Mark Twain put it best, as early as 1882: “In the South, the [Civil] war is what AD is elsewhere; they date everything from it.” Several generations later, the legacies of slavery and “The War Between the States” remain evident throughout the southern heartland states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. It’s impossible to travel through the region without experiencing constant jolting reminders of the two epic historical clashes that have shaped its destiny: the Civil War, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Although enough white Southerners continue to identify with the Confederate past to make it debatable whether the much-vaunted “New South” has truly come into being – outside the major cities, at least – the last decades have unquestionably seen dramatic change. The inspirational campaigns that finally secured black participation in Southern elections resulted not only in the prominence of black political leaders but also in the emergence of liberal white counterparts including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. High-tech industries have moved in, luring considerable inward migration, while urban centres such as Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, are booming.
That said, it’s misleading in any case to generalize too much about “the South”. Even during the Civil War there were substantial pockets of pro-Union support, particularly in the mountains, while during the long century of segregation that followed, certain states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, were far more brutally oppressive than others. These days, inequities within the South, between for example the industrialized “Sun Belt” centres of North Carolina and northern Alabama and the poorer rural backwaters of southern Georgia, Mississippi or Tennessee, are just as significant as those between the South and the rest of the nation, and are no longer so clearly demarcated along racial lines. For many travellers, the most exciting aspect of a visit to the South has to be its music. Fans flock to the homelands of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Dolly Parton and Otis Redding, heading to the country and blues meccas of Nashville and Memphis, or seeking out backwoods barn dances in Appalachia and blues juke joints in the Mississippi Delta.
The Southern experience is also reflected in a rich regional literature, documented by the likes of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. Other major destinations include the elegant coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah, college towns like Athens and Chapel Hill, and the historic Mississippi River ports of Natchez and Vicksburg. Away from the urban areas, the classic Southern scenery consists of fertile but sun-baked farmlands, with undulating hillsides dotted with wooden shacks and rust-red barns, and broken by occasional forests. Highlights include the misty Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina; the subtropical beaches and tranquil barrier islands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Georgia and South Carolina; and the river road through the tiny, time-warped settlements of the flat Mississippi Delta. In July and August, the daily high temperature is mostly a very humid 90°F, and while almost every public building is air-conditioned, the heat can be debilitating. May and June are more bearable, and tend to see a lot of local festivals, while the autumn colours in the mountains – just as beautiful and a lot less expensive and congested than New England – are at their headiest during October.
Motels are everywhere, while abundant B&Bs offer a chance to sample the much-vaunted Southern hospitality – though unless you share a broadly Confederate view of history, these can occasionally be socially uncomfortable. The region’s varied cuisine, much of it dished out at simple roadside shacks, ranges from the ubiquitous grits (maize porridge) to highly calorific, irresistible soul food: fried chicken, wood-smoked BBQ and the like, along with turnip greens, spinach, macaroni and all manner of tasty vegetables. Fish is also good, from catfish to the wonderful Low Country Boils – seafood stews served with rice, traditionally prepared on the sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia.