Entertaining and historical though they are, Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans are laced with so many tourist traps that only in escaping them does one really start to appreciate the South as it actually is. Compared to the ret of America, the pace of life is slower, the Greyhound more inefficient and the economy less sprawling. Food is still very much a source of pride, but so is the countryside.
The South seems to operate on two separate tracks. The Downtown area of Atlanta is one of the nicest of the large cities we had visited. Obviously much improved since the 1996 Olympics were held there, a large park intended as the ‘town square’ during the games is surrounded by deliberate reminders of what makes the city unique; Coca-Cola World, CNN and a huge aquarium. The theme continues heading up to Midtown, where Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, lived.
Georgians in particular, and Southerners in general are inordinately proud of Gone with the Wind. It encapsulates for them the so-called ‘Lost Cause’ that disappeared with the Civil War. The cause wasn’t slavery per se, but the way of life that existed on top of it. Hard to describe as other than genteel, or romantic, it is ironic that the celebrated film version of Mitchell’s book took liberties with the setting, upgrading Scarlett O’Hara’s family from poor Irish immigrants to rich planters. In another irony, the actress who won an Oscar as the loyal and maternally-minded slave Mammy did not attend the premiere in Atlanta in protest at the segregation of the audience.
As you drift out of the centre of Atlanta, things get rougher. The city is practically besieged with beggars, drunks and drug dealers. Though homeless shelters operate without charge and advise you not to give, it is often more hassle than it is worth; a sad thing to admit.
A little over a mile from Atlanta’s centre, along Auburn Avenue, is a series of landmarks in the life of Martin Luther King Jnr. Born in a relatively large house overlooking a row of shotgun shacks, King’s father, who courted controversy himself by attending the premiere of Gone with the Wind, was a Reverend at the Ebenezer Baptist Church a few hundred metres away. King Jnr. was later ordained at the same church and although his most famous campaigns were conducted in neighbouring States, he would have been acutely aware of the inequality around him. Anyone familiar with the film Ray! will probably be familiar with the scene in which Ray Charles turns his back on a concert in his native Georgia as a protest against segregation, and having seen so many memories of the segregation era, the grave of King, inscribed with the lyrics of the Negro spiritual ‘free at last’ gives free reign to many different interpretations of his successes.
If one State had to be identified above all with slavery and the segregationist movement it might well be South Carolina. The first to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln, scene of the first shots of the Civil War and home to the Presidential candidate Storm Thurmond, who ran on a segregationist ticket in 1948, the Palmetto State militated in favour of the Southern way of life in a way no other state matched. Even today there are reminders, some humorous, others slightly scary. A popular t-shirt in tourist shops lists things Southern boys will never say (including “you all”), one of which is; “it doesn’t matter who won the Civil War.” Along a highway, a billboard reads “150 years ago in April 1861, Union troops advanced on Charleston and fired on casualties, and thus the Beast Lincoln got his war,” neatly sidestepping the siege of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour in which the Southern Confederacy fired on Federal troops in order to seize the arsenal.
Even on a visit to a plantation, slavery is not avoided, but not exactly a big deal either. The owner was good to his slaves, many of whom came back to work for him after the war. As a religious man, he agonised over their plight, but continued to harvest rice in alligator-infested swamps and allowed his slaves to live two families to a cabin, while boycotting his daughter’s wedding to an agnostic gentleman. North Charleston retains a slum-like quality, though the people are friendly enough to outsiders.
The ironies of their history aside, Charleston is the most pleasant and attractive stop on our tour. The peninsular, which looks out onto a series of islands and ultimately the Atlantic, starts with mansions worth $6 million and winds through cobbled, leafy streets towards the centre of town, a square mile of grand shops, converted movie theatres and church after church. Charleston was one of the most religiously-liberal places in the country, before and after the American Revolution, and it seems as though just about every denomination of Christianity sought to outdo the next with churches of different styles and shapes, just as each merchant or plantation owner sought to build a bigger and better house than his neighbour. The whole town is just over three hundred years old, but the extent to which it has survived intact and the comparables in America make it feel very grand indeed.
Given that there is no discernible economy in Charleston except tourism, it is surprising to see that the people are almost exclusively wealthy. Their wealth, however, is nothing compared to how smartly they dress. Just as the older crowds pour out of the churches on Saturday evening, so another crowd comes out for a night on the town. Apart from age, there is little to tell between them at first. Men wear suits and ties, women nice dresses and heels (though they might be carrying flip flops for later in the evening). Things relax a little for the younger set when it comes to Sunday brunch, but if this is considered English dress, it is hardly surprising that a CNN anchor commented on London during the Royal Wedding that ‘the level of intoxication in this country is phenomenal!’ If not, it is easy to see why the gentility of the South is so treasured.
The past week in American politics has been bizarre by any standards. It started with Donald Trump playing the ‘birther’ card in preparation for a Presidential run. The White House responded by releasing President Obama’s birth certificate and calling Trump a ‘carnival barker.’ Trump subsequently tacked to economic issues, calling the Chinese mother******s and proposing raising tariffs and cutting American wages, apparently. Diverse appeal, or possibly none. The President mocked Trump in his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, claiming he was about to release a video of his birth before playing a scene from the Lion King.
Then, on Sunday night at about ten o’clock, the New York Times started reporting that the President was about to make a statement. Fox and CNN began to report that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, but that no other details were known. The full impact hadn’t sunk in until President Obama started his statement. Crowds gathered outside of the White House, cheering. Americans have endured nearly ten years of the War on Terror, and it shows. While the military has become a source of great pride, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become confusing, with their extents unclear. The latter was a campaign issue in 2008, while Obama spent months after his election deciding on whether to ‘surge’ in Afghanistan as Bush before him had done with Iraq, or withdraw.
In Britain, the war in Afghanistan, as in Iraq until troop numbers were recently wound down, has become about making the country safe for democracy. It may not be universally popular, but that is the assumption on which debate is based. Americans are concerned about human rights abuses and corruption in Afghanistan, but overwhelmingly treat the war as one aimed at preventing terrorism from regaining a foothold in the region. Moreover, though some might say that intervention in foreign countries is not necessary, very few will admit that America does not have the right or the ability to do so. Just as Nixon and kissing sought to end the Vietnam War from a position of strength, so too do today’s politicians want to prove that America is not quitting, but bowing out on a high. The death of Bin Laden then, is an achievement in and of itself. It proves America is ultimately all-powerful, that the War on Terror has been worthwhile, and it provides some measure of justice to the families of those killed on September 11th 2001, to whom the President addressed a chunk of his speech.
The Paris Peace Accords that ended Vietnam ultimately proved no deterrent to the North Vietnamese, who simply overran the South following America’s withdrawal. The killing of Bin Laden must feel like the end of a long mission, but it cannot be the end of the War. Even if Afghanistan were settling down, and we are just entering fighting season again, the fact that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan will deepen the sense already felt by Americans that the battle is simply shifting laterally.
The battle has indeed shifted, militarily and politically. President Obama has engaged fewer troops and more autonomous drones in seeking out terrorists in Pakistan, while the battle is now to deny the Taliban a social or economic constituency. That means treading a fine line between order and democracy not only in Afghanistan, but in those Arab countries involved in the recent uprisings.
A complicating factor is that the concern we have heard most often is the price of gas. At $50, or £30, a tank, Americans are shocked to hear that we pay considerably more to fill our cars. Then again, a lot of money could be saved if buses didn’t insist on idling, and the public transport is abysmal in some cities (although that is a chicken and egg scenario if ever there was one). The last President to fall into the trap that looms on one side of President Obama was the Georgia native and former Governor Jimmy Carter. Carter suggested Americans use less oil, or face a malaise. Americans, fearing a drop in living standards and already in a recession, elected Ronald Reagan.