“We had more love and respect for people 60 years ago than we do today,” said Gary Johnson, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who was at a Marion, Ala., cemetery on Confederate Remembrance Day Sunday. “Now, granted things weren’t equal back then. There were a lot of things that were wrong, no doubt. There’s things that were wrong yesterday that we hope to right today. We’re not perfect people.”
Johnson spoke after the memorial ceremony, which involved a pledge of allegiance to the Confederacy, a rousing rendition of “Dixie” and a speech by H.K. Edgerton, an African American man dressed in Confederate soldier garb who spun a pre-war history of the south where slaves and their masters lived in happy harmony. (See related article “Civil War Reenactment: African Americans Join the Confederate Forces.)
Johnson takes issue with the characterization of racism as a negative word.
“I am a racist. I want my children to all be white. H.K.’s a racist. And we should be. But what we are not is bigots,” Johnson said. “We’re not that way. We’re loving people…this is the way we used to be.”
Johnson, a Marion resident, lives in the house that once belonged to Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan Wizard Nathan Forrest. Forrest led the Rebel troops in the 1865 Battle of Selma and Johnson honors his legacy by serving as the commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group called Gen. Isham W. Garrott Camp #764.
Each year on April 26, the camp hosts a ceremony for the area’s Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday in honor of Confederate soldiers who died in the civil war.
Marion Cemetery’s Confederate Memorial is located adjacent to the cemetery entrance. For Confederate Memorial Day Sunday afternoon, the cemetery gate was draped in strings of mini confederate flags, and three full-size flags were displayed at the base of the Confederate Memorial, one for the state of Alabama, the Confederate flag, and the “Stars and Bars” flag of the Confederate States which was designed in Marion by Nicola Marschall, a German-American artist.
A little over a dozen community members, young and old, gathered near the memorial under the branches of a large tree. A boy sat wearing a confederate uniform. An 18-year-old boy rested his arms on a Confederate flag on a pole he carried into the cemetery. A family played with their baby daughter.
Johnson gave a speech to introduce the main event, quoting from a poem called “Our Dead Heroes.”
“As we meet this day to cover
Our dead with the flowers of spring
They were brave, they were true, devoted
They died for their country’s laws,
And Montgomery will e’er be noted
As the cradle of their cause,” Johnson recited.
A woman in a black lace civil war era dress and black flip flops stood behind the memorial, pounding drum beats with a wooden spoon on the lid of a pot, and the loud cries of a man rang out, reciting the names of dead Confederate soldiers.
As he marched into view through the cemetery gate, H. K. Edgerton, a middle aged black man dressed in a full Confederate uniform, continued his chant, making his way to the group.
“The South could find peace only in independence!” Edgerton roared. The Civil War was fought for the liberty and freedom of the ‘Southland,’” he said.
As he continued his speech, he waved the Confederate flag, and at times gathered it around him, like a shroud.
“February—so-called Black History Month—I call it ‘beat up on white people’ month, which it is,” Edgerton said.
The ceremony ended with Edgerton leading the group in singing “Dixie.”
“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten!” sang the group enthusiastically.
Ceremonies such as this are not uncommon in southern towns today.
Marion, a half an hour north of Selma, has a population of just over 3,500 people and is nicknamed “the college city” for its three schools: Judson College, Marion Institute, and the Marion Military Institute.
The town has many ties, historical and sentimental, to the Civil War. The local Sons of Confederate Veterans group Gen. Isham W. Garrott Camp #764 was originally started in 1924, though it was disbanded after World War II. It was reinstated in 2006.
With only 10 members, the camp today is small, but active.
Mark Thurber is adjutant at the camp, and its “unofficial secretary” since it became active again in 2006.
He said he enjoys attending the event each year.
“He just gets better and better in my opinion,” Thurber said, referring to Edgerton. “He is so passionate about our ancestors and the sacrifice they made to get the south where it is.”
Johnson agreed. “What he does so beautifully and eloquently is to bring our races, the blacks and whites, together, like we used to be,” Johnson said. “I’m old enough to remember. I was raised in segregated Mississippi. We didn’t have any of this stuff you see in the movie Selma going on…most of it was lies.”
Johnson feels a deep connection to Civil War era history—and in particular Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest is a divisive figure in Dallas County. Some celebrate him as a hero of the Confederacy. Others point to his leadership position within the KKK as evidence of his bigotry.
In Selma, a group called “Friends of Forrest” raised money to create a monument in his memory in 2000. The bust was mired with controversy, and was first moved locations, and then vanished altogether in 2012. The group is planning on unveiling a new monument in May of this year. (See related article, “Friends of Forrest” at Civil War Reenactment.)
Johnson doesn’t appreciate the way the Civil War is currently portrayed in the history books, and how it is taught to students in the “federal schools.”
“Victors write history,” Johnson said, lamenting that those he viewed as southern heroes of the war had been “derided” as “traitors.”
“Foremost, white people need to get over the guilt,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s civil war-era home sits behind a tree grove, Confederate flags proudly on display.
And on the post just outside the driveway, as on all the posts in downtown Marion, a hint of the area’s more recent history is displayed. The banner reads, “Marion, Alabama: Where It All Began, 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday.”
While Marion was an important part of the Civil War, Marion also played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, protests in Marion and the death of black Marion resident Jimmie Lee Jackson served as a catalyst and a call to the leaders who would begin the Selma march to Montgomery later that year.
Back in the Marion Cemetery, after the ceremony drew to a close, participants pulled down the string of Confederate flags hanging on the entry gate. Folding chairs were thrown in the back of pick-up trucks. Finally, the Confederate flag wreath and the full sized Alabama, “stars and bars” and Confederate flags were taken from their place of honor at the base of the Confederate memorial.
Johnson’s wife, Sandra Johnson, carefully folded the flags with her teenage granddaughter. The flags were going back to their permanent home, the historic residence of Confederate General Perry. They would remain there, proudly displayed.