One essential element of America's hard-right coalition that is consistently underacknowledged by media outsiders and downplayed by movement insiders is the neo-Confederate faction of Stars-and-Bars enthusiasts who revere Jefferson Davis, revile Abraham Lincoln and believe they are still battling Reconstruction in the form of liberal federal government policies. Leading neo-Confederate organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) insist their activities are merely historical in nature, and reject any implication that they are engaged in a long-term political campaign. But as the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof recently demonstrated, neo-Confederacy often uses heritage as a mask for racial hate.
Following Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, leading Republican politicians are capitulating to widespread pressure to condemn the display of the Confederate flag in state capitols across the Deep South. Yet neo-Confederacy maintains wide appeal across the South and deep influence within the broader conservative movement. The SCV, for example, oversees a junior ROTC program overseen by the federal government which enables the organization to promote “Confederate heroes” in public high schools and bestow awards on ROTC participants named after a Confederate military submarine, H.L. Hunley. Meanwhile, the UDC helps organize the annual presidential wreath delivery to the Confederate Army Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. President Obama is the most recent president to participate in this federal tradition, rejecting pressure from academics and activists to cease honoring Confederate veterans.
Since I began reporting on neo-Confederacy, I have consistently turned to one person for insight and information about the movement’s political goals and alliances. Ed Sebesta is a private citizen with no academic position who has dedicated much of his life to researching and challenging the neo-Confederates. Sebesta provided me with the research that allowed me to expose the relationship former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and ex-Virginia Sen. George Allen struck up with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-Confederate group Dylann Roof credited with his radicalization. Sebesta was the source who supplied journalists with the Ron Paul reports that exposed the racist, homophobic screeds that filled Rep. Ron Paul’s newsletters during the 1990s.
Last week, as Charleston mourned its dead and Confederate flags came down, I spoke to Sebesta about his work. He explained to me his theory of the “reactionary fortress” that the neo-Confederate movement maintains in the Deep South, and how this factor has obstructed progressive change across the United States.
Max Blumenthal: How does the neo-Confederate movement achieve its influence within the broader conservative movement and in right-wing Republican circles?
Ed Sebesta: It’s not as direct as electoral politics, it’s more a matter of soft power relating to how you affect people’s thinking. There’s this plantation mythology and you shape your consciousness around the idea that the Confederacy is some ideal. But the thing about the Confederacy is that it’s about advancing inequality. To show how this cultural consciousness affects the country, I do maps of the ratification of the 19th amendment giving the women the right to vote. From these maps, you can see that there’s this Confederate fortress out there, and it’s very clear. Once you have this neo-Confederate mentality at some level of your consciousness, I don’t really have to tell you how to vote or give you a position on some issue — you’ll have this idea already, it naturally comes out of your consciousness. Neo-Confederacy forms American consciousness.
The other thing is, [neo-Confederates] do have access. They’re in the system. They’re not loners out in pickup trucks. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is written by a leading neo-Confederate [Thomas Woods] and it’s been a New York Times bestseller. I was looking at the “Politically Incorrect” titles and about half or more are written by neo-Confederates. So they’re about shaping mainstream consciousness in the conservative movement.
They’re also able to shape a reactionary fortress within the country. I did some mathematics and found that if you have 25% of the country in this reactionary fortress, what that means is to get any issue to pass in Congress, you have to get two-thirds support in the rest of the country. To get a judge confirmed in the Senate, you need about eight-ninths of the rest of the country. To get a constitutional amendment passed, you need 100 percent support in the rest of the country or you have to hope to pick up a couple votes in former Confederate states. That was how the 19th amendment was ratified — they did manage to pick up a few former Confederate states. The Equal Rights Amendment was not so lucky. After her celebration in defeating the ERA, Phyllis Schlafly was interviewed by the Southern Partisan. She bragged that 10 of the 15 states against it were from the South.
This is why the US was 26th to get women the vote. Because they had to get practically everyone else outside the South to vote for it. Imagine if the ERA had been ratified, what the situation would be today for women. Just look at a map of where gender inequality is most pronounced. This is the reactionary fortress.
MB: Who are the main organizations promoting neo-Confederacy and what do they believe?
ES: The main group behind this movement is the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Their journal is promoting issues and ideas you wouldn’t believe. One of the books they’re promoting in the latest issue of their newsletter is a book by a writer named Frank Conner who argues that Jewish northern intellectuals are the South’s deadliest enemy — that civil rights is really a Jewish conspiracy and that blacks have lower IQs. They’re also selling Southern By The Grace of God, a book that portrays the KKK as great heroes. The intellectual group behind neo-Confederate ideology is the Abbeville Institute which comprises about 300 professors and some students. They publish online and promote an explicit neo-Confederate worldview. The United Daughters of Confederacy is more low key. The League of the South is mostly dead because the SCV have filled their role. They sell pro-slavery books and they pretty much resent anyone from unitarians to Latinos to gays to Muslims, you name it.
MB: What means do neo-Confederate activists employ to impact conservative ideology?
ES: One of their biggest successes was these “Politically Incorrect” books that are sold at Barnes and Noble. The South Was Right has sold 125,000 copies. When it comes to the Civil War, they’re influencing the purchase of textbooks by public schools, pushing for those that cover the civil war only in terms of military history and obfuscate the causes of the war. Southern Culture had John Shelton Reed as its chief editor and at the same time was writing for the neo-Confederate Southern Partisan under a pseudonym. So he was basically defining the field of Southern studies for about 10 years. None might be running for office, but they get the job done through soft power.
MB: You have argued that Ron Paul is at least a neo-Confederate sympathizer who has worked intimately with the movement. How is this the case?
ES: He was a keynote speaker at a secession conference planned by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, which advocates secession quite openly. The Lew Rockwell institute is sort of a confederate libertarian organization and also neo-monarchist, and Paul maintains close ties with them. He has always worked directly within the movement.
MB: What about the Council of Conservative Citizens [CCC], this white supremacist, neo-Confederate group that Dylann Roof credited with radicalizing him about African Americans and transforming him into a racial terrorist. They’ve fostered relationships with major Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in the past. Are they still influential?
ES: What happened with the CCC was the same thing with the [defunct neo-Confederate magazine] Southern Partisan. Once it got out in the news that this was a racist organization the number of politicians who would participate in their events dropped precipitously. A few politicians in Mississippi might show up to the meetings, but they make a point of not stating their names.
Their membership overlaps quite a bit with the SCV. So you’ll see people in one group and one in the other, and these days, the SCV serves as kind of an umbrella group for the movement. When the whole Black Lives Matter movement erupted, SCV had a commentary about Ferguson and Eric Garner in its newsletter. After attacking the protesters as lawless individuals and cop opponents as racist, they went on to explain what all of this had to do with Southern heritage. Why is this in our magazine? And the answer was that Reconstruction brought liberalism to the South and it’s liberalism that’s responsible for all this lawlessness and attacks on the cops.
MB: You’ve dedicated yourself to exposing the racist politics of the SCV, yet they’re still able to maintain a veneer of respectability. How do they accomplish this?
ES: If a media person shows up at one of their events, their membership is required to refer the media person to one of their trained spokesmen. They tell their membership not to get in a conversation about slavery, let’s just talk about this or that historical event. So when reporters come up wondering what SCV is all about, the spokespeople reply, ‘Oh it’s about remembering General so and so.’ They don’t seem to want us to know what the actual agenda is.
I wonder why the SCV’s influence hasn’t been a bigger story and why the word hasn’t gotten out that legislators regularly meet with them. School boards meet with them. They get into public schools, not only to hand out awards to ROTC cadets, but to give classes on the Civil War in the public schools. You can imagine what that’s like. It is shocking to see all these African American kids getting taught by SCV members. So they’ve been very effectively maintaining a public space.
MB: Where does the neo-Confederate movement go after the Dylann Roof episode and the national shaming of South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag over its state capitol?
ES: The neo-Confederates are probably freaking out. They’re stunned. They had had their way in every way. Back in 1992 I started campaigning to get rid of the Robert E. Lee statue in Liberty Park in Dallas Texas and the local media put a bead on me editorially. I got a real whupping in the press. And then this week I saw that the Dallas Morning News published an editorial calling for the statue to be removed, along with other memorials to the Confederacy. So I think neo-Confederate forces are stunned. They will probably radicalize and the apolitical elements will drop out and the remnant will become more radical. They were always racist, but they had the smarts to keep it under the table. Now the racism is going to be much more up front.
I’m interested to see whether this current reaction against Confederate symbols lasts more than three months because they’re going to organize a counter reaction. Even if you get rid of the license plates and flags through legislation, the movement’s still going to be there. And people might go home thinking a victory has been won.
MB: Very few Americans know that President Barack Obama has participated in the annual tradition of sending a wreath to the memorial to Confederate veterans at Arlington National Cemetery. You’ve organized a series of letters signed by scholars of Southern history demanding Obama end the practice. But it seems you’ve been ignored, or dismissed, and that Obama is still sending the wreaths.
ES: That’s right, Obama has continued to send the wreath. UDC has photos of the wreath in one of the issues of their magazine. They considered it a great victory that I wasn’t able to get the White House to stop and Obama continued to send it. He also sent wreaths to the African American Civil War Memorial as some kind of compromise. But that’s just stupid. How it is okay to send a wreath to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and then place one on Nazi graves?
The photo below is of the wreath President Obama sent to Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. It is in the United Daughters of Confederacy's May 2011 newsletter.