Paradox in honoring the South's generals

January 15, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Like an odd and fateful conjunction of planets and stars in a paradoxical universe, falling in a cluster this weekend are celebrations of the birthdays of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great champion of civil rights, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, renowned defenders of the slave states of the Confederacy.

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929. Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was born on Jan. 21, 1824.

King's birthday is a national holiday the third Monday of January, and celebrations abound in Baltimore and Maryland.

Lee's birthday is a holiday in most of the old Confederate states.

In Baltimore, where it is not a holiday, the annual Lee-Jackson birthday observance takes place at 11 a.m. today at the site of the dual equestrian statue in Wyman Park that honors the two Southern generals.

Hosted by the Colonel Harry W. Gilmor Camp Number 1388 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Mary- land Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the program will include the laying of memorial wreaths, a march of re-enactment units, both Confederate and Federal, the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag and a salute to the Confederate colors.

Carolyn Billups will sing "Dixie," and the organizers hope for an abundance of Confederate flags. And the gulf between the King and Confederate celebrations could hardly be more starkly apparent.

"This is a great opportunity to show the Confederate flag in a positive and honorable way," writes G. Elliott Cummings, the adjutant of the Gilmor Camp, in his invitation to participants.

"PLEASE BRING EVERY CONFEDERATE FLAG YOU OWN," he adds in capital letters.

The Confederate flag is anathema to virtually all admirers of Martin Luther King and his long struggle for civil rights. Ishmael Reed, the novelist and poet, put that view succinctly in an essay on the Mardi Gras in New Orleans: "The Stars and Bars, America's Swastika ..."

On New Year's Day, the NAACP began its official boycott of tourism to South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies over the state Capitol in Columbia.

"For people of African ancestry in this country," says NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, "the flying of the Confederate flag and the symbolism of it represents one of the most reprehensible aspects of our country's history."

Cummings, who counts 20 ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather, as Confederate soldiers, sees the flag as "an honorable symbol under which people fought.

"This is the flag our ancestors died under," Cummings says. "We need to stand up and show it in an honorable way."

"My sympathy lies with the Confederacy because of blood and family," he says. "I'm proud of them."

He rallied in support of the Confederate flag only last week in Columbia, S.C., along with about 6,000 Southern sympathizers. A South Carolina senator managed to offend both African Americans and disabled people by condemning "the National Association of Retarded People."

Cummings acknowledges that racist groups and individuals regularly fly the flag of the Confederacy as their emblem.

"I condemn that misuse of the flag," he says. "Its proper use is to honor Southern soldiers in the integrity of their adherence to duty and family."

He sees Confederate soldiers less as defenders of slavery than freedom fighters against Northern tyranny.

"Only 5 percent of the Southern soldiers owned slaves," he asserts, in a familiar defense of the common soldier of the Confederacy.

He cites Lincoln's determination to save the Union as a form of oppression.

"In November 1860 when Lincoln won, the South realized they had become a minority in their own country. `We want to leave,' [they said]. `Let us leave peacefully.'"

That, of course, didn't happen.

Divided sympathies

After South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and the war had begun, he says, Maryland's sympathies were divided, and 25,000 Marylanders went south to join the Confederate armies. Some 35,000 fought with the Union.

"In April, Lincoln invades the state," says Cummings, his use of the present tense perhaps a measure of the closeness he feels to the events of the Civil War. "We're in effect under tyranny. That's how we remained throughout the war."

The war was about power, he believes.

"The power of central government had gotten out of hand, and they would have none of it," he says in justification of his Confederate ancestors.

And that's a view that contemporary opponents of the federal government who wave the Confederate flag find congenial.

Cummings expects perhaps 300 or 400 participants today, about half re-enactors and half spectators.

Oddly, the Lee-Jackson monument was only raised in 1948, when Baltimore's strong Southern orientation was ending, diluted by war workers recruited from places like central Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and by African American emigration from the South.

The beginning of the end of segregation laws arrived with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that sided with the arguments of Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall.

The 7-ton, 14-foot-high statue portrays the parting of Lee and Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, where Jackson was accidentally shot and killed by one of his own men.

The statue was paid for by a bequest -- made 20 years earlier -- from a bachelor banker named J. Henry Ferguson, who said he wanted to honor "my boyish heroes."

The monument was controversial even in 1936, when the commission was awarded to Laura Gardin Fraser, a now forgotten New York sculptor.

Leading the summary of objections: "The whole monument should be condemned because `the cause of the South was a disgraceful one.' "

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