Neo-Confederates Insist Flag Fly Over South Carolina Statehouse
One brisk day last January, some 8,000 people gathered on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse. Dressed in Confederate soldiers' gray, draped in the stars and bars of the Confederacy or simply wearing street clothes, they had come together to rally for the Confederate battle flag. Alone among the Southern states, South Carolina still flew the flag above the dome of its Statehouse.
It was a dramatic moment for neo-Confederates, a day when the nation got its first real glimpse of a new social movement, assembled en masse against the backdrop of the world's largest Confederate flag, which had been unfurled on the Statehouse steps.
The ralliers demanded that state officials refuse to bend to a NAACP boycott aimed at bringing the flag down. They denounced anyone who opposed the flag, including the NAACP, which one South Carolina state senator described in a speech as the "National Association of Retarded People."
And they spoke angrily of the "political correctness" that they saw as the nemesis of a reborn and proud South, a South unashamed of its history and historical symbols.
By June, the battle was lost. In a compromise, the flag was removed from the Statehouse to a nearby spot on the Capitol grounds. But the neo-Confederate movement, whose ideologues had spearheaded the vigorous and sometimes ugly battle to keep the flag, does not seem to have suffered unduly.
Indeed, in the short time since that loss, neo-Confederates seem only to have picked up steam, staging more flag rallies, running a political action committee to back flag supporters, and even, through a new party, running a slate of candidates across the South.
'Dropping Their Pretenses'
The movement is a large one. Its ideological core comes mainly from the League of the South (LOS), a group with 9,000 members that has been growing steadily since its formation in 1994 (see A League of Their Own); and, to a lesser extent, the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), with about 15,000 members.
But the influence of these two hard-line organizations is also making itself felt on thousands of people in relatively apolitical, longstanding groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
The bonds between many of these groups are strong ones. Most of the key ideologues in the movement are members of more than one group, typically LOS and CCC, but also many of the more "mainstream" neo-Confederate groups (see group biographies in The Neo-Confederates).
A few have links to militias and other antigovernment "Patriot" groups. But what may be most remarkable of all is the way that racism, a visceral dislike for black people, has come to characterize the movement.
"They're getting frustrated and just dropping their pretenses," says Ed Sebesta, a longtime researcher of the neo-Confederate movement.
"They certainly want the revival of the principles of the Confederacy," adds Arizona State University historian Brooks Simpson (see interview White Lies), "and one of those principles would in fact be white supremacy, unquestioned and explicit. The racism that's woven into their comments is often quite astonishing."
So, too, is the success of their message. Somehow, support for racist theories, segregation and Southern secessionism — key elements behind the Civil War — has become the ugly core of a contemporary social movement.
Roots in Racism
The appearance of a modern neo-Confederate movement, of course, is not the first time in recent history that reactionary groups have arisen to defend the Southern cause. In the 1950s and 1960s, the racist White Citizens Councils arose to defend segregation and Jim Crow laws (see Remembering Reality).
By the 1970s, the White Citizens Councils were disappearing, but were replaced by the CCC, a group that held similar racist views (see story on the CCC in the Winter 1999 edition of the Intelligence Report, No. 93).
It was in this period that a contemporary version of the neo-Confederate movement — unabashedly political and beginning to show its naked racism — began to build. The CCC, in particular, led the attack on such things as school busing, non-white immigration and affirmative action.
But the contemporary neo-Confederate movement did not really take off until the League of the South was founded in 1994. Thanks largely to its veneer as a respectable, non-racist organization led mainly by academics, LOS grew very rapidly, counting 4,000 members by 1998 and more than twice that number now.
The group mixes clearly racial themes — like its rendering of the South as "Anglo-Celtic" and little else — with anger at the multicultural "New World Order." LOS also opposes non-white immigration, busing and interracial marriage.
And unlike the CCC, the LOS imbued the Confederate flag with ultimate importance. "The campaign to eradicate our largely Anglo-Celtic Southern symbols is nothing more than an ill disguised attempt to destroy us as a distinct people," writes Michael Hill, who has been president of the LOS from the start.
"A man is identified by the symbols of his history and culture, and the destruction of those symbols prefigures the destruction of the man himself."
Hill, who believes Americans should "tell the courts to go to hell, take back their Second Amendment right to arm themselves, and organize 'well regulated Militia[s]' state by state," also sees the Confederate flag as a symbol of defiance against the federal government.
One of his many warning calls in the midst of actions against the flag: "As our enemies succeed against the symbols that represent our identity as Southerners, they will surely then come for us in the flesh."