Confederate symbols continue to inspire heritage, hate debate

By Marty Roney • April 28, 2008

Revered by many and reviled by others, symbols of the Confederacy bring about different responses, depending on whom you talk to.

Alabama recognizes Confederate Memorial Day today with a state holiday. State and courthouse offices will be closed. State holidays honoring the Confederacy, and how that period of history is remembered, can cause emotions to run high on both sides of the argument.

Properly displaying the symbols can serve an educational purpose, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The civil rights group based in Montgomery has won huge civil awards against numerous Ku Klux Klan groups and tracks hate groups across the nation.

"Museums are the proper place for Confederate flags and other memorabilia," Potok said. "They should be displayed, just like Klan uniforms should be displayed. They are part of our collective history. Confederate flags have no place being displayed atop public buildings. The state Capitol in Alabama is the people’s house. It shouldn’t glorify images or symbols that (are) offensive to half its citizens."

Heritage groups say the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought for it can be remembered with dignity, and without being offensive.

"We don’t need to forget the actions of these men and the struggles they went through," said Tom Strain, deputy chief of staff for the national Sons of Confederate Veterans. The SCV works to preserve the history of the period. "Some of these men gave their all for what they thought was right, and that was state’s rights. Future generations need to know the struggles that these men went through."

The Alabama Department of Archives and History is working to preserve the 86 Confederate flags it possesses. Only four of the flags are displayed; the rest are housed in specially designed cases where humidity and light are controlled.

"There is so much history here, we would love to be able to display more of the flags," said Robert Bradley, chief curator the archives. "But the conservation process is tedious, and expensive."

The archive’s collection of Confederate flags is the third largest in the nation, behind the North Carolina State Museum in Raleigh and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.

Montgomery bridges two epochs of American history.

The archives building sits just across Washington Avenue from the state Capitol building where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the first and only president of the Confederacy on Feb. 18, 1861. Montgomery, touted as the "cradle of the Confederacy," served as capital of the fledgling nation for about six weeks, before the seat of power was moved to Richmond.

In 1955, Montgomery became the birthplace of the civil rights movement when a young seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus. That was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Just a block away from the Capitol building is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where a young Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Later, in 1965, King led tens of thousands of people up Dexter Avenue to the Capitol at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, a driving event in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Paying homage to those two periods can lead to irony. Alabama is among five Southern states that observe state holidays with a Confederate background.

On the third Monday in January the state observes a combined federal and state holiday marking the births of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee. Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia and Texas also observe Confederate holidays.

The images of the Confederacy can lead to dissension. Former Gov. George C. Wallace ordered the Confederate battle flag to fly atop the Capitol dome in 1963, at the height of the effort by the federal government to desegregate public schools in the region. The flag flew over the building until 1993.

The SPLC sued the state to have the flag removed from the Capitol.

The Civil War is often described as the struggle of brother against brother, but one of the flags in the Alabama archives brings women into play. The silk flag of Selma’s Magnolia Cadets led the 90-man unit off to war. The off-white flag shows a magnolia wreath in the middle surrounded by the company’s name and the year 1861. It was designed and sewn by two Dallas County sisters, Elodie Todd and Martha Todd White, half-sisters of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Lincoln.

"It is one of our more interesting pieces of the collection," Bradley said. "It always elicits its share of comments when people are told of the connection with the first lady."

That story surprised John and Emily Roberts and their two sons, Caleb, 11 and Josh, 14. The family was recently traveling from their home in Springfield, Ill., to a spring break vacation on the Gulf Coast. John Roberts wanted to stop in Montgomery because of the history of the city.

"We’ve been to the Rosa Parks Museum already," he said. John Roberts’ great-grandfather, Ezra, fought for the Union in the Civil War. "I want the boys to know about the Civil War. Seeing a Confederate flag doesn’t offend me. We have to be aware of history, so that we don’t have to repeat it."

Willie Mae Keener, a retired schoolteacher, agrees. She spends a lot of time in the archives building, poring over records as she traces her family tree.

"I’m the great-granddaughter of slaves," said the 67-year-old. "So to me the Confederate flag is the same as a swastika to a Jewish person. I don’t see any honor in anything related to the Confederacy. But you can’t just sweep everything away. I’ve been to the room with the flags. I’ve taken my grandchildren to that room. I want them to know history."

Politics can be injected into any issue, and honoring the Confederacy is no different, said Sam Williams of Montgomery.

"I’m very proud of my family members that fought for the Confederacy," he said. "I’m just as proud of both grandfathers who fought for their country in World War II. I realize some people may not like Confederate Memorial Day. But remembering history isn’t a threat to anyone. After Gen. (Robert E.) Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he told the Confederate Army to ‘Raise your sons as Americans.’ I can be an American and honor my Confederate ancestors at the same time."

Bradley hasn’t received any complaints about displaying Confederate items in the 16 years he’s been with the archives.

"We are the storehouse for Alabama’s history," he said. "It is our charge to show history in its proper context. We are right across the street from the Capitol and when the fight over the flag was going on, we stayed out of it. As long as I am here, we will continue to stay out of similar controversies. History is our priority."

Remembering the Confederacy through flags and even state observed holidays can be beneficial, Potok said.

"No thinking person would honestly support running a bulldozer down Memorial Avenue in Richmond," he said. "What is honored in the public square is important, but it should be a matter of reasoned, democratic debate. I’m not concerned if a community wants to name a high school after Robert E. Lee. What’s important is that the majority is sensitive and respectful of what the minority believes and espouses."

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