Civil War Splits 'Dixie' Party
Dispute sidetracks Southern nationalists
By Jennifer Graham, Globe Correspondent, 12/26/1999
The fledgling Southern Party - ''A Real Choice For The People Of Dixie!'' - would like to get on with its business of influencing public policy and maybe even seceding from the nation, if only it could end its own civil war.
Since the party's formal launch last August in Flat Rock, N.C., the group has split into two camps, with both sides energetically pursuing their common goal: to right what they perceive as the wrongs of the country by establishing, or re-establishing, an independent Southern nation.
They have a lot of people to convince. The Southern Focus Poll, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, every year asks Southerners whether they would support a serious secession effort without war.
Between 8 percent and 16 percent of Southerners answer ''yes'' in any given year.
Not overwhelming numbers, but, said party leader Madison Cook of Tennessee, ''that's our base. Our task is to put our party in front of those people.''
Though the party is tiny, with about 1,000 dues-paying members ($9.97 for individuals, $19.97 for families), the group is unique in its attempt to become a regional party, said Richard Winger, editor of the Ballot Access News, which monitors third parties. ''They're trying something that has not really been done before,'' Winger said.
Southern nationalists tend to be conservative, religious, and mistrustful of the federal government. They also tend to be white. But leaders of the Southern Party say they represent a wide spectrum of ethnicity, citing Asian and Hispanic members.
''I'm told we have a few blacks, but I don't know of them,'' Cook said.
The lack of participation by blacks could be explained in part by the party's enthusiastic support of the Confederate flag, in all of its incarnations. An oversize flag was the backdrop for the party's inaugural news conference in August, and it adorns the party's Web page. Some party members plan to be at a Jan. 8 rally in Columbia, S.C., to support the controversial flag that still flies atop the South Carolina State House.
But they insist that the flag honors the the Civil War dead and the cause of the Confederacy, not disguised racism, as critics charge. And they are determined to keep racists out of their ranks. Party officers must sign a notarized oath that says they have no allegiance to militia movements, neo-Nazis, or the Klan.
Before they make any progress on their goals, the party's founders are trying to resolve a nasty internal spat that has resulted in two Southern Parties, with their own officers and nearly identical Web sites. Both groups claim to be the true Southern Party; just who owns the name, as well as $3,000 in a frozen bank account, may have to be decided by a judge.
''We all want one thing: independence for our Southern nation. We want the federal government to stop coming down here, telling us how to act, how to speak, how to breathe,'' said Jerry Baxley of Virginia, first vice chairman of the Southern Party that operates the Web site at www.southernparty2000.org.
That site was established this month after Baxley and his followers lost access to the party's original Web site, www.southernparty.org.
That page is maintained by George Kalas of Texas, who was chairman of the original Southern Party until Dec. 11, when he stepped down and became chairman emeritus. The new cochairs of that group, Cook and Nathan J.B. Forrest of Virginia, were elected at that time.
While some members are serious about secession, others are more practical about the party's purpose.
''I don't seriously expect that it will happen, at least not in my lifetime,'' said the 59-year-old Cook. ''What could happen is that we become successful and very vocal and maybe we will alert elements of the federal government, and the Republicans and Democrats, that we should go back to constitutional law, as envisioned by the framers. If that happens, the need for a Southern Party simply disappears. All we want is constitutional government, as the constitution was written.''
The issue, for the Southern nationalists, is that all matters not specifically assigned to the federal government are supposed to belong to the states. Education, in particular, is one area in which party leaders believe the federal government should have little say.
John Perkins, a 33-year-old computer store owner from Alabama, has never been involved in a Confederate movement of any kind, but the premise of the Southern Party appealed to him. He's now the communications director for the party headed by Cook and Forrest.
Like the others, Perkins said he believes the federal government has too much money and power and pays too little attention to the South.
''We are dictated to by the larger, more population-condensed states. Really, three or four of the largest states could run the country,'' Perkins said. ''I have nothing in common with someone from California. I think regional parties do make sense.''
So far, the Southern Party is on the ballot only in Florida, which recently revamped its election laws, making access easy. Regarding the dispute over the true Southern Party, Winger of Ballot Access News said the faction that prevails will be the one that gets on the most ballots.
''If they're smart, that's what they would be working on,'' he said.
Winger, based in San Francisco, follows the party, but not everyone in political circles does. Merle Black, an Emory University professor and nationally known commentator on Southern politics, said he paid little attention to the group, even before the split.
''I've almost made an effort not to follow it,'' said Black. ''I think it's more of a media-made creation than anything really important in the region.''
Southern historian John Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is watching the party; he was not surprised at the split.
''If you look at nationalist movements elsewhere in the world, you often do have two or three competing versions.,'' he said. ''Typically, however, intragroup squabbling is over issues, not personalities.''
Even unified, Reed doesn't give the party much chance of achieving its loftiest goals.
''If they have any influence at all, it would most likely be as a spoiler, and getting major candidates to pick up their issues,'' Reed said.
Not so, said Baxley, who predicts the party will field candidates for governor and lieutenant governor by 2005, and for local offices in 2000.
''The Southern movement will progress, and the Southern Party will become the dominant party of the South,'' Baxley said. ''We're going to become a strong, independent nation again.''