I thought it was an April Fools’ joke.
There in my inbox on the morning of April 1 was an email from something called Ray McBerry Enterprises announcing the official start of “Confederate Heritage and History Month” in Georgia.
Apparently, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue signed the annual celebration into law in 2009, joining six other Southern states in official monthlong “celebrations.” My folks live next door in South Carolina, and I’m a bit of a Civil War nerd, so there’s no inherent shock in the impulse to recognize local history, however painful the legacy.
But what did shock me was this quote from the press release: “So much is portrayed by Hollywood today that Georgia and the South were evil; when, in reality, the South was the most peaceful, rural, and Christian part of America before war and Reconstruction destroyed the pastoral way of life here.”
The South under slavery: “peaceful, rural, and Christian.” This isn’t heritage, this is wholesale historic revisionism. And it is ugly stuff.
So I called the email’s sender, Mr. Ray McBerry, to press him for a little more information. First I did a little homework. McBerry is a two-time GOP candidate for governor, topping out at 48,000 votes in 2006, and tried to surf the Tea Party wave unsuccessfully in 2010. Since then he seems to have specialized as kind of a PR agent for local lost causes, specifically the Sons of Confederate Veterans. There is apparently a steady income in this sort of thing, and McBerry isn’t just a client, he’s a member—one of 13,000 across Georgia, he said.
“The way that slavery was in the Old South is not in keeping with the way it has been portrayed,” McBerry insisted.
Instead he offered up a pastoral vision of mutual respect between slave and master.
“Many people still try to say that the war was about slavery,” McBerry continued. “Nothing could be further from the truth … It was about a federal government that was out of control and imposing its will on the states—a federal government that was acting beyond the scope of the Constitution. Ironically, some of the very issues we are debating today.”
Yes, “ironically.” Except the last time that irony occurred, 600,000 Americans died.
While the Sons of the Confederacy has been written up extensively by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which notably does not describe it as a hate group but details the purging of nonracists from its ranks in the past, the organization’s self-conception is, not surprisingly, benign. “We’ve got an educational curriculum available for public, private, and home-school associations,” McBerry said. The most requested informational audio CD is “The Truth About the Confederate Battle Flag,” which has shipped more than 150,000 items.
“Do you understand why many Americans, especially African-Americans, might find your message offensive?” I asked.
“Do you understand why many Americans, especially African-Americans, might find your message offensive?” I asked. “I do,” he replied. “But they have been miseducated by our government-run school system.”
“I do,” he replied. “But they have been miseducated by our government-run school system.”
But wait, there’s more: “We don’t have many, but we do have some black members,” McBerry added. “They have been growing in numbers, as black Americans have learned that this was not a fight over slavery.” (I would be delighted to speak with/psychoanalyze any of these alleged black Confederate banner carriers. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The idea that history is written by the victors grates, and the conspiracy runs deep: “General Grant had slaves before, during, and after the war was over,” McBerry asserted. Then again, the group’s most recent newsletter (PDF) also devoted extensive space to the assertion that Lincoln was history’s greatest monster. (Take your time, the whole thing is an eye-opening read.)
The Sons of Confederate Veterans does not speak for the New South—its members are outliers, historical reenactors with a bitter hatred for how history turned out. While they are arcane even in Georgia, they apparently are not without some small degree of influence. “We’ve had candidates from city council to governor come speak with the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” said McBerry, citing former governor Perdue, who signed Confederate History Month into law—and whom McBerry ran against in 2006. But for the vast majority of Georgia residents, the tired “Heritage not Hate” excuse doesn’t fly.
“C’mon now,” said state Rep. Al Williams. “As the great-grandson of former slaves, I beg to differ. It was state of human bondage, and the only people that enjoyed it were the people in a place of privilege. It was not a place of peace. It was not Christian, because it defiled the Bible.”
“Confederate Heritage is appreciated by a continually smaller and smaller group of people,” Williams continued. “I don’t have a problem with them celebrating history—this is America, let them do so. I can’t possibly demand equality and then give less to the people I disagree with. But they would not want to admit that they can’t compete with Black History Month. Very few people come to Georgia to celebrate the Confederacy, but thousands and thousands of people come here each year to celebrate black history and the civil rights movement.”
While six states observe Confederate Heritage and History Month, it’s notable that four states of the former Confederacy do not: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. But the fact that this state-sanctioned month of honoring the Confederacy exists in so many states so long after the Civil War is worthy of debate.
It took our country 100 years to bind the wounds of the Civil War sufficiently to begin truly following through on the promise of ending slavery by ending segregation. It is naive to pretend, as so many do today, that this struggle for equal rights was not deeply opposed by many who are still alive, arguing in favor of separatism and hate while hiding their true emotions under superficially high-minded talk about states’ rights.
In the past few days alone, the former KKK member who stomped on Rep. John Lewis died (a few years after apologizing). A KKK march took place in Memphis. And there are suspicions that members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood might have been involved in the killing of a Texas district attorney and his wife. As the great Southern author William Faulkner reminded us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The neo-Confederate movement is not large, but it exists. I might not have believed the sickness of slavery revisionism if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, offered up in the telltale tones of the conspiracy entrepreneur, always selling special knowledge. On reflection, maybe my first impulse was right: the folks who celebrate Confederate History Month are the real April Fools.