MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Confederate descendants and re-enactors dressed in soldiers’ uniforms and hoop skirts marched down the main avenue in Montgomery on Saturday to mark the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide.
It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.
The city no longer rolls out the red carpet for the Sons of Confederate Veterans like it did 50 years ago, when the centennial of Davis’ inauguration was a state-coordinated celebration with past and present governors and officials from all ranks of government.
On Saturday, state and city officials gave permission for the SCV to march, but had no role in the events. Elected officials from the governor to the mayor chose to stay home or go to other events.
The reception was even colder from African American leaders in the state.
“The whole celebration is akin to celebrating the Holocaust,” state NAACP President Benard Simelton said.
Simelton said elected officials stayed away because they knew attendance would be viewed as a slap in the face to African Americans, who make up one-fourth of Alabama’s population.
Black leaders had discussed holding a protest like the one held in December at a Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C., but decided against it.
“We didn’t want to give them more publicity,” said Rep. Alvin Holmes, the longest serving black member of the Alabama Legislature.
A downtown shopper, Shirley Williams of Montgomery, who is black, shook her head as she walked by the parade. She said she was offended the parade occurred during Black History Month.
“It represents things in the past that were not positive. Some things ought to be remembered, but this brings up too many painful things people went through,” she said.
Sons of Confederate Veterans members, who trace their history to ancestors who fought in the war, call it the “War Between the States” or the “War of Secession” rather than the Civil War. They say its origins have been distorted by modern historians.
SCV member Randy Beeler said he drove from Paducah, Ky., to “send a message the war was fought over states’ rights. Slavery was an issue, but it was not the main issue.”
“Yes, it was about states’ rights. It was about states’ rights to have slavery,” retorted Rep. Holmes, a retired college history teacher.
One of the organizers, Chuck McMichael, a past national commander of the SCV, called the comparison of the march to celebrating the Holocaust ludicrous.
“In many ways the Union Army acted more like the German army of the 1940s with its scorched earth policy,” said McMichael, a high school history teacher from Shreveport, La.
The Montgomery event is the biggest event planned by the SCV this year to mark the sesquicentennial. In 2012, McMichael said the action will switch to Richmond, Va., which replaced Montgomery as the capital of the Confederacy.
Holding up a Confederate flag near the end of the ceremony, he told the crowd, “As long as there blows a southern breeze, this flag will fly in it.”