CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – In an unlikely marriage of desire to secede from the United States, two advocacy groups from opposite political traditions — New England and the South — are sitting down to talk.
Tired of foreign wars and what they consider right-wing courts, the Middlebury Institute wants liberal states like Vermont to be able to secede peacefully.
That sounds just fine to the League of the South, a conservative group that refuses to give up on Southern independence.
"We believe that an independent South, or Hawaii, Alaska, or Vermont would be better able to serve the interest of everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity," said Michael Hill of Killen, Ala., president of the League of the South.
Separated by hundreds of miles and divergent political philosophies, the Middlebury Institute and the League of the South are hosting a two-day Secessionist Convention starting Wednesday in Chattanooga.
They expect to attract supporters from California, Alaska and Hawaii, inviting anyone who wants to dissolve the Union so states can save themselves from an overbearing federal government.
If allowed to go their own way, New Englanders "probably would allow abortion and have gun control," Hill said, while Southerners "would probably crack down on illegal immigration harder than it is being now."
The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly prohibit secession, but few people think it is politically viable.
Vermont, one of the nation's most liberal states, has become a hotbed for liberal secessionists, a fringe movement that gained new traction because of the Iraq war, rising oil prices and the formation of several pro-secession groups.
Thomas Naylor, the founder of one of those groups, the Second Vermont Republic, said the friendly relationship with the League of the South doesn't mean everyone shares all the same beliefs.
But Naylor, a retired Duke University professor, said the League of the South shares his group's opposition to the federal government and the need to pursue secession.
"It doesn't matter if our next president is Condoleezza [Rice] or Hillary [Clinton], it is going to be grim," said Naylor, adding that there are secessionist movements in more than 25 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas.
The Middlebury Institute, based in Cold Spring, N.Y., was started in 2005. Its followers, disillusioned by the Iraq war and federal imperialism, share the idea of states becoming independent republics. They contend their movement is growing.
The first North American Separatist Convention was held last fall in Vermont, which, unlike most Southern states, supports civil unions. Voters there elected a socialist to the U.S. Senate.
Middlebury director Kirpatrick Sale said Hill offered to sponsor the second secessionist convention, but the co-sponsor arrangement was intended to show that "the folks up north regard you as legitimate colleagues."
"It bothers me that people have wrongly declared them to be racists," Sale said.
The League of the South says it is not racist, but proudly displays a Confederate Battle Flag on its banner.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, said the League of the South "has been on our list close to a decade."
"What is remarkable and really astounding about this situation is we see people and institutions who are supposedly on the progressive left rubbing shoulders with bona fide white supremacists," Potok said.
Sale said the League of the South "has not done or said anything racist in its 14 years of existence," and that the Southern Poverty Law Center is not credible.
"They call everybody racists," Sale said. "There are, no doubt, racists in the League of the South, and there are, no doubt, racists everywhere."
Harry Watson, director of the Center For the Study of the American South and a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it was a surprise to see The Middlebury Institute conferring with the League of the South, "an organization that's associated with a cause that many of us associate with the preservation of slavery."
He said the unlikely partnering "represents the far left and far right of American politics coming together."