The New Secessionists
by Jim Auchmutey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Nathan Bedford Forrest doesn't get many kudos these
days. The brilliant Confederate general was also a slave trader
and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and his name has become so
sullied by its association with racism that vandals have declared
war on the monument at his grave in Memphis. So his admirers took
no chances last month when they unveiled a new tribute to Forrest
in Nashville -- a 25-foot-tall statue showing the Rebel on horseback
leading a charge, sword in one hand, pistol in the other.
"We used a special finish," says sculptor Jack
Kershaw. "The graffiti wipes right off."
On dedication day, the Overton High School auditorium
filled with 400 uniformed re-enactors and other Confederate sympathizers.
When the master of ceremonies asked them to stand for the national
anthem, a guitarist began to strum the tune that every American
knows by heart. Not "The Star-Spangled Banner"; he played "Dixie."
Then it was time for the keynote speaker. Michael
Hill would never be mistaken for Bedford Forrest. At 46, Hill
is a history professor with a retreating hairline, a beard going
gray and a soft drawl with impeccable manners to match. He has
never served in the military or ridden with the Klan, yet he deeply
identifies with the fierce Confederate cavalryman and is attempting
in his fashion to "keep the skeer" on the Yankees, as the unpolished
Forrest once put it.
"There can be no peace until we are a separate
and free people again," Hill told the faithful in a low, forceful
tone, his tall frame towering over the microphone. "The day of
apologizing for the conduct of our Confederate ancestors is over."
When the yips and whoops died down, the meaning
of his words hung in the air like smoke after a musket shot. A
separate people? Surely he wasn't resurrecting the "S" word that
started the shooting six score and 17 years ago?
He most certainly was. Hill is president of the
League of the South, an Alabama-based organization that claims
almost 7,000 members and wants the former Confederate states to
finish what they started in 1861 by revisiting the option of secession.
(Or, in the words of a popular bumper sticker: "If at first you
don't secede, try, try again.") When Hill isn't defending the
Lost Cause--and here comes one of those exquisite ironies that
sprout through the cracks of the South like pokeweed--he's a professor
at Stillman College, a Presbyterian school in Tuscaloosa whose
student body is 98 percent black.
"It is a puzzle to many of us on the faculty,"
says his colleague R.L. Guffin, a humanities professor.
They take their stand Hill and a group of like-minded
scholars conceived the League four years ago. They were frustrated
by Washington's expanding power, angry over the federal siege
at Waco, Texas, alarmed by the accelerating attacks on Confederate
symbols, concerned about the homogenization of Southern culture.
They were also inspired by the breakup of the Soviet Union and
the growth of separatist movements from Quebec to Tibet; in fact,
they took their name from one of them, the Northern League of
The organization has spread beyond the former
Confederacy to chapters in 27 states. The membership--lawyers,
doctors, farmers and everything else from preachers to professors--stays
in touch via the league's Web site. The computer screen greets
them with partisan songs such as "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and keeps
them apprised of "heritage violations" such as the proposal to
remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state
Capitol. All communication is carried out with British spelling
("honourable") because the American standard was set by a New
Englander, Noah Webster. Many Leaguers also refuse to recite the
Pledge of Allegiance (they have problems with "one nation, indivisible")
or use a ZIP code (they call it the Yankee Occupation Code).
While much of this may sound like symbolic tomfoolery,
there is a serious philosophical dissent behind it. Like the Fugitive
poets who published "I'll Take My Stand" in 1930, the league holds
that the South has a distinctive agrarian tradition that ought
to be preserved. And like conservatives today, the league argues
that the central government has gobbled the powers of the states
and one day will find itself threatened by devolutionary movements
in disaffected regions such as the Mountain West and the South.
"We will be an independent nation, and trust me, our capital will
not be Atlanta," says Lake High, chairman of the South Carolina
Others are drawn to the league for darker reasons.
"We get calls from people who think we're some kind of racial
thing or a militia group," Hill says. "I've had to kick out some
former Klansmen. Any movement is going to get bad apples."
One of them may have dropped into the league's
annual conference in Birmingham last month. Gordon Mellish, a
new member from Clemmons, N.C., explained that he had joined because
he felt victimized by affirmative action and stagnant property
values in the integrated neighborhood where he used to live. "The
young blacks tore up everything," he said. "They made a racist
out of me."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil
rights organization that keeps track of hate groups, has called
Hill a "gussied-up theocrat," but does not consider the league
a hate group. "They're not dangerous in the sense that they're
going to blow up buildings or beat up black people," says the
center's Mark Potok. "The danger is that they give a false veneer
of legitimacy to bigoted views."
It's a charge that Hill hears frequently. He
addresses it again as he lights a Backwoods cigar during an interview
in a Tuscaloosa coffee shop. He's had telephone death threats
and doesn't like having reporters visit his home, where he keeps
the league's office. Yes, he thinks the South should have been
left alone to handle slavery and segregation as it saw fit; yes,
he opposes civil rights laws on principle; no, he's not for slavery
or Jim Crow statutes. "I do not believe, under any circumstances,
that the government has the right to push people together or keep
them apart," Hill says. "If blacks and whites in the South had
been allowed to work it out for themselves (during the civil rights
movement), it might have taken a little more time, but the outcome
would have been better. Instead, a lot of people were poking their
noses into our business, and they were probably just trying to
cover up the mess in their back yards."
Of Celts and Crackers
If Hill sounds testy about Northern civil rights
workers, perhaps it has something to do with his family's first
encounter with outside agitators. Hill grew up in Winfield, a small
town in northwestern Alabama, where his father ran a building supplies
business and his mother worked as a church secretary. During the
Civil War, according to an old family story, his great-great-grandmother
took up an ax and faced down a pack of Union soldiers who wanted
to steal her food. Michael loved war stories, loved to read history,
loved to run through the woods imagining himself as a Rebel, with
a stick for a rifle.
After high school, Hill attended community college
and then enrolled down the road at the University of Alabama.
He met a Selma girl, got married and dropped out to drive a truck
for his father. At his wife's urging, he returned to school and
eventually earned a master's degree and doctorate in history.
He was greatly influenced by one of his teachers, Grady McWhiney,
a well-known historian whose book "Cracker Culture" attributes
the character of white Southerners to their origins as freedom-craving
Celts in the British Isles. Hill made Celtic studies his specialty;
he's written two books on Celtic history and counts "Braveheart"
as one of his favorite films.
As he began his teaching career at Stillman,
Hill gradually became acquainted with a circle of conservative
Southern thinkers--journalists like Thomas Fleming, editor of
the magazine Chronicles, and academics like Clyde Wilson, a University
of South Carolina historian who is an authority on the proto-states'
righter John C. Calhoun. In June 1994, Hill summoned 40 of them
to Tuscaloosa for a three-day organizational meeting at the Best
Western motel. It was the year of the Angry White Male, and their
sessions were no exception.
"We were at each other's throats," Hill remembers.
One topic of debate was what constitutes a Southerner:
Could a Yankee join the league? A black person? "We had a discussion
about whether blacks could be Southerners, and we decided that
of course they could," says Gary Mills, a University of Alabama
historian. "But we knew that blacks would probably be leery of
Hill believes the league has some black members
but isn't certain. The one black academic invited to the first
meeting didn't come. A dozen or so other people who did come immediately
seceded from the group, and the remainder founded the league.
It didn't take long for hostilities to commence.
In addition to Stillman, Hill was teaching part
time at the University of Alabama. A student chapter formed there
and quickly raised hackles when its leader marched into a professor's
office and reprimanded her for teaching anti-South propaganda.
"He took me to task for saying that slavery was a sin," says Diane
Roberts, an English professor and sixth-generation Southerner.
She wrote about the incident in a magazine article and criticized
the league in newspaper columns and commentaries for National
Public Radio. Hill has come to regard Roberts as such a thorn
in the side that he posted a letter on the Web site this summer
condemning her "hysterical crusade" and calling her a "Jacobin."
(That's history prof talk for a radical).
The notoriety cost Hill. After the league started
getting negative publicity, the university dropped him as an adjunct
professor. "They said it was budget, but I'm sure it was because
of the league," he says. "You can be a Marxist or a homosexual,
but you can't be pro-Confederate."
Juggling the black, white and gray Stillman College,
on the other side of Tuscaloosa, was in a more awkward position.
Hill had been there since 1981 and was tenured. Furthermore, he
had served as president of the faculty organization and was considered
an exemplary classroom teacher.
"He was one of the finest young Christian family
men I'd ever met," says Stillman president emeritus Cordell Wynn,
who hired Hill. "I used to joke at faculty meetings that Michael
was all right for a white guy. We were very close, and I was very
much hurt to see him identified with the league."
Wynn and Hill had heartfelt conversations about
the matter. The administrator had grown up in segregation and
once had been turned away from the University of Georgia because
of his race. After the school desegregated, he was admitted and
earned his doctorate there. "I told him, 'Michael, if your group
had its way, I never would have attended the university,' " Wynn
says. "And he said, 'Oh, no, that's not what I'm advocating.'"
Hill says he was approached by another Stillman
administrator 2 1/2 years ago about the possibility of taking
a leave or resigning. Hill replied with a letter proposing severance
terms. He has heard nothing else about it.
Wynn retired in 1997 and was succeeded by Ernest
McNealey, a native Alabamian who had spent years in the North
and was astonished, upon his return, to find that he had a flaming
secessionist in his employ. He says the Hill controversy has embarrassed
Stillman and, judging from conversations with parents, has cost
it some students. But he isn't looking to fire the professor.
"The views he articulates are somewhat pathetic
and sad," McNealey says, "but the right to speak your mind is
part of academic freedom. We have no complaints from students.
As long as he behaves himself on campus, we have no legal mechanism
to limit his activities."
Hill vows that he maintains a wall between the
league and his duties at Stillman. When students ask about the
organization, usually after class, he answers their questions.
Otherwise, he doesn't discuss it. Eyebrows may raise when he drives
his red Toyota pickup onto campus--the one with the "Free the
South" bumper sticker across the back--but no one has made an
issue of it.
Hill runs the league from a converted dining
room in his ranch house in suburban Tuscaloosa. Sara, his wife
of 24 years, is his secretary and bookkeeper. His 16-hour workdays
leave little time for hobbies--just tending a vegetable garden
and reading history and the Bible. The Hills are deeply religious
and belong to the conservative Associate Reformed Presbyterian
Church. They decided to home-school their youngest daughter, the
only of three left in the nest, after she came home complaining
that her public school teachers were running down the South. Her
parents try to keep her away from TV, too. "I don't immerse myself
in the modern world any more than I have to," Hill says.
Should he want to withdraw himself further, the
league is trying to help. The members are raising money to pay
him a salary in case he ever elects to quit Stillman and devote
himself full time to the cause. They call it the "Free Michael"
Two words: Confederate underwear
When the Southern independence movement gathered
for its annual conference last month, the scene was rich with irony.
The latter-day Confederates met in a four-star hotel attached to
a shopping mall at the intersection of two federal interstate highways
in the suburbs of Birmingham, a city that didn't exist when Lee
surrendered at Appomattox.
It was not your rough-and-tumble re-enactor crowd.
There was khaki and seersucker galore but very little butternut
twill among the 350 Leaguers who registered. While a few would
have looked at home in a Civil War tintype--the men with their
facial shrubbery, the women with their hair in Victorian buns--most
of the group could have passed for Rotarians. That is, until you
walked from the lobby into the ballroom, where Rebel flags draped
the podium and a portrait of Jefferson Davis fronted the lectern.
On the far side of the hall, a dozen vendors peddled everything
from Confederate underwear to Confederate pillow shams to Confederate
literature ("If you think Bill Clinton has a character problem,"
read one book come-on, "take a look at Abraham Lincoln").
For two days, members attended workshops and
listened as a succession of witty and sometimes hot-headed orators
decried the federal government, public schools and a host of other
bugaboos. In the president's address, Hill was coolly professorial
as he quoted Locke and Hobbes in railing against the "Godless
unitary state." But then he trained his fire on a target closer
to home. "Most Southerners don't have the stomach for this," he
said. "They're fat, lazy and happy." They'd rather worry, he continued,
about buying a new bass boat than establishing a true constitutional
The target may have hit closer to home than Hill
reckoned. During a break, as a few Leaguers and spouses headed
off to the mall to shop, one of the organization's board members
told a story. "One time," said Thomas Fleming, "I suggested that
everyone burn their $5 bills as a protest against Lincoln. No
one took me up on it. I guess sacrificing five Yankee dollars
was too much to ask."
August 16, 1998