The late historian C. Vann Woodward once labeled the New South "the Second Reconstruction." As the millennium deepens, he noted that Yankees were coming South, rural life was diminishing, and urbanization was ongoing. "Let's call it the 'Bulldozer Revolution,'" he said, adding that, nonetheless, "I don't think it has demolished the South."
This fast-growing region remains one of the most dynamic and versatile in the country, and yet it still evokes stereotypes, caricatures, and images, some of them still there to be seen: corrupt potbellied sheriffs, crooked Southern judges, country politicians, demure belles, and hell-raisin' preachers. Parts of the backward South are notorious for their "redneck juries," insanely awarding millions upon millions of dollars' worth of damages in civil cases if the defendants are perceived as coming from Yankeeland. But it would be wrong to confuse the South with its caricatures or to fail to understand how rapidly the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia are evolving.
The New South is meeting resistance, however. In some respects, the battles of the South no longer center on the age-old conflicts between blacks and whites. As if establishing a last stand in the Old South, the hard-right wing of the Republican Party and the religious right are engaging in a cultural war. Homosexuality is often the issue today that provokes the most moral outrage, with some Southern preachers ranting against it as a "sin against God," whereas more progressive elements in the South (sometimes from the pulpit, but more often from the business world) preach tolerance and understanding, with respect for individual rights regardless of sexual preference.
A dramatic case highlighting this occurred in September 2000 when the Atlanta Gas Light Company, one of the biggest utilities in the South, announced it would offer domestic partner benefits as an option for its employees, including same-sex couples, in order to attract the brightest and best employees in the future. Georgia Equality Project, the statewide gay political group, immediately hailed the move as a major breakthrough.
GEP is continuing to target other major companies in the state to offer the same benefits, and some of these companies are responding. But in other cases, the proposal is met with a "wall of silence." For the GEP, it's an uphill fight.
The New South has prevailed in other areas as well. Witness the removal of the Confederate flag from the dome of the South Carolina State Capitol. It had been flying since 1962, when it was raised in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Civil War; in the ensuing years, repeated calls to remove it were rejected. This time, it was a fight to the finish: Election-year presidential hopefuls and media pundits from all over the globe weighed in, and 50,000 protesters marched in Columbia on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthday. In the glare of the national spotlight, the opposition agreed to a compromise. On July 1, 2000, the flag was replaced by a shiny replica -- said to be more "accurate" than the one that had flown for 38 years -- hoisted on a 30-foot pole in front of the Capitol.
Cultural conflicts seem to be inevitable, given the rate of growth and the population shift. The South boasts the fastest-expanding economy in the industrialized world. Each day, the ever-changing population, attracted to the tri-state's industry and technology, grows larger, wealthier, and better educated. Today, instead of magnolia-lined plantations or outhouse-dotted backwoods, a soccer-mom subculture dominates the southern suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte, complete with minivans, malls, glass office towers, well-manicured subdivisions, and traffic jams. Some tourist areas, such as Hilton Head, are filling up with Northern transplants.
By contrast, income and population in "Black Belt" counties are shrinking. Somewhat ironically, the South also contains some of America's poorest regions, the home of millions who are mired in ignorance and poverty. The Tobacco Road image lingers in remote counties where young people grow up but don't stick around. Problems are on the horizon, as automation and global trade promise to wipe out many of the remaining rural textile jobs; and welfare reform will eliminate the money needed to keep some small towns alive.
Yet, Southern tradition is being redefined, from elegant ballets to symphonies set in the refurbished concert halls of days gone by. Indeed, a slow-paced way of life still holds in many small towns, but the cities of the New South are on the move. People have flocked here from around the world -- Northerners seeking a milder climate, rural Southerners bored with small-town life, African Americans overcoming years of segregation, Asian immigrants seeking a new life in America, and gays and lesbians, who finally can taste liberation in a region where they were once shunned -- turning once-lethargic areas into fast-paced international business complexes.
Time simply can't take away from the true Southerner his small pleasures: fresh-picked butterbeans in the summer, iced sweet tea in the afternoon, a Saturday-morning golf game, sunset cocktails on the porch, church on Sunday, and an overall politeness and civility.
But from Savannah to Charlotte, Southern cities are sprucing up with colorful floral gardens, newly designed roadways, and world-class food markets and restaurants. Atlanta has grown into one of the strongest industrial capitals in the world. As the home of some of the best-known companies in the nation (including Coca-Cola, BellSouth, and Delta), the city has become a transportation hub and has been highly praised for its capability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. The land of hospitality has opened its arms even wider. Even Scarlett O'Hara herself would be proud.
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