Ashamed of Dixie
Southern politicians were once great defenders of their region’s heritage and traditions. Now any past association with the Confederacy means groveling.
Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee apologized last week after reporters found a college yearbook photo of him in a Confederate uniform. He wore it as part of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity’s “Old South” ball, a tradition the fraternity has—of course—abandoned. The men dressed up as Confederate officers and their ladies as southern belles.
Other Kappa Alpha men are taking a beating. The Nashville district attorney general Glenn Funk just had to bow and scrape because his 1982 Wake Forest University yearbook had a picture of him posing with frat brothers around a Confederate Flag.
Mississippi Lt. Governor Tate Reeves was attacked by reporters for being a KA at Milsaps College at a time when the fraternity was involved in “racially-charged” incidents. Members wearing Afro wigs and waving Confederate flags got into in a shouting match with black students. On another occasion, KA members posed with a Confederate flag for a yearbook picture.
There was no proof Lt. Gov. Reeves was involved in any of this, but being a member was enough for journalists to attack him as a bigot. Mr. Reeves was also attacked for speaking at a Sons of Confederate Veterans event. Unlike the Tennessee governor, the Mississippi Republican has refused to apologize.
Jim Hood, the Democratic attorney general of Mississippi, was criticized for being a member of a University of Mississippi fraternity that had what looks like a blackface photo in a yearbook from 1983. Mr. Hood defended himself by claiming he has hired a lot of non-whites for the state Department of Justice and that he has learned to feel shame for what white Mississippians have done.
Mr. Hood, who is running for governor as a Democrat, also attacked Lt. Gov. Reeves—a Republican candidate for governor—for his association with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said of his opponent, “That sends a bad message to about 38, or really, about 50 percent of the people in our state.” Thirty-eight percent of the state’s population is back, so apparently the attorney general thinks a lot of white people would be offended, too. Not surprisingly, Mr. Hood also supports removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the Mississippi state flag.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface photo scandal has also convinced him he must do more to stamp out “racism” and take down Confederate monuments. Gov. Northam, a Democrat, said he has read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations, promised to promote racial “sensitivity” training, and vowed to take a “harder line” on Confederate statues in order to atone for his own racial offenses.
The Northam scandal inspired USA Today to hire an army of snoops to hunt through old college yearbooks. The first sentence in the Clarion-Ledger’s report on the hunt reads, “A man waving a Confederate Army flag with the caption, ‘Remember . . . the way we were.’” Horrors: young Southern men used to wave the flag.
The hunt for past wickendess at Wake Forest found old photos showing the university’s current dean, Martha Allman, and the associate dean of admissions, Kevin Pittard, standing in front of Confederate flags. Mrs. Allman was with Kappa Alpha members in her photo, and Mr. Pittard was a KA himself. Both have crawled on their bellies and claimed they have tried to atone for their sins by making the university less white. Non-white students insist Mrs. Allman must resign.
In 2018, the Republican and then-senate candidate Chris McDaniel faced strong criticism for using the Confederate flag in some of his yard signs and for his support of the battle flag on the Mississippi state flag. When Mr. McDaniel ran in 2014, his opponent, Thad Cochran, attacked him for accepting donations from a “neo-Confederate.” Mr. McDaniel returned the donations. In that race, he also was criticized for speaking to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ has also generated criticism. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was ripped by the national press in 2011 for refusing to denounce a push by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore was roasted during his 2017 senate run over his association with an event that honored the state’s secession day. In 2018, Alabama chief justice candidate Tom Parker was called “racist” and “confederate-obsessed” for honoring the Confederate flag. Mr. Parker still managed to be elected chief justice.
That victory shows that the average southerner isn’t bothered by the flag. In fact, most southerners want their politicians to defend their heritage. The previous Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, learned that last year. After the Charlottesville riot in 2017, he said Confederate statues should come down, but less than a year later he signed a bill that would protect them. He had no choice: The bill had overwhelming support in the Tennessee house and senate.
Polling shows 70 percent of Southerners want monuments to stay; only 28 percent think they need “new context” added to them. Only 5 percent of Southerners support total removal. The differences are even greater for whites: 78 percent of Southern whites wanting the statues to stay.
However, the same survey found that only 37 percent of Southerners have a favorable view of the Confederate flag. Most white Southerners still believe the flag represents regional pride, but only 44 percent view it favorably. (Fifteen percent of whites were “not sure” and 4 percent refused to answer.)
Legislators share the same difference in opinion about the flag and monuments. In 2015, South Carolina rushed to remove the flag from the grounds of the state capitol, but passed legislation to protect monuments. For whatever reason, the Battle Flag upsets more people than the monuments.
The Kappa Alpha Order is split over Southern identity. It recently banned events with “Old South” in the name and forbids members from wearing clothes that might be “objectionable to the general public.” Still, the fraternity considers Robert E. Lee its spiritual founder and promotes the general’s definition of a gentlemen.
The new rules won’t save older lawmakers who went to college when it was okay to be a Rebel. For years to come, we will witness new candidates for office beg forgiveness for waving the Confederate flag, dressing up as a soldier, displaying a “Colonel Reb is my Mascot” sticker, or even just belonging to Kappa Alpha.
The New South no longer tolerates this stuff. And, of course, the war on Southern identity is a war on white identity. The Battle Flag and the monuments connect millions of white Southerners to their ancestors. It instills pride in the men who fought to defend homeland and rights. Southerners always rebelled against distant elites who tried to push them around, and the Confederate Flag symbolizes defiance.
The South has changed dramatically, as it fills up with white newcomers and immigrants who have no ties to the region. Their ancestors didn’t fight under the Battle Flag, and they think Confederates were racist losers.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee made a terrible mistake when he apologized for wearing a Confederate uniform. He invited future attacks on other leaders and added fuel to the war against Southern identity. Southern leaders should never apologize for honoring their ancestors. The voters—who are the people who matter—will respect them.