Tens of thousands of Southerners rallied this year in defense of an identity they believe is under assault: a veneration of a Confederate heritage. It’s difficult to parcel through just who comprises this movement but some say extremists within it are finding a voice.
Rallies like the one on the courthouse lawn in Batesville, Arkansas this September have been a familiar sight to many across the South this year. It's unclear if there was a primary, formal organizer for the rally but a few dozen people including Civil War re-enactors, members of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans, and those with no affiliation turned out to defend a Confederate-era flag that was lowered after the South Carolina shootings.
Some, like Arkansas League of the South Chair R.G. Miller, had decidedly more ambitious aims, “Independence for our children’s future, independence for our very survival,” said Miller over a bullhorn, “God save the South.”
Mark Potok has been studying the intersection of what he labels extremist groups and Confederate heritage for two decades with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We see a mixing of people who are essentially well-meaning, who really do think of the confederate flag as representing what was attractive about the antebellum South. But there are a substantial minority of people who are mixing into these rallies and the movement as a whole who really are very extreme,” he said.
Potok and the SPLC consider the League of the South the premier neo-Confederate hate group.
“Neo-secessionists have been working over the course of the last 15 years to take over certain kind of institutions to essentially magnify their powers. The most important of those struggles has been with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and that’s really never been resolved.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a long-established, preservation and heritage organization. But in Arkansas, as Potok said is happening elsewhere, a more radical element has made inroads within it.
Ultimately those attending the Batesville rally got what they wanted and the flag was once again raised in Batesville. But there was some confusion afterward.
Arkansas Sons of Confederate Veterans communications officer Ron Kelley posted a message thanking the League of the South, in a list of several others, for their efforts. The message has since been taken down on the official Arkansas SCV website but it remains on Kelley's Arkansas Toothpick site, though slightly edited from the original. Kelly says he had nothing to do with the rally, no prior knowledge of the League of the South, and denounces its aims.
But Tom Bird, director of Heritage Operations for Arkansas SCV, does seem familiar with the LOS. He’s taken an active role in asking people to gather petitions over re-raising the flag, which they did. Bird also regularly promotes social media posts originating in white nationalist circles - including the League of the South flag, merged with a Confederate flag; one titled "White Genocide 101" stating "anti-racist is a codeword for anti-white"; and calling for Islam to be banned, not considering it a religion at all.
Bird has posted several times (here and here) linking President Obama to Islam and claims several high profile mass shootings were government hoaxes. He also has floated boycotting the new Star Wars movie for featuring a diverse cast in a film about a fictional galaxy far, far away that is populated with thousands of species - in the distant past.
Civil War re-enactor John Bryan straddles affiliations, holding no direct membership to any group. He said he was once inspired by the Sons of Confederate Veterans but no more. It’s ultimately relented on too many occasions for him to support the group.
Bryan sports League of the South imagery on social media but said he rejects its ideas of white European heritage defining nationhood. However, he does tell KUAR he is a secessionist. Bryan’s also planning to run for Justice of the Peace as a Republican in nearby Faulkner County.
Arlene Barnum was one of two African-Americans at the rally, both from Oklahoma, who travel to these so-called ‘flagger’ events, promoting Confederate heritage.
“To separate the Southern black from the South you just can’t do it. They are like Siamese twins,” said Barnum to onlookers, “to take away the Confederate heritage is just like taking away my history. It just ain’t right.”
But historian Bruce Levine at the University of Illinois – who writes on the topic of black soldiers in the Civil War – said ideas of a “rainbow” Confederacy, with mass numbers of black troops has traditionally served as an agenda-driven narrative.
“The myth of the happy slave morphs into the claim of the loyal even if enslaved black member of the confederate armed services. The claim throughout is that this war is not about slavery as witnessed by the fact Southern blacks were as dedicated as Southern white,” said Levine.
Late in the war Confederate recruiting was so devoid of spirit, said Levine, that less than 100 blacks were ever counted in combat ranks compared to over 180,000 in the Union Army. He said even that small-scale effort was met with widespread condemnation in the Southern press.
Just weeks after raising the flag, lowered after the Dylann Roof shooting, County Judge Robert Griffin took it down yet again, he said permanently this time. The local SCV chapter, which owns the pole on the courthouse lawn and its commander J0hn Malloy (who was not at the rally, says none of his local members were and rejects the LOS) consented. Griffin cited renewed concerns over lawsuits and an impending trip from economic developments. He also denounced what he sees as extremists at the rally, like the League of the South’s RG Miller.
“Judge Robert Griffin decided to take a stand against the Southern people and against our symbols and people,” said Miller.
As battles over Confederate imagery continue to play out, lines between heritage and hate are as contested as ever.