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 Italy.

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 chapter.

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 us."

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" fund.

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 government.

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."

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 16, 1998