Bookshelves traced the outline of a small but passionate gathering of citizens, eager to share their thoughts, yet concerned about a future ridding itself of a past.
Mitch Crabbe grabbed the podium, flanked by a Confederate flag twirled around a flagpole. Outside the Fayette County Historical Society on Thursday, May 18, the sunlight was escaping, and the next day, two landmark decisions would be made. In New Orleans, the last of four Confederate monuments, a statue of Robert E. Lee, would be taken down. Only a couple states over, Alabama lawmakers would approve protections of Confederate monuments preventing “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument.”
The Camp Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 79 in Fayetteville, Crabbe expressed a clear message to members and visitors during their monthly gathering: “It is an attack against the truth.”
A month and a half later, the debate rages on. On Friday, a 38-foot-tall confederate monument was removed in St. Louis. This weekend, as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, prepares for its 154th anniversary of the Civil War, a Sons of Confederate Veterans group plans to be present, but so too do others who plan to show up and burn Confederate flags.
Sons of Confederate Veterans live by “The Charge,” handed down to them by Lt. General Stephen Dill Lee in 1906, which states “To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought.”
Camp 79 manager Lee Mize quickly corrects what he feels is a misconception. Slavery was not the only cause of the Civil War, Mize said. Increased tariffs, as a result of the Morrill Act of 1861, signed into law by President James Buchanan, helped the industrialized north while hurting the southern states, who exported much of their raw materials to Europe.
“We don’t like the way we are being governed and taxed,” Mize said of the southern states’ response at the time. “Therefore we quit. We no longer want to be a part of the United States.”
Mize said slavery and the abolition movement were other issues that caused the war, although Robert E. Lee “believed the institution of slavery was a corrupting scourge to both slaves and slave owners,” Mize added in an email hours before Lee’s statue was uprooted in New Orleans.
The SCV doesn’t promote racism, a point Crabbe made sure to bring up during a meeting that included white men and women and a black man.
“No one owns slaves,” Crabbe said. “It’s not racist. We’re not racist.”
Heidi Beirich, who has written a number of articles and several chapters in a book about the SCV for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that while the SCV might not be outwardly racist, the organization as a whole hasn’t always been anti-racist.
In 2004, Denne Sweeney took over as SCV commander-in-chief and, according to the SPLC’s website, got rid of roughly 300 members who were “accused of disloyalty for criticizing racism in the SCV.” Sweeney was only the commander-in-chief until 2006, but the current commander-in-chief, Charles Kelly Barrow, took a stand against racism nearly two years ago to the day, on July 2, 2015.
“The Sons of Confederate Veterans has a strictly enforced ‘hate’ policy,” Barrow said. “Anyone with ties to any racist organization or hate group is denied membership.”
That statement came shortly after a tragic event that rocked the country, especially those passionate about Confederate history.
Two years and two weeks ago, nine black Charleston, South Carolina, churchgoers were shot to death by a 21-year-old white man. Since that day, the right to be able to fly the Confederate battle flag with pride has slowly begun to evaporate.
“Dylan Roof was the accelerator of what we’re dealing with now,” said Georgia Division SCV Commander Scott Gilbert.
On July 10, 2015, the Confederate battle flag was removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. Since the Roof attack, the flag has become even more of a symbol of racism and hatred, although it still stands as a sign of Southern pride for members of the SCV, as well as many others.
Beirich views the SCV’s support for Confederate history as an effort to change the narrative of the Civil War, by making “it seem like it wasn’t what it was about, which is the oppression of black people.”
“I don’t believe that a flag that stood for a slave state should be on public property,” Beirich said. “It’s like worshipping the Nazi flag today. Should that be on German public property somewhere? No.”
While the flag waves through news headlines every now and then, it’s the monument argument that has made its stamp on 2017. While the physical symbol is different, the debate is nearly identical.
“They can take down the monuments, but they can’t take away the history,” Crabbe said.
Down South in Dixie
According to Mize, there are 3,173 Sons of Confederate members in Georgia, and tens of thousands more nationwide. Since its inception more than 100 years ago, the SCV has aimed to preserve the history of the Confederate soldiers who fought and, “yes,” Crabbe acknowledges, “we lost.” But, Crabbe said, “that doesn’t mean we have to give up the recognition of our heroes, of our leaders, of the men who represented the Christian way of life.
“They were as close to God as anybody.”
Current or past members of the SCV include Presidents Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson, Bear Bryant and Clint Eastwood, and current Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant. The ability to honor not only the Confederate soldiers but also Southern history is what Crabbe said “binds us together.”
At each meeting, Crabbe reads about a Confederate soldier buried in the Fayetteville Cemetery—there are more than 80 of them. During the May meeting, that man was Thomas Jefferson Edmondson, a soldier who Crabbe said wasn’t out there to prove a point to anyone, just a young man willing to put his life on the line.
The SCV said that Confederate history is disappearing from school textbooks, so anything it can do to preserve that history—from visiting every elementary and middle school in the county to contributing to the upkeep of the cemetery—is work the members are willing to put in.
“Facts are facts and the true history of the South is what we’re about,” Crabbe said.
Mize said the education of Confederate history is necessary because “if you know about it, you might not repeat it,” but Beirich said it’s just another way of “glorifying an ugly past.”
Gilbert is concerned the past might stay in the past if Georgia’s current SCV members don’t pass down the history of the Confederacy to the younger generation. Much of the SCV members are older, and Gilbert would like to see membership increase long after his time as the Georgia Division commander is over.
“If our local folks are not surviving, then all this is a waste of time,” Gilbert said.
It’s all time and energy that Beirich believes could be spent elsewhere.
“It would be much better for the world if they were working towards racial reconciliation instead of protecting a false version of the Confederacy,” Beirich said.
To Crabbe and others, the SCV endures not only because of the symbols that represent the Confederate history but because of the Southern culture. While Beirich hopes the SCV will focus its efforts on a more noble cause, Crabbe offers a solution to fix some of the issues facing America today.
“I honestly believe if there were more Southern values throughout the country, the country would be in a lot better shape than it is now,” Crabbe said.
Surrounded by books of history—some of it good, some bad and some ugly—the Sons of Confederate Veterans ended their meeting in traditional fashion: by bowing their heads in prayer, and then facing the Confederate flag and singing “Dixie.”
“Ignorance of the truth does not take away the truth,” Crabbe said. “It just shows there is work to be done, and we are doing that work by honoring the men who fought and died under the flag of their country.”