Calls To Remove Confederate Flag Challenge Southern Orthodoxy

Jun 26, 2015
Originally published on June 27, 2015 9:40 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The services for those slain last week are happening alongside calls to remove Confederate symbols in the South. Tony Horwitz says these calls mark the collapse of a Southern orthodoxy. Horwitz has written two books about the Civil War era, "Midnight Rising" and the bestseller "Confederates In The Attic," published in the late '90s. He calls the difference between then and now stunning.

TONY HORWITZ: This week's rout of Confederate heritage was unimaginable two decades ago when I traveled the South to explore memory of the Civil War. Many whites I met still hued to a 19th century dogma - the Lost Cause. Its core beliefs - Southerners fought nobly for self-rule and the region's way of life in the face of federal tyranny. The Confederacy was doomed by the North's greater numbers and industrial might, but its cause was right. Generations were schooled in this faith and its rituals. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans held military titles and pledged allegiance to bygone rebel flags. I watched children recite the Confederate catechism. One of its tenets - slaves were spoiled by their beneficent masters.

At the same time, new, less nostalgic groups deployed symbols of the Confederacy in a distinctly modern war. As the League of the South proclaims, the enemy today is the unholy trinity of tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. These so-called heritage groups turned out hordes of rebel-flag-waving demonstrators. They also cowed lawmakers, targeting anyone who wavered from absolute fidelity to the flag. This bullying helped keep the Lost Cause alive long after it should've died.

When I'm in the South now, I'm struck by how much has changed. Many plantations and museums now deal frankly with the horrors of slavery. Interracial couples are a common sight, so are large, new immigrant communities. Fewer and fewer residents of the South feel any connection or allegiance to the cult of the Confederacy. This aversion turned to outright revulsion in the wake of the Charleston massacre and provided an opening for South Carolina lawmakers to finally challenge the tyranny of Confederate heritage. One Republican legislator told his colleagues in South Carolina...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL THURMOND: I am proud to take a stand and no longer be silent.

HORWITZ: His family and others, he said, fought to keep human beings as slaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THURMOND: I'm not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and were wrong, wrong, wrong.

HORWITZ: What made this disavowal of the cause so striking was the identity of the speaker. It was Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond, the arch-segregationist whose Dixiecrat Party wrapped itself in the rebel flag. The younger Thurmond called for the flag to come down at once and declared, I am proud to be on the right side of history. That was Tuesday. Much has happened since across the South and beyond. I can't wait to see what next week will bring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Tony Horwitz is the author of "Midnight Rising" and "Confederates In The Attic." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.