The Southern social divide: Cities move past states on liberal social issues

Priester NYT

JACKSON -- It was not that long ago Victoria Fortenberry figured she would mark her 18th birthday by getting on a bus and getting out of Mississippi. But here she was, blue-haired, tattooed and 19 years old, singing at a party for a new line of craft beer to a crowd that included her girlfriend.

Fortenberry came here to attend a Christian college and found a place where she could be unashamedly Southern and openly gay in a way not possible in her conservative suburban hometown, or even in the Jackson of a decade ago. And so: "At some point," she said, "I decided I won't just leave."

Jackson may not register nationally as an outpost of bohemianism like Austin or big city liberalism like Atlanta. But its city government, which is majority black and Democratic, refuses to fly the Confederate-themed state flag at municipal buildings, and this month voted unanimously to oppose a new state law that creates special legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage. And it has a place for blue-haired singers -- and their girlfriends.

Jackson is among a group of Southern cities from Dallas to Durham, N.C., where the digital commons, economic growth and a rising cohort of millennials have helped remake the culture. Many of these cities have found themselves increasingly at odds with their states, and here in a region that remains the most conservative in the country, the conflicts are growing more frequent and particularly tough.

Fights are raging over gay rights here and in North Carolina, where a new law limits transgender bathroom access and pre-empts local governments from passing their own anti-discrimination ordinances. The resistance has been particularly fierce in North Carolina, where companies have called off expansion plans and Ringo Starr and Bruce Springsteen have canceled concerts.

The potential consequences of these boycotts, though, point up the complications: In a South dominated by the politics of rural and suburban conservatives, a canceled rock concert or technology project is likely to punish the places that oppose the legislation and have little effect on the areas that support it.

'We've got this divide'

"We've got this divide," said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The divide between the cultural conservatism of older suburbs and older rural areas, and these new, thriving, modern economy, diverse cities." The skirmishes over gay rights are only part of the growing conflict between Southern cities, with their mostly Democratic municipal governments, and Southern state legislatures, which have come to be dominated by Republicans. While the region's state leaders may still espouse opposition to the federal government and to leftward trends in the national culture, they are increasingly having to quell mini-insurgencies in their own urban backyards.

Lawmakers in Alabama and Missouri recently blocked cities from setting up their own minimum wages, while Charlotte and Jackson have fought with the states over control of their municipal airports. North Carolina's Republican legislature has redrawn city council districts and tried to stop municipalities from becoming "sanctuary cities" for immigrants. The Arkansas and Tennessee legislatures have passed laws that, like North Carolina's, ban local anti-discrimination ordinances that differ from state law.

This version of a civil war even extends to the Civil War. Alabama is considering a law that would prevent local jurisdictions from removing Confederate symbols without state approval, the Virginia legislature recently passed a similar one -- though it was vetoed -- and Republican legislators in Louisiana unsuccessfully pushed a law that could have blocked a New Orleans plan to move Confederate monuments.

But Southern cities have pushed back with vigor. Birmingham and Kansas City tried to go forward with minimum wage laws even after their states overruled them.Several in Arkansas passed anti-discrimination ordinances despite the state law intended to ban them. Across Mississippi, cities, counties and public institutions have responded to the Legislature's unwillingness to take the Confederate battle cross out of the state flag by refusing to fly the flag altogether.

For decades, the cultural gap between Southern cities and cities on the coasts has been narrowing to the point where the cultural riches of a place such as Oxford -- with its literary scene and high-end regional cuisine -- were almost taken for granted.

But commerce and the Internet have pushed global sophistication into new frontiers. In Starkville, an unassuming college town that the sophisticates in Oxford deride with the ironic nickname "StarkVegas," a coffee bar called Nine-twentynine serves an affogato prepared with espresso from Intelligentsia, the vaunted artisanal coffee brand.

With these cultural markers have come expressions of unblushing liberalism that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. In January, Bernie Sanders drew thousands to a rally in Birmingham, Ala. Last June, after the Supreme Court affirmed the right to same-sex marriage, the city government in Knoxville, Tenn., lit up a bridge in rainbow colors.

The result has been a kind of overlapping series of secessions, with Southern states trying to safeguard themselves from national cultural trends and the mandates of the federal government, while the cities increasingly try to carve out their own place within the states.

Big changes

All of this exasperates conservative lawmakers like state Sen. Bart Hester, an Arkansas Republican, who says he is constantly trying to play defense against a rapidly changing culture.

"Ten years ago, no one would have ever imagined someone would have deserved protections under civil rights because they didn't know what gender they were," he said.

His biggest frustrations as a legislator, he continued, are dealing with municipalities, on everything from gay rights to taxes.

"It just shocks me every day how different our opinions and basic core values are," he said.

At a rally Wednesday at the Mississippi state Capitol, thousands came in on church buses from around the state to hear the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of the celebrated Billy Graham, inveigh against same-sex marriage and secularism.

Greg Smith, 64, of Tylertown, who was there, did not see any fundamental cultural change in the fact that many of his fellow Mississippians, even a number of Republican mayors, had come out against the new law. They just feared losing out on the almighty dollar, he charged.

"I think the state's basically conservative but we've let money become our god," Smith said.

Melvin Priester, Jr., a Harvard-educated member of the Jackson City Council, did not agree.

Techonology ended isolation

"It's a completely different world," he said, recalling how he returned home several years ago to find artists and musicians not all that different from friends in his adopted San Francisco. "Technology has ended the isolation." Priester, who is black, also described how gay communities in Deep South cities have steadily gained allies among urban black leaders, many of whom had traditionally been skeptical of the gay-rights movement.

In Greensboro, N.C., the state's third-largest city, Sharon Hightower, a black council member, joined in an 8-1 vote recently for a resolution condemning the state law limiting bathroom access.

"We know what it's like to be discriminated against," she said.

Still, many evangelical blacks remain hesitant to support the whole gamut of socially liberal causes. Even some of the trendiest Southern cities have a strong conservative streak: There are plenty of staunch Republicans who enjoy a good affogato.

On Monday afternoon in Raleigh, Carla Merritt, a transgender woman and resident of the city, watched as hundreds of evangelicals -- whom she called "the real country folk" -- staged a boisterous rally on the Capitol lawn in favor of the new bathroom law. Merritt said when she transitioned three years ago, her city friends and colleagues in the technology industry were uniformly supportive.

Two days later, Merritt, over lunch at a downtown cafe, said she regretted using the words "country folk." "That sounded bigoted," she said, "and I certainly didn't mean it that way."