On an unseasonably cool mid-summer Saturday at Zion Farms, just
outside Pontotoc, Mississippi, a small crowd is gathered to celebrate
Southernness and talk politics. Zion is a small, working farm
specializing in organic, free-range meat and poultry, some of
which is slowly sizzling over hot coals to feed the crowd gathering
for a rally of the Constitution Party, the latest in a line of
political groups based on the old Southern battle cry of states'
Southern pride is on display here: Confederate flags wave proudly. Michael Hill, founder of an organization called the League of the South, a cultural organization of academics dedicated to keeping alive the dream of Southern independence, is the featured speaker today. He agrees with Merle Black, Southerners accept that the world is not perfectable. There is no utopia. Inequalities exist and the government has no business trying to correct them. Hill locates this bleak attitude in the Confederacy's defeat and the occupation that followed. He says, "Southerners are the rock that holds things in place in America."
To truly know the mind of the South you have to look North across the Atlantic to what is now Northern Ireland, according to Michael Hill. He says Southerners are part of the Celtic world reflecting where their Scotch-Irish ancestors came from what is today Northern Ireland.
When you spend time in Ireland's north the connections to the American South are obvious, most particularly in the fractured nature of the Protestant religion. Just as in the south there are a bewildering number of Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland/Ulster.
The Scotch-Irish have played an important role in American political life. One in four American presidents trace their roots to this tiny corner of Ireland, from Andrew Jackson to Bill Clinton. Ulster Protestant culture shaped white Southern culture. It provided the roots music that evolved into bluegrass and country. The words we use to describe white Southerners trace back there as well. The derogatory term "cracker" is derived from Gaelic "craic" meaning lively conversation.
The degree to which Northern Ireland's history with its virulent anti-Catholicism still has an impact in the U.S. is remarkable.
As recently as 1960, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy had to publicly assure white Southerners that he was not part of a papal plot to take over the U.S.
told a group of Methodist ministers in Houston, "I believe in
an America where the separation of church and state is absolute;
where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he
be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell
his parishioners for whom to vote."
That people almost two centuries away from their roots, fully assimilated, should not have evolved beyond this prejudice is remarkable. Until you consider that the motto of Northern Ireland's Protestants is "No Surrender" a phrase coined way back in 1689 when Protestants were besieged by Catholics in Derry.
The no surrender creed survives in the ethos of white Southerners according to historian James Cobb.
To an outsider the unmalleable nature of the Scotch Irish in America can make the South seem like more than a region -- it is almost a nation. Cobb says that there are elements of white Southern society that could define the group as a separate nation.
And that sense of being a nation within a nation drives many Southerners to regard their view of America as the "one" correct view of the country.
"Again and again throughout American history," says Cobb, Southerners believe, "If you wanted to have a model of what America was supposed to be about you looked to the South."
This quasi-nationalist feeling unites white Southerners across the class divide and gives tremendous political power to them. The South is not quite a nation but it is considerably more than a region. Metaphorically it is like a floating continent moved by tectonic forces from one land mass to another. After a century of being attached to the Democratic party it floated over to the Republicans.