As thousands marched across Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge this weekend, a small band of white people were less than a mile away, mourning the loss of the Confederacy and guarding a memorial to a white supremacist.
Live Oak cemetery is a burial site for Confederate soldiers in the civil war and contains the grave of Edmund Winston Pettus, the general – and member of the Ku Klux Klan – after whom the town’s bridge was named.
There has been a growing campaign to rename Selma’s bridge given its association with the Confederate south, and dozens of students had planned a peaceful march to the cemetery. They quickly changed plans after discovering the neo-Confederates were waiting for them.
“‘March’ is a military term,” explained Todd Kiscaden, 64, who had traveled to Selma from his home in Tennessee to defend the memorial site. “In any military context, if you’re going to march on my castle, I’m going to man my barricades.”
Selma is most famous for the violent assault on peaceful civil rights marchers on the town’s bridge in 1965. But the Alabama town was also the site of another clash: a notorious civil war battle in which Union forces defeated the pro-slavery Confederate army.
The cemetery where Pettus is buried also contains a memorial to the fallen soldiers, and a controversial monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the lieutenant general in the Confederate army and first Grand Wizard of the Klan.
The graveyard has long been a flashpoint between African Americans and pro-Confederate historians in the town. The graveyard has been the focus of protests before; the memorial has been vandalised and, and three years ago, a bronze bust of Forrest was stolen. Kiscaden, from the group Friends of Forrest, which tends the memorial site, said they were in the process of replacing the stolen bust.
Sunday’s aborted march to the cemetery was organised by Student Unite, the Selma-based youth group behind a viral online campaign to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge. They planned to march peacefully and respectfully to the graveyard, to draw protest against the Pettus bridge name and the existence of a monument to a white supremacist.
“We’re a non-violent group,” explained John Gainey, 25, executive director of the group. “We didn’t want a confrontation.”
Pat Godwin, from the Selma chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy –which owns the confederate memorial site– conceded that the marchers had said they would be peaceful. “But on their website it said they were going to be protesting,” she added.
Godwin, who lives on a ranch 15 miles out of town named Fort Dixie, showed no enthusiasm for the 50th anniversary events taking place nearby.
She described a local black woman who organises the annual commemorative events in Selma as “a race hustler”. The civil rights footsoldiers who were attacked by Alabama state troopers on what became known as Bloody Sunday in 1965, she added, “got the resistance they were seeking”.
Kiscaden, who owns a coal mine in Kentucky, had an equally peculiar interpretation of history. He disputed that Forrest was a a founding member of the Klan, which he said played a positive role in bringing about law and order in the south when it was first conceived in the 1860s. (He distinguished the original Klan from the hate group of the same name that, he conceded, orchestrated lynchings.)
“The people in the south – the white people, who were being abused – organised a neighbourhood watch to try to re-establish some order,” he said of the nascent Klan. Slavery in the south was “a bad institution”, he said, but possibly “the mildest, most humane form of slavery ever practiced”.
“If you look at the wealth created by the slaves, in food, clothing, shelter, medical care, care before you’re old enough to work, care until you died, they got 90% of the wealth that they generated,” he said. “I don’t get that. The damn government takes my money to the tune of 50%.”
Kiscaden and Godwin insisted they were not racist. But they made plain that they hankered for a revival of some of the ideals most Americans believe were defeated in 1865.
“The Confederate government never surrendered,” Kiscaden said. “So are we still in operation? Maybe we’ll find out. I happen to think that our history from 150 years ago is about to catch us.”
It would be wrong to suggest Kiscarden, Godwin and the half-dozen people who lingered around the cemetery on Sunday represent the white minority in Selma, where some white residents work hard to build relations with African Americans.
But 50 years after the march across the bridge, Selma remains racially divided, with schools almost entirely segregated.
More overt forms of racism aren’t far from the surface, either. Some of the black families in Selma opened their front doors this weekend to find letters containing white supremacist literature on their doorsteps, wrapped in rocks. The Klan claimed responsibility for distributing 4,000 letters in Selma and Montgomery. There is no suggestion Kiscaden or Godwin had any connection to the distribution of the letters.
In the end, there was no standoff in the Live Oak cemetery on Sunday. Less than a mile away from a raucous celebration of a watershed in civil rights history, the confederate graveyard was almost eerily silent. But the mood was tense. White men and women occasionally patrolled the grounds in pickup trucks, slowing to take a good look at the occasional visitors.
The few who wandered into the cemetery – either by accident, or to see if the rumours about the neo-Confederates were really true – were stunned by what they found.
A black high-school teacher from Portland, Oregon, said he was especially shocked at the sight of one man guarding the perimeter of the confederate grave site with a German Shepherd dog. Steve Fits, the owner of the dog, denied it was there to defend the cemetery. “He’s not a guard dog,” he said. “He’s my pet.”
A short while later, Chuck Fager, 72, a junior member of Martin Luther King’s staff in the 1960s who later wrote a book about Selma, happened to wander past.
“They’re peaceable enough to talk to, but they’re very serious about their beliefs,” he said. “Most media don’t pay attention to these folks and I think that’s a mistake. They’re a real group, they have real support, and they’re up to stuff that we don’t always see or hear about.”
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