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In Haley Barbour’s Mississippi: Civil War Looms Over License Plates

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The South is a place where many folks still want to believe in an antebellum region of moonlight and magnolias.

Sometimes, that nostalgia clashes head-on with the politically correct present. In Mississippi, such a battle is raging over — of all things — license plates marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans has launched a campaign to issue one of the specialty license plates honoring Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was once the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP and a Facebook group are protesting the plate, which at the earliest would be unveiled in 2014.

This little drama comes at a perilous time for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who was in Washington this past week attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and positioning himself for a possible 2012 run. So far, Barbour has not responded to the controversy but he seldom shies away from his Southern heritage.

And in the South, Forrest is a legend and a hero among Civil War buffs.

The town of Forrest City in eastern Arkansas near Memphis is named in his honor. The Ku Klux Klan hosted rallies in the town as recently as a few years ago. In neighboring Tennessee, Forrest’s home state, a state park is named for him. The park’s website calls him “the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader.” Forrest Gump, the character created by Winston Groom, was named after him.

Even Barbour doesn’t shy away from Forrest. As governor, he has attended the National Championship Hunt for bird dogs and hosted a reception at Galena Plantation, the original home of Forrest, who was a millionaire when the Civil War started, in Holly Springs, Miss.

Forrest was accused of war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow in 1864 after his military forces conducted a bloody massacre of hundreds of black Union Army and white southern prisoners sympathetic to the Union. That only endeared him to rebel leaders like Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lamented that the Confederacy did not utilize Forrest’ abilities to mobilize and strategize enough.

He joined the Ku Klux Klan, but then left it because he felt the group was too violent. Most academics agree that this was Forrest’s reasoning for leaving.

“If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words,” Greg Stewart, a member of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the Associated Press. “We should respect that.”

The group has had a specialty license plate since 2003. Until last year, it featured a small Confederate flag, but a re-design now features Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Confederate president Davis. Legislators would have to approve the Forrest plate, but they have okayed more than 100 of them over the years.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans group evolved from the United Confederate Veterans, which was formed in the late 1800s. The group is “a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.” Members must have “descended from any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces.” They often participate in historical re-enactments and also preserve Confederate soldiers’ graves.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, however, says that the group has been dominated by “racial extremists since 2002.” It also states that the radical faction has sought to turn “the SCV into an explicitly political group that pushes racist neo-Confederate ideas and issues.”

In the South, the push-and-pull of the past looms largely.

Martin Luther King, Jr. shares a holiday with Confederate General Robert E. Lee in many Southern states including Mississippi.

In Natchez, Miss., the city still hosts spring and fall pilgrimages that showcase the grandest of plantations from the Civil War era.

Hostesses wear elaborate hooped dresses and black women dress up like Mamie from “Gone With the Wind” and offer pralines for sale. The town sees it as an economic engine. And it works. Tourists from as far away as Europe visit during the pilgrimages, which began during the Great Depression as a way for the town to make money and restore the palatial homes.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, based in Virginia, also exists as a women’s heritage association dedicated to honoring the memory of those who served and died in service to the Confederate States of America. The group began in the late 1800s to collect money for memorials to Confederate veterans and battles.

It, too, has a controversial past. It opposed integration of public schools in the 1950s and suggested that an all-white public school rename itself after – guess who? Yes, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In July, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are planning a convention in Montgomery, Ala., celebrating “The Cause for Southern Independence.” The first morning of the convention kicks off with, yes, a “Forrest Cavalry Breakfast.”

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Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 3:47 am

Elton John in Us Weekly: Too Hot for an Arkansas Grocery

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Arkansas has a way of making it onto the national stage — and sometimes the publicity isn’t very complimentary.

The latest from Bill Clinton’s home state: Harps grocery store in the small town of Mountain Home in northern Arkansas deemed a magazine story on gay singer Elton John to be obscene.

The store placed gray “family shields” over copies of the Us Weekly magazine, which features the singer, his partner, and their new adopted baby. Printed on the shields were the words: “To protect our young shoppers.”

But the shields didn’t stay up for long — not after members of the Arkansas’ GLBT community started calling the Harps corporate offices in Springdale.

The company, which runs 65 Harps stories in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, released a statement on its website Wednesday afternoon. It said in part:

“Our true intention is not to offend anyone and this incident happened at just one of of our 65 locations, which when brought to our attention, we reversed,” Kim B. Eskew, Harps president and COO.

The statement explained that it is the company leaves it up to the local manager’s discretion to use the shields when customers complain about offensive material. The Mountain Home store said it covered the Elton John magazine after receiving such complaints.

The censorship ignited GLBT activists.

“It’s Us magazine, not Hustler,” said Randi Romo of the Center for Artistic Revolution, a non-profit dedicated to fairness and equality for all Arkansans. “Families come in all kinds of configurations and yes, sometimes that means they consist of same-sex couples raising their children. Many same-sex families live right here in Arkansas. The last census showed that there are same-sex couple households living in every single county in Arkansas.”

My beloved home state of Arkansas is unparalleled at perpetuating its own stereotypes of Bible-thumping, backwardness, bigotry, racism, and intolerance.

Last week, the town of Marshall made national news when its mayor flew a Confederate flag over city hall for four days, including on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The mayor said it was in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Arkansas is one of a handful of Southern states that celebrates Lee’s birthday on the same day as King’s.

This week, the city council, which did not approve of the mayor’s actions, voted that only the state and U.S. flag can be flown on city property.

Last year, in response to gay suicides around the country, Midland School Board Vice President Clint McCance came under national scrutiny for a series of vicious and inflammatory anti-gay rants on Facebook. He resigned after an online campaign to oust him and a GLBT group from Little Rock protested the small school.

Even governors can take a step or two from progress. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee once bragged on “Morning Joe” about eating fried squirrel. “When I was in college, we used to take a popcorn popper, because that was the only thing they would let us use in the dorm, and we would fry squirrels in a popcorn popper in the dorm room.” (For the record, few Arkansans have ever done this, according to my own informal survey.)

In 2009, atheists battled the secretary of state’s office for the right to display a winter solstice exhibit on the capitol grounds near a large nativity scene. They eventually gained the right, but some atheists now worry that the right may be taken away since a conservative GOP secretary of state won the election last year.

There is only one way to describe Arkansas: land of extremes.

The state is progressive in many areas, and feudal in many others. The state has a history of electing progressive federal representatives. Sens. J. William Fulbright, David Pryor and Dale Bumpers and long-time Congressman Wilbur Mills come to mind. Then there’s Bill Clinton, who attempted to allow gays in the military and reform the health care system in his first year in office. Arkansas can also claim one of the most liberal surgeon generals to ever hit Washington – Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

Arkansas is home to some of the world’s biggest companies – Walmart and Tyson Foods — and is becoming a regional hotspot for wind-energy manufacturing. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Center and his school for public service lures thousands of tourists and illustrious speakers from around the world.

But if the chance arises to spectacularly display our foibles on a national news stage, we jump at the chance, especially if it involves GLBT lifestyles or sex.

That’s certainly ironic, as I discovered when I wrote my book, “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” In the 1970s, Arkansas became the home of the first Miss Gay America pageant. The drag queen pageant only blossomed in popularity over the decades.

Little Rock is also home to two of the largest gay and lesbian nightclubs – Discovery and Backstreet. And yes, straight people do go.

“Strong and vibrant queer communities such as Eureka Springs and the surrounding lesbian-only communities have had a presence in the mountains surrounding Mountain Home [where the Harps grocery is located] for decades,” says Brock Thompson, author of “The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South.”

Eureka Springs has the only Domestic Partnership Registry in Arkansas, which often comes under fire by legislators who want to halt the registry.

Just this month, researchers reported that gay couples in Southern states like Arkansas are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.

The push-pull of progression versus moral repression bubbles incessantly in Arkansas, which makes the love-hate relationship for many Arkansans all the stronger.

Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 3:21 am