of the Confederacy who believe the organization should take stronger stands when Confederate symbols, including the “stars and bars” battle flag, are threatened.

“We don’t go out and look for a fight, but we’re not going to run from one,” said Bowling, whose great-grandfather fought with a Georgia unit.

Critics have said some of those ascending to power have been tied to “white rights” or similar extreme outfits, though the organization emphatically denies it is racist or encouraging those who are.

The Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has gone through a split that resulted in the formation of the Descendants of Confederate Veterans, a rival group with more traditional aims.

The president of the Sons’ Texas branch, Ronald Strybos, of Angleton, said a flap this year over an effort by Latinos in the area to rename Fletcher Park in Beaumont after the late migrant-worker hero Cesar Chavez is one battle his group has waged.

Strybos said William Fletcher, a private in the 1st Texas Infantry and the man for whom the park was named, was not only a valiant Confederate soldier, but also responsible for bringing one of the first hospitals to the southeast Texas city after he made his fortune in lumber after the war.

“We said we will help you build a park for Hispanic youth. We support people who want their own monument. Just don’t take away our heritage,” Strybos said. In the end, the park’s name was not changed.

In Memphis, four-term Mayor Willie Herenton this month said he shares the deep discomfort felt by fellow blacks about the parks’ names and the cause they commemorate.

But he said a respect for “diverse perspectives” is needed. Memphis could suffer if racial conflict is allowed to define the city again, as it did after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, he said. He called on residents and others not to join a protest rally headlined last weekend by the Rev. Al Sharpton, former presidential candidate and New York firebrand.

“Digging up and moving graves or renaming city parks is not the proper way of dealing with this issue,” Herenton said in a statement. “We do not need another event that portrays Memphis nationally as a city still racially polarized and fighting the Civil War all over again.”

To cultural geographer Alderman, the mayor’s position and the controversy in the city “gets at the heart of the complexity of Southern cities today.” Alderman likened it to a similar flap that occurred in Savannah, Ga., in 2002, over the language to be used on the inscription of a monument to the slaves in the city’s past.

Many black leaders in Savannah called for the graphic description of slavery on the monument to be toned down to keep from polarizing the populace and harming the tourist trade.

“Image is not just important now, it is everything,” Alderman said. Now, it is Memphis that “is at a major moment of us coming of age and understanding race in the South of today.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)