Where the Confederacy is Rising Again
In July 2015, with national controversy over displays of the Confederate flag at a ferocious peak, five Texas Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the state’s top elected officials arguing that some of the dozen Confederate memorials at the Texas state Capitol “espouse a whitewashed version of history.” The letter came a month after a 19-year-old white supremacist murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, a hate crime that jump-started a national conversation about the meaning of Confederate symbols. The letter was sent to Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. Only Straus responded. In November, he ordered a House committee to review the “historical intent and significance” of the monuments and make recommendations to the State Preservation Board. When the review finally takes place, likely in the few months right before the November elections, Texas lawmakers will find themselves in a tough spot: They will be forced to either deny historical truths about the Confederacy, or potentially face the wrath of a devoted, active and organized subset of conservative Texans. Monument supporters and protesters alike are anxious they will be on the losing end of the committee’s recommendations.
Nowhere has the national re-examination of Confederate emblems been more riven with controversy than the Lone Star State. In cities across Texas, monuments have been vandalized, and sharp-edged arguments have erupted over the renaming of schools dedicated to Confederate icons. Last summer, in the north Texas town of Denton, a 22-year-old man carrying a loaded AR-15 confronted a 69-year-old black man protesting a Confederate monument in the town square. In May 2015, at the University of Texas at Austin, vandals spray-painted “Emancipate UT” on a larger-than-life bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (After heated debate over what to do with the statue, the University emancipated the Confederate icon from his prominent public location.) And in the past few months, the Houston Independent School District voted to rechristen eight public schools that had been named after Confederate heroes, a move that has sparked a lawsuit. Throughout this tempest, the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an aging army of deeply religious, federal government distrusting, neo-Confederate true believers, has emerged as a steadfast defender of Confederate iconography. The Texas SCV only claims about 5,000 members, but their ideology carries significant weight in the state. SCV members sued the University of Texas in an effort to stop the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue. They distributed more than 1,000 Confederate flags in Fort Worth after the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo banned the Confederate battle flag. Wherever someone wants to rename a school or remove a statue that honors the Confederacy, the SCV’s members soon follow.
For the Sons of Confederate veterans, this battle is not just about protecting heritage, it’s about resurrecting it. But the Texas SCV is not only fighting against the disappearance of Confederate symbolism, they are behind the construction of what is likely the largest Confederate memorial built in a century—a multi-ton shrine nearing completion in an east Texas town near the Louisiana border. For the SCV, this battle is not just about protecting a Confederate heritage, it’s about resurrecting it, restoring that heritage so that they will continue to have something to protect. With tempers flaring across Texas and with lawmakers set to debate the historical accuracy of the Capitol’s Confederate memorials in the waning months of the 2016 election, the men of the SCV say they’re misunderstood. And while they acknowledge the recent success of their opponents in other states, they insist that in Texas, the Confederacy will prevail.
The first time I called Jim Toungate, the adjutant of the Williamson County chapter of the Texas SCV, he invited me to his home in Georgetown, a central Texas community about 30 miles north of Austin. When I arrived, it took Toungate, a wide, mustachioed 72-year-old, several minutes to open the door of his limestone-veneered ranch house. He had stubbed his toe, he said after letting me in, and “it was bleeding like a stuck hog—real ugly.” Toungate offered me a cup of coffee, and hobbled to the kitchen to brew it, passing a flat-screen television tuned to Fox News. Above the TV set, a shelf was lined with Minié balls, cannonballs and books with titles such as The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War and Unwavering Duty: Jefferson Davis. Toungate said he was a student of history—had been his whole life—but has really “kicked it up a notch” since he retired seven years ago after four decades working for the railroads.
“People don’t realize the true history of the South,” Toungate calmly said as he spooned the ground beans into a coffeemaker. “It’s really a crying shame.”
We sat down at his kitchen table, which was covered with maps of Israel. In January 2016, Toungate took a 12-day trip to the nation and was “re-baptized in the Jordan River,” he said. Toungate says that he faithfully listens to sermons on CD from Endtime Ministries, a Plano-based ministry that preaches that Armageddon is nigh.
I told Toungate that as a 41-year-old white man who grew up in North Carolina, I spent my formative years surrounded by gauzy renderings of the Old South. I remember learning about the chivalry of Southern soldiers from my Cub Scout leader and taking plantation tours that all but omitted slavery. But I also learned—I don’t remember exactly where—that slavery underpinned the Confederacy. I asked Toungate how he could square his Christianity with this hard truth. “I had five grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy, and they were religious people who didn’t treat black people badly,” Toungate said, earnestly, his Southern drawl growing thicker as he spoke. “They were fighting for states’ rights, not slavery.” According to Toungate, before secession, the federal government mistreated Southern states by issuing unfair tariffs. “Thirty thousand blacks fought for the Confederacy because they loved their masters,” Toungate argued, offering the fact as proof that “slavery could not have caused the war.”
After pouring the coffee, Toungate took me to his study. Flags covered the walls: a Gadsden flag, a Texas flag, a “Come and Take It” flag, and several large Confederate battle flags. “This is the history of my family. We fought in the War Between the States, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War,” he said, pointing to the flags. But the Ku Klux Klan uses the Confederate flag—isn’t it a symbol of white supremacy? “The KKK also uses the U.S. flag,” Toungate said. “No one’s saying we should stop flying that.”
Toungate led me into a walk-in closet filled with Confederate uniforms. He opened a shiny black gun safe and handed me a black-powder rifle and six-shooter. “The weapons are replicas of guns made around the time of the War Between the States,” he explained. Toungate collects the flags and guns because they connect him to his ancestors. “It’s my family’s heritage,” he said. “It’s important to me.”
Despite the sincerely held historical views of Toungate and his ilk, almost all professional historians agree on the cause of the Civil War. “The Confederacy’s agenda was about expanding slavery,” says Kevin Levin, founder of the popular blog Civil War Memory and author of the forthcoming book, Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. As I related the arguments that Toungate had told me—the claim that Southern states seceded to protect their rights from a tariff-imposing federal government, for instance—Levin exhaled a knowing sigh. He often hears this claim from SCV members, he said, and it is simply not true. What about the 30,000 African-Americans fighting for the Confederacy? “Another myth,” Levin says. Levin pointed to the words of Confederates themselves, particularly Texas’ Ordinance of Secession. The document, which officially separated Texas from the Union in 1861, declared that African-Americans were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” It says that Texas seceded because non-slave-holding states “demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the Confederacy.” The document does not mention tariffs or any state right other than the right to own black people.
Toungate waved off the document when I showed it to him later. “People have a distorted view of the Confederacy because liberal Northern historians wrote the history books,” he insisted. But these are primary sources, I noted, the words of the Confederates themselves. Toungate went silent for a beat, and then changed the subject. “I’m sick of the federal government wasting money,” he said, and “people living off welfare.” Levin understands why some people cling to a Southern-fried understanding of the Confederacy in the face of contradictory primary evidence. “A lot of these people have ancestors that fought for the Confederacy and that personal connection, of course, colors how they view the event,” he said. Slavery, after all, was abhorrent. Who wants to admit that their family members fought to preserve it? The SCV’s rejection of unequivocal historical fact, can, in part, be attributed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” says Sander van der Linden, a Princeton University psychologist and director of the school’s Social and Environmental Decision-Making Lab. When people are emotionally invested in a belief, says van der Linden, they are inclined to accept information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and to dismiss conflicting evidence. It helps explain climate change denial, Young Earth creationism, the anti-vaccine movement, and the belief that Obama is a closet Muslim (which, incidentally, Toungate also believes).
Neo-Confederate adamancy is as much about reactionary politics and identity as it is about history. It’s a declaration of values, a way of seeing the world, and its prevalence divides along political lines. Polls show that Democrats tend to view Confederate symbols, such as the battle flag, as emblems of racism, while Republicans more often see them as representations of Southern heritage. And in Texas—the epicenter of anti-government angst, the home of the last two Republicans elected president, where Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in 22 years—conservatism and Confederate mythology continue to dominate. To understand how neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” mythology continues to pervade modern Texas, I met with a former colleague who now teaches social studies in the same county where Toungate lives. A gray-haired Army veteran, he greeted me in a Starbucks parking lot, carrying a plastic bag full of state-approved history textbooks. One book published by McGraw-Hill Education, features a section titled, “The South Secedes,” which states that “the majority of Southerners viewed secession as … a necessary course of action to uphold people’s rights.” The section does not list specific rights.
Asked about the oddity of casting individual liberty as the Confederates’ primary belief, the teacher, who requested anonymity out of fear for his job, pointed to Texas’ state curriculum standards on the Civil War: “Students are expected to identify the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery.” At the time of their adoption in 2010, a member of the state board of education said that the standards listed slavery third because it was a “side issue to the Civil War.” The Texas Education Knowledge and Skills guidelines for teaching the Civil War offer a crystal-clear example of how the state curriculum politicizes history, says Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat who served on the State Board of Education from 1984 to 2012. The history standards, she told me, “whitewash slavery.” In a 2011 report, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank focused on education policy, echoed that opinion, calling the TEKS social studies standards a “politicized distortion of history.” “Slavery … is largely missing,” the report reads. “Sectionalism and states’ rights are listed before slavery as causes of the Civil War, while the issue of slavery in the territories—the actual trigger for the [Civil War]—is never mentioned at all. During and after Reconstruction, there is no mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping; the term ‘Jim Crow’ never appears. Incredibly, racial segregation is only mentioned in a passing reference to the 1948 integration of the armed forces.”
Don McElroy, the conservative Republican who chaired the State Board of Education in 2010 when the Civil War standards were adopted, vehemently disagrees with the Fordham Institute’s view. “We wanted to remove the liberal bias from the standards and restore the biblical foundations of our country,” he told me via phone. “I think we did that, I really do.” In his book, Race and Reunion, Yale historian David Blight argues that after the Civil War, Southern whites coped with crushing defeat by justifying why they had seceded. Reluctant to admit the Civil War was fought over slavery—a moral anachronism in much of the world at the time—many Southerners framed the war as a fight for states’ rights. Blight argues that Southern whites worked, through memorials and monuments, to etch the false narrative in the nation’s collective memory.
Giving Confederate monuments places of pride in town squares and in front of government buildings proved an enduring way of shaping public memory. Across Texas, at least 178 publicly sponsored symbols honoring the Confederacy occupy prominent positions, including monuments, schools and roads dedicated to Confederate icons. Most were erected at the turn of the 20th century, as Confederate veterans were beginning to die of old age, and a second wave of dedications came during the 1950s and 1960s, presumably in response to African-Americans’ fight for civil rights.
But in 2016, Texans haven’t stopped erecting new memorials to the Confederacy. In Orange, a small east Texas city on the Louisiana border, the privately funded Confederate Memorial of the Wind is nearing completion. With 13 large Greek columns and 26–32 Confederate flags, it will be the largest Confederate monument built in a century, according to the SCV. Granvel Block, former Texas SCV Commander and the mind behind the monument, says that surging public sentiment in favor of removing Confederate memorials has galvanized the neo-Confederates into action. Despite the opposition of many of Orange’s residents, the SCV is determined to finish the Confederate Memorial of the Wind. Once completed, their monument will stand at the intersection of Intestate 10 and Martin Luther King Jr Drive.
No place more clearly reaffirms Texas’ continued support of Confederate mythologizing more than the State Capitol and its grounds in Austin, which feature at least a dozen memorials, statues and other nods to the Confederacy. Perhaps the most prominent, the Confederate Soldiers Monument, dominates the southern entrance to the Capitol grounds. It is impossible to miss: an 8-foot statue of Jefferson Davis atop a 23-foot-tall granite base with four 7-foot bronze Confederate soldiers standing at his feet. The inscription etched into the memorial’s base dedicates the sculpture to Confederate soldiers who “Died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution.” “The people of the South animated by the spirit of 1776,” it continues, “to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion.” Other memorials at the Capitol include an almost 50-foot-tall monument honoring a Texas Confederate brigade; a Confederate seal on the floor of the Capitol; several portraits of Confederate heroes, including a painting of Jefferson Davis in the state Senate chamber; and a plaque erected by the Texas Division of the Children of the Confederacy in 1959. The plaque reads, in part: “the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” The July 2015 letter in which Democratic lawmakers asked for a review of the Capitol’s pro-Confederate monuments calls out that plaque’s statement as an “outright falsehood.” In an email to me, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the letter’s signatories, said that it is undeniable that the memorials are “part of an effort to rewrite history.” “The Texas Capitol — the face of our state government,” said Ellis, “ought not to celebrate individuals whose notoriety stems from their service in defense of human slavery.”
But Toungate and the other Texas SCV members I spoke with vow that removing or altering the memorials would mean surrendering to politically correct, liberal distortion.
During my last visit to Toungate’s home, his television was again tuned to Fox News, and two pundits were discussing the rise of Donald Trump. (Most of the neo-Confederates I spoke with said they support Trump.) During a commercial, I told Toungate that I understood the love he had for his ancestors, but it seemed unequivocal that the Confederacy fought for slavery, and by extension, white supremacy. “You’ve been listening to Northerners who have moved down here and are raising Cain about Texas being racist,” Toungate said. “Confederate men were good Christians, and they don’t deserve to be treated like dirt.”
John Savage is an independent journalist based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter. SOURCE