Re-inacting the Confederacy 2011 style

Article by Campbell Robertson, The New York Times, February 21, 2011:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Wearing gray wool uniforms, hoop skirts, leather jackets and business suits, several hundred men and women marched to the Alabama Statehouse on Saturday afternoon, where they delivered defiant speeches, fired heavy artillery, and swore in an amateur actor playing Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy, 150 years and one day after the event took place.

The participants far outnumbered the spectators, and the city of Montgomery barely raised a collective eyebrow. But it was to be the largest event of the year organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of a series of occasions marking the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the War for Southern Independence (referring to this event as the Civil War, implying that it was anything other than an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a self-determined republic, is rather frowned upon)

Members of the SCV distinguish themselves from the mere re-enactors, weekend warriors who simply enjoy indulging amateur enthusiasms for history, role-playing and military hardware.

Like garden variety re-enactors, the group’s members may don their battle grays and trade recipes for gunpowder. But, declared Chuck McMichael, a history teacher and former commander in chief of the group who gave the keynote speech, “the Confederate thing is personal with us.”

The principal message of the group is that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that has been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The other matter of subjugation — that is, slavery — went unmentioned at the event (Davis did not refer to it in his original address, but he emphasized the maintenance of African slavery as a cause for secession in other high-profile settings.) And the issue of slavery was largely brushed aside in interviews as a mere function of the time and not a defining feature of the Confederacy.

Asked about the prominent speeches and documents that describe the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession, Joe Dupree of Mobile, Ala., said the question itself was wrong.

“African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years,” he said. “It is, historically, an error.”

Though the swearing-in was a historical re-enactment down to the antique buttons, there were contemporary political overtones. More than one speaker, insisting that “the South was indeed right,” extolled the Confederacy as an example of limited government that should now be followed, and said vaguely that the rightness of the Southern cause was evident by a glance at the headlines every day.

But even the politics were tied up in a larger sense of grievance, a feeling of being marginalized and willfully misunderstood. Expressing this feeling led to some rather unexpected analogies, like when Kelley Barrow, a teacher from Georgia, declared that people of Confederate heritage “have been forced to go to the back of the bus.”

The participants know, however, that such frustrations will be constant over the four years of the sesquicentennial.

“I really wish we didn’t have to defend what we do,” Chuck Rand, an engineer from Monroe, La., who is the adjutant in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an interview Friday night. “This doesn’t have to be a fight.”

Mr. Dupree, who was sitting with Mr. Rand, concurred.

“What is it in a man,” he asked, repeating the question for emphasis, “that would cause him to deny his fellow man the pride and dignity of his heritage?”

The parade began shortly after 11 a.m., and marched to the Capitol along Dexter Avenue, past abandoned storefronts and empty government buildings and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church after a young Martin Luther King Jr., who arrived in the 1950s and organized a citywide bus boycott from his basement office.

Inside, a dozen fifth-grade students from Monrovia Elementary School in Huntsville, Ala., were beginning a tour. The tour guide at the church dismissed the events outside with an eye roll, but Jesse Schmitt, who arranges the visit for his students every year during Black History Month, saw it as a potential teaching moment.

“Unfortunately we haven’t gotten to the Civil War yet,” he said, though he added that his students had told him that the march was, in their words, “messed up.”

But there was a lot more to discuss. So Mr. Schmitt said as he left King’s old basement office, still thinking of ways to talk to his students about history, about the reasons for commemoration, about causes that were lost and causes that were won.

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