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This coming Saturday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) is holding a major event to honor the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the beginning of the Civil War. The festivities will “commemorate” events that most Americans see as a terribly dark period in American history: “the founding of the Confederate States of America, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and the raising of the first Confederate Flag.” Little mention is made by the SCV, which calls the Civil War a “Second American Revolution,” of the widespread devastation and death that accompanied the war the Confederate States of America (CSA) fought to defend slavery.
Taking the end of the same route as Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, the celebrations will include a march up Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue to the Capitol, with participants festooned in hoop skirts, battle flags and other period dress. On the steps of the Capitol, the group will reenact the swearing in of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the CSA. The march begins at 11 a.m.
Expect to see the SCV joined by members of local hate groups active in the neo-Confederate movement, in particular members of the racist League of the South, which believes that slavery is “God-ordained” and that “Anglo-Celts” should be put in charge of an independent South, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group that argues that black people are “a retrograde species of humanity.” The SCV will visit Montgomery again in July, when it plans to hold its “Confederate Sesquicentennial SCV Reunion” at the downtown Embassy Suites hotel.
So who exactly are these folks who can’t get enough of the Confederacy?
The SCV, which is open only to male descendents of Confederate veterans, sees Southern history differently than most historians. From the group’s point of view, the CSA was simply a victim of Lincoln’s tyranny. The South did not intend to fire the first shots on Fort Sumter; rather, Lincoln manipulated them into it. There was no “Civil War,” but instead an attempt by one country to invade another, the CSA, that was simply fighting for “independence.” The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves and the war had nothing to do with slavery. The SCV can’t even admit that the South, home of slavery, may have been uniquely racist, arguing that there was more of that in the North. It is no wonder that hate group members are attracted to the SCV and its celebration of the blatantly white supremacist CSA.
For most of its more than century-long history, the SCV identified closely with the white supremacist beliefs of the pre-1865 South. Early editions of the SCV’s Confederate Veteran newsletter defended the Ku Klux Klan, argued that the United States was created “for white people,” and complained that “when a Negro has learned to read he ceases to work.” In its first decades, the SCV had few members, and had so declined by 1932 that its newsletter ceased publication.
In 1953, the SCV came under the control of William McCain, a hardened segregationist and staunch supporter of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the notorious government agency created to spy on and undermine the budding civil rights movement. In a 1960 speech in Chicago sponsored by the commission, McCain explained Mississippi life to the folks in Illinois, saying that those blacks who sought to desegregate Southern schools were “imports” from the North. “We insist that educationally and socially, we maintain a segregated society. … In all fairness, I admit that we are not encouraging Negro voting,” he said. “The Negroes prefer that control of the government remain in the white man’s hands.”
By the time he died in 1993, McCain had restarted the Confederate Veteran, pushed SCV membership to more than 18,000, created a sizeable endowment, and purchased a national headquarters—an antebellum plantation home no less—in Columbia, Tenn. Within the SCV, McCain is a legend and the group’s library is named for him.
But starting in the late 1980s, certain members decided it was finally time to modernize and give up the segregationist ghost. They tried to clean the SCV’s ranks of extremists and those with racist ideas and reorient the organization towards historical endeavors. In 1989 and again in 1992, the group passed anti-Klan resolutions, the latter one also condemning “all others who promote hate.”
But that victory for tolerance was short-lived. By the early 2000s, hundreds of anti-racist members had been kicked out of the group and the national leadership was taken over by bona fide extremists (for more, read here and here). One of those newly empowered extremists, white supremacist attorney Kirk Lyons, was advocating an end to the no-Klan policy. “Mere Klan membership should not be sufficient to remove a member,” Lyons wrote in a 2004 E-mail.
In the end, the extremists won the battle for the SCV and are now firmly in control. The current commander is Michael Givens, who is best known for his 2000 video about a “heritage celebration” held in Columbia, S.C., to defend the display of the
Confederate battle flag over the statehouse there (the flag was taken down in July 2000). The video was heavy with interviews from hate group members and other extremists, including Lyons. Lyons remains in the group’s leadership on the committee that oversees its Sam Davis Youth Camps, which indoctrinate children in the SCV’s whitewashed version of history. Lyons’ close ally Ron Wilson, who was once commander of the SCV and who oversaw the purge of anti-racists from the group, is on the same committee. Wilson, whose articles have been published in the CCC’s newsletter and whose company sold an anti-Semitic book, is also the current director of field operations for the group, tasked with expanding its ranks.
Extremists on the general staff include: Lt. Commander Charles Kelley Barrow, once was a member of the League of the South; Adjutant-in-Chief Chuck Rand, also a former leaguer; and Chief of Protocol Lee Millar, once the contact for an event scheduled to feature a blackface group called the Snowflake Minstrels. There are many more extremists to be found on the group’s many committees, including the Chaplain Corps’ John Weaver, an adherent of the anti-Semitic “religion” Christian Identity; Loy Mauch of the convention planning committee, who is a former chairman of the Arkansas chapter of the LOS, and Gene Andrews of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Boyhood Home committee, who casually boasted in a newsletter a few years ago that he belonged both to the CCC and the LOS.
No wonder then that just last week it was reported that the Mississippi division of the SCV wants the state to issue a special license plate, tied to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — a millionaire Memphis slave trader before the war, an apparent war criminal who presided over the massacre of surrendering black prisoners at Fort Pillow, Tenn., during it, and the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan afterward, when the Klan’s terrorist violence paved the way to a Jim Crow South. Forrest seems like just their kind of man.