Protesting the Klan at Gettysburg
On September 2, 2006 approximately 30 members of the World Knights of the Ku Klux
Klan held a rally on the sacred ground of the Gettysburg battlefield. Fortunately
the Klansmen found themselves greatly outnumbered by both police and counter-protestors.
As they made their way to the barricaded protest area perhaps their attention
was drawn to a small group of counter-protestors a short distance away. The group
consisted of nine Confederate reenactors carrying a Confederate flag and led by
a burly African-American 1st Sergeant. The reenactors, members of the Company
B, 37th Texas Cavalry, turned their backs on the Klansmen in an act of silent
protest over their misuse of the Confederate flag. It was not the first time the
37th Texas and 1st Sgt. Bob Harrison had confronted the Klan. Harrison, a branch
library director with the Norfolk Public Library System, has made it his mission
to tell the story of black Confederates as well as to confront racist groups over
their corruption of Confederate symbols. The Bivouac Banner interviewed 1st Sgt.
Harrison and Col. Michael Kelley, commander of the 37th, and discussed the rally
at Gettysburg, the use and misuse of Confederate symbols, and the mission of this
unusual reenactment unit.
The Bivouac Banner: How and why did your unit come to the decision to counter-protest
Col. Michael Kelley: We noticed that the hysterical rhetoric regarding the
Confederacy and the Confederate soldier had been escalating in recent years
with more and more references comparing the Confederacy to Nazi Germany and
the Confederate soldier to Nazi Waffen SS and, more recently, comparing Confederate
soldiers to Al Qaeda terrorists. One of our mounted troopers in a parade in
California was approached by a young man who tapped him on the leg and asked,
"Why aren’t you just wearing a Nazi uniform?" From our studies we
knew these comparisons were far from the truth.
1st SGT Harrison must be credited with taking the lead in this effort to confront
evil. While residing in South Carolina he donned his uniform and single-handedly
protested both against the Klan and the radical side of the NAACP. When I queried
him about how it went he responded, "It just sort of broke up in ten minutes
or so…the Klan and the NAACP couldn’t decide who hated me more."
Efforts by other individuals and groups to attract media attention to ceremonies
and celebrations honoring the Confederate soldier had had very poor response
and little press mention. We decided that we would make use of the media’s knee-jerk
reflex in publicizing the Klan to demonstrate that the Klan does not represent
the Confederacy or the Confederate soldier. By doing it in a dignified manner
with the ability to respond to questions with historical facts we could begin
the process of "rehabilitating" the image of the Confederate soldier.
The first opportunity for the 37th arose following the vote in Mississippi
on which flag to fly at the "Eight Flags Display" in Biloxi, just
a few miles down the road from me. The vote had been to leave the historically-incorrect
Confederate Navy jack flying to represent the CSA even though all of the other
flags of entities which have governed the area are national flags. The Mississippi
White Knights of the KKK issued a statement that they would "…march to
show the Klan’s support for the ‘Rebel’ flag." I had formed the 37th Texas
Cavalry from the remnants of the 34th Texas and our ranks included caucasians,
African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and American Indians. I knew that what the
Klan represented was NOT what the Confederacy or its soldiers were about.
When the Klan appeared anywhere nearby it seemed that the media focused on
them and the local "Black activists" and gave them a full page to
share in the local newspaper. Both sides conveyed the most negative image possible
of the Confederate soldier. Following our initial public stand in Biloxi the
local newspaper, the Sun Herald, printed a full page of coverage on the inside
cover of the front page. This time the Klan and the local "Black activists"
each got one small paragraph and the remainder of the page was devoted to our
efforts. It was our first success.
BB: What has been the response from the public and the media?
MK: The public has been generally receptive with those willing to hear historical
facts expressing amazement at what they had been taught versus the facts and
expressing their support of our efforts. The media has been wary and hesitant
to grant us as much coverage, but their interest is growing. In some cases they
have attempted to make backhanded comments to discredit what we do, but that
has actually worked to our advantage.
For instance, following Biloxi at WALA-TV in Mobile on-air copy was rewritten
without permission or authority by a news staffer to state that the 37th Texas
had appeared in order to support the Klan. The fallout of that was a written
apology and five on-air apologies and clarifications on their leading morning
Following Gettysburg the York Daily Record ran a Sunday editorial which contained
the offensive statement that, "The Klan’s counter-protesters were organizations
that honor the heritage of fighting a war to protect slavery." I called
the Sunday editorial editor and, as a result, the following Sunday my 800 word
op-ed response explaining why the Civil War was fought neither over slavery
nor states rights appeared and gave us another chance to address a wider audience
with the simple and unadorned facts of history. Their attempt to discredit us
instead discredited them and gave us a better foot in the door. There was no
negative follow-up editorially, in "Letters to the Editor" or by email
We expect that as we rack up more appearances that the media will begin to
"warm up" to us and be more objective about what we are doing and
why. That is certainly the trend at this time.
BB: What has been the response from other Confederate reenactment units and
MK: Some members of other reenactment units have joined with us but at this
time commands seem to take the position that they are reenactors engaged in
a hobby for fun, not organizations crusading for a greater public awareness
of the truth. We have welcomed a number of fellow reenactors and will welcome
individual members of any Confederate or Union command or entire commands willing
to stand with us for the honor of the Confederate soldier and in the cause of
The response from heritage organizations has been disappointing with all but
one (the "Southern Independence Party of Tennessee") at their highest
levels of leadership strenuously disagreeing with what we do. There have been
individual SCV Camps which have expressed strong support for us and some SCV
members have participated, but above the Camp level the response is generally
negative with the assertion that "You can’t deal with the press. No matter
what you do they will twist it and make it a disaster."
We have dealt with the press successfully, including their occasional snide
attempt to discredit what we do, turning it to our advantage and gaining more
press in the process. We have made significant headway in reasserting the reality
of the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier. Despite our successes and our
pleas for participation there seems to be little change in the position of the
heritage groups. They seem to cling to the outdated and discredited concept
that ignoring the Klan from a distance is the best way to deal with the Klan
and their claims.
Ignoring the Klan has been tried for 50 years and, because the media has not
participated in that plan and will not participate in the future, we are at
the point of the Confederacy being linked to Nazi Germany and Confederate soldiers
(white, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, etc.) equated to Nazi Stormtroopers
or Al Qaeda terrorists.
Unfortunately, for the time being it seems that the 37th Texas Cavalry and
its individual friends are the "point of the bayonet" in fighting
an effective campaign to recover the history and heritage of the Confederate
soldier. We would rather be lost in the crowd of those standing firm. We welcome
the participation of individuals who see the merit of what we do and the means
by which we accomplish it. As long as they are willing to join with us at these
events as part of the whole effort to renew the honor of the Confederate soldier
and not present themselves as a particular organization with a particular agenda
we welcome them.
BB: Are you planning any future counter-demonstrations or anti-KKK activities?
MK: Members of the 37th Texas Cavalry who are located in regions where they
can reasonably travel and appear at the sites being selected by the KKK will
continue to do so. We have to wait until the KKK makes its targets known so
we can obtain parade permits and attend officially. Unlike other groups and
individuals who ask for donations to offset their expenses we do not have a
bucket at our feet for people to throw change. This is a personal commitment
and we have always paid the tab from within.
We coordinate with local law enforcement and, in the case of Gettysburg, the
Department of Justice who command the special National Park Service Police who
are present at such events. Our relationship with them is one of mutual trust
and respect. My personal presence will be mandated whenever the Klan gathers
at the Appomattox Surrender Grounds. My Great-great Grandfather is buried there
and the "Kelley Farmhouse" belonged to my Great-great Granduncle.
By that time we hope that the press will be sufficiently aware of us and what
we stand for that we can have greater opportunity to explain in detail our mission,
our means and our goals. We hope the significance of the site will not be lost
on the media.
BB: Why do you feel there has been so little done to protect or protest the
use of Confederate symbols by hate groups?
MK: From the beginning when the Klan moved away from its prominent use of its
only official flag, the United States flag, to the use of Confederate flags
and symbols which took place in the early 1950s, following Sen. Strom Thurmond’s
formation of the "Dixiecrat Party" in 1948. Good Southerners looked
upon ignoring and shunning the Klan as the means to defend their heritage and
honor. They simply did not want to be seen in the company of "those people."
It was and remains a traditional Southern means of showing disapproval that
had worked in the South for generations. However, this was a matter which quickly
expanded beyond the South to other areas of the country and the world where
ignoring someone was seen as silent acquiescence or even approval rather than
The Klan saw this silence both as an opportunity to try to ride the coattails
of Confederate soldiers and to imply by the general silence of the Southern
people that they represented the Confederacy, the Confederate soldier and Southerners
in general. They realized that being shunned would not be understood elsewhere.
They have continued that free ride for too many decades.
It is also unfortunate that Southerners themselves have become the victims
of "politically correct history" and we find that we have a group
of Southerners who beat their breasts, tear their hair, weep crocodile tears
and repeat "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" over and over in an effort
to show how contrite they are for the imaginary sins of their ancestors.
We have another group on the other end of the spectrum who have swallowed the
line of the Klan and believe that the Confederacy stood for white supremacy
and intolerance of religions other than Protestant Christianity. They are the
ones who have written to us to advise us that "The Klan swells the ranks
at flag rallies," "The Klan are the ones you should be defending"
and "The Klan are good Christians."
We have folks who believe that showing up waving ONE particular of Confederate
flag, yelling and blowing whistles and air horns will somehow change peoples’
minds. This is what most of the heritage groups fear the 37th advocates – which
we do not.
In the middle we have good Southerners who have a better, but not complete,
understanding of the history of the South and the Confederacy who still believe
that ignoring the Klan is the most effective means to counteract and contradict
The fact is that the 37th Texas Cavalry employs traditional Southern means
to effectively counteract the Klan. We shun them but we do it on-site, in uniform
and in full view of the media. Unfortunately, the Southern people did not heed
the words of Irish-born Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne from his
January, 1864, letter which proposed the mass emancipation and enlistment of
Black Southerners into the Confederate Army:
"Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before
it is too late…It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written
by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will
learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed
by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors,
and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision…The conqueror’s policy
is to divide the conquered into factions and stir up animosity among them…"
BB: When and how did you decide to become a Confederate reenactor?
1st Sgt. Bob Harrison: Becoming a Confederate reenactor was pretty much destiny
now that I look back on it. Having grow up in the Philadelphia/Valley Forge
area and being surrounded by history it was always my first love to study history.
Also, coming from a strong military heritage, it was destiny that one of my
main areas of interest would be military history. Having done my undergraduate
and graduate studies at Clarion University of PA, I continued that focus into
my college years as well. When I first came across the topic of Confederates
of Color in my studies, I thought my professors had to be "smoking something."
However, the historian inside was deeply intrigued. Coupling that with my deep,
rich, Southern style upbringing, I always felt drawn to the Confederate Cause.
My mother was born and raised on the East side of Richmond, VA and always instilled
me with the philosophy of "Go for your destiny, but never forget your history."
I remember coming home from 4th grade telling her and my elders about how Lincoln
freed the slaves. They would always respond with the same level of high disgust
for the blatant telling of half truths and lies about the war and slavery in
general. As I began learning more and more about the history of the South and
this rich heritage of Confederates of Color, the more deeply I received a new
sense of Black pride, and began studying more and speaking on behalf of Confederates
of Color in collegiate roundtable discussions. Then one day a close friend of
mine handed me a copy of the Camp Chase Gazette which is the reenactor’s bible.
He had shown me an advertisement (for the then 34th Texas Cavalry) which was
looking for "men of color" to join its ranks and help tell the true
story of Confederates of Color. I met then Major Kelley and the rest is history.
BB: What has been the reaction of the public and other reenactors to an African-American
BH: It has been mixed really. The most common reaction I get is one of disbelief
and disgust. Many feel I am "aiding and abetting racists determined to
distance the South from Slavery." I have even been threatened with bodily
harm for being so outspoken and dedicated to the history of the South and the
Confederate Cause. However, there is a growing number of people, including fellow
African-Americans, who are beginning to either embrace the truth or at least
consider it. While in Biloxi, MS I had the chance to meet Aniece Liddell who
is a former President of the Jackson County, MS chapter of the NAACP who fully
endorses our unit and what we are trying to do. I am also great friends with
Darlington County, SC Councilwoman Ms. Wilhelmina Johnson who helped us in our
annual remembrance of Private Henry "Dad" Brown who is a Black Confederate
soldier and drummer buried in Darlington. However, while things are beginning
to change for the better, the road to full acceptance is still a steep, uphill
climb. However, it is a climb I am determined to make with honor.
BB: What were some of the comments and conversations that occurred at the Gettysburg
rally? Was it immediately apparent to others why your unit was there?
BH: There really wasn’t too much conversation at the Gettysburg rally. The
National Park Service had an iron fence and about 75 to 80 yards between us
so there wasn’t any chance for confrontational debates. Furthermore, the other
anti-KKK protesters seemed more preoccupied with shouting profanities back and
forth at the KKK and its Nazi supporters. The Press that interviewed us did
so very favorably and to our credit. With all of the pre-rally press it was
already well known who we were and why we were there.
BB: Was there any response from the KKK to your unit?
BH: They said absolutely nothing to us. At least if they did it was not easily
made out. We simply came and did what we said we were going to do. We marched
out, performed our Confederate military style protest, turned our backs on the
Klan, and left with honor.
BB: Do you plan to counter-protest any other hate group demonstrations?
BH: Being that most members of the 37th Texas are so spread out, it is hard
to get a maximum number of troopers to be at any given event. However, as far
as we are concerned, the battle lines are drawn and no longer with the KKK or
any other hate group be given free reign to desecrate and misuse our heritage
and symbols. It could be the White Aryan resistance or some Skinhead group;
it does not matter. We are really looking forward to meeting the Klan head on
at Appomatox whereas you known Colonel Kelley has a personal history centered.
However time or place is not a consideration. We go where the situation demands
us to be.
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