Down South: Race, religion and manners

A few years ago, I had an encounter on an elevator in the National Press Club that stuck with me. Thinking back, it’s easy for me to connect that particular moment with a recent New York Times feature that has stirred up some interesting chatter online.

So here goes. I stepped onto an already crowded elevator and bumped, sort of, into a distinguished looking young African American man who was headed downstairs with some friends. I made eye contact and quietly said, “Sorry sir.”

One of his friends began laughing and teased his friend by muttering, “I guess you know you’re getting old when people start calling you ‘sir.’ ”

I couldn’t let that one pass. I explained that I grew up in Texas and that my minister father taught me to call everyone “sir” and “ma’am.” I mean, the 10- or 11-year-old kid, black or white, who carried your groceries to the car was called “sir.” Dad always said that dignity and respect were some the most important gifts that could be given to others — starting with young people and, of course, extending to the elderly.

When we reached the ground floor, I stepped out of the elevator at the same time with an older African American man in that same group. Let’s just say that he had as much gray hair as me. In a soft, Southern voice he told me: “Your daddy and my daddy would have gotten along JUST FINE.”

With that story in mind, read the top of the Times piece that ran under the headline, “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline.”

ATLANTA – One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.

A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.

Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.

The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.

After a week’s worth of testimony in September, a jury decided in favor of the bar. Certainly, the owners conceded, filling the bar with women offers an economic advantage because it attracts more men. But in the South, they said, giving up a seat to a lady is also part of a culture of civility.

At least, it used to be.

Clearly, race is a key element of this story — especially the way it is framed in this report. I do not question that. It is also true that the “invasion” of the South by more and more transplants from the North is part of the picture. That is certainly an element that Southerners like to stress.

The story goes out of its way to stress the negative side of this picture, especially in terms of race relations. In other words, the “Thank you, sir” that my father saw as a crucial sign of politeness and respect could also be used, with a twist in the voice, as a means of oppression. I do not doubt that, either.

But is there more to this story than this?

To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens. In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say.

As those issues faded, proper manners remained an important cultural marker that Southerners have worked to maintain. Since the Civil War, any decline in Southern civility has largely been blamed on those damn Yankees.

Newcomers still get much of the blame. In the past decade, the South has seen an unprecedented influx of immigrants from other states and countries. The population in the South grew by 14.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it the fastest-growing region in the country.

Then there is cable television. And then there is the Internet. Truth is, the New South is just as connected — especially in big cities — as any other part of the nation. Right? This has produced changes that even transcend race.

Thus, check out the mixed signals in this passage.

Too many outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities have migrated to Atlanta and Birmingham, said Saahara Glaude, a media specialist whose clients include some members of the Martin Luther King Jr. family.

As a result, reliable affinities once based on race or religion are gone. “It used to be that an African-American could trust an African-American down here,” she said. “Those days are long gone.”

Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.

And so forth and so on. The story jumps from subject to subject — almost all of them valid, in my opinion — until the reader is both saddened and confused. The loss of Sunday dinner bleeds into changing styles in Southern weddings. It’s all here, sort of.

No, something is missing.

I remain convinced that there is no way to approach this issue without talking more about religion, without expanding on that fleeting Times reference that the old ties that bind — race and religion — are no longer enough. Yes, part of the change is generational. Yet the story misses another key element.

Clearly, the Old South contained lots and lots of religion (and politeness) that hid ugliness and sin. That’s a given.

But the flip side is true, as well. There was sincere respect, dignity and justice in parts of that culture and much of it centered on religious values and people of faith — black and white. There were people who were polite to hide things. There were also people who were polite and kind because they believed that was the right way to live. Some of these people were secular. Many, many of them — black and white — were people of faith. Life was far than perfect, but they could sing “Bless be the Ties that Bind” (even if most of their churches tragically remained segregated).

So the New South may be less polite, teaming with people who have no manners. That is a secular story and that is also a religious story. In this case, guess which one got written, to the exclusion of the other?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stan

    This is a very nice analysis of the difficulties of writing about such a complex and multifaceted issue. Surely, you are right that the absence of religion leaves a big gap in the story. I would say that the fact that Southern religion has gotten more strident (or perhaps more beleaguered) in recent years has contributed to the decline in manners.

  • tmatt

    “Southern religion” is too simplistic a term, there.

    For example, some of the region’s most conservative churches — perhaps you would say strident — are multiracial. Pentecostal/charismatic churches are the most racially mixed in Protestantism.

    If a group is “beleaguered,” a good word for it, that certainly implies that it is being struck by other forces that are part of the picture. Once again, two sides to cover and question.

  • Bob Smietana

    The influx of Yankees to the South has challenged the home field advantage that Baptists and other evangelicals had in the South. Lots of practices – like prayer at school events, handing out Bibles in class – which were banned in other parts of the country – were still prevalent here but newcomers are challenging them. That’s broken down some social cohesion.

    Then of course, there is the economy which makes everyone surly.

  • Dave

    In the litany of past religious facts it’s worth noting that the civil rights movement, as a street movement, started in Southern churches.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    tmatt, I disagree with your appraisal of integrated churches in the South. I’m not sure of your experience; I moved South from Chicago/Detroit in the 1960′s and have watched the civil rights movement here for many years.

    The churches are still heavily segregated, now more by choice and history than by law. You may check this through any means you wish. My personal experience has been with the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, where the former Atlanta “black parishes” remain (basically) black parishes. Where you may see some (small) mixture is in the suburban parishes.

    Back to the point of your article. The general malaise which affects all of the US has had an effect on Atlanta and the Southern states in general. People in areas where I grew up…..the Midwest…..are not as tolerant or polite as I remember. I’m reminded of that when I visit relatives in those areas. And, when I visit the New York/East Coast area or Los Angeles/San Francisco/West Coast area, I am anxious to return “home”, to the South, where people still greet people (whom they do not know) when met face-to-face in the street, in the store, and, more importantly, in church. Where people still hold the door open for the next person, where folks say “‘cuse me” more often than not, where folks still address people as “Mr. Jim” or “Ms. Shirley” when names are known but friendships have not been completely developed.

    Yes, we have self-important jerks like the described sports figure and his lawyer…..but they haven’t become the majority just yet. Atlanta is in danger….it is trying to be a “cosmopolitan” city, somewhat of a show-off to attract business and sports. For myself, who lives outside the Atlanta area, I prefer the more laid back and gentle (not genteel, necessarily) areas of the rest of Georgia and some areas of Alabama and Mississippi where I have lived, where whites and blacks generally get along together, and together are accomodating to a growing Hispanic population which seems to flourish in humid, but human, states.

    Thanks for the critique of the NYT article. Until one lives here, one should not be allowed to write about here (same for elsewhere).

    Best regards. jim

  • tmatt


    To what do you refer? In the post I noted that most churches, in the South, remain segregated. You are right that this is by choice. I also, in a comment, mentioned that the most integrated churches are often Pentecostal/charismatic.

    I am not sure which point you are challenging.

  • MJBubba

    This is from the New York Times. It is written by a senior reporter who has only spent a couple of years in the South, and serves as a letter back home from the foreign lands. When I saw it was a NYT publication, I expected religion to either be overlooked or caricatured, so overlooked is better.

  • sari

    Excepting two years in California, I’ve spent my entire life in the South–was born in Florida and lived all over the state (south, central, and north) before leaving in my mid-twenties to live in Atlanta, N. Virginia, California, back to Florida, and now 15+ years in Central Texas. While no story of the South, particularly the more rural areas, is complete without reference to religion, I think it’s a stretch to link church attendance to etiquette. Rather, the demise of southern manners seems more due to standardization of common culture by mass media, the de-emphasis of regional markers (speech, etiquette, dress), socioeconomics, and the polarization of society (party, religion, income, ethnicity). In my area, most native Texans below a certain age speak like they’re from California.

    The church-going southerners I grew up with evidenced a marked and quite verbal disrespect for people of different colors, religions and ethnicities. The proper term for a black man of any color was Boy!, not sir, and the N-word (something my uncouth northern parents forbade, along swear words and ain’t)) was used to people’s faces as well as behind their backs. People often assaulted African-Americans for no particular reason, often in public with little fear of recourse from either people on the street or law enforcement. Blacks, otoh, were required to be deferential and polite at all times. Maybe what’s changed is that they no longer subscribe to an antiquated code which required them to be polite while being denigrated and abused.

    I’m glad that your father taught you an attitude of respect for all people, but my feeling is that he was an anomaly among ministers and not the norm, at least not at the time I was growing up (b. late ’50′s).

  • Lucas Harvey

    Was it rude to ask them? Were there racial bias issues involved? Was it just bad manners . . . not for me to say. However, there are folks who are feeling the culture in the South is not what it “used to be.” “Manners are one of many things that are …

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    tmatt, my apologies if I misunderstood your sentence:

    “For example, some of the region’s most conservative churches — perhaps you would say strident — are multiracial. Pentecostal/charismatic churches are the most racially mixed in Protestantism.”

    “Multiracial”, to me, implies “integrated”; they are not. “Most racially mixed” implies the same to me, i.e., “integrated”. In the South, at least Pentecostal churches retain their separate white and black congregations.

    Do I misunderstand your sentence?

  • Tmatt

    No. You are simply wrong on your facts.

    Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches are the most racially integrated in Protestantism. Pentecostalism has been a multiracial movement from the get go.

  • Erin Michelle

    Why target the South when this is trending everywhere? Yes, the South is synonymous with hospitality & is known for its laid-back charm, but to write from a cultural perspective is ignoring the big picture that is the Internet’s worldwide influence on boldness & tact (or the loss of tact, more specifically) through the refuge of anonymity. With the migration of northern folk, who are generally accepted as being more abrasive, you are probably dead on in stating that this has also played a part in our slipping of manners, as I have myself witnessed the shift in South Florida & our Panhandle. Still, I encourage y’all to simply look through the comments on this article to realize that, in a high-tech time for politics & religion, the South may only be a microcosm of a national manners epidemic, indiscriminate of regional history & heritage.