Sons of Confederate Veterans commemorate Jefferson Davis inauguration in Montgomery

Saturday, February 19, 2011

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Hundreds of men in Civil War uniforms marched past the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church Saturday to commemorate the inauguration of the Confederate president 150 years ago in a city that no longer rolls out the red carpet for them.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans turned back time to recreate the festivities surrounding Jefferson Davis taking the oath of office on Feb. 18, 1861. They surrounded the bronze star on the Capitol steps that marks the spot where Davis took leadership of a war that still stirs emotions in a state proclaimed on license plates as the "Heart of Dixie."

"The whole celebration is akin to celebrating the Holocaust," state NAACP President Benard Simelton said.

One of the organizers, Chuck McMichael, past national commander of the SCV, calls that ludicrous.

"In many ways the Union Army acted more like the German army of the 1940s with its scorched earth policy," said McMichael, a high school history teacher from Shreveport, La.

Confederate Army re-enactors in period uniforms and women in hoop skirts began the festivities by recreating the parade leading up to Davis’ inauguration. They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold and marched six blocks, past the church King led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide.

It’s where Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed "segregation forever" in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.

It’s also the spot where thousands gathered 50 years ago for Montgomery’s weeklong celebration of the war’s 100th anniversary. It was a state-coordinated celebration with past and present governors participating along with officials from all ranks of government.

On Saturday, state and city officials gave permission for the SCV to march, but had no role in the events. Elected officials from the governor to the mayor chose to stay home or go to other events.

"A sesquicentennial doesn’t have the cache of a centennial," McMichael said. And in the 1960s, "you had a lot more people alive who knew Confederate soldiers," he said.

Simelton said elected officials stayed away because they knew attendance would be viewed as a slap in the face to African-Americans, who make up one-fourth of Alabama’s population.

Black leaders had discussed holding a protest like the one held in December at a Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C., but decided against it.

"We didn’t want to give them more publicity," said Rep. Alvin Holmes, the longest serving black member of the Alabama Legislature.

A downtown shopper, Shirley Williams of Montgomery, who is black, shook her head as she walked by the parade. She said she was offended the parade occurred during Black History Month.

"It represents things in the past that were not positive. Some things ought to be remembered, but this brings up too many painful things people went through," she said.

Not every African-American shared that view. Barbara Marthal of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., put on her hoop skirt and marched in the parade to honor a cousin who fought as a slave.

"There are few people of African descent who are aware of how many people of African descent supported the Confederacy," she said. "This is our history and we should be proud of it."

Sons of Confederate Veterans members, who trace their history to ancestors who fought in the war, call it the "War Between the States" or the "War of Secession" rather than the Civil War. They say its origins have been distorted by modern historians.

SCV member Randy Beeler said he drove from Paducah, Ky., to "send a message the war was fought over states’ rights. Slavery was an issue, but it was not the main issue."

"Yes, it was about states’ rights. It was about states’ rights to have slavery," said Rep. Holmes, a retired college history teacher.

The Montgomery event is the biggest event planned by the SCV this year to mark the sesquicentennial. In 2012, McMichael said the action will switch to Richmond, Va., which replaced Montgomery as the capital of the Confederacy.

Holding up a Confederate flag near the end of the ceremony, he told the crowd, "As long as there blows a southern breeze, this flag will fly in it."

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