The South 1
Segregation legally disappeared over 40 years ago in the USA. The law is one thing, reality may be another.
Charlestown SC was the city that in 1861 saw the flashpoint that started the Civil War. Fort Sumter fired on Union ships and it was all on. The war, of course, was the combination of basic economics and high moral principles that tend to cause most large scale conflicts. The ‘high moral principles’ revolved around slavery.
One hundred years later, in 1961, the systemic discrimination that replaced slavery was dismantled across the nation.
Charlestown today, geographically, is at least two cities. Downtown Charleston is an historic gem. Restored following its near destruction after 500 days of siege during the civil war, it is a major tourist attraction. North Charleston on the other hand is a sprawling amalgam of industry, middle class housing and at the lower end, strips of ‘trailer homes’ paralleling the interstates.
“What about the segregation?” You might well be thinking. Well, these two ‘worlds’ seem to represent the new and subtle segregation that exists in the south. Walk the streets of New York or Washington and African Americans are everywhere and seem relatively legitimately integrated. (Although one sometimes wonders here as well!) So far in the south, our experience has been that there are unspoken rules about who goes where and who does what. Sure nobody will turn us away from a bar in North Charlestown. And yes, African Americans are welcome in cafes and restaurants in downtown Charlestown. But, we suspect that the unwritten rule is that if one wishes to ‘cross the line’ then expect a fairly high degree of subtly imposed discomfort.
In Charlestown, this ‘line’ seems to be at the point where the I-26 Interstate meets the historic main street of Charlestown, Meeting Street. In this downtown area, Caucasians are well in the majority on the streets. (This next part is sensitive and perhaps just said as observed.) African Americans are generally confident and LOUD! on the streets and in the subways. Not overtly threatening, but somewhat ‘in-your-face’ by Australian standards. (as observed in New York, Boston and – especially Washington). In downtown Charleston, they are uniformly demure, even deferent. Cross the line back into where we are staying – Motel 6 North Charlestown and at the local Wal-Mart we seem to be back in ‘their world’.?
At the Evian Conference in 1937, Australia joined all other participating nations, with the exception of Columbia, in refusing to take Jewish refugees in the face of looming Nazi pogroms. The rationale. ‘We don’t have a racial problem now. Why would we want to import one’. Given this heritage of understanding international issues of integration (let alone our own problems) – who are we to comment?
The Grace of the ‘Old South’ was in its winter zenith today. A beautiful 18C+ day with blinding sunlight greeted us as we exited the Charleston North Motel6 this morning. A visit to an old South Carolina plantation on the outskirts of Charleston recalled some of the issues we had explored about the realities and origins of frictions between the races. Our tour guide was very PC as she described the conditions under which the slaves of ante-bellum Carolina lived. It is hard to believe some of the platitudes that are mouthed by the gentry of the ‘Old South’ when you see the gaping social and economic divide that still persists between the masters and their old ‘servants’.
Current political controversy in the US has highlighted racist comments made by the ex -Republican majority leader, Senator Lott. Pertinent to our musings about the realities of the racial divide in the USA is the statement made by the good Senator’s defenders – ‘You have to understand. .. he’s from Mississippi’ –
Debates about the ‘social undercurrents’ of the south aside, the hospitality of the South is as advertised! People from taxi drivers to ‘store clerks’ are universally ‘charming’. And, they seem far more legitimate than their ‘plastic’ counterparts throughout responses in most of the north. The oft-espoused view is that the USA can be experienced as a number of different countries. New York is definitely in a different world! New England and the Mid Atlantic may be another and so far the South is again another, if the streetscape and laid back attitude of Savannah (Georgia) are any indication.
Tonight we rejoice in a Days Inn Motel which provides us with (oh joy!) a frig…. And a microwave. For the last few nights, we have had to make use of our little “esky” and the ice vending machine to guarantee a reasonable temperature for our coffee milk – a far cry from our early travels when we just ducked outside for some snow.
Atlanta, the ‘Capital of the New South’.
Another magic day weather wise, temperatures in the high Celsius teens or even low twenties had us walking about in shirtsleeves. Another frantic ‘Interstate’ drive across the city’ 16 lane freeways and a minor unscheduled detour through north-central Atlanta (lost again) finally saw us settled by mid-afternoon in another Super8 Motel right across the street from the Amtrak station from which we will ‘train it’ to New Orleans in a couple of days.
The MARTA is Atlanta’s subway. Nowhere near as extensive as its New York or Boston counterparts, it nevertheless got us quickly about this huge city. The Atlanta Braves were playing at Turner Field this afternoon so the trains were somewhat crowded! (Not sure who won?) In our travels, we have become somewhat expert at managing public transport and quite enjoy the challenge of a new system. Sadly, in comparison to working out Eastern European subways, the US offers little challenge! However we did manage to miss our station on the way to the Martin Luther King Jnr’s Historical Site!
Getting off the beaten track in a city like Atlanta is not a good move. Back streets of some of the less ‘travelled’ parts of town can be a bit intimidating, even in the late afternoon sunshine. The usual strategies got us through. Walk fast, heads down and don’t engage anybody, even the pitiful women begging outside Martin Luther King Jnr’s local church.
Learned something new – you can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday in Georgia. Good thing we weren’t desperate! Each state has its own rules. In some, you can buy beer and wine in the supermarket, in others only beer. Some states allow alcohol sales at ‘Gas Stations’.
Views through the windows of trains often provide very different perspectives to those seen by regular travellers. Today is grey and overcast, after a night of storms throughout the south. We are on Train 19, the Crescent out of New York, heading for New Orleans. It was raining in Atlanta as we dragged our bags the half a block to the pitifully small AMTRAK station.
Some estimates are that 20% of Americans live below the poverty line. Almost all of them must live along this train’s route through the Deep South. It’s a view of the richest and most powerful country on earth that is difficult to absorb. Depressed rural towns and industrial eyesores littered with surprisingly obsolete equipment are all we have seen for hundreds of miles. Most unattractive!