The opening shot, the Fort Sumter of the newest campaign to take back Dixie, was a billboard. Months ago it appeared on the parkway in Tallahassee, just east of the Capitol, positioned so you could see it and the edifice of Florida government side-by-side, the sun popping off both of them together at daybreak. Most of the sign was taken up by six big black letters on a white background: SECEDE.
A League of the South activist in the group's signature black shirt.
It was the work of the League of the South—long labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center—which had planned to build media buzz with the billboard, leading to a rally on the Capitol steps to protest illegal immigrants. The League hoped for its biggest coup yet, double the size of any of its previous demonstrations. The event's Facebook page announced: "100 is our magic number… 100 Southern nationalists in Tallahassee. Come on, we can do it!"
"We just think that there needs to be a representative voice for all those common hard-working Southern folks out there that don't have a voice," the group's founder, Dr. Michael Hill, told me. "We basically are dictated to by people from other parts of the country whose worldview is completely different from ours."
Now, with the crud-crusted Florida winter broken at last, it was time for the demonstration. Sunburn was possible again. The long-absent birds were shaking off their silence on the statehouse grounds. A breeze picked up as I surveyed the army's assembled assets: five blue blazers. Seven cavalry-style cowboy hats. Seven pairs of cargo pants. One makeshift SWAT-type uniform. One long beard, red. One leather jacket, accompanied by double-clutch boots and a clanking chain wallet. Two hundred copies of the Free Magnolia, the League's samizdat newsletter.
All together, forty or so souls. Four women, including the club photographer; maybe two or three under 30; one teen, in an aqua American Eagle polo.
The League's Tallahassee billboard, just up the road from the Capitol.
The group formed up up at 10 a.m., falling into ranks on the statehouse mall, pointing picket signs and Bonny Blue flags and Florida state flags toward the parkway traffic. "MARCO RUBIO wants to replace us," the signs said, referring to the popular Republican senator who betrayed his tea party supporters by backing immigration reform.
At its peak, the Florida secessionist crowd numbered about 40.
At 10:24, the group got its first validation, an approving honk from an elderly white Hawaiian-shirted man in a minivan with no license plate. A young white man in a Honda Civic followed suit, then a darkly tinted Chrysler with a familiar sign in the rear passenger window: "BABY ON BOARD."
I mingled clumsily with the crowd, recognizing only one face—that of Michael Cushman, "the Palmetto Patriot," founder of the Southern Nationalist Network, who has called the American flag "the symbol of a government which promotes multiculturalism, abortion, interracial and homosexual marriage, Third World immigration, affirmative action and wars to spread democracy." He looks like a young Hunter Thompson, eyes always sunglassed and lips always pursed, the kind of guy who couldn't take you in a bar fight but looks serious enough that you wouldn't start one with him.
Within a minute, I was enlisted in my first awkward conversation of the day, with a demonstrator I'll call Snuffy Smith. An ex-paratrooper, Vietnam and Panama vet, he could have been 70, or 55 if the years were hard. Beneath a salty cowboy hat, he wore a dirt-red shirt, a brass-and-steel buckle larger than my toddler son's head, and jeans that might judge you if you called them something other than "dungarees."
Streaming over his head was a wind-blown flag with a field of thirteen stripes, with only one large star, not 50 small ones, in the blue corner. "This here?" he said. "It's part of maybe, like, one of the Christian flags." I later learned that it was the Liberian flag. I could never confirm exactly why it was at a Southern secessionist rally, though I had my theories.
"We are not affiliated with skinheads, and we are not affiliated with the KKK," Smith told me. "All this basically boils down to is states' rights. It's more against the federal government. You know what's dumb now? What Obama's doin'? Now he's saying, 'Well, you can't take up too much sugar'… talkin' about even going against Coca-Cola and all these soft drinks because he says Americans are gettin' too obese."
I wrote. He continued.
"He brings all these Somalians in. OK? What about the 94 million Americans that doesn't have a job? Or the 90-plus million is on food stamps? All that's in the 90s. You watch that Fox News, its in the high 90s."
Very few women were present. ("Snuffy Smith," an Army vet, is visible in the background.)
Perhaps this scene reinforces the League's reputation as a comical fringe element, a gaggle of old racist Lost Cause types who dream of the Confederate battle flag again gracing their statehouses, who lament the Union's retardation of their familial livelihoods. And their manhoods. "There were more men in America in 1776 than there are today," Hill recently wrote on Facebook. "[I]t can be changed, you know. Just 'man up,' as they say!"
But intellectual elites and newsmen caricature this movement at their own peril. One of the most famous Southern revivalists of the last century wrote a conservative manifesto titled "Ideas Have Consequences," and in America, in 2014, the League of the South's ideas are not without consequence.
Beyond its race-tinged Dixie jingoism, much of the League's public rhetoric is in line with a wider American attitude. It emphasizes truly small government—the dictatorship of the individual, the republic of the family, the overthrow of the cultural and bureaucratic forces that the League believes threaten our insular networks and affinity groups.
This dovetails not simply with neo-Confederacy and conservatism but with a broader, bipartisan disillusionment with government and mass media—the contemporary ethos that elevates selves and loved ones above the din of 308 million meatsticks screaming, stamping, belching, reaching nothing but the most tenuous consensus on anything enduring. Get government out of the way. Abolish artificial ties with strangers. Focus on the immediate, the personal, the deeply felt—"faith, family, and folk," as the League puts it.
"I wouldn't mind seeing certain states broken up into multiple states or little independent duchies or republics or city states or whatever," Hill said. "I just think there needs to be that flowering of freedom that allows people on the local level to kinda do their own thing."
Whatever your thing may be, a tribal enclave within a bastion inside a redoubt: an Abilene for conservative biblical literalists, a Portland for anti-vax leftists. News pre-screened and shared by the people we like on Twitter or Facebook. It is simplification through Balkanization. Inner America, the great collective reflexive id of a great people, is expanding its jumbled confederacy. In this regard, the League of the South is on the frontier.
The group has attempted to co-opt tea party and mainstream anger over immigration.
The leader of this vanguard, part Lenin and part Robert E. Lee, is Hill—the League's only president since he created the group in 1994. Once a promising professor of history at a historically black college in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama native left his tenured position in 1999 to dedicate himself full-time to the South's restoration as an independent nation. (He also happened to leave academia just as his university planned to consider faculty members' behavior outside the classroom in their tenure reviews.)
The creation of the League was a logical outgrowth of Hill's scholarship: He'd studied at the University of Alabama under two famous Southern historians with the appropriately Southern names Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald. Building on McWhiney's magnum opus, Cracker Culture, Hill advanced what is known as the Celtic thesis: the notion that Southern culture is distinct based on its people's heritage as Celtic herdsmen who "realized that the true foundation of independence was that every man be armed."
That culture is agrarian, martial, Protestant, easily excitable, and steadfastly loyal to "kith and kin." It yields brave Christian warriors, but not necessarily prudent ones—an explanation for their honorable military bloodlettings from William Wallace in 1305 to the Wilderness in 1864.
The Celtic thesis doesn't account for the genteel English-style aristocracy of Virginia or the French-infused Catholicism of Louisiana. But let's don't quibble about the details. If monolithic Southern culture didn't exist, Hill would have to invent it. "There always have to be certain cultural traits that are preserved more or less intact for a people to survive as an identifiable people over the centuries," he told me. "We think that our faith, our allegiance to family and our allegiance to each other as a people is the fundamental element of that."
The way I met Hill was this: I started talking to Snuffy Smith with the Liberian flag, and three minutes later, Hill came urgently striding over like a recess teacher on the playground. "Media?" he asked. "Talk to me. Talk to me."
He looked like your high school linebackers coach and sounded like your college professor, the one who's an easy A if you can affect his voice on the term paper. The appearance and sound are not a put-on. He is fastidious about his health—"I still run sprints." When an underling offered him a cold Gatorade on the sun-dried steps of the Capitol, he accepted it with thanks but never opened it. "I only drink water. Water and moonshine. No sugar. Well, moonshine sugar."
Dr. Michael Hill: League of the South founder, historian, Skynyrd fan.
Hill is, predictably, a purist about many things. He hates Grammy-winning music ("It's not a natural thing. It's just staged. This is not real music. This is not music that grows up from the people"). But he loves the Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels and "the Skynyrd guys."
He stands proud and talks humble. But he talks, a lot. It is a wind concerto played entirely on dog whistles—unintelligible to most listeners, but a mellifluous, taut tune to a very small audience of aficionados.
"It alarms me that America — and the South in particular, my home — is going to be a place that I wouldn't recognize if I were to come back in 100 or 200 years, and I fear for my progeny," he told me. The last word hung in the damp panhandle air, rusty and antique.
"I've actually heard several Hispanic leaders say, 'Hey, when we get in control, you're gonna pay.' Listen, I'm enough of a fighter that that's a challenge," he said. "I'll take it. I don't want my children and grandchildren to have to fight as a minority in what used to be their country, the country that their ancestors founded and built. And I think that's a legitimate position for anybody to take without being called ugly names about it."
As suspect as that talk may sound, Hill insists his group is not neo-Confederate: "We're not so blind as to think that we can turn back the clock and have things the way that it was 100, 150 years ago, and we don't want to do that. We're men and women who live in the age that we've been placed, and we're not romantic dreamers of some idyllic past or something like that."
Hill's Facebook page suggests otherwise. In late January, for example, he posted a note celebrating the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. "[L]et us emulate them and continue the honorable cause that motivated these two noble Southern men—the survival, well being, and independence of the Southern people," he wrote.
The following day was MLK Day, so Hill added another thought. "Note: If you wish to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. please go elsewhere. He is not one of us," he wrote of the Atlanta-born Southern preacher.
Lest he be misunderstood, Hill posted this the next day:
Postings like this suggest League supporters also miss apartheid and segregation.
Lately, Hill and the League have been focused on events far from Dixie. The group recently endorsed Russia's annexation of Crimea as a victory for the Crimeans' self-determination. That's consistent with the League's secessionist bent; good Celts that they are, they've also supported Scottish independence.
"The 19th century was the century of consolidated nation states and empires. The 20th century started to see those things undermined by historical events," Hill said. "The 21st century, I'm convinced, is going to be the century of seeing all of these conglomerates, these monstrosities, these dinosaurs, whatever you wanna call them, just break apart into natural polities that have some kind of cultural and organic sense about them."
But the League's love of the Russian bear goes deeper still. "I have more in common with Vladimir Putin than I do with Barack Obama," Hill wrote last month. "One defends a nation—the Rus; the other lords over an anti-White multicultural empire. One upholds an ancient Christian tradition; the other deplores the Christian faith. One acts like a man; the other like a preening capon."
There's that manhood thing again. But: really? Can a thinking American man truly feel more kinship with a calculating ex-KGB spook than any American president? Yep, Hill said. "Sure, Putin puts on a lot of this stuff, takes his shirt off, rides a horse, but at the same time, you know, you can juxtapose it with Obama sittin' on a stupid-looking bicycle with a goofy-looking bike helmet on his head. And it doesn't look good for Obama. Putin looks like a man, you know. Russia likes this machoness—well, there's some of us Americans like it, too."
The League's coziness with unsavory elements doesn't end at the Black Sea. A quick search of its Facebook members turns up an alarming number of "likes" for white supremacist hobbyhorses like Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, Christian Identity, and the "Fourteen Words" ("We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children"). It seems a glaring oversight for a polite-sounding group seeking mainstream legitimacy—a group that took pains not to display the Confederate battle flag at the Florida rally, opting instead for the less-notorious and prettier Bonny Blue.
When I asked Hill if Klanners and neo-Nazis have a place at the League's table, he took some time with his answers. He'd prefer they cut any ties with "dishonorable" organizations before applying for membership, he said. But nothing's written in stone: "If you want to believe this, if you want to believe that, that's fine. I'm not going to be an Inquisitor, there's not going to be an Inquisition here."
Hill "can tell a bad egg pretty quick," he said, and he takes pains to send them on their way. But, he said, "if it's just somebody who has ideas that I don't particularly agree with but they agree with me on the Southern nationalist part of this, I can work with them." The important thing, he said, is "to have an organization that is honorable for people to join."
This emphasis on honorableness has a dark primordial heritage of its own. In the groundbreaking 1980s study Honor and Violence in the Old South, historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown argued that Southerners' famous genteelness always carried a paradoxical tendency to "unjustified violence, unpredictability, and anarchy." Honor must be defended at all costs. And when honor is defined by blood, by sex, by race, by tribe, the honorable man finds endless provocations.
Publicly, the League renounces violence. On Facebook, its founder suggests otherwise.
Which raises the question: Just where does all this lead? The League doesn't seem to have a plan to translate its slogans and rallies into revolutionary action or all the bloody tumult a real secessionist movement would entail. "I've studied a lot of nationalist movements in the past," Hill said, "and sometimes it's one coalescing event, like the Easter uprising in Ireland in 1916."
By noon, it was clear this would not be such an event. The street traffic thickened, but the rally crowd wilted somewhat under the sparse cover of the statehouse mall. Snuffy Smith pulled out a can of dip. "I tried to quit a couple of times," he told a colleague. "About three days is all I can do." There was talk of decamping to an Olive Garden for lunch. A Capitol police officer told the group to take down two of its flags from the storied building, a "Don't Tread on Me" and an Alamo banner. The flags were removed quickly, without a fuss. "Well, you know, freedom is kind of a messy thing," Hill told me as we parted.
The League flies many flags, including this replica of the one flown over the Alamo.
I spent some more time at the front of the demonstration's picket line, where one participant—an enthusiastic local, decked out in Florida State University fan regalia—was trying to chat up one of the out-of-towners. "You ever want to be interviewed on Stormfront or anything?" the local man asked, referring to the white supremacist discussion board that's linked to neo-Nazis and the Klan. His listener declined.
"Just want to let you know the offer is there," the local said.