By Cameron McWhirter
The Wall Street Journal
ATLANTA—Not since at least the civil-rights movement have Americans challenged the South’s Confederate symbols as fervently as they did in 2015.
The June massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a believed white supremacist “opened the floodgates,” said John W. Adams, spokesman for the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Since then, officials in South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Florida and elsewhere removed or took steps to dismantle flags and other symbols from the region’s secessionist past.
In June, South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, flanked by other political leaders in her state, called for removal of a Confederate battle flag flying in front of the state Capitol. “A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War the time has come,” she said to loud applause. The flag came down July 10.
Alabama’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley also ordered Confederate flags taken down at that state’s Capitol, and the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the campus’s South Mall.
Because of demographic shifts, many Southerners have altered attitudes toward once-sacrosanct tributes to the Confederacy. The 11 states that made up the former Confederacy grew to a total population of over 102 million in 2014, from 84.2 million in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, a 21% increase, compared with a 13% overall U.S. growth rate. Southern states’ ethnic and racial composition has evolved significantly, with black, Hispanic and Asian minorities growing.
Sharon Brown, a 43-year-old African-American activist who has launched an effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem—the “Southern Cross”—from the Mississippi flag, said that her work brought hundreds of supporters to march through Jackson calling for the change. Several cities and colleges in the state have already removed the flag.
Her work also brought nasty phone calls to her home, with strangers yelling “the normal ignorant remarks,” she said. “Change is never easy.”
Opposition to tossing all things Confederate into history’s dust bin now is growing. Heritage supporters are lobbying legislators, and their lawyers are preparing lawsuits, in efforts to restore or maintain Confederate monuments.
“We’re seeing a resurgence, a counterbalance” from people who wish to honor the region’s Confederate heritage, said Mr. Adams, whose heritage group opposes the removals.
Confederate heritage groups say that membership and donations are up; and Confederate flags unfurled on trucks or waving in front of homes remain a common sight across much of the rural South.
Dewey Barber, owner of Confederate flag retailer Dixie Outfitters, in Odum, Ga., said sales have “overwhelmed” his company last summer and fall. Many flags are out of stock as suppliers rush to fill orders, he said. “It’s off the charts.”
The stage is set for political skirmishes in 2016.
In New Orleans, the city council approved Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to remove Confederate monuments, citing public nuisance laws. But monument supporters gathered thousands of signatures of support and filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt the plan.
In Georgia, a battle erupted at Stone Mountain, a granite outcropping east of Atlanta that bears 90-foot-tall likenesses of Confederate leaders chiseled in its side. The association that runs the state park proposed in October to place a “freedom bell” monument in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. atop the mountain, as a feel-good gesture.
But a local NAACP leader called the idea “a ploy” and said setting such a monument amid a park honoring the Confederacy would be an insult to the Rev. King, unless all Confederate flags and place names were removed. State law explicitly requires rebel flags at the park. Leaders of the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans blasted the proposed additions as “disrespectful” changes to undermine the park’s purpose: to honor their ancestors who fought.
Bill Stephens, chief executive of the park association, said the group put the Rev. King tribute idea “on the back burner,” adding: “We were surprised that both sides were so against it.”
Even in South Carolina, where the flag in front of the Capitol came down so dramatically, Confederate heritage is stirring controversy.
Some legislators voted for the flag’s removal only after they were assured it would be put on exhibit in a state-run museum. The state commission this December proposed the cost of such an exhibit to be about $3.6 million, down from $5.3 million initially proposed by architectural consultants. The General Assembly will take up the issue in January.
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org