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♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
The newfound drive to retire the Confederate battle flag from the public arena may have been fueled by the visceral emotional reaction to the racist massacre at a church in Charleston, the Confederacy’s very birthplace. But the seeming ease with which Confederate artifacts are being swept away across the South can also be explained by another factor — shifts in the region’s demography that are eroding the regional insularity underpinning romantic attachment to the Lost Cause.
In the last 30 years, there has been a sea change in the Southern electorate. The percentage of white people born in the South — the people most inclined to want to retain vestiges of their Confederate past — is shrinking, while the percentages of African-Americans and whites born outside the region are expanding.
So even though the South may be as politically conservative as it has ever been, the constituency for public maintenance of Confederate heritage is becoming less potent, which is giving Southern politicos more freedom to maneuver across these contentious waters.
For example, in 1960 — around the time that many Southern state governments began embracing Confederate symbols in a show of defiance against the Civil Rights movement — more than 90 percent of the population of eight of the 11 former Confederate states was Southern born, according to U.S. Census figures.
The only exceptions were Florida, Virginia and Texas, but even in the most Yankee-fied of those states — Florida — 60 percent of the population was still born in the South.
1960 was also at the tail end of the Great Migration, in which 6 million African-Americans left the South for cities in the North and West, which dramatically reduced the black populations across the region In 1900, 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South; by 1970, that figure had fallen to just 53 percent.
Fast forward to 2010. Only two former Confederate states — Louisiana and Mississippi — still had 90 percent of their populations born inside the region. Alabama was at 86 percent. But across the rest of the South, more than 20 percent of the state populations weren’t born in the South. In Florida, only 45 percent of the population was Southern born.
And those figures don’t take into account two salient factors: First, African-Americans born in the South, who would not support display of Confederate symbols, are included. And second, people born in the South whose parents weren’t born in the South are also included — another group not likely to salute the Confederate battle flag.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a conservative Republican who has been leading the charge to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse in Columbia, is a case in point. She was born in South Carolina — but to Sikh parents from India with no ancestral attachment to the Confederacy.
And even in Mississippi, the only Southern state that still incorporates the Confederate battle emblem into its state flag, 9 percent of the population in 2010 was born outside the South and 37 percent was African-American — a potentially formidable coalition against public Confederate nostalgia.
In South Carolina, the non-Southern population is 25 percent, and the black population is 28 percent. Although those two groups overlap, those numbers indicate that the section of the electorate that has no attachment to Confederate heritage may be approaching a majority in the place where the Confederacy began.
At the same time as the non-Southern born population in the South was rising, so too was the African-American population. As segregation faded away and the South’s economy boomed, blacks began moving back to the region, in essence reversing the Great Migration.
For example, between 2000 and 2010, six of the seven U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest influx of African-Americans were in the South — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Charlotte and Orlando. The seventh, Washington, D.C., is partially in Virginia.
Topping that list was Atlanta, which is why it is not that surprising that after the Charleston massacre, Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, ordered a redesign of a Sons of Confederate Veterans’ specialty license plate festooned with the battle emblem.
That was a far cry from the fight over removing that same emblem from the Georgia state flag, a controversy that raged for more than 10 years and led to the introduction of three state flags in two years before the current design was adopted in 2003.
Whether public exhibition of Confederate symbols is a display of heritage or a display of hate is, of course, a debate that will probably continue as long as people watch “Gone With The Wind” and drink mint juleps. But if demography is any guide, public use of those symbols is headed into the quaint mists of Southern memory.