Paul Greenberg

They introduce themselves politely in restaurants or diners, in a movie lobby or at some civic event, even in front of the Little Rock gate in Atlanta, which has become a kind of Arkansas crossroads. ("You don't know me, but . . .") Then they thank me for remembering Robert E. Lee every January 19th with a column on his birthday.

They don't tarry, and I may never see them again. Then they fade away, much like the Army of Northern Virginia (R.E. Lee, General). They have a look about them, or rather a manner. They come in different shapes and sizes, but they all have the same, diffident way about them -- as if they were used to dealing with people as persons, rather than en masse as customers or readers or voters or some other impersonal category. They know how to visit with others. It's a Southern thing, no matter where it happens.

Let's just say they have a shared understanding. They may be older, genteel white ladies or young military cadets. Sometimes they're aging black men, usually with roots in the Deep South, who mention that they had a grandfather or great-uncle named Robert E. Lee Johnson or Robert E. Lee Wilson, much like their white counterparts. Whatever the differences in their appearance, they share a distinctive quality that is never imposing but very much there.

Sometimes they'll let you know they don't make a habit of this sort of thing, that they're not interested in reliving the past or anything like that. They're the furthest thing from the bane of such discussions in these latitudes, the professional Southerner. ("I'm no Civil War buff or big Confederate or anything -- I do well to tell Gettysburg from Vicksburg -- but I just wanted to say . . .")

They're never intrusive. Indeed, they are concise almost to the point of being curt for Southerners, a voluble breed. It's clear they wish to make no display. It's as if they just wanted to . . . enroll. To go on record, that's all, and leave it at that. They know The War is over and, like Lee, they would let it be over.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.