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The 21st century South Carolinian is no longer Confederate

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | October 2, 2017 | No Comment |

Joe Kelly

I am kudzu.

My great-grandparents left Ireland in the 1880s. I was born in New York and was already 15 when my parents put up our sign, Gone to Texas. I cannot join the Sons of Confederate Veterans, because I have no “direct or collateral family lines and kinship to a veteran.”

I believe there were soldiers whose suffering and sacrifice deserve respect, and I salute my friends who cherish the memory of the old gray uniform in their attics. But I dispute the Sons of Confederate Veterans when they say Johnny Reb fought for “the preservation of liberty and freedom.” The mute eloquence of a slave badge at the Charleston Museum does more than I can to expose the folly of romanticizing the “cause.”

Yet like kudzu — and barbecue and peaches — I am just as Southern as the purest blood-descendant of Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard.

In fact, most Southerners either cannot or will not qualify for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or even the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which admits the descendants of those who gave even the slightest “Material Aid to the Cause.”

In 2016, 31.5 percent of South Carolinians were black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American. And while most African-Americans have white ancestors, few join the Sons.

That leaves the white folks, 68.5 percent, who might have roots in the Confederacy. But how many actually do?

The U. S. Census Bureau does not clearly track migration from state to state, but the University of Minnesota’s Population Center has crunched the data: A hundred years ago, the university reports, 95 percent of South Carolinians were born here. (New York Times published this data.) Today, only 58 percent are natives. Three percent are like me — born in New York; 5 percent come from the mid-West, and 4 percent are foreign-born. Altogether, 20 percent of white South Carolinians started from places that make it unlikely they’d qualify for the Confederacy’s Sons or Daughters.

So now we’re up to more than 45 percent of South Carolinians who either are people of color or came from outside the South.

NYT graphic showing where South Carolinians come from

That doesn’t include my own children, native Southerners whose ancestors were Northerners, or any natives whose ancestors moved to the South after 1865. This means the portion of Southern whites who cannot claim “direct or collateral family lines and kinship” to rebels is far more than 20 percent. With all the Northern flight South, it’s obvious that most S.C. bloodlines no longer trace back to the Confederacy.

One might object that plenty of transplants romanticize the Confederacy. Just look at all those Ohioans who came down to Charlottesville. True enough. But as Gibbs Knotts and Christopher Cooper demonstrate in their new book, The Resilience of Southern Identity, when white Southerners become better educated (as they do in each generation), they tend to stop identifying with Confederates. And young white Southerners do not romanticize the cause as much as their parents do. These folks more than cancel out the romanticizing Northerners.

What all of this means is that those who still revere the Confederacy — let us take Catherine Templeton as an example — suffer from an outsized notion of themselves.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” Templeton said, referring to her Confederate forebears. “And that’s why we are who we are, where we are.”


Templeton was talking to the Republican Party of Pickens County, and perhaps her audience on that day actually was largely of Confederate descent. But the fact is that when Templeton says we, she’s talking about a minority: white Confederate romantics.

GOP meeting in Pickens, SC

It’s easy to see how she makes this mistake. People who qualify for the Sons of Confederate Veterans are far over-represented in the halls of power. They ran the General Assembly as Democrats until Northern Democrats championed civil rights. Now they run it as Republicans.

Deep down, they sense they are a dwindling minority. Just look at how they run scared of majority rule. Leave aside gerrymandering, the disenfranchisement of minorities, how hard it is for college students to vote; consider simply the Heritage Act.

If most Charlestonians wanted to rename Calhoun Street after Mother Emanuel, Pickens County would stop us. So long as Confederate romantics retain a mere 34 percent of either the House or the Senate, they can force Charleston to continue honoring the architects of white supremacy. Forget about taking Calhoun off his pedestal. Without the go-ahead from Pickens County and its like-minded romantics, the most we can do is slap a new plaque near the thing, proclaiming, “This statue was erected at the dawn of Jim Crow to intimidate black Charlestonians.”

The Heritage Act was championed by then-Sen. Glenn McConnell, whom I’ve learned to respect since he became my boss a few years ago. So I take it on faith that it meant simply to prevent the situation in which we swap out our public monuments every time control shifts in the Legislature.

Prudence, indeed, dictates that statues and long-established street names should not be changed for light and transient causes.

But when an act of government obstructs the considered and reasoned will of the majority, and subjects all of the people to the will of an antiquated minority, that act must be abolished.

Repeal the Heritage Act.

Dr. Kelly is director of Irish and Irish American studies and a member of the English Department at the College of Charleston. This essay was first published last month in the Columbia, SC State newspaper.


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