Some Southern Intellectuals Push Neo-Confederate Views of History
Today's neo-Confederate ideologues are the latest in a long line of highly conservative Southern intellectuals. Or are they?
By Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
Many of those who signed Wilson's statement looked with particular reverence on Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald. Together, the two had built one of the most conservative history departments in the U.S. at the University of Alabama.
Well-known exponents of the Southern conservative tradition, the men shepherded LOS President Michael Hill through his doctoral program — a fact that probably explains Hill's view of the South as fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic," an idea at the core of Cracker Culture.
But Hill's mentors aren't thrilled with their former student.
McWhiney did serve on the LOS board for a few years at the start, said Donald Frazier, executive director of the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation in Abilene, Texas. But, Frazier said, McWhiney began to suffer from dementia just as the LOS "took a turn" toward racism.
Frazier said that LOS "stole Grady's identity," using him as a selling point for LOS even as McWhiney's Alzheimer's advanced. After Frazier convinced McWhiney to quit the LOS, Clyde Wilson sent Frazier a letter accusing him of bowing to "political correctness," Frazier said.
Wilson said he did not remember writing such a letter and anyway, he added angrily, "The McWhiney Foundation is not so important or admirable a thing."
Forrest McDonald, too, denounced LOS. "I was at the organizing meeting and there was an undercurrent of racism," McDonald told the Intelligence Report. "A bunch of us said, 'We don't want to be a part of that,' and got out of there."
Clyde Wilson's reply? He claimed that McDonald donated $300 to LOS at its first meeting. McDonald's change of heart, Wilson suggested, was due to "Mrs. McDonald," a woman he said "generally makes the decisions for the family."
But perhaps the most remarkable criticism of LOS and the neo-Confederate movement comes from Eugene Genovese, a historian of slavery and the South who is certainly the best-known academic associated with neo-Confederate ideas.
Death of the Southern Tradition?
Genovese was for decades a Marxist academic best known for his 1974 study of Southern slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. The book was remarkable both for its meticulous scholarship and for refusing to treat slaves as nothing more than victims. Genovese's full-bodied treatment showed that slaves had constructed a genuine culture.
But then there came a turning. In 1985, Genovese told Southern Partisan, a strident neo-Confederate journal, that his research was increasingly focusing on Southern whites.
In 1993, he gave a lecture at Harvard University that described "the media and an academic elite" as working to strip white Southerners of their heritage and identity — "a cultural and political atrocity," as he described it at the time.
The following year, just as the contemporary neo-Confederate movement was getting organized in the form of LOS, Genovese published a major attack on Communism in Dissent, a left-wing journal. Two years later, he converted to Catholicism.
Genovese now argued from a palpably pro-South position. He saw the Yankee North as representing a kind of soulless capitalism, a materialistic society without constraint or regard for people. He lamented the loss of "national purpose and moral consensus" in America, even as a sprawling federal government grew increasingly bureaucratic, impersonal and mindlessly pro-business.
He identified himself with a Southern conservative tradition that lauded family, religion and community.
But Genovese also understood the dangers of his position. Ending his 1994 book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, he dwelled on "a few grim thoughts" on its penultimate page.
He described how Southern conservative intellectuals had been "imprisoned by racism" during the civil rights movement and warned starkly against "those anything-but-conservative politicians" who play to "the worst instincts of white people." The best aspects of Southern conservatism, he worried, could be drowned by race hate.
Now, Genovese says, that seems to have happened.
"I've worried about this possibility for a long time," Genovese told the Intelligence Report. "I feared years ago that with the death of M.E. Bradford [a key Southern thinker] the Southern conservative tradition would turn out this way."
Now retired from the Georgia University Center, Genovese referred the Report to Mark Malvasi, whose doctoral thesis he had supervised and who, he said, was far better acquainted with the neo-Confederate movement than he. Malvasi not only attended early LOS seminars, but also interned under Clyde Wilson.
The Southern tradition, Malvasi says, is finished. "If the best Mike Hill et al can do is mock black people and denounce interracial dating and marriage, then there is no Southern conservative tradition left to preserve." Malvasi is still listed by the League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern History and Culture as an affiliated scholar, but says he has not been associated with the institute for years.
In fact, Malvasi says that LOS pushes "bad history" and "propaganda" that should be rebutted by "serious scholars."
"They are just breeding more and more hatred," the professor says. "Let's just hope they don't get any more power."