Originally created 02/13/01

South gets attention of teacher



COMMERCE, Ga. - The average age in this Jackson County class is probably 12. The questions from pupils listening to a lecture on the Civil War show they're doing their best to imagine the life of soldiers tramping the battlefields of the 1860s. Did he have to be a certain height or weight to fight? On what side was baseball inventor Abner Doubleday? Who won the battle of Manassas?

"We whupped 'em good," teacher Thomas Benton says.

Crouched over their notes in the darkened room, decorated by the 1956 state flag and pictures of Confederate heroes such as Robert Toombs, the pupils don't bat an eye at the wry partisan answer. They're already aware that their courtly teacher sometimes chooses to present their state's history from a somewhat personal perspective.

Supporters of Georgia's old flag might have lost the battle of the banners, but they're scoring points in the struggle over the state's heritage in Mr. Benton's classes, where for the past 27 years eighth-graders have gotten a daily dose of Georgia history, taught from a distinctly Southern stance.

Mr. Benton, the descendent of several Confederate soldiers, tells pupils at East Jackson Middle School that thousands of black Confederate soldiers earned good wages, Northern child labor was comparable to Southern slavery in cruelty, and the battle of Bull Run is called Manassas by true Southerners.

"Northerners and other politically correct individuals call it the Civil War," the teacher says. "Southerners call it the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression."

The grits-and-red-eye-gravy atmosphere that pervades the room has a lot to do with the roots of the teacher, a fifth-generation resident of Jackson County and a present-day commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Jackson County was founded by former Georgia Gov. James Jackson, an anti-slavery delegate to the Georgia constitutional convention, and Mr. Benton said the county also produced a state senator who sponsored legislation to put the Rebel battle emblem on the state flag in 1956.

Mr. Benton, who protested last month's flag change, is still fuming over an undercount by the Atlanta media of the protesters, himself included, who lined streets from the state Capitol to Turner Field protesting Gov. Roy Barnes' successful bill to remove the divisive emblem from the banner.

A goal of his classes, Mr. Benton said, is to boost his pupils' self-esteem as Southerners.

"One of the things I stress is always be proud you're a Southerner," Mr. Benton said.

"Don't make excuses for the way you sound, the way you talk. Southerners are unique. We're polite. We're not pushy, not loud. We've been made to feel inferior since 1865. The South was subjugated to a worse fate than Germany or Japan. It was something we endured for 100 years."