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Monday, September 01, 2003  

Back to the past
Part III: Neo-Confederate romance with past effects present

Several of the latest neo-Confederate efforts to prevent progress revolve around Reconstruction, which neo-Confederates and their sympathizers abhor, describing it as the seed of the 'upppityness' which has made blacks unmanageable ever since slavery ended. They are currently exercising their antipathy by trying to prevent historic preservation efforts that will document and memorialize Reconstruction. Preservationists throughout the country have turned their attention to South Carolina, where Reconstruction began.

A bill shepherded through the U.S. Senate by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., has set aside $300,000 to complete two studies over three years.

One study would be a national search designed to identify U.S. sites and resources significant to Reconstruction.

The second would determine whether five Beaufort County sites with strong ties to Reconstruction should be added to the National Park System.

Second District Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of Lexington introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House that could be debated when Congress reconvenes next month, if Wilson pushes it.

The mainstream view of Reconstruction captures the complexity and hopefulness of the time.

Reconstruction was that period immediately after the war, from 1865 to 1877, when the Union tried to heal itself socially, spiritually and economically.

Factories were down, millions of former slaves had no education, land or other means of self-support, and families were torn apart. The country's future seemed fragile.

"The term Reconstruction referred to the literal rebuilding of the war-ravaged South and the metaphorical rebuilding of the Union," the National Park Service's Brenda Barrett told Congress earlier this year.

The neo-Confederates, and most white Southerners who were brought up on the myth of the valiant South, disagree.

Popularly in South Carolina, Reconstruction is that period when the federal government imposed its will and blacks headed state government, ruling corruptly and ruining the lives of poor whites.

Though 60 years of historical research shows that view to be racist and wrong, it persists.

"Denigrating and dismissing black officeholders as illiterate, venal, propertyless rogues is one of the most enduring myths of Reconstruction," USC history professor Walter Edgar wrote in "South Carolina: A History."

"Most black legislators (87 percent) were literate; more than three-fourths were property-owners and taxpayers. A majority were middle-class artisans, farmers and shopkeepers -- not former field hands.

"At least one in four had been free persons of color before the war. Contemporary whites and their descendants either refused to acknowledge or deliberately distorted the accomplishments of the state's black leaders."

About 190 blacks served in the S.C. Legislature during Reconstruction, more by far than in any other Southern legislature.

That is part of the state's special history. It is one of the few to have been predominantly black and remained so into the 1890s. Like other states with large West African-derived populations, such as Alabama and Mississippi, South Carolina has a long history of using any means possible to subvert the political will of its black citizens.

The controversy there has been stoked by the increasingly radical Sons of the Confederate Veterans. Now dominated by the segregationist and secessionist League of the South, the SCV is more open than before about considering blacks and Northerners its archenemies. The drive to monumentalize the history of Reconstruction has members' blood boiling.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of Civil War veterans' descendants, wants to stop the effort to federally protect several sites honoring South Carolina's and Beaufort County's prominent historical roles in the post-Civil War period.

"If the National Park Service wants to honor blacks being free from slavery and blacks getting the right to vote, that's fine," said Michael Givens, first lieutenant of the state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Just don't do it under the pretenses of Reconstruction."

. . .Givens, of the SCV, said Reconstruction was a terrible time for Southern whites, who he said were "punished" by Northern whites, or "carpetbaggers," who came South. "The genesis of bad relationships between the races is Reconstruction," rather than slavery, Givens said. [Emphasis mine.]

. . .Recently, the park service included an explanation at a new exhibit at Fort Sumter, which it operates, saying slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War. Southern groups, such as the SCV, maintain the war was fought over "states rights."

The SCV wrote Wilson, drafted a resolution against the Reconstruction study and put it on the group's Web site. Reconstruction study supporters countered by also writing Wilson.

People are focusing on Rep. Wilson because he epitomizes the conflict. Not only is he is a legislator needed to get the bill passed and program funded, he is a member of the SCV. When SCV members have refused to toe the party line in the past, they have been ejected from the group. Among ejectees is filmmaker Ken Burns, who neo-Confederates deride as much too affectionate toward Yankees and "the Negroes."

Ken Burns, Ex-compatriot

"Compatriot" Ken Burns has been stripped of membership, largely as a result of one man's courage and devotion to integrity in our ranks. Virginia's General Hank Morris, a camp commander and retired Army Brigadier, demanded that the little mop-headed anti-Southern snippet with a penchant for mentioning Robert E. Lee and Adolph Hitler in the same sentence be defrocked by the Virginia Division. Over the whining objections of J.E.B. Stuart Camp Commander Phil "Sheridan" O'Neill, who called for his own ouster should Burns be removed, the Division muckety-mucks voted to give the nasty little excuse for humanity the heave-ho.

It seems, however, that J.E.B. Stuart Camp officers tried to procure an 11th hour transfer of the miscreant to an obscure camp in New England. However, Burns' status as not being a member in good standing (i.e. facing charges), as well as the fact that the transfer papers were not signed, did not allow the cowardly shell-game tactic to go through.

When given notice of his hearing, to be held at a Shoney's, the effeminate New England phlegm-maker replied, "I don't eat at Shoney's!"

Score one for the good guys. Kudos to General Morris, Thirty Pieces of Silver to J.E.B. Stuart Camp (to be hereafter known as the Judas Iscariot Camp to avoid confusion with the J.E.B. Stuart Camp in Pennsylvania), and may Ken Burns realize the error of his ways and repent before he meets General Sherman and Abraham Lincoln in the hereafter.

One second thought, the hell with him!

If Wilson continues supporting the plans to memorialize Reconstruction, he will likely be denounced and rejected by the SCV.

What are the sites so offensive to neo-Confederates they oppose monumentalizing them?

The Penn Center, the first school in the South for freed slaves, is one of the Beaufort County sites. The others are:

• The Freedmen's Bureau, where ex-slaves first voted

• Michellville, on Hilton Head Island, established as the first freedmen's village

• The Old Fort Plantation, where the first ex-slaves gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read, and

• The Robert Smalls house and other sites associated with the Reconstruction leader and Civil War hero.

Opposition to Americans remembering these places, the first of their kind since many slaves in South Carolina were effectively free in 1860, is opposition to the end of slavery. Many people would like to believe that the neo=Confederate movement is unimportant. However, when we see actions such as this effort to prevent American history from being recorded, it is obvious the movement is powerful enough to be a threat in regard to matters important to all of us.

One of our most respected historians summarizes why this controversy matters.

"I think this is really ridiculous," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor who is recognized as the leading authority on Reconstruction.

"Reconstruction is one of the most misunderstood periods of American history. There was great progress and great failure in many ways. But it was an integral part of our history. A new and up-to-date version of Reconstruction can benefit everyone."

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