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Neo-Confederates Insist Flag Fly Over South Carolina Statehouse

A neo-Confederate movement, increasingly rife with white supremacists and racist ideology, is growing across America.

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."

The Role of Nationalism
Southern partisans have been playing off much larger forces than simple resentment of black advances or attacks on the Confederate flag. Around the world, exclusionary ethnic nationalisms have been on the upsurge since the collapse of the Soviet Union in places like Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, the former Yugoslavia and much of Eastern Europe. America is no exception.

These nationalist movements have grown, in large part, as a reaction to economic and political globalism — the "New World Order" that opponents fear is turning the world into a monolithic, multicultural and multiracial culture. More and more, nationalists are emphasizing their own particular racial history.

"There is a tremendous amount of consciousness in society about memory and heritage," says Amherst College history professor David Blight, who's written extensively about the Civil War and the American civil rights movement.

"It has to do with localism, a push to maintain a distinct identity. For the South, it has to do with wanting to stay unique in a society that's being homogenized."

Neo-Confederates themselves speak of the inspiration they draw from such "devolutionist" movements. The break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s first got LOS thinking seriously about secession.

The separatist movements of the Quebecois in Canada and the northern Italians provided further proof that this was now a viable political stance. In fact, the League of the South's original name, the Southern League, was a takeoff on Italy's secessionist Northern League. (The name was changed because it already belonged to a baseball minor league.)

Like their international counterparts, those in the American neo-Confederate movement have political aims and have often used the political process.

The CCC was always a political group, including scores of Southern lawmakers as members and working to influence domestic policy. In Mississippi, for instance, the CCC wields considerable political power, often vetting candidates and making endorsements.

The LOS, for its part, was initially more cultural in nature, emphasizing what were seen as assaults on Southern values.

But with time, it, too, has become more political. In the summer of 1999, LOS members were the core of an exploratory committee that eventually turned into the Southern Party, which is now running a slate of candidates across the South.

Although LOS has had some disagreements with the party over its degree of centralization, it remains close to it in terms of ideology. LOS also has been highly active in South Carolina, attacking politicians who don't support the Confederate flag via a political action committee whose motto is "No Votes for Turncoats" (see The Neo-Confederates).

'A Multicultural Mud Bath'
The racism in this movement is undeniable. Leading white supremacist activists like Kirk Lyons and David Duke have been warmly received. Politicized groups like the Council and the League have spouted racist rhetoric with increasing confidence.

These two groups, in turn, have exerted a radical rightward tug on less political groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy — groups that over their histories have professed an exclusive devotion to heritage and the remembrance of their defeated forbears.

Indeed, the influence of the 24,000 members of the CCC and the LOS — the two clearly racist groups in the movement — is being felt among neo-Confederate groups, most notably the 27,000 members of the SCV.

Several years ago, the SCV reportedly kicked out Ken Burns, who produced a highly regarded public television series on the Civil War, after he suggested Robert E. Lee was held responsible for more American deaths than the Japanese in World War II.

Tellingly, the same group has failed to eject seasoned racists like Kirk Lyons and magazine editor Jared Taylor.

Shortly after the Burns decision, the LOS and SCV approved an "affiliation policy" linking the two groups in "non-political" matters. "Gauging from the actions of the latest SCV convention in early August [1998]," Hill wrote at the time, "the old guard there is on its way out, and the organisation appears ready to work with us as a fellow pro-South group. This is good news long overdue."

The spread of racist ideology in the neo-Confederate movement is also apparent in the many cross-memberships that activists hold in different groups (see A League of Their Own and The Neo-Confederates).

Members including many leaders of the racist LOS and CCC, in particular, also belong to other organizations such as the SCV.

With these cross-memberships, explicit racism has risen to the movement's surface in speeches, on postings on the Internet and in neo-Confederate publications.

Even the original radicals in this coalition have grown more hard-line. In July, for instance, the Council of Conservative Citizens posted a remarkable editorial on its main Web page that attacked the Spoletto music festival held annually in Charleston, S.C.

"Spoletto is a multicultural mud bath," the unsigned editorial reads, using language similar to that of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, "which attracts mostly queers and weidos [sic]. The streets teem with f-- couples groping each other while greasy white yankee girls make sure everyone notices their lust for black men."

"The Confederate flag represents what South Carolina used to be," the editorial concludes. "Spoletto is what South Carolina is about to become."

The aspersions heaped on the NAACP by so many neo-Confederates also are telling. Long simmering racism has boiled over. The CCC regularly refers to the NAACP as "gangsters."

And the NAACP's members are described as "SABLES, self-appointed black liberal eccentrics," by John Cripps, a gubernatorial candidate and LOS president in Mississippi.

"In Webster's," Cripps says as he explains that the word "sable" is a pun, "it simply means the color black. But in the first Webster's, Noah Webster defined a sable as an 'animal of the weasel kind.'"

According to Blight, the Amherst professor, the increasing stridency of the neo-Confederate movement "has to do, in part, with the increasing power of blacks — black congressmen, black businessmen, the increasing visibility of blacks in general." Episodes like the NAACP's anti-flag campaign send many neo-Confederates into reactionary spasms, and old resentments are laid bare.

A Neo-Confederate Martyr
A case that brought these tensions to the surface was the infamous murder of Michael Westerman, a 19-year-old whom many neo-Confederates now call the "first [modern] Confederate martyr." In 1995, while Westerman was driving his Confederate flag-adorned truck through his hometown of Guthrie, Ky., several carloads of black teenagers started following him.

He was shot by one pursuer in a convenience store parking lot, apparently because of the flag he flew.

As described by Tony Horwitz in Confederates in the Attic, Westerman's funeral truly took on the air of a Confederate hero's memorial.

A convoy of SCV, LOS, Heritage Preservation Association (HPA) and unrobed Ku Klux Klan members made its way to Westerman's gravesite, where an SCV "commander" said Westerman had joined "the Confederate dead under the same honorable circumstances" as those who fell in battle. The playing of "Dixie" brought the service to a close.

All concerned then retired to Guthrie's Jefferson Davis memorial, where the event took a political — and openly racist — turn. An HPA official blamed the murder on the "NAACP, Queer Nation and others [who] have been fomenting hatred against the honorable culture of the South."

Others who spoke included Jared Taylor, the white separatist editor of American Renaissance magazine who in 1999 was also a national board member of the white supremacist CCC.

And for his part, Hill declared melodramatically: "It is open season on anyone who has the audacity to question the dictates of an all-powerful federal government or the illicit rights bestowed on a compliant and deadly underclass that now fulfills a role similar to that of Hitler's brown-shirted street thugs in the 1930s."

Increasingly, such extremist views have become characteristic of the contemporary neo-Confederate movement.

Many groups have taken the lead of LOS in seeing the South as being fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic" — disregarding contributions made by blacks, Native Americans, Jews and others to Southern culture.

They largely follow Hill's view that "white Southerners should [not] give control over their civilisation and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants."

These ideas are closely connected to others put forward by the likes of Jared Taylor, who posits "a relationship between IQ scores and racial differences in poverty rates, welfare rates, illegitimacy rates, and crime rates."

Many groups defend slavery, as well. "No apologies for slavery should be made," is the way that Hill puts it. "Christians who owned slaves in the South were on firm scriptural ground," League members Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson add in their pamphlet, Southern Slavery: As it Was.

Or, as LOS member and Washington Times national reporter Robert Stacy McCain says in an essay posted on the League's main site, slavery was "generally" characterized by "cordial and affectionate relations" between white and black Southerners.

Pride in the South
Pushing these and similar themes, the neo-Confederate movement has grown substantially, providing a home for thousands of people with racist feelings who nonetheless seek the cover of groups that present themselves as mainstream.

But it would be wrong to say that they speak for all Southern whites who show pride in their Southern heritage or interest in the history of the Confederacy.

Shelby Foote, famed historian of the Civil War, decries what he sees as a perversion of Southern heritage by some. "I treasure Confederate heritage greatly, but I don't like the yahoos who give it a bad name," Foote told the Intelligence Report.

"I think they've succeeded in identifying Confederate heritage as dedicated to slavery. The re-enactors and real Confederate people," Foote insists, "don't want the return of slavery or anything resembling it."

Joe Riley, the white mayor of Charleston, agrees that most Southern whites are not racist. Riley led a march from Charleston to Columbia earlier this year to put pressure on lawmakers to take the flag down from the Statehouse and, he says, to demonstrate that most South Carolinians agreed with his stance.

"The opposition was predictable," Riley told the Intelligence Report. "I got letters and hate mail and things like that — which I expected. I got one death threat. But I got a lot more words of encouragement.

Most people wanted that flag to come down. And the interesting thing is that on the march, two-thirds of those who participated were white and about a third were black — about the racial makeup of our state."

Riley is not alone in his sentiments.

"As a white Southerner for eight generations, my heritage is the Confederate past," says Yale history professor Glenda Gilmore. "My ancestors fought for the Confederacy and owned slaves. But I know that my heritage is based on hate, on the hatred that grew from owning other human beings and fighting one's countrymen for the right to own those human beings."

"There is an enormous amount to be proud of as a white Southerner. But slavery, fighting for the Confederacy, and maintaining white supremacy for 100 years after 1865 are not sources of pride for me. Instead, I'm proud of how much white Southerners have changed."