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Part Three: Black and White

The Constitution Party rally at Zion Farms just outside Pontotoc, Mississippi is coming to order. Leslie Riley is reminding the 40 or so folks, sated on barbecue, about how little white Southerners' allegiance to the Republican Party has got them. Michael Hill pours more vitriol on the party's standard bearer, George Bush. "I don't know about you," he tells the gathering. "But, I've looked at this regime and it is beyond reform -- it is leading us down the road to hell."

The Constitution Party is undoubtedly a fringe group. But Ron Brandon, who owns Zion Farms, is not a fringe character. Rather he is a thoughtful man seeking a political affiliation that will keep faith with his deeply held religious views. Until recently he thought he had found that affiliation in the Republican Party. In 1996 he was even a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Music: Church Choir of the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church

Brandon happily voted for George Bush in 2000, but has recently become disappointed in the administration. "I am not a Bush basher. But he's made comments like Muslims and Christian worship the same God. We don't. Muslims worship Allah and we worship Yahweh. A few issues like that get kind of squirrely with me."

Brandon has reached the conclusion that the country will survive another Democratic presidency. He is not voting for Bush this time and isn't worried by the prospect of a Kerry administration.

This uncompromising quality of white Southern political behavior may actually lead to a change in the Republican Party's fortunes, says Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University. "The increasing influence of Southern conservatives is having a boomerang effect to some extent outside the South."

But in this election year a unique contemporary event is affecting the white Southern electorate: the war in Iraq. The more senior members of the coffee club of Marianna, Florida, Dick Hinson and Tommy Grainger, cite the war as the reason they are seriously thinking of voting for a Democrat for president for the first time in 40 years.

When you hear men like Dick Hinson and Tommy Grainger speak of changing their habits it is kind of earth-shaking. Old ways of thinking cling to white Southerners like Spanish moss clings to the South's old oak trees. So much on the outside is different in the South since 1964, but inside so much is the same.

No one knows the mind of white Southerners like black Southerners. A fact attested to in literature and conversation with just folks. Joined at the hip throughout the region's history, shackled together for much of that time. And of course this link in opposition to one another is reflected in politics.

African-Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And this bloc of votes is not small. African-Americans, who left the South in droves to escape segregation in the early part of the 20th Century spent the last decade of that century moving home in their millions. The South had 3.5 million more black residents in 2000 than it did in 1990. In some Southern states the African-American vote is as crucial to presidential politics as the White Southern vote.

The Florida re-count of 2004 gave the world the indelible phrase "hanging chads" but there was more to the story than counting dimpled ballots in Palm Beach County. In a report published in 2001, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that "widespread disenfranchisement" of African Americans was the decisive factor in Al Gore losing the state. The Civil Rights Commission concluded, "African-American voters were at least ten times more likely to have their ballots rejected than other voters and that 83 of the 100 precincts with the most disqualified ballots had black majorities."

Reverend Joseph Wright is the pastor of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. He says that even at this stage in the nation's history, the South is the region which shapes American society. Race relations have changed in the South, the Reverend Wright claims, and for the better, showing the way for the rest of America. "It was the South that led us into the Civil War. It is the South that will lead us out." And, Wright adds, for all the progress there is still one thing about the South that seems immutable. "There's always going to be that need in the South for one group to dominate, to feel in control. That is the defining characteristic of the South: domination, control, superiority versus inferiority."

Americans, to truly know their country, have to know the mind of the South. Issues brought to the forefront of politics by Southerners -- particularly social issues -- have a tremendous impact on elections. Well north of the Mason-Dixon line southern conservative criticisms about "messianic state-ism" resonate in ways they never used to, southern-based messianic Christianity flourishes. The arguments about America's past and what it means for America's future are shaped in the South as well. University of Georgia historian James Cobb suggests this demonstrates what white Southerners have been claiming for centuries. "What we're really seeing now is the discovery of the southernness of America," the historian says. "That America was always more southern than we were able to recognize." Return to the beginning...

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