On September 2, 2006 approximately 30 members of the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally on the sacred ground of the Gettysburg battlefield. Fortunately the Klansmen found themselves greatly outnumbered by both police and counter-protestors. As they made their way to the barricaded protest area perhaps their attention was drawn to a small group of counter-protestors a short distance away. The group consisted of nine Confederate reenactors carrying a Confederate flag and led by a burly African-American 1st Sergeant. The reenactors, members of the Company B, 37th Texas Cavalry, turned their backs on the Klansmen in an act of silent protest over their misuse of the Confederate flag. It was not the first time the 37th Texas and 1st Sgt. Bob Harrison had confronted the Klan. Harrison, a branch library director with the Norfolk Public Library System, has made it his mission to tell the story of black Confederates as well as to confront racist groups over their corruption of Confederate symbols. The Bivouac Banner interviewed 1st Sgt. Harrison and Col. Michael Kelley, commander of the 37th, and discussed the rally at Gettysburg, the use and misuse of Confederate symbols, and the mission of this unusual reenactment unit.
The Bivouac Banner: How and why did your unit come to the decision to counter-protest Klan activities?
Col. Michael Kelley: We noticed that the hysterical rhetoric regarding the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier had been escalating in recent years with more and more references comparing the Confederacy to Nazi Germany and the Confederate soldier to Nazi Waffen SS and, more recently, comparing Confederate soldiers to Al Qaeda terrorists. One of our mounted troopers in a parade in California was approached by a young man who tapped him on the leg and asked, "Why aren’t you just wearing a Nazi uniform?" From our studies we knew these comparisons were far from the truth.
1st SGT Harrison must be credited with taking the lead in this effort to confront evil. While residing in South Carolina he donned his uniform and single-handedly protested both against the Klan and the radical side of the NAACP. When I queried him about how it went he responded, "It just sort of broke up in ten minutes or so…the Klan and the NAACP couldn’t decide who hated me more."
Efforts by other individuals and groups to attract media attention to ceremonies and celebrations honoring the Confederate soldier had had very poor response and little press mention. We decided that we would make use of the media’s knee-jerk reflex in publicizing the Klan to demonstrate that the Klan does not represent the Confederacy or the Confederate soldier. By doing it in a dignified manner with the ability to respond to questions with historical facts we could begin the process of "rehabilitating" the image of the Confederate soldier.
The first opportunity for the 37th arose following the vote in Mississippi on which flag to fly at the "Eight Flags Display" in Biloxi, just a few miles down the road from me. The vote had been to leave the historically-incorrect Confederate Navy jack flying to represent the CSA even though all of the other flags of entities which have governed the area are national flags. The Mississippi White Knights of the KKK issued a statement that they would "…march to show the Klan’s support for the ‘Rebel’ flag." I had formed the 37th Texas Cavalry from the remnants of the 34th Texas and our ranks included caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and American Indians. I knew that what the Klan represented was NOT what the Confederacy or its soldiers were about.
When the Klan appeared anywhere nearby it seemed that the media focused on them and the local "Black activists" and gave them a full page to share in the local newspaper. Both sides conveyed the most negative image possible of the Confederate soldier. Following our initial public stand in Biloxi the local newspaper, the Sun Herald, printed a full page of coverage on the inside cover of the front page. This time the Klan and the local "Black activists" each got one small paragraph and the remainder of the page was devoted to our efforts. It was our first success.
BB: What has been the response from the public and the media?
MK: The public has been generally receptive with those willing to hear historical facts expressing amazement at what they had been taught versus the facts and expressing their support of our efforts. The media has been wary and hesitant to grant us as much coverage, but their interest is growing. In some cases they have attempted to make backhanded comments to discredit what we do, but that has actually worked to our advantage.
For instance, following Biloxi at WALA-TV in Mobile on-air copy was rewritten without permission or authority by a news staffer to state that the 37th Texas had appeared in order to support the Klan. The fallout of that was a written apology and five on-air apologies and clarifications on their leading morning talk show.
Following Gettysburg the York Daily Record ran a Sunday editorial which contained the offensive statement that, "The Klan’s counter-protesters were organizations that honor the heritage of fighting a war to protect slavery." I called the Sunday editorial editor and, as a result, the following Sunday my 800 word op-ed response explaining why the Civil War was fought neither over slavery nor states rights appeared and gave us another chance to address a wider audience with the simple and unadorned facts of history. Their attempt to discredit us instead discredited them and gave us a better foot in the door. There was no negative follow-up editorially, in "Letters to the Editor" or by email to me.
We expect that as we rack up more appearances that the media will begin to "warm up" to us and be more objective about what we are doing and why. That is certainly the trend at this time.
BB: What has been the response from other Confederate reenactment units and heritage organizations?
MK: Some members of other reenactment units have joined with us but at this time commands seem to take the position that they are reenactors engaged in a hobby for fun, not organizations crusading for a greater public awareness of the truth. We have welcomed a number of fellow reenactors and will welcome individual members of any Confederate or Union command or entire commands willing to stand with us for the honor of the Confederate soldier and in the cause of historical truth.
The response from heritage organizations has been disappointing with all but one (the "Southern Independence Party of Tennessee") at their highest levels of leadership strenuously disagreeing with what we do. There have been individual SCV Camps which have expressed strong support for us and some SCV members have participated, but above the Camp level the response is generally negative with the assertion that "You can’t deal with the press. No matter what you do they will twist it and make it a disaster."
We have dealt with the press successfully, including their occasional snide attempt to discredit what we do, turning it to our advantage and gaining more press in the process. We have made significant headway in reasserting the reality of the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier. Despite our successes and our pleas for participation there seems to be little change in the position of the heritage groups. They seem to cling to the outdated and discredited concept that ignoring the Klan from a distance is the best way to deal with the Klan and their claims.
Ignoring the Klan has been tried for 50 years and, because the media has not participated in that plan and will not participate in the future, we are at the point of the Confederacy being linked to Nazi Germany and Confederate soldiers (white, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, etc.) equated to Nazi Stormtroopers or Al Qaeda terrorists.
Unfortunately, for the time being it seems that the 37th Texas Cavalry and its individual friends are the "point of the bayonet" in fighting an effective campaign to recover the history and heritage of the Confederate soldier. We would rather be lost in the crowd of those standing firm. We welcome the participation of individuals who see the merit of what we do and the means by which we accomplish it. As long as they are willing to join with us at these events as part of the whole effort to renew the honor of the Confederate soldier and not present themselves as a particular organization with a particular agenda we welcome them.
BB: Are you planning any future counter-demonstrations or anti-KKK activities?
MK: Members of the 37th Texas Cavalry who are located in regions where they can reasonably travel and appear at the sites being selected by the KKK will continue to do so. We have to wait until the KKK makes its targets known so we can obtain parade permits and attend officially. Unlike other groups and individuals who ask for donations to offset their expenses we do not have a bucket at our feet for people to throw change. This is a personal commitment and we have always paid the tab from within.
We coordinate with local law enforcement and, in the case of Gettysburg, the Department of Justice who command the special National Park Service Police who are present at such events. Our relationship with them is one of mutual trust and respect. My personal presence will be mandated whenever the Klan gathers at the Appomattox Surrender Grounds. My Great-great Grandfather is buried there and the "Kelley Farmhouse" belonged to my Great-great Granduncle.
By that time we hope that the press will be sufficiently aware of us and what we stand for that we can have greater opportunity to explain in detail our mission, our means and our goals. We hope the significance of the site will not be lost on the media.
BB: Why do you feel there has been so little done to protect or protest the use of Confederate symbols by hate groups?
MK: From the beginning when the Klan moved away from its prominent use of its only official flag, the United States flag, to the use of Confederate flags and symbols which took place in the early 1950s, following Sen. Strom Thurmond’s formation of the "Dixiecrat Party" in 1948. Good Southerners looked upon ignoring and shunning the Klan as the means to defend their heritage and honor. They simply did not want to be seen in the company of "those people."
It was and remains a traditional Southern means of showing disapproval that had worked in the South for generations. However, this was a matter which quickly expanded beyond the South to other areas of the country and the world where ignoring someone was seen as silent acquiescence or even approval rather than disapproval.
The Klan saw this silence both as an opportunity to try to ride the coattails of Confederate soldiers and to imply by the general silence of the Southern people that they represented the Confederacy, the Confederate soldier and Southerners in general. They realized that being shunned would not be understood elsewhere. They have continued that free ride for too many decades.
It is also unfortunate that Southerners themselves have become the victims of "politically correct history" and we find that we have a group of Southerners who beat their breasts, tear their hair, weep crocodile tears and repeat "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" over and over in an effort to show how contrite they are for the imaginary sins of their ancestors.
We have another group on the other end of the spectrum who have swallowed the line of the Klan and believe that the Confederacy stood for white supremacy and intolerance of religions other than Protestant Christianity. They are the ones who have written to us to advise us that "The Klan swells the ranks at flag rallies," "The Klan are the ones you should be defending" and "The Klan are good Christians."
We have folks who believe that showing up waving ONE particular of Confederate flag, yelling and blowing whistles and air horns will somehow change peoples’ minds. This is what most of the heritage groups fear the 37th advocates – which we do not.
In the middle we have good Southerners who have a better, but not complete, understanding of the history of the South and the Confederacy who still believe that ignoring the Klan is the most effective means to counteract and contradict them.
The fact is that the 37th Texas Cavalry employs traditional Southern means to effectively counteract the Klan. We shun them but we do it on-site, in uniform and in full view of the media. Unfortunately, the Southern people did not heed the words of Irish-born Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne from his January, 1864, letter which proposed the mass emancipation and enlistment of Black Southerners into the Confederate Army:
"Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late…It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision…The conqueror’s policy is to divide the conquered into factions and stir up animosity among them…"
BB: When and how did you decide to become a Confederate reenactor?
1st Sgt. Bob Harrison: Becoming a Confederate reenactor was pretty much destiny now that I look back on it. Having grow up in the Philadelphia/Valley Forge area and being surrounded by history it was always my first love to study history. Also, coming from a strong military heritage, it was destiny that one of my main areas of interest would be military history. Having done my undergraduate and graduate studies at Clarion University of PA, I continued that focus into my college years as well. When I first came across the topic of Confederates of Color in my studies, I thought my professors had to be "smoking something." However, the historian inside was deeply intrigued. Coupling that with my deep, rich, Southern style upbringing, I always felt drawn to the Confederate Cause. My mother was born and raised on the East side of Richmond, VA and always instilled me with the philosophy of "Go for your destiny, but never forget your history." I remember coming home from 4th grade telling her and my elders about how Lincoln freed the slaves. They would always respond with the same level of high disgust for the blatant telling of half truths and lies about the war and slavery in general. As I began learning more and more about the history of the South and this rich heritage of Confederates of Color, the more deeply I received a new sense of Black pride, and began studying more and speaking on behalf of Confederates of Color in collegiate roundtable discussions. Then one day a close friend of mine handed me a copy of the Camp Chase Gazette which is the reenactor’s bible. He had shown me an advertisement (for the then 34th Texas Cavalry) which was looking for "men of color" to join its ranks and help tell the true story of Confederates of Color. I met then Major Kelley and the rest is history.
BB: What has been the reaction of the public and other reenactors to an African-American Confederate?
BH: It has been mixed really. The most common reaction I get is one of disbelief and disgust. Many feel I am "aiding and abetting racists determined to distance the South from Slavery." I have even been threatened with bodily harm for being so outspoken and dedicated to the history of the South and the Confederate Cause. However, there is a growing number of people, including fellow African-Americans, who are beginning to either embrace the truth or at least consider it. While in Biloxi, MS I had the chance to meet Aniece Liddell who is a former President of the Jackson County, MS chapter of the NAACP who fully endorses our unit and what we are trying to do. I am also great friends with Darlington County, SC Councilwoman Ms. Wilhelmina Johnson who helped us in our annual remembrance of Private Henry "Dad" Brown who is a Black Confederate soldier and drummer buried in Darlington. However, while things are beginning to change for the better, the road to full acceptance is still a steep, uphill climb. However, it is a climb I am determined to make with honor.
BB: What were some of the comments and conversations that occurred at the Gettysburg rally? Was it immediately apparent to others why your unit was there?
BH: There really wasn’t too much conversation at the Gettysburg rally. The National Park Service had an iron fence and about 75 to 80 yards between us so there wasn’t any chance for confrontational debates. Furthermore, the other anti-KKK protesters seemed more preoccupied with shouting profanities back and forth at the KKK and its Nazi supporters. The Press that interviewed us did so very favorably and to our credit. With all of the pre-rally press it was already well known who we were and why we were there.
BB: Was there any response from the KKK to your unit?
BH: They said absolutely nothing to us. At least if they did it was not easily made out. We simply came and did what we said we were going to do. We marched out, performed our Confederate military style protest, turned our backs on the Klan, and left with honor.
BB: Do you plan to counter-protest any other hate group demonstrations?
BH: Being that most members of the 37th Texas are so spread out, it is hard to get a maximum number of troopers to be at any given event. However, as far as we are concerned, the battle lines are drawn and no longer with the KKK or any other hate group be given free reign to desecrate and misuse our heritage and symbols. It could be the White Aryan resistance or some Skinhead group; it does not matter. We are really looking forward to meeting the Klan head on at Appomatox whereas you known Colonel Kelley has a personal history centered. However time or place is not a consideration. We go where the situation demands us to be.
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