In a cultural war that has pitted Old South against New, defenders of the Confederate legacy have opened a fresh front in their campaign to polish an image tarnished, they say, by people who do not respect Southern values.
With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War coming up in 2011, efforts are underway in statehouses, small towns and counties across the South to push for proclamations or legislation promoting Confederate history.
Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Florida observe Confederate History Month in April. Georgia has recognized it by proclamation since 1995, and the state Senate recently passed a bill that would make it official -- assuming the measure passes muster in the state House, which could be problematic.
Most Southern states recognize Confederate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. Some celebrate it on the June birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but Texas and Arkansas observe it on Jan. 19, the federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
More than a thousand municipalities hold parades and festivals on the holiday, said Charles McMichael, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and efforts are underway to spread it nationwide, state by state.
“It has been our experience over the last 30 years or so that when the Confederacy is addressed at all historically, it is done in a way that serves a political agenda. . . . We want the truthful history about all aspects of the Confederacy told,” McMichael said. “There are some good things that you can learn, and we think there are more good than bad.”
But for many Americans, the Confederacy evokes the atrocities of slavery.
The negative image has long angered some white Southerners, particularly those whose ancestors died in the Civil War. In their view, the war is a source of Southern pride.
In recent years, they have sought to redefine the Confederacy in multicultural terms, saying that Jews, Latinos and blacks fought for the South. They argue that the war had little if anything to do with slavery. And they’ve become vocal in opposing white supremacist groups that use the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate.
“Slavery is a part of American history, not just Confederate history,” McMichael said. “The Confederacy has gotten a bad rap because we ended up on the losing side and therefore the wrong side of history.”
But that multicultural interpretation is dubious, one historian said.
Commemoration of the Confederacy as a noble cause began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, said Jonathan Sarris, associate professor of history at North Carolina Wesleyan College. The multicultural angle is an effort to appear more inclusive, he said, but it ignores the facts.
“To say that it is not racist but about multiculturalism is an attempt to adopt a modern mind-set,” Sarris said. “You can call it a victory for the forces of multiculturalism when even the defendants of the Confederacy feel they have to pay some lip service to the idea of tolerance.”
Georgia state Sen. John Bulloch, a Republican who sponsored the bill recognizing Confederate History Month, said the observance would help tourism, particularly in areas with Civil War battlegrounds. It is no different, he said, from Black History Month.
But Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a Democrat and longtime civil rights leader, said the South has lagged behind the nation by trying to hold on to the past. He said the bill will face opposition in Georgia’s more diverse House.
“These Southern states really still have not come back into the Union,” he said. “That is why it’s been so difficult over the years to get the states to recognize that flying the Confederate emblem on the flag, holding reenactments and pushing these calendar events as a matter of law is a reflection . . . of their Confederate mentality.
“This is a new day,” Brooks said. “The Confederacy lost, and the majority of the American people will not accept these ideas about a renegade group of folks who decided they would overthrow the U.S. government.”