I once saw two guys having a shouting match over one of the great vexed questions of our time: Is Florida part of the South? This altercation took place, appropriately enough, at the Flora-Bama Lounge, a bar which straddles the border between Florida and Alabama like a drunken colossus.
The place is famous for its mullet-tossing competitions.
Anyway, one guy (who was from Jacksonville) said Florida was full of old Yankees and new Cubans and so is not Southern. The other guy (who was from Arcadia) said Florida is too Southern _ his local Denny's serves two flavors of grits and Robert E. Lee's birthday is still a legal holiday.
So who's right? Does Florida belong to the South because it's geographically below Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon's 1777 survey line? Because "y'all" is widely used and college football is widely worshiped?
Or is Florida really the top edge of the Caribbean _ Margaritaville? Or is it a colony of the Midwest? Half the people in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin seem to have moved to the all-important I-4 corridor.
Then there's God's Waiting Room, the counties of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, where New York comes to die.
Natives and newcomers alike hold that North Florida is "Southern" while South Florida is "Northern." The idea is that in North Florida you find cotton fields, foot-washing Baptists, arch-right wingers with accents more Georgia than Jersey, and the default iced tea is sweet.
South Florida, on the other hand, has cities glittering with bling, condo-dwelling Red Diaper Babies with accents more Jersey than Georgia, and the default iced tea is Long Island. But the geographical divide may no longer be relevant. Some of the largest evangelical churches are in Miami; the most reliably progressive voters live in Leon and Alachua counties; you can see Confederate battle flag bumper stickers on pickups in West Palm; you can get great sushi in Pensacola.
So maybe we should look at different cultural signifiers: political and social behaviors as well as hoopskirts and bass boats. And here's the truth: Florida belongs to the South. Yes, Florida is far richer than Mississippi, has a larger and more diverse population than Tennessee, and depends far more than Georgia or South Carolina or Arkansas on tourism than timber, cotton or peanuts for its economy.
Still, Florida shares the Bible Belt religiosity, the regressive taxation, the wretchedly underresourced school system, the overstuffed prisons and the historic racism of its former co-secessionists in the Confederacy. Take a deep breath, sugar: You're living in Dixie.
There's no consensus on this point, of course. Gary Mormino, author of the forthcoming Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida, holds that Florida used to be in the South but, since the 1960s, "we have separated ourselves from our Southern neighbors." However, Mormino admits you can argue the other side, too, particularly when it comes to race. And that makes a lot of Floridians, especially the transplants along the urbanized coastlines who don't want their state keeping company with Alabama and Mississippi, uncomfortable.
"They don't like to think about poverty, Jim Crow and slavery," says Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University. "To them, Southern heritage isn't a good thing." But slavery, Jim Crow and the rest of the Southern package are, nevertheless, very much part of Florida's history, as both Mormino and deHaven-Smith point out.
Florida was third, after South Carolina and Mississippi, to leave the Union in 1861. Floridians fought at Gettysburg, Petersburg, Shiloh, Kennesaw Mountain. Floridians were enslaved on plantations from the Panhandle down to Bradenton. Alabama finally took the Confederate flag down off its Capitol in 1993; Florida kept the "Stainless Banner" up in Tallahassee until 2001.
Government, business and tourism interests market Florida as a tropical paradise free from messy memories of racism and poverty. Yet the famously screwed-up "purge lists" of supposedly ineligible voters for which the state paid $4-million of your money in 2000 and 2004 have their origins in the South's Reconstruction era.
DeHaven-Smith tells how Florida's Republican "carpetbagger" government's original ban on felons voting was aimed at Democratic Confederate veterans but later, when white planters regained control of Florida (they called it "Redemption"), they used the law to keep blacks _ ex-slaves were the most likely to be convicted of a crime _ off the voter rolls. You could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed over the last 125 years: Several thousand mostly African-American voters were unfairly disenfranchised in the last presidential election.
This year's "purge list" for the coming presidential election wasn't much better. Indeed, it was so flawed that the state _ after spending $300,000 of your money in court trying to keep it secret _ just threw the thing out. "It's like we have our feet stuck in the mud," says Martha Barnett, a senior partner at the Holland and Knight law firm, "rooted in these old attitudes." Barnett had to deal with Florida's "old attitudes" in the 1990s as lead counsel trying to get the state of Florida to pay compensation to the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre.
On a hard-frost day in January 1923, a white woman in Levy County may or may not have been attacked by a black convict who'd run off from the county road gang, who may or may not have hidden somewhere in the Negro village of Rosewood. Model-Ts full of white men with shotguns and pistols and kerosene roared over. They'd heard that local law enforcement _ peace officers of the state _ would not interfere. The Negroes must be taught a lesson. The ones who weren't murdered ran off into the woods. "This was not in the past," says Barnett. "This was not an old wrong. It had existed every day since the state of Florida failed to protect these citizens."
But, she acknowledges, people "had this fervent desire to not bring it back up." Gov. Lawton Chiles signed the compensation bill, but a state senator was heard to whine, "How long do we have to pay for the sins of our forefathers?"
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In William Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom! a young Canadian guy asks a young Southern guy what's with the South and history: "What is it," he says, "something you live and breathe in like air?"
Immigrants to Florida absolve the state of its own history, through ignorance or else a desire to embrace more romantic, tourist-friendly, versions of the past. The solid citizens of the heartland carry their values to Florida, but they also imbibe Southernness, as demonstrated in their reluctance to pay fair taxes or, as Martha Barnett puts it, "invest in our infrastructure or education."
Gary Mormino says, "Floridians think like Hoosiers but vote like Crackers." This is not new. After the Civil War, the Reconstruction government encouraged Northerners to move to Florida. These stalwart liberals, former abolitionists, were to both build up the tax base and de-Southernize the place. Burn the Big House down, metaphorically speaking.
In 1865, the ink barely dry on Lee's Appomattox surrender, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the "little woman" who, according to Lincoln (apocryphally, at least), "made the great war" with her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, moved to Florida. First she rented a St. Johns River plantation called Laurel Grove, then bought her own house at Mandarin. But it was hard to concentrate on making the revolution. Being rich and white she found Southern life quite comfortable: all those charming servants so available and so cheap. Stowe disapproved of the way that Florida black folks often found themselves back in the cotton or tobacco fields, picking for wages that weren't a whole lot different from what they were getting before 1865.
On the other hand, she wrote, "The Negro is the natural laborer of tropical regions. He is immensely strong; he thrives and flourishes physically under a temperature that exposes a white man to disease and death."
Stowe wasn't alone in her appreciation of postslavery Florida. In the early 20th century, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, Midwesterners who essentially invented the Florida tourist industry, lured visitors to the state with promises of sunshine, yes, but also a guilt-free Old South. Smiling black butlers served champagne punch at the Breakers and the Royal Ponciana, Flagler's fancy Palm Beach hotels. Guests were transported around the island in "Afro-mobiles," rickshaws pulled by black men. Blacks in Palm Beach were required to carry a permit showing they worked at one of the hotels or some white person's mansion. This charming custom lasted until the 1970s.
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Florida has chapters of neo-Confederate groups, such as the League of the South, who advocate resecession _ what with it working so well that time in 1861. Quite a few members and sympathizers (it's difficult to get hard numbers but perhaps several thousand) live in the Tampa Bay area. There will be the odd klan flare-up in Florida, as well as headline-making incidents such as the time in Perry when a black man walked into a bar only to be told he had to sit in the back room.
There are also less malign folkways: guys dressing up in gray uniforms, re-enacting the Civil War battles of Olustee and Natural Bridge. Still, you could dismiss these examples of Dixie atavism as isolated events or part of yesterday's Florida, not today's.
So let's put Confederate eruptions aside for the moment and look at how Florida behaves politically: what the state spends on education; how the state taxes its citizens; what social values the state's laws and lawmakers exhibit. Again, Florida looks more like Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana than California, New York or Ohio.
Every year Florida legislators, aided and abetted by Gov. Jeb Bush, try to reintroduce prayer in the schools, build lots more prisons, make sure gays are never allowed to adopt children, restrict reproductive rights and attack privacy rights _ as in the cruel and unseemly "Terri's Law" _ all the while reducing money for the poor and the sick.
Florida tolerates neoslavery in the sugar cane and tomato fields. Florida's taxes are regressive: corporate taxes are low, sales taxes are high. I'll give Florida this: Unlike Alabama, we don't tax food. But then there are so many sales tax exemptions in Florida, including such necessities as sky boxes and fishing boat chartering. All these elements conspire to keep Florida barefoot and backward in too many ways, despite the glitz of Worth Avenue, the glamor of Miami Beach and the middle class comforts of Orlando.
And when it comes to education, Florida embodies some of the worst aspects of the South, historically the most poorly educated region of the country. Linen-suited characters in Southern novels may quote the Aeneid and Shakespeare, but in real life, few Southern state legislatures have made book-learning a priority.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau Florida shells out an average of $7,453 in public school revenue per student, which places the state 44th nationally. New York ($12,847) and New Jersey ($12,347) beat Florida by a long chalk.
But Florida's also beaten by Alabama, at $7,877, 37th in the country. Teachers in Florida make $6,000 below the national average. Many of them try to move to Georgia. The salaries are higher there, often by as much as $10,000.
"You don't get what you don't pay for," says Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. The privatizing True Believers who run Florida's government keep saying that "throwing money" at education isn't the solution. But a kid in a Gadsden County or Marion County or Glades County school with a leaky roof, torn-up textbooks and too few computers probably figures a cash infusion sure wouldn't hurt.
"It's as if you say, "I want to own an Acura, but I only want to pay for a Kia,' that's Florida's attitude," says Pudlow. "The state throws money at prisons, corporations, rich people, but not schools."
Or universities. Florida's per capita spending on higher ed falls near the bottom of the national chart _ 48th, 49th or 50th, depending on which formula you use. This does not mean UF, FSU, or USF provide a substandard degree to their students or engage in low-rent research. On the contrary. Florida universities have astonishingly good faculty, despite the cavalier way they're treated by the Legislature.
Lawmakers seem to see classes and laboratories as tedious academic appendages of useful and interesting football factories. Florida is a large and prosperous state; its universities' peer institutions should be Michigan, Berkeley, Ohio State, Wisconsin. These schools have Top 25 football programs as well as first-rate libraries, highly ranked programs, upper-end faculty salaries and (this is signally important) excellent stipends for graduate students and teaching assistants. Instead, Florida's universities belong to the sphere of Ole Miss, Oklahoma, LSU _ colleges in states still struggling with the old Southern curse of poverty and low expectations.
Cuba has a higher literacy rate than Florida.
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Cuba and Florida have been intertwined since the 16th century. Now the Cuban exiles, the state's most visible and perhaps most overtly politically and culturally powerful immigrants, are often cited as what makes Florida "different" from the rest of the South. But the Cubans are arguably the most Southern people on Earth. Cuba was a plantation society, a slave society. Fidel Castro mounted a rebellion that destroyed the landed class, and now Florida Cubans talk about him the way the Daughters of the Confederacy talk about Gen. Sherman.
The exiles understand the Lost Cause. They romanticize defeat so heavily you can almost hear the theme music from Gone With the Wind playing in the background.
Now, Cubans aren't indistinguishable from Faulkner characters or even denizens of rural North Florida. They do, however, manifest so-called "Southern" traits: piety, obsession with honor, chastity, violence, manliness _ sound like anyone you know? Far from being an exotic incursion into Florida, the Cubans fit right in.
Okay, I'm being a bit mischievous here. But my point is that while Florida advertises itself as Futureland, it cannot escape the old times here not forgotten: retrograde attitudes and budgetary priorities left over from the days when Dixie was played and water fountains said "White" or "Colored." There is such a thing, after all, as the new South.
Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this article.
Diane Roberts' book Dream State will be published in October by Free Press.