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How the Daughters of the Confederacy Spoiled Christmas—and Public Officials Instead Blamed ‘Outside Agitators’

The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy marched for decades without a peep from public officials. Just asking about that was enough for two towns to cancel Christmas parades.

Kali HollowayDec. 08, 2019 5:00 AM ET

For several years, the town of Garner, North Carolina, has held a Christmas parade featuring—along with traditional marching bands, dance troupes and local politicians—floats sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The same is true of the nearby town of Wake Forest, where for more than two decades, SCV and UDC members in grey Civil War uniforms and antebellum hoop skirts have marched along the Christmas parade route while waving Confederate flags.

That tradition was suddenly halted this year, after the activist group Move Silent Sam posted video and photos of the neo-Confederate groups in past parades, along with the question: “Is the Town of Garner trying to send the message that racism is welcome in the community?” 

The answer is “yes.” Both towns have cancelled their parades, while making clear that their problem is with “outside agitators” ruining Christmas—not with the Lost Cause loyalists who are part of their Christmas traditions.

As online outrage grew, Garner officials announced last month they would be cancelling the parade “due to concern the event could be targeted for disruption.” Wednesday, Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones released a tearful video message announcing the same. Both blamed “outsiders,” not neo-Confederates. 

“For over 70 years, our community Christmas parade has been a beloved tradition enjoyed by thousands of Wake Forest residents and visitors alike. Not once in all that time, has our event been anything less than a peaceful, family-friendly celebration that highlights the wonderful spirit of our community. But sadly, times have changed, and this year is different,” said Jones, before citing “information received in recent days” about potential “protests between clashing” outside groups. 

“The decision to cancel this year’s parade is not a reflection on our community or our wonderful people. Rather, it’s an unfortunate consequence of what happens when outside agitators make it known they will use local events like our parade to sow hate and spark chaos.”

They're a hate group—they hate people that have a different color of skin. And I just don't feel like that belongs in a parade.

That’s a dog whistle to people who miss the fabricated past when we all shut up and got along. Jones didn’t acknowledge how decades with Confederate-flag-waving Civil War apologists in Wake Forest’s Christmas parades felt to black constituents. Instead, she leaned into the boogeyman of “outside agitators” supposedly planning to “use the occasion to promote their political agenda without any regard for the health and safety of our citizens” to fret over how “times have changed.” She mourned the “wonderful spirit” of Wake Forest that had been on display in past holiday parades offering unmasked nostalgia for the pre-emancipation South. 

Similarly, Wake Forest Police Chief Jeff Leonard talked about lawless “outside agitators” and a town nearly deluged by “professional protesters who have no regard for the safety and well-being of others.” 

If Wake Forest officials were truly worried about a group planning to use the parade for their own highly partisan political ends, they would’ve banned neo-Confederates, along with the Confederate flag, from the Christmas parade route decades ago. Both the SCV and UDC have long been dedicated to propagating the ahistorical Lost Cause mythology, a campaign of racist historical whitewashing in service of white supremacy. The ideology denies black chattel slavery was the cause of the Civil War and suggests black enslavement had a wealth of underrated benefits for both enslavers and those they enslaved. It also casts the Civil War not as the result of the treasonous South’s secession, but as a consequence of the hyper-aggressive North’s intrusion into the affairs of the unspoiled South. Consider it the ultimate myth about “outside agitators” coming in and ruining a perfectly good slaveholding situation.

Despite contending they’re merely “heritage organizations”—social clubs for those whose Confederate ancestors fought to defend slavery—the SCV has documented connections to overt hate groups and the most prominent players therein. As Move Silent Sam noted, SPLC-identified Holocaust denier Boyd Cathey was a guest speaker of the Wake Forest SCV as recently as February, and his author biography on numerous websites suggests he’s still a card-carrying member of the organization. Jack Kerwick, whom the North Carolina SCV touted as an honored guest at their annual Confederate Flag Day celebration in March, has penned articles arguing white indentured servants had it “worse” than black enslaved people and mocking the notion that “that there are no differences between blacks and whites in terms of criminality.” Kirk Lyons, head of North Carolina SCV’s “Southern Highland Brigade,” according the group’s own Facebook page, has a lengthy history of proudly working with racist hate groups. Harold Ray Crews, a white supremacist lawyer involved in a legal campaign to derail the life of Charlottesville beating victim DeAndre Harris, has publicly declared membership in North Carolina SCV and the overtly racist League of the South

Over its 125-year history, the UDC has become the group responsible for erecting more Confederate monuments than any other single entity. In 1926, a North Carolina chapter of the group put up a monument to honor the Ku Klux Klan. From the early 20th century through the 1980s, the UDC wrote and vetted history textbooks for southern schools to ensure white children were steeped in Lost Cause propaganda to the exclusion of any accurate southern history. The effort was successful in creating waves of of racist white citizens and segregationist leaders. More recently, while publicly declaring themselves apolitical, the UDC has funded—often surreptitiously—efforts to keep Confederate monuments from being removed, generally by filing lawsuits against those who try to remove them

Complicity with the SCV and UDC’s racist seems to be a problem that extends beyond local parade and touches other entities across North Carolina. The Move Silent Sam activist coalition formed as part of a broader effort to remove a Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” from the University of the North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus. Erected by the UDC in 1913, the monument’s dedication ceremony included a speech by industrialist Juian Carr in which he bragged about having “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” near the statue site and lauded the Ku Klux Klan violence for having “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” In August 2018, the monument was toppled by protesters, and for more than a year, school officials waffled on plans for the statue. Last month, the university announced it would give $2.5 million to the SCV for “care and preservation of the monument”—essentially providing support to the neo-Confederate effort. 

It’s good to be wary of tradition, because the way things have always been done is often a precise measure of how long they’ve been done wrong. Years of Christmas parades in Garner and Wake Forest are a testament to that truth. Mayor Jones has already stated that planning for next year’s Christmas parade will begin in early 2020. Instead of concern over troublesome “outside agitators,” planners might want to consider folks like Stephanie Brandt, a white Garner resident who’s been active in voicing opposition to neo-Confederate inclusion in holiday events. 

“I just felt ashamed,” Brandt told me about her reaction to seeing the SCV in last year’s parade. “Because in my opinion, they're a hate group—they hate people that have a different color of skin. And I just don't feel like that belongs in a parade. To see those symbols going down the street, it just felt so wrong.”