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They may not 'hate,' but they sure write nasty letters

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

On Friday, I got a call from an apoplectic priest from Georgia. "I'm a chaplain for a branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans," he sputtered. "I take umbrage with your slanderous characterization of the SCV as a hate group."

The priest was referring to that day's column about Trent Lott. He didn't object to what I said about Lott per se, but he did have a problem with this line: "Formerly respectable hate groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Sons of Confederate Veterans find themselves tarred by association with a man who all but offered up his daughter in marriage to BET's Ed Gordon during an interview this week."

I told the priest to get in line. By the time he called, I'd already heard from dozens of like-minded SCV members and sympathizers by e-mail, a number that swelled to several hundred over the weekend. To his credit, the priest didn't resort to racial insults like so many of his compatriots felt compelled to do, but I could sense his composure slipping during our brief conversation.

"At least research us before you accuse us of being a hate group," he said. "We have African-American members, Jews and Catholics. We don't discriminate. We're a heritage group. We want to decorate the graves of former slaves and honor them, too."

I took the priest's advice and visited the group's Web site. True enough, there were ads for credit cards with the group's name on it, so Visa obviously doesn't think the SCV is a hate group. The SCV isn't shy about displaying the Confederate stars and bars, either, so we know where they're coming from.

The SCV home page even has a flashing image of a black man named H.K. Edgerton and a link to his campaign to walk 1,300 miles from Charlotte, N.C., to Austin, Texas. Edgerton's fund-raising appeal says his mission is "to defend Southern heritage, history and the rightfulness of the Confederate cause here in the South, across the United States and around the world."

Already we have problems when it comes to a black man expounding on the rightness of the Confederate cause, but that in itself doesn't make the SCV a hate group. Still, Edgerton's "Southern Heritage Not Hate Campaign" cries out for an explanation beyond the usual "the slaves would've been better off had the Confederacy prevailed" jive.

The Web site describes Confederate paraphernalia as "the ultimate worldwide symbols of resistance to unconstitutional authority and for liberty and self-determination."

Does this mean the swastika can be rehabilitated 137 years from now as a symbol of German tolerance of European Jewry? If we're to believe the Confederate flag is another way of saying "We love Negroes," then the SCV should go after racists who desecrate it daily.

Still, a weird sense of history isn't in itself evidence that the SCV is a hate group. As a matter of fact, the usual tropes of racial hatred are missing from the SCV's Web site. There are no appeals to white supremacy as found on Klan and other racist sites.

As distasteful as any nostalgia for the Confederacy is to me, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with the sputtering priest who called Friday. I overstated the case when I lumped the SCV in with wackos from the Council for Conservative Citizens. To paraphrase Trent Lott: If anyone was offended, I'm sorry. It was a mistake of the head, not the heart.

Still, I have one caveat. When a link to my column was posted on a pro-Confederacy Web site, I received hundreds of letters from folks claiming to be members of the SCV. If only I had a nickel for every letter that began with an attack on me before branching out into attacks on blacks in general. The racist sentiments were flying. By the end of the day, I thought "nigger" was my middle name. At least gangsta rappers get paid before using that word so liberally.

Still, I appreciate the majority of those who defended the SCV without resorting to name-calling. You're a credit to your organization. I'm now convinced that the Sons of Confederate Veterans isn't a hate group, but if my mail is any indication, there are certainly a lot of haters in it. There's no getting around that fact, I'm afraid.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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