South rises again and demands independence

AS A BAND of conspirators, they were ultra-respectable, just a couple of hundred college lecturers, school-teachers and small businessmen brought together by a common grievance and a common hope. But their gathering this weekend in the hill country of North Carolina has the potential to change the face of America.

In signing into being the Southern Party, they have embarked on the first organised political challenge to the sway of the North since the surrender of the Confederate general Robert E Lee in 1865.

And while they recognise that their ultimate aim - independence for the South by peaceful, constitutional means - could take generations or never happen at all, they cite the recent success of devolutionary movements elsewhere, including in Britain, as a reason they cannot just be dismissed as a crowd of irresponsibly nostalgic rednecks.

The scene in the select resort village of Flat Rock was the epitome of the southern idyll: a vast weathered gazebo on the lush lawn of a glistening white southern mansion; the heat of the summer sun fanned by a cooling breeze.

A few of the men wore grey Confederate uniforms, a few of the women wore crinolines, but the new political activists who had paid $50 (pounds 33) each for the privilege of assisting at the birth of "their" party mostly wore the costumes of today - summer suits and dresses.

As befitted a southern gathering, proceedings opened and closed with prayers - "Lord, show us the direction we need to go" - but the climax was the ceremonial presentation of the flags of 14 southern states and the signing of the "Asheville Declaration", named after the nearby city. It was endorsed by volleys of musket fire across the valley and loud "hurrahs".

The leading light of the new party is George Kalas, 37, the son of a Greek immigrant father and a mother of staunch Confederate stock.

For him, and the party's three other founding fathers, the time is right for the South to assert itself.

Registered in Houston, Texas, the party is already organising in all 18 southern states, and so much advance interest was shown in this weekend's founding rally that people had to be turned away. To the devoted southerners, their beloved and maligned South is resurgent. Southerners hold many of the most important offices of state. Interest in Confederate history is at record levels, judging by a slew of films, the popularity of visits to battlefield sites and amateur participation in Civil War re- enactments. Last year's anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg inspired more than 18,000 people to wear period costume to fight it all over again.

A large part of the rationale for the new party is economic self-confidence. "The South is becoming strong again. We're becoming a financial giant again, and that's why we're here," Jerry Baxley, the party'svice-chairman, told the assembled throng in his opening speech.

What many see as the moral bankruptcy of the Washington "regime" is another powerful ingredient.

The most compelling reason cited by the party's founders for their timing, though, is what they see as the stunning success of nationalist movements in Canada and Britain. "Thirty years ago they [the political Establishment] were laughing at the Quebecois. Ten years ago they were laughing at the population of Wales and Scotland for advocating their own parliaments. They're not laughing any more," said one enthusiast.

Mr Kalas said: "We couldn't have done this 10 years ago.There would have been no media interest." And he credited the Internet with "making it a more level playing field" for non-establishment groups.

A new South could be seen as unrealistic, especially in view of the fervent opposition of black Americans to anything that smacks of the traditional Confederacy.

But while the new party's platform builds on the complex of southern sympathies and resentments, it is determined to strike out the racism.

When Mr Kalas enumerated its guiding principles - for: devolution and moral leadership from politicians; against: abortion, gun controls and federal taxes - his denunciation of racism drew a volume of applause second only to his rejection of the tax system.

"There is no room for those who harbour racial malice towards their fellow southerners," he said. "The politics of race have reached a dead end." The Southern Party, he said, "is an idea that all southerners should be proud to embrace".

There remains, however, an ambiguity, enshrined in the party's careful choice of flag.

The "third" Confederate flag belongs to the late period of the Civil War when black volunteers were taken into Confederate ranks - showing, according to Mr Kalas and the others, that an end to slavery was an accepted precondition for the survival of the Confederacy.

This is not the standard Confederate flag. It banishes the blue starred cross to the upper left-hand corner. But the cross is still there.

And adapting the old to sit well with the new is not easy. After the last prayer, a voice rang out: "Hey, Ron! Put `Dixie' on." And a scratchy recording of the song of the Confederacy, largely proscribed at public gatherings for its racist overtones, rang out.

At first hesitantly, then taking heart, the Southern Party's initiates began to sing, waving their "third Confederate" flags aloft in time.