Saturday, February 26, 2011

Marking Davis’s Confederate Inauguration

Marking Davis’s Confederate Inauguration
Published: February 20, 2011

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — One hundred and fifty years and one day later, the South did it again.

Before a cheering crowd of several hundred men and women, some in period costume and others in crisp suits, an amateur actor playing Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama Capitol on Saturday, an event framed by the firing of artillery, the delivery of defiant speeches and the singing of “Dixie.”

The participants far outnumbered the spectators, but it was to be the largest event of the year organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one in a series of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the War for Southern Independence. (Referring to the Civil War as anything other than an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a sovereign republic was rather frowned upon.)

The Sons’ principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that had been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The other matter of subjugation — that is, slavery — went unmentioned on Saturday. (Davis himself did not refer to it in his inaugural address, but he emphasized the maintenance of African slavery as a cause for secession in other high-profile settings.). And the issue of slavery was largely brushed aside in interviews as a mere function of the time, and not a defining feature of the Confederacy.

Asked about the prominent speeches and documents that described the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession, Joe Dupree of Mobile, Ala., said the question itself was wrong.

“African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years,” he said. “It is, historically, an error.”

Though the swearing-in was a re-enactment down to the antique buttons, there were contemporary political overtones. More than one speaker, insisting that “the South was indeed right,” extolled the Confederacy as an example of limited government that should be followed now, and said vaguely that the Southern cause was vindicated by a glance at the headlines every day.

But even the politics on Saturday were tied up in a larger sense of grievance, a feeling of being marginalized and willfully misunderstood. Expressions of this feeling led to some rather unexpected analogies, like when Kelley Barrow, a teacher from Georgia, declared that people of Confederate heritage “have been forced to go to the back of the bus.”

The participants know, however, that they will have to live with such frustrations over the four years of the war’s sesquicentennial.

“I really wish we didn’t have to defend what we do,” Chuck Rand, an engineer from Monroe, La., who is the adjutant in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an interview on Friday night. “This doesn’t have to be a fight.”

Mr. Dupree, who was sitting with Mr. Rand, agreed.

“What is it in a man,” he asked, repeating the question for emphasis, “that would cause him to deny his fellow man the pride and dignity of his heritage?”

The parade began shortly after 11 a.m. and marched to the Capitol along Dexter Avenue, past abandoned storefronts and empty government buildings and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church after the young Martin Luther King Jr., who arrived at the church in the 1950s and was tapped to lead a citywide bus boycott from his basement office.

Inside, a dozen fifth-grade students from Monrovia Elementary School in Huntsville, Ala., were beginning a tour. Their guide dismissed the events outside with an eye roll, but Jesse Schmitt, a teacher who arranges for his students to visit the church every year during Black History Month, saw a potential lesson.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten to the Civil War yet,” he said, though he added that his students had told him that the march was, in their words, “messed up.”

But there was a lot more to discuss. So, Mr. Schmitt said as he left Dr. King’s old basement office, he was still thinking of ways to talk to his students about history, about the reasons for commemoration, about causes that were lost and causes that were won.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition.