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States of Mind : Chauvinism Still Part of Life in South

July 22, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Whenever Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" comes on the jukebox at Gary Epps' favorite bar here--a redneck hangout on the fringe of downtown--Epps has to fight back the urge to go over and stomp holes into the speakers.

Epps, a 29-year-old "Southerner by birth but Georgian by the grace of God," cannot stand Alabama or anything about the state and its people.

"They're the most screwed-up people on earth. They ain't nothing like Georgians. Even of the best of them's got something wrong with them. Face it, the best thing out of Alabama is I-20," he said, referring to the interstate highway. "And that's no joke with me."

Nor is it with a lot of other Georgians. Scratch a Southerner and you'll find a dedicated states' rightist--dedicated to the right to look down on his neighbor states. Wherever you go in Dixie, from the redneck bars of Georgia to the blue-blood parlors of Virginia, state chauvinism is an enduring feature of the Southern way of life.

Southern Point of View

Yankees, from their perspective north of the Mason-Dixon Line, may regard the South as a solid, undifferentiated mass--one Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi. Most couldn't tell a Georgia cracker from, say, a Florida cracker.

The sons and daughters of Dixie have a more practiced eye for distinctions. They know each state is in a class by itself, and that their own native state is on top. Georgians look down on Alabamians, Alabamians sneer at Mississippians and Mississippians heap scorn on Arkansans, while Virginians--the haughtiest Southerners of all--turn up their noses at the whole lot.

"To be a Virginian, either by birth, marriage, adoption or even on one's mother's side, is an introduction to any state in the Union, a passport to any foreign country and a benediction from Almighty God," Virginians are fond of saying. They are quoting an encomium that can be found on plaques, banners, stationery, cocktail napkins and needlepoint pillows throughout the state.

Cultural Boundaries

What's more, just as Southern Californians and Northern Californians tend to view each other as breeds apart, so there are sectional divisions within the South. Residents of the Florida Panhandle, where a sense of rural roots is still strong, complain bitterly of being treated like "red-headed stepchildren" by the increasingly urbanized and Yankeefied remainder of the state.

In Mississippi, descendants of the frugal, hard-scrabble farmers who settled the northeastern hill country of Mississippi still regard with puritanical disdain the flamboyant but cash-poor planter aristocracy of the state's cotton-lush Delta region.

"They're born with silver spoons in their mouths," said Robert Anderson, a native of the Mississippi hills who runs a landscape management firm in Atlanta, "but the spoon was charged on credit, and it's still not paid off. In the Delta, you have to be at least $150,000 in debt to be socially acceptable."

And in north Georgia, sophisticated Atlantans consider their cousins below the "gnat line" to be rubes. The gnat line is an imaginary boundary between the uplands of the north and the lowlands and coastal region in the south, where the gnats are ferocious in summer.

"It's hard to be suave when you're swatting at gnats all the time," said Atlanta physician Barry M. Henderson.

History plays an important role in the pecking order of state chauvinism in the South. Since Colonial times, North Carolina has been called a "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit," an allusion to Virginia and South Carolina, its prideful neighbors to the north and south.

Virginia's sense of importance rests on its fame as the home of the first permanent English settlement in America, as the birthplace of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Marshall and Robert E. Lee, and for Richmond, one-time capital of the Confederacy.

Tale of Two Carolinas

South Carolina also boasts of a rich past. It played a vital role in the winning of American independence. The Charleston aristocracy set the standard for elegance in the "Old Plantation" South, and fiery South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun was an important intellectual progenitor of the Confederate cause.

In such illustrious company, North Carolina long found it hard to hold its head high. It had had no large planter class, no city even remotely resembling Richmond or Charleston in their heyday. North Carolina remained in the Union until Abraham Lincoln issued his call for troops and Virginia's and South Carolina's secessions made it a "lonely island of loyalty" between them.

In his classic 1949 study, "Southern Politics," the eminent Southern political scientist V. O. Key said of North Carolina: "The arrogant glare of the gentry in neighboring Virginia and South Carolina gave it a sense of inferiority, or at least so say some North Carolinians."

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