The Political Uses of the Anti-Anti-Confederacy

From George Wallace to Kay Ivey, Alabama pols love to attack “outside agitators” for stirring up racial controversies. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, Brynn Anderson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

After the abrupt action by a Republican legislature in 2015 to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, and the generally negative reaction (other than in the White House) to a lethal white-nationalist rally to protect a Confederate monument in Virginia in 2017, you’d think the Lost Cause would be in full retreat.

But that’s not the case in parts of the former Confederacy. Not long before the violence in Charlottesville, the Alabama legislature enacted a law that “bars the removal, renaming, removal and alteration of monuments, memorial streets, memorial buildings and architecturally significant buildings located on public property for 40 or more years.” Tennessee (in 2013) and North Carolina (in 2015) enacted similar statutes in response to civil-rights protests against Confederate monuments and symbols in recent years, and a bill is pending in the Texas legislature to do likewise.

These laws aren’t just dead letters, either; southern conservative politicians are touting them as a sword against local governments who dare take down Confederate monuments, not just a shield against protestors and defilers. That became obvious this week in Tennessee, as the Associated Press reports:

The Republican-dominated House in Tennessee voted Tuesday to punish the city of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments by taking $250,000 away from the city that would have been used for a bicentennial celebration next year.

The retaliation came in the form of passage of a last-minute amendment attached to the House appropriations bill that triggered heated debate on the House floor and stinging rebukes from lawmakers from Memphis.

The political usages of anti-anti-Confederate activity is becoming obvious in conservative precincts across the region. Georgia’s large batch of 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates are competing to denounce Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams’s proposal to remove a huge carving of Confederate leaders from the state-owned Stone Mountain Park. And next door in Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey is making her work to protect Confederate monuments a signature — and a shout-out to an old, disreputable tradition.

Ivey is far and away the front-runner for reelection this November. She assumed the governorship just over a year ago when disgraced governor Robert Bentley stepped down as part of a plea deal over corruption charges linked to the sex scandal that gave him the nickname “Love Gov.” While Ivey has had some controversial issues to deal with — most notably the handling of a special election after Jeff Sessions resigned from the Senate, which led to her own Republican Party improbably losing — her administration has been relatively stable. Another Democratic victory in November isn’t very likely. But she does have some significant primary opposition. And it would appear she has decided any danger she faces will come from her right flank.

We know this because her first reelection ad boasts of her efforts to preserve the state’s many Confederate monuments, and scores the “politically correct nonsense” from “folks in Washington” suggesting that the self-styled Heart of Dixie might need to come to grips with its past in the kind of ways that “special interest groups” (e.g., every civil-rights organization in the state) recommend.

In a campaign appearance after the ad went up, Ivey doubled down on the old-timey rhetoric, attacking “out-of-state liberals” for messing with Alabama’s fine heritage. Southerners of a certain age could not have possibly missed the echo of the old segregationist complaint about “outside agitators” coming in and inciting African-Americans to challenge Jim Crow.

During the civil rights era, you heard that complaint constantly from reactionary southern politicians, most notably their most famous leader, Alabama governor George C. Wallace. Here’s an excerpt from a 1964 letter he sent that typifies the use of the term back in the day:

This will acknowledge and thank you for your letter of April 8, 1964, in which you request literature on the subject of segregation in the South. We have no material on this subject in our office. As a matter of fact, we have never had a problem here in the South except in a very few isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators….

White and colored have lived together in the South for generations in peace and equanimity. They each prefer their own pattern of society, their own churches and their own schools – which history and experience have proven are best for both races. (As stated before, outside agitators have created any major friction occurring between the races.)

Now you have to appreciate that Kay Ivey is 73 years old. She lived through the civil rights era in Alabama, and in fact, as an Auburn student, coordinated efforts on behalf of the 1966 gubernatorial campaign of Lurleen Wallace (George’s wife, who was running to get around the law that kept her husband from running for consecutive terms) on her campus. There is approximately a zero percent chance she doesn’t understand the dog whistle she is blowing in scoring the “out-of-state liberals” who want to interfere with the loving memory of the Men in Grey. It is so well-known in Alabama, in fact, that Doug Jones used it ironically to criticize Steve Bannon for his intervention on Roy Moore’s behalf in last December’s special Senate election.

Yes, “old times there are not forgotten” in Alabama and other conservative precincts of the South. And that’s manifesting itself in a renewal of the neo-Confederate sentiment that during the last days of Jim Crow built and blessed many of the symbols and monuments we are still talking about today. The current pushback to protests against these relics has almost certainly drawn inspiration from the president’s defiance of “political correctness,” and the more general sense among many older white people that race relations would be peachy-keen if we’d all stop talking about slavery and segregation and police misconduct and voter suppression and economic inequality and mass incarceration and all the other complaints minority folk have about our great country. It’s a lot easier to “Make America Great Again” when you believe it was really great when women and minorities knew their place.

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