Today's neo-Confederate ideologues are the latest in a long line of highly conservative Southern intellectuals. Or are they?
Most Americans think they know a thing or two about the Civil War. It was fought over slavery, sparked by the insistence of Southern leaders on an extension of the "peculiar institution" into the Western territories. Black Southerners secretly cheered the Yankees, seeing them as liberators and friends. As bloody as it was, the war ultimately resulted in a more perfect union, a nation that more fully embraced democracy.
But there is a surprising crowd that sees it altogether differently.
From one end of the South to the other, thinkers of the burgeoning neo-Confederate movement have been for more than a decade plugging a heterodox view of the Civil War and Southern history in general.
In universities, colleges and academic institutes, a group of Southern intellectuals, many of them boasting Ph.D.s and other impressive credentials, are vigorously promoting their unusual ideas (see The Ideologues).
The situation is "profoundly depressing," says Mark Malvasi, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia who participated in several early seminars of the League of the South (LOS), the primary organization in the neo-Confederate movement and one to which most of these Southern thinkers have belonged.
"They seem to have abandoned the careful and honest scholarly exposition of Southern history and culture. Perhaps, though, scholarship was never the intent, but provided a veneer of respectability to cover social and political ambitions."
What do today's neo-Confederates believe?
As a general matter, they don't think the Civil War was fought over slavery — it was really about tariffs, or imposing a newly powerful federal government on the South, or spreading the industrial system of the North. They say that the South was "invaded," even if Southerners fired the first shots at Fort Sumter, S.C.
Most don't think slavery was all that bad, and some believe that segregation was a perfectly fine policy meant to protect the integrity of both races, black and white alike.
They think that Lincoln was an evil man, bent on destroying the South and willing to use any excuse to do so. They typically see the North as godless, and determined to wreck the Southerner's natural religiosity. They believe the core population of the South and the bearer of its culture is "Anglo-Celtic," meaning white. Many support theocracy, oppose interracial marriage and reject the notion of equality.
"I consider them cranks," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor and author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. "Their views on the Civil War era, Reconstruction and slavery are not in tune with modern scholarship. They live in their own little world with their own little ideas."
The little ideas of the neo-Confederates are being taught in classrooms from the deep South to Oklahoma, Baltimore and beyond. They are discussed in the halls of prestigious teaching institutions like Emory University in Atlanta. They issue from right-wing foundations like Illinois' Rockford Institute. They are delivered in pop form in the pages of futuristic novels like Heiland.
And they are being sown among the young by institutes set up for the single purpose of promoting the cause.
LOS, for instance, has since the mid-1990s run the League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern History and Culture, "the educational arm of the Southern independence movement," dedicated to fighting "the demonisation of the South." The institute, which holds seminars and summer schools in Abbeville, S.C., boasts that its 33 teachers are "the South's finest unreconstructed scholars."
A similar effort, called the Abbeville Institute but located in Georgia, is led by former LOS board member Donald Livingston, an Emory philosophy professor. Its Web site describes it as devoted to the "Southern tradition," including the allegedly ignored "achievements of white people in the South."
About 30 people are listed as institute scholars, a staff that overlaps heavily with the LOS institute's staff.
What these institutes teach is commonly portrayed as the fruit of an intellectual tradition that goes back to the 19th century and even, at the earliest, the colonial era — the line of thought known as "the Southern conservative tradition."
The Southern conservative tradition stretches all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's belief in the superiority of an agriculture-based society to one built on commerce. Its giants include men like John Calhoun, the preeminent antebellum theorizer in favor of states' rights.
To many, the tradition includes palpably racist thinkers such as Robert Lewis Dabney, who was chaplain to Civil War Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Thomas Dixon, whose 1905 novel The Clansman helped spark the 20th century rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The tradition also boasts of the Nashville Agrarians, a dozen Vanderbilt University-connected essayists who wrote I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in the 1930s.
Essentially, this intellectual tradition celebrates Southern agricultural life as Edenic, and contrasts its religious and tradition-bound ways with what is seen as the vulgar materialism of the industrializing North. It is, in the view of many, hopelessly romantic, tied more to an imagined golden age of Southern culture than to an honest appraisal of rural 19th century life as it really was.
Be that as it may, strains of racism have been intertwined with this tradition almost from the start. In the South, a defense of "tradition" has a habit of ending up as an apologia for slavery.
In a sense, the contemporary neo-Confederate movement was heralded by the 1988 publication of Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South.
The book, by University of Alabama historian Grady McWhiney (see profile, in "The Ideologues") but also including a foreword by McWhiney's colleague and long-time collaborator Forrest McDonald, argued that Southerners and Northerners were of different immigrant stock that explained their different natures.
Once again, Northerners were depicted as commerce-minded, while white Southerners, descended from freedom-starved Celts from the far reaches of the British Isles, were described as don't-tread-on-me Jeffersonians.
Cracker Culture has been harshly criticized for ignoring the contributions to Southern culture of African slaves, Native Americans and other minorities. Nevertheless, it was the first in what would become a flood of modern "pro-South" writing.
In 1994, two brothers, Walter Donald Kennedy (see profile, in "The Ideologues") and James Ronald Kennedy, published what has become the bible of the neo-Confederate movement.
The South Was Right! passionately argues for a second Southern secession. It defends antebellum slavery, describing relations between slaves and their masters as "very close and mutually respectful." It pillories what it describes as the "Yankee myth of history."
That same year saw the organization of the League of the South (originally known as the Southern League) by a group of some 40 men, many of them Southern professors. It was led by Michael Hill (see profile, in "The Ideologues"), who was then a history professor at Stillman College, a historically black school. (Hill remains LOS president today.)
Initially, LOS seemed to concentrate on a cultural defense of the South, complaining bitterly of the treatment Southerners received in the mainstream media. But it wasn't long before it began seriously advocating a second secession, calling for an essentially theocratic form of government, and openly advocating a return to "general European cultural hegemony" in the South.
The group officially came out against interracial marriage. Hill defended antebellum slavery as "God-ordained" and another LOS leader described segregation as necessary to racial "integrity." Hill called for a hierarchal society composed of "superiors, equals and inferiors, each protected in their legal privileges" and attacked egalitarianism as a "fatal heresy."
By 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center was listing LOS as a hate group.
LOS grew quickly, swollen by white Southerners attracted by the group's academic veneer — a veneer that provided some shelter against accusations of racism. In 2000, it claimed 9,000 members, the majority in the deep South.
That same year, the revisionist views of LOS intellectuals and their fellow travelers received their first serious public attention. On March 31, in the midst of a major political brouhaha over the Confederate battle flag that flew above the South Carolina statehouse, a group of about 100 history professors put out a statement saying that the state had seceded to protect slavery and calling for the flag to come down.
"The historical record clearly shows that the cause for which the South seceded and fought a devastating war was slavery," Charles Joyner, a history professor at Coastal Carolina University and the chief author of the statement, told the Intelligence Report recently. "That's not an interpretation. That's a fact."
The statement provoked an immediate reaction from LOS. Clyde Wilson (see profile, in "The Ideologues"), a professor of Southern history at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and a founding board member of LOS, led a group of 41 academics who claimed "slavery did not cause the war."
The North invaded the South, the group alleged, because of its "resentment that Southern society provided skilled and determined opposition to the desire to turn the United States into a centralized pro-business state."
Many of those who signed Wilson's statement looked with particular reverence on Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald. Together, the two had built one of the most conservative history departments in the U.S. at the University of Alabama.
Well-known exponents of the Southern conservative tradition, the men shepherded LOS President Michael Hill through his doctoral program — a fact that probably explains Hill's view of the South as fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic," an idea at the core of Cracker Culture.
But Hill's mentors aren't thrilled with their former student.
McWhiney did serve on the LOS board for a few years at the start, said Donald Frazier, executive director of the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation in Abilene, Texas. But, Frazier said, McWhiney began to suffer from dementia just as the LOS "took a turn" toward racism.
Frazier said that LOS "stole Grady's identity," using him as a selling point for LOS even as McWhiney's Alzheimer's advanced. After Frazier convinced McWhiney to quit the LOS, Clyde Wilson sent Frazier a letter accusing him of bowing to "political correctness," Frazier said.
Wilson said he did not remember writing such a letter and anyway, he added angrily, "The McWhiney Foundation is not so important or admirable a thing."
Forrest McDonald, too, denounced LOS. "I was at the organizing meeting and there was an undercurrent of racism," McDonald told the Intelligence Report. "A bunch of us said, 'We don't want to be a part of that,' and got out of there."
Clyde Wilson's reply? He claimed that McDonald donated $300 to LOS at its first meeting. McDonald's change of heart, Wilson suggested, was due to "Mrs. McDonald," a woman he said "generally makes the decisions for the family."
But perhaps the most remarkable criticism of LOS and the neo-Confederate movement comes from Eugene Genovese, a historian of slavery and the South who is certainly the best-known academic associated with neo-Confederate ideas.
Death of the Southern Tradition?
Genovese was for decades a Marxist academic best known for his 1974 study of Southern slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. The book was remarkable both for its meticulous scholarship and for refusing to treat slaves as nothing more than victims. Genovese's full-bodied treatment showed that slaves had constructed a genuine culture.
But then there came a turning. In 1985, Genovese told Southern Partisan, a strident neo-Confederate journal, that his research was increasingly focusing on Southern whites.
In 1993, he gave a lecture at Harvard University that described "the media and an academic elite" as working to strip white Southerners of their heritage and identity — "a cultural and political atrocity," as he described it at the time.
The following year, just as the contemporary neo-Confederate movement was getting organized in the form of LOS, Genovese published a major attack on Communism in Dissent, a left-wing journal. Two years later, he converted to Catholicism.
Genovese now argued from a palpably pro-South position. He saw the Yankee North as representing a kind of soulless capitalism, a materialistic society without constraint or regard for people. He lamented the loss of "national purpose and moral consensus" in America, even as a sprawling federal government grew increasingly bureaucratic, impersonal and mindlessly pro-business.
He identified himself with a Southern conservative tradition that lauded family, religion and community.
But Genovese also understood the dangers of his position. Ending his 1994 book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, he dwelled on "a few grim thoughts" on its penultimate page.
He described how Southern conservative intellectuals had been "imprisoned by racism" during the civil rights movement and warned starkly against "those anything-but-conservative politicians" who play to "the worst instincts of white people." The best aspects of Southern conservatism, he worried, could be drowned by race hate.
Now, Genovese says, that seems to have happened.
"I've worried about this possibility for a long time," Genovese told the Intelligence Report. "I feared years ago that with the death of M.E. Bradford [a key Southern thinker] the Southern conservative tradition would turn out this way."
Now retired from the Georgia University Center, Genovese referred the Report to Mark Malvasi, whose doctoral thesis he had supervised and who, he said, was far better acquainted with the neo-Confederate movement than he. Malvasi not only attended early LOS seminars, but also interned under Clyde Wilson.
The Southern tradition, Malvasi says, is finished. "If the best Mike Hill et al can do is mock black people and denounce interracial dating and marriage, then there is no Southern conservative tradition left to preserve." Malvasi is still listed by the League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern History and Culture as an affiliated scholar, but says he has not been associated with the institute for years.
In fact, Malvasi says that LOS pushes "bad history" and "propaganda" that should be rebutted by "serious scholars."
"They are just breeding more and more hatred," the professor says. "Let's just hope they don't get any more power."