Three years ago today, a Confederate enthusiast murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, provoking a national reckoning with the symbols of the Old South. And yet, despite that reckoning, it is clear that neo-Confederate ideology remains alive and well in America. In some quarters, it is flourishing.
It’s true, of course, that in the aftermath of the Dylann Roof massacre, two Deep South states, cities such as Memphis and New Orleans, huge retailers like Amazon and Walmart, and even NASCAR—the quintessentially Southern car racing association—all removed or stopped trafficking in Confederate symbols. Some 110 monuments celebrating the Confederacy in public spaces came down in the same period, according to a new survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But the most remarkable thing about that survey is how many remain—more than 1,700, and probably a good many more. Meanwhile, recent developments, including this month’s primary elections, show the resilience of neo-Confederate ideas.
Probably the most dramatic of those elections was the victory of U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart in the Republican primary in Virginia. Stewart is a far-right county official best known for his hard-line defense of Confederate monuments. After an anti-racist protester was murdered in Charlottesville last year, Stewart, who is from Minnesota, lambasted fellow Republicans for condemning the attack. Moreover, as The New York Times reported, he has a history of “cozying up to white supremacists and anti-Semites.”
Many GOP officials are refusing to support Stewart. But not all of them. President Donald Trump immediately congratulated him on his win.
That likely won’t be enough for Stewart to prevail this fall. But other candidates with questionable views are positioned for success. That includes Tom Parker, who became the Republican nominee for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in early June and is expected to trounce his Democratic opponent in November.
Parker is an acolyte of Roy Moore, the “Ten Commandments” judge who was twice removed as Supreme Court chief justice for refusing to obey federal court rulings on religion and same-sex marriage. Parker shares Moore’s bellicose antagonism toward LGBT people. And he is a longstanding neo-Confederate.
That was exposed most dramatically in 2004, during Parker’s first run for a seat on the Supreme Court, when he quietly attended a birthday party put on by local extremists to honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader who became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. Parker also gave away hundreds of miniature Confederate battle flags at the funeral of the woman believed to be last living widow of a Confederate veteran. And he was photographed, battle flags in hand, posing with leaders of the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens, two well-known hate groups.
In 2010, Parker said “liberal activist judges” should be listed with al Qaeda among the nation’s top security threats. In 2015, he told a far-right radio talk show host that Alabama should defy the legalization of same-sex marriage.
As we’ve moved further from the Roof massacre, there’s been a kind of neo-Confederate legislative backlash as well. In Alabama last year, Gov. Kay Ivey, who is up for re-election this fall, signed a ban on removing monuments more than 40 years old. She then boasted of defending Confederate monuments and criticized “out of state liberals”—an echo of Gov. George Wallace’s “outside agitators.” Ivey easily won her primary in June.
The Alabama law followed the 2015 passage of similar legislation in Tennessee, which itself followed North Carolina. Just this April, the Tennessee legislature, infuriated that relatively liberal (and 64 percent black) Memphis had removed key Confederate monuments, stripped the city of $250,000.
Other examples abound. But the most remarkable came in South Carolina, where state Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns, two white Republicans, proposed a monument on statehouse grounds to honor black veterans of the Confederate Army. The only trouble was, the state had no black Confederate veterans.
The myth of the black Confederate soldier is just one of many that form the belief system of today’s neo-Confederates. And that belief system did not come from nowhere. It has been under construction since the Civil War’s end.
The myth of the Lost Cause—the claim that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, that slaves were happy and well-treated, and that Confederate soldiers fought a heroic and praiseworthy battle—began with a history written immediately after the war by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy and propagandist extraordinaire. It expanded with William Dunning, a Columbia history professor, and especially Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who wrote a particularly loathsome, and influential, 1918 history portraying slavery as benevolent.
At around that time, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a heritage group, placed hundreds of monuments to the Southern cause, including at least one that explicitly celebrated the Klan. Decades later, far-right theologians like Gregg Singer, Rousas John Rushdoony, and Doug Wilson developed a “Christian” argument that the South was right, and that it was the only “godly” remnant of America. Schools across the South also embraced Lost Cause mythology.
In recent years, these ideas have been pushed heavily by the radical right in general, and the neo-secessionist League of the South in particular. The league’s leader, Michael Hill, has grown increasingly radical, to the point where he now warns of a coming race war and has openly embraced the Klan.
The capper, of course, has been Trump. After claiming there were “very fine people” among the white supremacist rioters last year in Charlottesville—where the fight began over a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee—he went on to decry the movement against Confederate symbols, saying that removing these “beautiful” statues was an attack on American history and culture.
As with so many things, Trump seemed to open a floodgate, essentially giving Americans permission to make racist claims based on historical falsehoods about slavery and the Civil War.
In the days after the 2015 massacre in Charleston, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who had never criticized the Confederate battle flag, convinced a skeptical legislature to remove it from the statehouse grounds. She said such symbols belonged in museums, and urged others to follow her lead. But while many did, what was once a real movement has largely petered out.
At a time when belligerent and xenophobic nationalism is on the rise around the world, the persistence of neo-Confederate ideology in America threatens to poison race relations and the country’s transition to a genuinely multicultural society. History matters. Unless we truly understand where we have been, it is nearly impossible to get to where most of us would like to go.
Mark Potok, currently a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, has studied the neo-Confederate movement for more than 20 years. For most of that time he was an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping lead efforts to monitor and counter the radical right in America.