Southern Discomfort

THE ATLANTA PITCH WAS A BOLD one: part Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing, part Chamber of Commerce flackery. In Tokyo in 1990, the Atlanta city fathers sold the International Olympic Committee on the proposition that the city Sherman burned was now a model of racial harmony. They laid it on thick. ""The Atlanta Olympiad,'' the city said in its bid for the Games, ""will stress the justice and equality inherent in fair play.'' It worked. ""The City Too Busy to Hate,'' which had quickly integrated and avoided most of the violence that roiled the South in the '50s and '60s, won the bid, and the world will soon be whipping along Atlanta's 16-lane interstates and humidly basking in the glow of its downtown towers.

What you won't see at the Games next month is the other side of the sun belt. It's Beatrice Carlisle's universe, and it begins and ends on Bates Mill Road in Greensboro, Ala. There, one night a few weeks ago, fire broke out in the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church not far from her tiny red-brick house. Peering out her window, through a clump of trees, she saw flames. ""Oh, Lord,'' the 79-year-old stammered in the vernacular of elderly black folks in rural west Alabama, ""us church is burning down.''

In Atlanta (the self-styled ""capital of the New South''), the color of the old Confederacy is not black or white but green. In the not-too-distant provinces like Greensboro (the self-styled ""catfish capital of the South'') lies a different country: poorer, more isolated -- and now on edge. It's clear that despite Atlanta's profitable civil-rights spin, race still matters deeply in the South.

It matters everywhere else, too, of course, and for Southerners confronting the latest fires, that's the damnable thing. For all its dark and peculiar history, from the assault on Fort Sumter to the beatings at Selma, the South has come far since World War II. Abolishing Jim Crow took much too long, but race in America is not a distinctively Southern problem. (None of the five most segregated metro areas in the country, for example, is in the South, and two of the most integrated -- Fayetteville, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. -- are.) ""These fires confirm the country's assumption that we're the worst of the lot,'' says John Egerton, a Nashville historian. ""So even if people do burn down L.A. or trash the Bronx or come to blows in Boston, they can still tell themselves they're better than the crackers down South.''

For now, most of the ""crackers,'' whether their sympathies lie with Bull Connor or Atticus Finch, are perplexed. The recent outbreaks would make more sense if extremists were riled up over a clear cause, like preserving legalized segregation. But today's cutting racial issue -- affirmative action -- is a middle-class controversy seemingly far removed from the impoverished regions where the bombings are taking place. Which leaves us with honky-tonk terrorists careering around the countryside, mindlessly obsessed with race and evoking memories of genuinely divisive days. ""The past is never dead,'' William Faulkner once wrote. ""It isn't even past.''

In the South, it is palpably alive on the land, in church and in the heart. First, consider geography: the old Confederacy is the only place in the country with high concentrations of rural blacks. The invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the mid-1940s fundamentally changed farming, provoking the great black migration from cotton country to big cities. Five million African-Americans left rural farms after 1940; it was, according to the author Nicholas Lemann, ""one of the largest and most rapid internal movements of people in history.'' But even now, decades after the migration, half of the nation's blacks are still in the South, and nearly two thirds of those live outside cities.

They are people like Selma Cole, an 85-year-old widow who has spent most of her life near Denmark, Tenn. She can remember when her beloved Johnson Grove Baptist Church would draw 150 people: ""It was thickly populated when I married back in '27,'' she says. ""A lot of sharecroppers lived down around here.'' Then church membership dwindled to 50. The road that ran by the church was never paved, and the town didn't grow. So by the time arsonists burned Johnson Grove in January of last year, the small frame sanctuary was a lonely outpost at the end of a gravel trail.

The South remains the nation's churchiest region, a place where STUCKEY'S and SEE ROCK CITY signs compete for highway space with hand-painted JOHN 3:16 placards. So churches are more than a natural symbolic target; with precious few other rural black institutions, it would be difficult to find anything to hit but a sanctuary. And the isolation of these churches may be, in part, why it took so long for the recent fires to percolate to press and presidential attention. The torched houses of worship are not those of the black elite. They are the places where their distant, poorer and less influential kin might worship.

For these blacks, church is often the very center of their lives. Outside Ladonia, Texas, after the whitewood chapel of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist disintegrated to ash, 71-year-old Inez Edwards was immediately disoriented. ""I don't know any other church,'' she says. ""I felt like I had lost someone from my family.'' ""The church is the heartbeat of any black community,'' says Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil-rights veteran who grew up in rural Alabama. ""It's where you get singing, preaching -- and the latest gossip.''

In the Movement days, you could get much more. Though King and his allies led from upper-middle-class pulpits in cities like Montgomery, the grass-roots work of voter registration came in out-of-the-way sanctuaries. So at least the bombings of the '50s and '60s had a perverse logic: segregationists were convinced they were in a war, and striking black churches was a clear blow at the enemy.

So far, today's attacks seem to have less to do with well-funded conspiracies and more to do with inchoate racism. No one has yet died in the recent fires, and the current climate little resembles the terror of lynchings and beatings and bombs tossed into churches full of people. Instead, the new troubles appear to come when rural whites, emboldened by liquor and real or imagined grievances, go nightriding.

Robert Lee Johnson and Marc and Michael Jett, white, countrified Tennesseans, are probably typical. On Super Bowl Sunday 1995, the three high-school dropouts were sitting around rural Maury County, drinking beer and popping Valium. The talk turned to money Johnson had lost playing dice at Sweetie Petie's, a local black-owned tavern; the three then set out to burn two churches -- which they did, ultimately pleading guilty to federal civil-rights charges. This kind of violence rises out of an old dynamic: the worse off whites are, the more they take out their frustrations on minorities, the only people around the poor whites can look down on.

But the Old South is far from making a successful second stand. One night last week near Fruitland, Tenn., a white man named George Selph saw a local TV report on the reconstruction of Salem Baptist Church, which had burned just after Christmas. First thing the next morning, the 67-year-old loaded up his old maroon cooler with ice and soft drinks and lugged it out to the volunteers working in Salem's ruins. ""I would dearly love to be on the jury trying the folks who did this,'' says Selph. For the South -- Old or New -- that's progress.