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Weekend Read: Frank Earnest is the chief of ‘heritage defense.’ The question is, whose heritage?

Even before neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder, no one disputed he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.

And neither the prosecution nor the defense disputed that Heather Heyer died on impact. Watching video of that moment in court this week, one juror clapped his hand over his mouth — but Fields showed no emotion.

Fields was among the white supremacists who were in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove giant statues of Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from its parks.

By the time the white nationalists, Klansmen and extremists like Fields descended on the city, a lawsuit with the same goal had already been winding its way through court for months.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and other plaintiffs filed the suit in March 2017 to stop Charlottesville from taking down the monuments. Among the suit’s architects: Frank Earnest, who goes by the title of “chief of heritage defense” for the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Just weeks after the Charlottesville rally, The Washington Post’s Paul Duggan found Earnest in his customary seat in the courtroom’s front row, wearing an array of Confederacy-themed lapel pins and whiskers “straight from a daguerreotype.”

But Earnest made it clear to Duggan that even if their lawsuit might share common cause with the extremists who’d come to “Unite the Right,” Earnest himself was “disgusted” by the rally. Duggan recalls:

In the courtroom, as if on cue, a stocky fellow in a Confederate T-shirt walked up to him and gushed, “I just want to shake your hand!” Frank replied, “Sir, I’d prefer not to,” and the man, unfazed, shrugged and went back to his seat. “Know why I did that?” Frank said quietly. “He’s Klan. I won’t tolerate that nonsense.”

Like others in the Sons, Earnest insists that he is not racist, that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and that Confederate imagery symbolizes Southern heritage, not white supremacy.

The problem, of course, is not only that those beliefs are factually inaccurate but that it takes very little for them to trip perilously over into violence like the kind on display in Charlottesville during the same rally Earnest took pains to distance himself from.

What Earnest, as Duggan describes, seems not to understand is that the move to take down Confederate monuments isn’t motivated by what he calls “a bunch of liberal crap about how evil my ancestors were.”

Instead, it’s motivated by an urgent need to correct the record, to shatter the narrative that generations of Southerners have learned, in part, through the glorification of all things Confederate.

Our public entities have long played a role in keeping alive the myth that the Civil War was fought over something other than slavery and white supremacy. They should no longer. It’s well past time to dismantle what Duggan calls, “the gauzy fiction of the Lost Cause, which soft-pedals the atrocities of slavery.”

If Confederate monuments simply honor Southern heritage, why is it that the Confederacy is the particular part of the region’s history that many white people want to remember so fondly?

That’s a question Earnest would do well to ponder.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces that we think are valuable this week:

Photo REUTERS / Joshua Roberts

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.