Three years to the day after the murder of nine black churchgoers by a Confederate enthusiast provoked a national reckoning with the symbols of the Old South, neo-Confederate ideology is alive and well in America.
It’s true, of course, that in the aftermath of the Dylann Roof massacre, two Deep South states; cities including Memphis and New Orleans; huge retailers like Amazon and Walmart — even NASCAR, the quintessentially Southern car racing association — removed or stopped trafficking in Confederate symbols. Some 110 monuments celebrating the Confederacy in public spaces came down in the same period, according to a new survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But the most remarkable thing about that survey is how many remain — more than 1,700, and probably a good many more. Recent developments, moreover, including this month’s election primaries, show the resilience of neo-Confederate ideas.
Probably the most dramatic political development was last week’s capture of the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Virginia by Corey Stewart, a far-right county official best known for his hardline defense of Confederate monuments. After an anti-racist protester was murdered in Charlottesville last year, Stewart lambasted fellow Republicans for condemning the attack. And he has a history, as The New York Times reported, of “cozying up to white supremacists and anti-Semites.”
President Donald Trump immediately congratulated Stewart.
While Stewart will probably lose to a Democrat this fall — GOP officials are refusing to support him — that’s not true of Tom Parker, who became the Republican nominee for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in early June 2018. Parker is expected to trounce his Democratic opponent in November.
Tom Parker is an acolyte of Roy Moore, the “Ten Commandments” judge who was twice removed as Supreme Court chief justice for refusing to obey federal court rulings on religion and same-sex marriage. He shares Moore’s bellicose antagonism to LGBT people. He, too, is a longstanding neo-Confederate.
That was exposed most dramatically in 2004, during Parker’s first run for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court, when he quietly attended a birthday party put on by local extremists to honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader who became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. He also gave away hundreds of miniature Confederate battle flags at the funeral of the woman believed to be last living widow of a Confederate veteran. And he was photographed, battle flags in hand, posing with leaders of the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens, two well-known hate groups.
In 2010, Parker said “liberal activist judges” should be listed with Al Qaeda amongst the nation’s top security threats. In 2015, he told a far-right radio talk show host that Alabama should defy the legalization of same-sex marriage.
There’s been a kind of neo-Confederate legislative backlash as well. In Alabama last year, Gov. Kay Ivey, who is up for reelection this fall, signed a ban on removing monuments more than 40 years old. She then boasted of defending Confederate monuments and criticized “out of state liberals” — an echo of segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s comments on “outside agitators.” Ivey easily won her primary in June.
The Alabama law followed the 2015 passage of similar legislation in Tennessee, which itself followed that of North Carolina. In April 2018, the Tennessee legislature, infuriated that relatively liberal (and 64 percent black) Memphis had removed key Confederate monuments, stripped the city of $250,000.
Other examples abound, but the most remarkable came in South Carolina, where state Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns, two white Republicans, proposed a monument on statehouse grounds to black veterans of the Confederate Army. The only trouble was, the state had no black Confederate veterans.
The myth of the black Confederate soldier is just one of many that form the belief system of today’s neo-Confederates. And that belief system did not come from nowhere — it has been under construction since the Civil War’s end in 1865.
The myth of the Lost Cause — the claim that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, that slaves were happy and well treated, and that Confederate soldiers fought a heroic and praiseworthy battle — began with a history written immediately afterward by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy and propagandist extraordinaire. It was expanded upon by William Dunning, a Columbia history professor, and especially Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who wrote a particularly loathsome, yet influential, 1918 history portraying slavery as benevolent.
At around that time, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a heritage group, placed hundreds of monuments to the Southern cause, including at least one that explicitly celebrated the Ku Klux Klan. Decades later, radical-right theologians like Gregg Singer, Rousas John Rushdoony and Doug Wilson developed a “Christian” argument that the South was right, and that it was the only “godly” remnant of the United States. Schools across the South also embraced Lost Cause mythology.
In recent years, these ideas have been pushed heavily by the radical right in general, and by the neo-secessionist League of the South in particular. The league’s leader, Michael Hill, has grown increasingly radical, to the point where he now warns of a coming race war and has openly embraced the KKK.
The capper, of course, has been Trump. After claiming there were “very fine people” among the white supremacist rioters in Charlottesville last year, where the fight began over a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, he went on to decry the movement against Confederate symbols, saying that removing these “beautiful” statues was an attack on American history and culture.
As with so many things, Trump seemed to open a floodgate, essentially giving Americans permission to make racist claims based upon historical falsehoods about slavery and the Civil War. In that, the President of the United States is not much different from those who deny the Holocaust in order to defend present-day Nazism, or countries like Poland and Hungary, which have been busy rewriting the history of World War II to absolve themselves of anti-Semitism.
In the days after the 2015 massacre in Charleston, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who had never criticized the Confederate battle flag, convinced a skeptical legislature to remove it from the statehouse grounds. She said such symbols belonged in museums, and urged others to follow her lead. But while many did, what was once a real movement has largely petered out.
At a time when belligerent and xenophobic nationalism is on the rise around the world, the persistence of neo-Confederate ideology in America threatens to poison race relations and the country’s transition to a genuinely multicultural society. History matters. Unless we truly understand where we have been, it is nearly impossible to get to where most of us would like to go.
Mr Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a freelance journalist who has written extensively on the radical right. For more information, see his profile here:
© Mark Potok. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
The original version of this article can be found at the Daily Beast: