SEWANEE, Tenn. (RNS) After passing through the Gothic campus of Sewanee: The University of the South, we came to an enormous cross looking down on a nearby valley.
The vista reminded me of Gettysburg, so I asked my host, "Did Sewanee play a part in the war?"
He knew exactly which war I meant -- the Civil War that is never far from the thoughts of Southerners even 150 years later -- and he said, "Oh yes."
It seems the school was founded in 1857 by Episcopal bishops from states that later would form the Confederacy, specifically to "resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us."
A leading slave trader named John Armfield bankrolled the venture. One founding bishop became a general in the Confederate Army. When Union troops destroyed campus buildings in 1863, loyalists collected fragments and placed them in the wall of the university's post-war chapel.
But that was yesterday. Also yesterday was the university's utter dominance of late 19th-century college football, as well as its attempt to be the "Oxford of the South," offering a full array of graduate schools.
As times changed, Sewanee adapted. It dropped out of the Southeastern Conference to focus on academics, and later scaled back its operations to a college, a writing program and an Episcopal seminary, all highly regarded.
When the university's head refused to desegregate the seminary in the 1950s, seminarians and half the faculty walked out. When a 1960s segregationist diehard donated a mace in honor of the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan, the mace eventually disappeared.
These dramas of adaptation on "the Domain," as they call Sewanee's 13,000 acres of mountaintop land, mirror dramas far beyond Tennessee.
Adaptation is how a bitter and broken South survived its own worst instincts after the war. Progressive pockets emerged in college towns and later in large cities. Hungry for Northern business, the region became less racially polarized. In time, a black man could become mayor of Atlanta and another could become the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of 50 years ago came to seem possible. Distant, yet possible.
But now the dream has receded. The fact of a black president seems to have reopened a pulsing vein of racism. Operating under cover of fiscal austerity, vengeful state politicians are gutting decades of programs that helped the South move forward by helping blacks and Latinos to have a chance.
No more affirmative action, they say; no more dark-skinned citizens flocking to voting stations; no more voting districts shaped by fairness; no more protections from ground-level aggression against people of color.
Once again, as happened in the 19th century, impoverished whites who should be lining up to resist predatory behavior by the moneyed class are being turned against their own best interests by race politics.
Now we have to ask whether Detroit was allowed to go bankrupt because its population is 80 percent black.
Does the military get parades but low pay and inadequate equipment because front-line troops tend to have deeper pigmentation?
Have public schools been thrown under the bus because urban school districts tend to serve blacks and dark-skinned immigrants?
Are ideological outcries against entitlements targeting all entitlements, or just those that benefit people of color?
Decades of racial tolerance have threatened whites to the point of backlash. Young right-wing politicians who are unschooled in tolerance and adaptation leap to stoke that backlash.
Difficult times are at hand.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)