By ROSE FRENCH
The Associated Press
July 23 2005

NASHVILLE – Even as it comes together for its annual convention, the most prominent Southern heritage group finds itself a house divided between old-style preservationists and new leaders who see Confederate symbols as a political cause.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, meeting here through today, has been taken over in recent years by a more confrontational wing – including some with alleged ties to hate and white-separatist groups – that wants to be more aggressive about responding to perceived assaults on Southern symbols, such as the Confederate flag.

”It is becoming more activist, but it’s in tatters,” said Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based nonprofit that tracks hate crimes.

Traditionalists have accused the new leadership of racism and political extremism, saying a number of members have ties to the League of the South, which calls for another secession of Southern states, or the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. The SPLC says at least 10 men who hold key national leadership positions in the SCV are active or recent members of hate groups.

Chartered more than 100 years ago as a fraternal organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers, the Columbia, Tenn.-based SCV now has more than 30,000 members.

Until the late 1980s, it was primarily dedicated to promoting Civil War history by cleaning up Confederate headstones, giving educational lectures and staging battle re-enactments. But the new leadership in the mid-90s began to focus more on political activism.

The conflict boiled over earlier this year when the SCV governing board ousted Commander-in-Chief Denne Sweeney because they said he illegally suspended five traditionalist board members. A judge later reinstated Sweeney, but also said he exceeded his authority.

In Texas, a large portion of the group’s membership left and formed its own Confederate heritage group. In North Carolina, about 300 members disassociated from the SCV over its link to groups deemed racist.

Bryan Sharp, SCV Reunion Committee chairman, said the Sons of Confederate Veterans doesn’t tolerate racists and that its internal strife is no different than in other organizations or businesses.

”You have certain people who may feel one way about things and others who may feel differently,” Sharp said. ”This happens everyday in corporate America. We’re trying to preserve our heritage before it’s wiped out.”

Despite the rifts, the group can claim victory in several recent battles to protect Confederate symbols – notably at Vanderbilt University, where administrators gave up a long-running court fight to have the name ”Confederate Memorial Hall” removed from the stone front of a campus dormitory.

SCV members have also been encouraged by several court decisions that allow students to wear Confederate flags on T-shirts. The group has helped fund a Kentucky teenager suing her school district for barring her from the prom because she was wearing a dress styled as a large Confederate battle flag.

In recent years, several Southern states – including Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia – have approved specialty license plates that incorporate the Confederate flag.

Harry Watson, director of the Center of the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, said groups such as the SCV have become more assertive in the political landscape over the past two decades.

”All over the country there are people much more interested in the Confederacy as an institution than there were 20 or so years ago,” Watson said. ”It’s a backlash to the political correctness movement and an aspect of the rise, the resurgence of the right in American politics generally.”

On The Web: http://miva.jacksonsun.com/miva/cgi-bin/miva?NEWS/news_storyV2005.mv+link=200507237403453