Rebel Sons and Lovers: Confederate Group Defends Southern History, Flag

By Guagenti, Toni | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Rebel Sons and Lovers: Confederate Group Defends Southern History, Flag


Guagenti, Toni, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Gregg S. Clemmer remembers that when he was a child his grandfather told him stories passed down by relatives and friends who had lived through the Civil War.

"We would just glow in his storytelling," says Mr. Clemmer, 46, who lives in Darnestown. "Those were my people in that fight."

The stories, told during Mr. Clemmer's visits to his grandfather's tobacco farm in Mecklenburg County, Va., set off a spark that still ignites when the historian goes to area schools, where he teaches students that there is no glory on the battlefield, "but with the people who fought."

The author of "Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor," he often brings students relics of the period, including the Confederate battle flag.

"That flag my ancestors served under, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. They were fighting for Virginia. It went far beyond slavery," Mr. Clemmer says.

That's why Mr. Clemmer is proud to be a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, because they do not denounce history's course. They embrace it.

It's that devotion to history that prompted the international organization, formed 31 years after the Civil War ended, to fight Maryland over use of a symbol that members say is rightfully theirs to display.

* * *

The Confederate battle flag, featured on the Sons' logo, is prominent on the special automobile license plates issued to the group by Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration.

When black state legislators and Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, protested last month that state-issued license plates should not display what they called a racist and divisive symbol of slavery, the MVA quickly announced it would recall the plates to avoid offending anyone. The Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state Jan. 21 to preserve its right to display the battle flag on the plates. The group argues that Maryland trampled on its constitutional right to free speech and due process.

Mr. Clemmer and other members argue that state officials and other critics of the flag miss the point by making no distinction between honoring history and encouraging racism.

"We have members of all faiths, all races, all ethnic groups, as long as they can show they were descendants" of a Civil War soldier, sailor or marine, says Peter Orlebeke, 56, the group's national commander-in-chief, who traces 17 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.

One of the Maryland chapter's newest members is black. Anthony Cohen, 33, a historian from Silver Spring, was inducted into the Maryland chapter Jan. 18.

The Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group in Charlottesville, Va., decided to represent the Sons in the lawsuit against Maryland after concluding that the members' philanthropic work and dedication to a full, accurate portrayal of history made it worthy.

"This isn't a bunch of rednecks flying the Confederate battle flag for purposes of racial divisiveness," says David Melton, the institute's Southeast regional coordinator.

The Sons' Maryland chapter won a small victory Feb. 8 when members received letters from the MVA reversing itself and allowing them to keep the special plates until a federal judge convenes a hearing on the matter.

* * *

The nonprofit Sons of Confederate Veterans counts 25,000 members and organizations in 24 states. Prominent members include Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and Sens. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, and Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican. The organization welcomes rich and poor, black and white.

One member, Arthur Twigg, says his fascination with the Civil War began about five years ago because his wife, Carole, had two great-great-uncles who fought for the Confederacy. …

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