ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida — It served as a Spanish fort in the late 1600s, a refuge for loyalists during Independence, and a Confederate outpost. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested here in 1964 while trying to eat at a segregated restaurant. Later, he called it “the most violent and lawless racial situation in the South.”
Over 50 years later, protests spurred by the death of George Floyd have brought racial reckoning to St. Augustine: The city council voted in June to remove the monument memorializing Confederate soldiers in the main plaza by a 3-2 vote. The site has become a flashpoint for pro- and anti-monument protests, which have delayed the removal. Now there’s high fencing around the 148-year-old monument.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the organizations leading the fight to keep the monuments around the country, held their annual meeting there last week. This year’s event title? “The Give Me Back My Bullets Reunion.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a nonprofit organization founded in 1896 dedicated to “preserving the history and legacy” of the short-lived Confederacy and, according to their website, making sure “that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.” To be a member, one must be male and a descendent of a Confederate soldier.
At the meeting they elected a new commander-in-chief, Larry McCluney Jr., a high school U.S. history teacher from Mississippi. He spoke to VICE News after his election to the post.
Asked if he thinks it’s racist to be part of the group, McCluney was emphatic. “No no no,” he said. “In fact, our organization is very diverse. We have people of various colors. We have people of various backgrounds [and] religions that are members of our organization.”
McCluney did offer some evidence — at least one Black member in attendance over the weekend — but VICE News could not confirm and McCluney would not say how many Black members the organization has. The group reported more than $1 million in revenue in 2017, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
But judging from what we observed in St. Augustine, the group is overwhelmingly white. Last week, cars pulling into a resort just outside the city had license plates from states that had once seceded from the Union. The Order of the Confederate Rose — an organization for women and for men who support the group but don’t have the lineage to qualify for membership — checked in members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as they headed to the convention hall for their elections.
Most men wore suits with medals pinned to their lapels depending on their rank. A small number wore black leather, part of the motorcycle-riding “mechanized cavalry.”
“I think you’ll find people here are very friendly.”
“I think you’ll find people here are very friendly,” said an older blond woman at the Order of the Rose table. An hour later, VICE News was escorted out of the hotel at the request of the group’s local Division Commander.
McCluney said later the Sons of Confederate Veterans don’t get a fair shake in the media. “Just because I have a different viewpoint... then therefore I'm labled to be a racist or a fascist or Nazi,” McCluney said.
The killing of George Floyd, he argues, had nothing to do with Confederate monuments.
“What has the taking down of Confederate monuments — and let's go a little further than that, American historical monuments — got to do with what took place with George Floyd? It's like apples and oranges,” he said.
Sons of Confederate Veterans released a statement condemning the actions of the police officers in the George Floyd death, and McCluney described it as a “very unfortunate thing.” But he says it hasn’t changed the purpose or thinking of his organization.
“The viewpoint of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is that you're not attacking Confederate history; you're actually attacking American history and you want to eradicate and erase the history of this nation,” McCluney says. He said that slavery was immoral but that Americans can’t pick and chose their nation’s history.
“Life was a lot different, and viewpoints and politics was a lot different back then as well.”
But even in recent decades, Confederate symbols have been used to promote 20th and 21st century racism. Since the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag has been used to support segregation campaigns and intimidate civil rights activists. It’s been waved by members of the KKK, white nationalists and, recently, by the young white supremacist who murdered nine Black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Chasing the ‘veterans’
Determined to meet more Sons of Confederate Veterans, we decided to go where they’d eventually show up: local Confederate monuments. The group chartered a bus to take 20 to 30 members — mostly men — to historical sites around St. Augustine, like the Spanish Fort and a Catholic cemetery.
Eleven of the Confederate headstones in the cemetery were erected in 2000 by a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who presented the diocese with burial records.
Members filed off a coach tour bus, some donning face masks, one of which was emblazoned with the Confederate flag. VICE News was prohibited from entering the cemetery during their tour — it’s a private graveyard — and members did not want to engage.
“No, no. We don't talk to any of you,” one man told us. A few members covered their faces from the camera as they filed back to the bus after the tour. One was wearing a red “Make American Great Again” hat.
On Saturday, we got one member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to speak with us outside their bus. We asked “Anthony from Texas” about the monument destined for removal downtown, which the group had toured the day before.
The monument bears the names of dozens of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. One of the descendants of a soldier it memorializes is city commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, who cast the deciding vote for its removal. However, nearly 40 descendants of Confederate soldiers are now suing the city over its planned removal, which has been delayed because the contractor hired to remove it backed out after receiving numerous calls from locals who support the monument.
“They're trying to portray it as racism,” Anthony said, before offering an opinion that has been roundly debunked by historians. “There were people of all races and backgrounds on both sides of the war that fought for their beliefs. It was about state rights; it wasn't just about slavery. If it was about slavery, you wouldn't have had a single Black person fighting for the Confederacy.”
Academics have debated the “myth of the Black Confederate” for years. Harvard professor John Stauffe reported in 2011 that it’s possible less than 1% of the Confederate army was made up of Black men. However, even this meager number was dismissed by historian Kevin M. Levin in his comprehensive 2019 book on the topic. The Black men who did end up in Confederate camps were not soldiers but enslaved people. The myth of the Black Confederate largely gained prominence in the 1970s as part of a backlash to the civil rights movement, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans played an integral part in spreading this message.
Apart from revising history from 150 years ago, the group tries to stay relevant in today’s news cycle. If you visit their website now, you’ll get a pop-up message encouraging donations for flyovers of NASCAR races, which recently banned the display of Confederate flags at events. The organization recently organized the banner flown over Talladega Motor Speedway with the message to “Defund NASCAR.”
Florida has 26 Confederate monuments, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center’s project tracking those symbols throughout the country. That’s far fewer than neighboring Georgia, which has 114, but it’s enough to keep the conversation alive and well in St. Augustine. Steps from the monument that’s coming down soon is another one — the Loring Memorial, named for Confederate General William Loring, and dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1920. That monument is one of 400 around the country attributed to that group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The University of Florida, which controls the monument, recently announced it’s looking into removing it.
Black Lives Matter protests in St. Augustine centered around the city plaza — the same path Martin Luther King walked in 1964 when he visited. According to Rev. Ron Rawls, the pastor at the St. Paul AME Church, racism in the city still lingers. He’s been fighting to bring down the monument since Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville in 2017. But until last month, the most he could get city commissioners to agree to was a plaque to “contextualize” the monument.
“Commissioners have said that this is the biggest issue that's ever hit this community,” he said. “And I imagine they're saying since Dr. King came here in ‘64.”
After the death of George Floyd, the removal of the monument was one of six requests he sent to the city to improve local equality, including more body cameras for police, and re-engaging a citizen accountability group.
“Just move your racist things, your obstacles, your barriers. Move them out of the way.”
“All I want is equity,” said Rawls. “Just move your racist things, your obstacles, your barriers. Move them out of the way.”
We asked McCluney whether it was worth it to him or his organization to keep Confederate monuments standing or Confederate flags flying if it hurt or offended Black Americans.
“We have to draw a line somewhere because we can find hundreds and thousands of things that offend people. What we need to do as a society is sit down and have a conversation,” he said. “I accept African Americans and their right to their heritage. I accept Mexican Latino Americans their right to observe their heritage. We all should be proud of all of our heritage, regardless of what background, what region of the country.”
The “heritage” of the Civil War is intrinsically linked to the fight to preserve slavery, and it continues to affect Black Americans who are confronted with the effects of its legacy every day.
More and more Americans believe this iconography should be removed. A national Wall Street Journal poll from early July shows that 51% of Americans believe that Confederate statues should be removed; 47% believe they should stay in place. That’s a pretty big shift from August 2018, when 35% believed they should be removed and 63% thought they should stay. What happens to an organization whose views are rapidly being left behind by the American public?
McCluney conceded he’s concerned about the organization’s future. The average age of the members is 60, and he’s concerned about the lack of younger members signing up, and blamed that on the fact that younger Americans haven’t been “presented both sides of the issues.”
“A lot of the current generation, they've been indoctrinated by what I would call a public school education and as a result, because of that, young people were more interested in being told what to believe or spoon-fed what to believe,” McCluney said.
Anthony, the member from Texas who agreed to speak outside of the lighthouse, wasn’t concerned about the future of the organization.
“I joined the organization to honor my relatives. And of course, I want to see it do well,” he said. “I want to see educational programs and I'd like to see everybody come together in a positive way, but if the world decides they don't want that any more, then majority rules. That's just how it is.”
Reverend Rawls thinks he won the battle over the monument in St. Augustine and isn’t concerned anymore about the Sons of the Confederate Veterans descending upon his community.
“I don't care about the Sons of Confederacy, the Daughters of the Confederacy,” he said from a pew in his church. “Look, as long as they stay out of my business and as long as they don't hurt my people, go and sit in your private little meetings and talk your private little hate talk. But as soon as you bring it to my people, now I have a problem.”
Cover: A monument to Confederate soldiers in the Civil War has been covered and will eventually be removed from Plaza de la Constitucion in downtown St. Augustine. St. Augustine, Florida on June 27th, 2020 (Edward Kerns II/MediaPunch /IPXo)