Among the historical ironies of our current era is the defense of Confederate monuments and southern white “heritage” by Republicans. The curious path that the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln has followed to its present stance is an example of expediency and ideology subverting principle.
For more than a century after the Civil War, the defense of white southern “heritage” was the preoccupation of white Democrats. Until the 1970s, Republicans in the South were a long suffering minority who had to battle against all manner of Democratic machinations to enfeeble their opponents. The party recruited African Americans—who remained loyal to the party of Lincoln and hostile to the white segregationists who still presided over the Democratic Party in the region—and whites who favored Republican policies and were less enchanted by white supremacy than their Democratic rivals. Southern Republicans were often vocal opponents of the poll tax and other Democratic schemes that suppressed voter turnout and impeded equal representation in state houses. Nationally, Republican ranks included moderates and liberals whose commitment to racial equality was crucial for the expansion of civil rights from the Civil War until the election of Ronald Reagan.
The Republican embrace of the white southern heritage began in 1972 as part of President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. Nixon believed he had to fend off arch-segregationist George Wallace while retaining the support of a “silent majority” alienated by the Democratic Party’s liberalism. Republican strategists sought to peel off white voters in the South who recoiled from the Democrats’ commitment to affirmative action, school desegregation, and opposition to the Vietnam War. This so-called “Southern Strategy,” which appealed to white suburban southerners who were anxious to preserve de facto segregation in the suburbs, allowed the Republican Party to exploit the anxieties of whites in the South and beyond without having to categorically oppose racial integration. By fulminating against urban crime, court-ordered school busing, and excessively generous welfare programs, Nixon portrayed the Democrats as pressing too fast and too far to force integration. Even while Nixon avoided the fire-breathing racism of George Wallace, white voters had little difficulty discerning the Republicans’ message. After the 1972 election, Nixon’s special counsel John Ehrlichman acknowledged that “the subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
Despite the success of the Republicans’ strategy in 1972, the Democratic Party retained the allegiance of many white southerners through the 1970s. From Virginia to Mississippi, Democratic officeholders included old-line segregationists who only grudgingly acceded to the new reality of growing black political empowerment. Ensconced in positions of power by seniority, these Democratic politicos showered federal and state largesse on their districts while playing up their regional loyalties in thick southern accents.
Only in hindsight is it evident that 1972 marked the emergence of the new face of Republicanism in the South: Jesse Helms. The significance of Helms’ successful Senate campaign that year was obscured by the contemporaneous election of moderate white politicians elsewhere in the region, and especially by the triumph of Jimmy Carter in his 1976 campaign for the White House. Observers were too quick to assume that any lingering legacies of Jim Crow would soon be swept away in the “new New South.”
Helms had previously been a minor figure in national affairs even while he pioneered the politics of white resentment in North Carolina. Taking advantage of his position as an executive at a Raleigh, North Carolina, television station during the 1960s, he had begun delivering nightly broadcast editorials. He honed a stridently conservative message that he presented as down home, common sense traditional values. Americans, Helms growled, were besieged by nihilists, communists, and other radicals intent on undermining Christian and American values. He did not need to literally wave the Confederate flag to reassure whites that he would protect their interests and defend southern “heritage.” His accent, his invocations of traditional values, and his visceral contempt for civil rights activism made such appeals superfluous.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and subsequent presidency was the death knell of the party of Lincoln. Reagan himself evidenced little sympathy for Confederate heritage, but he courted anyone who was receptive or sympathetic to his caricature of “tax and spend” liberalism. During his presidential campaign, he made it clear that he wasn’t embarrassed to glad-hand race-mongers like George Wallace and voters who had previously championed segregation. Notably, he delivered a major campaign speech endorsing “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Lee Atwater, a Republican consultant who had an outsized role in the Republican presidential campaigns during the 1980s, revealed the logic behind the invocation of “states’ rights” by Reagan (and other Republicans): “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.” Observers dwelled on the symbolism of his invocation of states’ rights within a few miles of the site where the Ku Klux Klan had murdered three civil rights activists in 1964. But many overlooked the cultural symbolism of the specific site of his speech, the Neshoba County Fair. In 1980 (and virtually to the present), the fair is a festival of white Mississippi culture during which black musicians perform, black chefs cook, and black service workers tend to the needs of white fairgoers who reside in elaborate “cabins” on the fairgrounds. The fair is as close to a whites-only utopia as Mississippi has to offer. No location was more fitting for Reagan’s implicit renunciation of a century of Republican commitment to equality.
Reagan’s handiwork prepared the way for the surprisingly rapid consolidation of Republican strength in the South. Reagan’s version of Republicanism purged most of the liberals and moderates lingering in the party’s ranks. Free-market ideologues and Christian conservatives who shared a contempt for liberal “social engineering” and a hatred of communism assumed their places. Meanwhile, retirements thinned the ranks of old-time Democrats who still commanded loyalty in the hinterlands of the white South.
Jesse Helms’ tenacious opposition to the establishment of a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. was a sign of how far the party of Lincoln had traveled in only a few years. Helms, with the aid of John Porter East (another North Carolina Republican), mocked King’s historical importance, criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War, and tarred him as a communist. Reagan gave credence to Helms’ slanders until finally caving in and signing the legislation creating the holiday in 1983. Helms, Reagan, and the naysayers had made their point even in defeat; any observer understood that Republican support for the holiday was half-hearted at best and that, in the eyes of many conservatives, it was a tawdry concession to illegitimate “special interests.”
Yoking the Republican Party to the Defense of Confederate Heritage
Confederate symbols to the cause of fanning the resentments of white southerners was by no means the exclusive work of Republican politicians. The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), neo-Confederates, and avowed white supremacists in the region played a crucial role during the 1980s and 1990s. Founded in 1896, the SCV failed for nearly a century to muster a large membership or to exercise much cultural authority. But during the 1970s and 1980s, its ranks were invigorated by new recruits, including Civil War reenactors and men vigilant against any insults to southern white “heritage.” Included in the membership of the SCV were white supremacists who looked to the Confederacy as inspiration for the creation of a white Euro-American homeland. The League of the South, a neo-Confederate and white supremacist organization founded in 1994, added a patina of intellectual rigor to the Confederate revival. Together, the SCV, the League of the South, and their allies warned white southerners that cosmopolitan academics, liberal and irreligious politicians, foreign organizations, and other sinister forces were intent on the destruction of the white South’s values and heritage. Attacks on the symbols of the Confederacy were one manifestation of this nihilism run amok. While liberals applauded the tentative first steps in the creation of a pluralist South that incorporated everyone into civic life, neo-Confederates angrily countered that the South historically had been and should remain an Anglo-Celtic homeland. Equally important, when the white South launched the Confederacy, it purportedly had come closer than any previous or subsequent society to creating the ideal Christian republic. The defense of white southern “heritage” was, literally, the defense of everything that was sacred.
With gathering energy during the 1990s, the SCV picketed, lobbied, campaigned, and litigated to prevent “heritage violations,” which included “any attack upon our Confederate Heritage, or the flags, monuments, and symbols which represent it.” Particular energy was devoted to bringing suit against countless school districts and municipalities that sought to restrict the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag. Although the SCV usually failed in these efforts, it stoked the fears and resentments of members and allies who were steeped in a white regional memory that dwelled on white southerners’ victimhood at the hands of Union generals, liberal judges, northern legislators, and outside agitators.
This defense of Confederate heritage increasingly contaminated the region’s public life during the 1990s. At the same time that activists within the SCV gained control of the organization, Republicans grasped that Confederate symbols could be used as a wedge issue to loosen the weakening grip of Democratic politicians on the rural South. Georgia provided a vivid illustration of the dangers for Democrats of tangling with Confederate heritage. Throughout the 1990s, state politics were roiled by demands to change the state flag, which segregationist politicians had redesigned to include the Confederate Battle Flag in response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown V. Board of Education decision. When the 1996 Olympics brought international scrutiny to Atlanta and the state, Democrats and some business leaders advocated the removal of the divisive Confederate symbol from the state flag. But other politicians, especially Republicans, exploited the issue to depict Democrats as captives of black activists and outsider business elites hostile to white southern heritage. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Republicans pummeled Democratic Governor Roy Barnes for his role in the adoption of a new state flag, rallying the support of rural white males who harbored grievances against what they perceived to be metropolitan, liberal, and elitist policies. In the hands of Republican candidate Sonny Perdue’s campaign, the new state flag became a symbol of “political correctness,” affirmative action, multiculturalism, moral laxity, and other perceived modern ills. Similar battle lines emerged elsewhere, including Alabama and Mississippi, whose state flags also incorporated the Confederate battle flag. In South Carolina, controversy arose over the display of the Confederate flag above the statehouse.
With the alliance between neo-Confederates and the Republican Party cemented by the end of the 1990s, it became commonplace for Republican politicos to boast of their devotion to southern “heritage.” Texas congressman Ron Paul, for example, was a steadfast defender of the Confederacy and an even more ardent champion of the Confederate constitution. When asked whether he favored secession, Paul readily answered yes, “the states should be able to secede.” But, he lamented, “that principle was destroyed with the Civil War.” The Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity has been outspoken in defending the display of the Confederate Battle Flag. When Rick Perry, a member of the SCV, was governor of Texas, he repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for secession and pondered whether Texas should secede.
The Contemporary Politics of White “Heritage”
White “heritage” organizations circulated “voters’ guides” that almost exclusively endorsed arch-conservative Republican politicians like Congressman Paul and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. In several southern states, especially Mississippi and South Carolina, leading Republican politicians welcomed the support of reactionary white nationalist organizations. Governor Kirk Fordice of Mississippi and Senator Trent Lott, for instance, displayed no embarrassment about meeting repeatedly with the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that continued to oppose integration and racial equality into the 21st century. The rare Republican who strayed from the party’s new Confederate orthodoxy risked a furious backlash, as Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia learned in 1998. He used his Confederate History Month proclamation (the month had been a state tradition for decades) to denounce slavery, prompting R. Wayne Byrd, the state president of the Heritage Preservation Association, to warn that he would suffer for his “shameful attempt…to pander to racist hate groups like the NAACP.” Subsequent Republican politicians during the 2000s were loath to cross defenders of Confederate heritage.
Indeed, only extraordinary circumstances persuaded southern Republicans to reevaluate their now steadfast defense of all things Confederate. Not until after the 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, did Republican leaders of the state grudgingly furl the Confederate battle flag that had graced the state capitol grounds for decades. Before his murderous attack, Roof had immersed himself in the websites of the Council of Conservative Citizens and other white nationalist organizations that fomented racist stereotypes and myths about black criminality. Roof also had educated himself in his race hatred by touring slavery-related historical sites in North and South Carolina and visiting shrines to the Confederacy. When photographs of Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag circulated after the massacre, even some die-hard Confederate apologists conceded that the time-worn defense of the flag as a symbol of “heritage, not hate” rang hollow. The continuing display of the battle flag on the state capitol grounds became a particular flashpoint. The flag had first been raised over the state capitol in 1962 by order of the state’s governor, Democrat Ernest Hollings, as a protest against desegregation. In 2000, after sustained demonstrations and a boycott by the NAACP, the flag was moved from atop the building to a flagpole incorporated into a Confederate memorial located in front of the capitol. There it remained until three weeks after Roof’s violent spree, when it was finally taken down.
The removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds was widely applauded as evidence of statesmanship and a new commitment to reconciliation within Republican ranks in the state and the South. Yet arguably the most important response by Republicans to the banishing of the Confederate battle flag from public space has been the proliferation of “heritage protection” laws. While Republicans retreated from defending the Confederate flag, they nevertheless were steadfast in their devotion to the preservation of Confederate monuments in the public spaces of the South. Alarmed first by the outcry after Roof’s rampage, and then subsequently by the desecration of Confederate monuments by activists energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, Republican legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia took the lead in passing laws that imposed onerous requirements, typically including legislative approval, to alter names on buildings or to move or remove monuments. Riddled with legal ambiguities and resting on untested claims of legislative authority, these laws pose hardships on any communities intent on revising their civic landscapes. Communities graced with teams of lawyers may test the laws or try to navigate the legislatures, but their attempts almost certainly will end up in state or federal court. In the meantime, the contemporary landscape of the South, which is cluttered with thousands of memorials to the Confederacy, will remain frozen for the foreseeable future.
After white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and others staged a violent protest to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a municipal park in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, white conservatives sought to divorce themselves from racist extremists even while defending those in Charlottesville who had rallied to celebrate Confederate heritage. President Trump’s public comments three days after the tragic death of Heather D. Heyer, a counter-protester in Charlottesville, included a mash-up of arguments that had long circulated among Confederate apologists for two decades. He warned against the erasure of history and suggested that “good people” had been present among the crowds of white nationalists. In subsequent comments, the conservative commentators drew comparisons between the campaign to remove Confederate symbols and the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Jewish art in Nazi Germany, implying a moral equivalency between American anti-Confederate activists and the most reviled extremist enemies of the United States. Such remarks were consistent with the long-familiar tactic of attacking the NAACP, which advocated boycotts against states that prominently honored the Confederacy, as a racist hate group. Remarkably, since 2017 Trump and other Republicans have implied that opposition to the preservation of Confederate heritage is un-American. And thus, the party that was responsible for preserving the Union is now offering a full-throated defense of naked symbols of treason associated with a war that claimed more American lives that all other conflicts combined.
If the curious history of the Republican Party’s embrace of Confederate heritage did not have such corrosive consequences, we might dismiss it as farcical. But in the current environment, this history is tragic. At present, white conservatives apparently are unwilling to consider even token concessions to opponents of Confederate symbols except in the wake of horrific acts of violence like Roof’s massacre. And with laws in at six southern states that are intended to impede the removal of Confederate and other divisive memorials, the only path forward is to either elect new legislators or challenge the laws in the courts. Neither course of action is likely to defuse the issue in the near future or to bring to an end the Republican Party’s romance with the Confederacy.
This article was produced by Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.