From this week’s on-line edition of Time:
The Civil War’s 150th Anniversary Divides the South
By CLAIRE SUDDATH Claire Suddath – Thu Mar 3, 4:15 am ET
In 1867, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of a newly formed organization called the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest had been a slave trader before the Civil War; he was also the commanding officer during a battle known as the “Fort Pillow massacre” in Tennessee at which some 300 black Union troops were killed in 1864. (Whether they died in combat or were killed after they surrendered is still a matter of dispute.)
Now, in honor of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) are seeking to put Forrest on a Mississippi state license plate. But the state’s government opposes it. When asked to comment on the proposal, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, told the Associated Press, “It won’t become law because I won’t sign it.” (See the history of photographing the nation’s war dead.)
Barbour’s reaction is just one sign that things have changed since the South commemorated the Civil War’s Centennial in 1961. Back then, much of the South was still segregated – and many people, including Mississippi’s then-Governor Ross Barnett, were fighting to keep it that way. State and local governments took an active role in Confederate celebrations, using them to promote their causes. When the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, a group sponsored by the federal government, held its inaugural event in a Charleston, S.C. hotel, Madaline Williams, a delegate from the New Jersey legislature, was denied entry because she was black. For this year’s anniversary, there is no such commission.
And in February of this year, when a Jefferson Davis impersonator was sworn in on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol for a reenactment of the Confederate States of America’s 1861 Presidential inauguration, Alabama officials stayed away. Similarly, a December “Secession Ball,” held in Charleston, S.C. drew protests and a candlelight vigil from the NAACP. (See pictures of the Cold War’s influence on Art: 1945-1970.)
This year’s Civil War anniversary caps a decade in which Southern institutions have struggled mightily with the racial undertones of their Confederate monuments. In 2001, Georgia redesigned its state flag, shrinking the Confederate battle emblem that had adorned it ever since 1956. Six years later, it removed the symbol all together. The University of Mississippi – the same school that endured campus riots when James Meredith became the school’s first African-American student in 1962 – ditched its mascot Colonel Rebel, a plantation owner, in 2003. And last November, a federate appellate court upheld a Tennessee school district’s ban on Confederate-themed clothing.
As much of the South continues to distance itself from its racially divisive past, the organizations fighting to maintain the prominence of Confederate symbols are pushed further right of the mainstream. Nonetheless, the Sons of the Confederate South plan several highly publicized events over the next four years, as various Civil War-related anniversaries crop up. The club has 840 local chapters spread across 29 states, Europe and Australia. It was founded in 1896; aspiring members must prove direct relation to a former Confederate veteran in order to join. The SCV openly denounces the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who use the Confederate flag as a racist symbol. Former President Harry S. Truman and Clint Eastwood are often cited as members. (Read “How America Fights Its Wars.”)
But even as the SCV rejects traditional symbols of racism, they provoke debate with their promotion of contentious Civil War leaders like Forrest. “Robert E. Lee has been replaced as the great [Confederate] hero by Nathan Bedford Forrest by these Southern white heritage groups,” says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which investigates extremist groups. Lee owned slaves, Potok says, but “he was very much a statesman, and at the end of the Civil War he encouraged Southerners to rejoin the Union in heart and soul. Forrest was very much not like that. The fact that they want to honor him specifically says a lot about what they stand for.”
Chuck Rand, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calls any assumption that the Mississippi Forrest license plates are racist is a “knee-jerk reaction” by people who don’t understand the “real causes” of the Civil War. Or, as he calls it, “The War for Southern Independence.” But critics point out that slavery isn’t addressed in these commemorations. The group’s reenactment of Jefferson Davis’ inauguration took place near Martin Luther King’s old Montgomery church and the spot where Rose Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955. But during the event, no mention of the South’s racial history was made.
The SCV’s controversial events often make the news, but their perspective on the war and its causes isn’t getting much traction nationally. In December, the History channel refused to run one of the SCV’s commercials that blamed the North for slavery, claiming that slaves were essentially forced onto South plantation owners. Another commercial, also refused by the History channel, claimed that the Civil War was “not a civil war… [but] a war in which Southerners fought to defend their homes and families against an aggressive invasion by federal troops.” (Comment on this story.)
“Lincoln waged a war to conquer his neighbor,” Rand explains, “In our view he was an aggressor against another nation, just as Hitler was an aggressor against other nations.” Most people, Southern or otherwise, are not likely to agree with such an inflammatory statement, but the sentiment underlying Rand’s assertion has deep roots. “Coming out of the experience of the Civil War and Southern Reconstruction, there was a sense of wounded pride and grievance,” explains James Cobb, University of Georgia history professor and author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. But even if racism, intolerance, and discrimination still plague the South – as they do the rest of the country – the sense of regional separateness on those issues has largely diminished. “Time has passed,” says Cobb. “To uphold the Confederacy in this way has become a fairly extreme position.”
Extreme or not, the Sons of Confederate Veterans aren’t giving up the fight. They pledge to advance their cause through parades, advertisements and the battle for commemorative license plates. The South may never rise again, Rand admits, but that doesn’t mean it has to disappear completely. “The North is a direction,” he says. “The South is a place.”
I’m no fan of Haley Barbour, but I give him kudos for doing the right thing here.
Once again, the SCV’s radical agenda is exposed. This organization’s blatantly revisionist approach to history needs to be highlighted, and it needs to be resisted.
And to be quite clear about this. I love the south. I intend to retire there. Most of the SCV members I know–and I know many–are good and decent people who truly commemorate their ancestors. But they also do so without having to justify and humanize chattel slavery by claiming nonsensical things like slaves were forced on the south by the north, that the Civil War was anything but the federal government putting down an active rebellion, and, most reprehensibly, by trying to make slavery acceptable by promoting a myth that tens of thousands of slaves willingly–as opposed to being forced into service by virtue of their bondage–served in the Confederate armies during the war.
We must fight this neo-Confederate hooey wherever we find it.Scridb filter