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152 Chapter Six Black Confederates on the Front Lines of the Civil War Sesquicentennial On October 14, 2002, H. K. Edgerton, dressed in a Confederate uniform, grabbed his Confederate battle flag and set out on a 1,300-­ mile “March across Dixie for Southern Heritage” from Asheville, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas. The march took Edgerton through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and was intended to raise funds for the Southern Legal Resource Center—an organization founded by Kirk Lyons and declared a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—and the Sons of Confederate Veterans Heritage Defense Fund. Both organizations were active at the time in defending students whoweredisciplined for wearing T-­ shirts and other clothing with the Confederate battle flag to school. Edgerton expressed concern about the growing number of cases involving students whowere “either sent homeorexpelled, fordisplaying the Confederate symbol” throughout “the Southland.” For Edgerton, Lyons, and the SCV, enough was enough. For many, an activist donning Confederate gray, waving the battle flag, and spreading his message of “Heritage, Not Hate” and “Southern pride”along the highways and back roads of the former Confederacy would have been a welcome sight, but nothing could prepare supporters and other observers for the realization that the man in the uniform spreading this particular message was African American.1 In recent years, a small numberof African Americans haveembraced the black Confederate narrative as a means to identify and to celebrate stories Black Confederates at the Civil War Sesquicentennial 153 of ancestors who they believe have been long forgotten or intentionally ignored. For Edgerton it was not just his African American ancestry that cast him as an unlikely neo-­ Confederate warrior. Before joining Lyons and the Southern Legal Resource Center, Edgerton served as the president of the Asheville branch of the NAACP but became disillusioned with the organization as it turned more aggressive in passing resolutions against the public display of the Confederate battle flag. Edgerton’s interests in the NAACP had always been about, in his words, the “fight for social and economic mobility forall people.” His evolution from a local NAACP leader todefenderof the Lost Cause is not entirely clear, but by the time he set off on his march, Edgerton had been fully converted to the point that he identified himself as a “Confederate-­American.”2 Edgerton was quickly embraced by Confederate heritage organizations and became a popular presence at events sponsored by the SCV, especially protests in response to growing demands for the removal of the battle flag from public spaces.White audiences viewed Edgerton as an important asset in this campaign—someone who could challenge the assumption that the battle flag divided the races and was itself a symbol of the nation’s history of systemic racism. For many white Americans, Edgerton was a living reminder of the peaceful relations that existed between whites and blacks during the antebellum period that were interrupted only by Abraham Lincoln’s illegal invasion. His appearance in uniform gave strength to their claims that the vast majority of free and enslaved blacks offered unquestioning loyalty to the Confederacy on the plantation and in the ranks as soldiers. Edgerton embodied a role that harked back to the presence of former camp slaves, such as Steve “Uncle Steve Eberhart” Perry, at Confederate veterans’ reunions at the turn of the twentieth century who reinforced the Lost Cause for white Southerners during a period of racial uncertainty. Now at the end of the century, the SCV welcomed Edgerton as vindication of its preferred narrative that cast African Americans as loyal black Confederate soldiers. The embrace of the black Confederate myth by Edgerton and a small group of African Americans gave it a level of legitimacy that made it easier for heritage advocates to more openly defend both Confederate symbolism and an understanding of the past that was coming under increased assault. As a result, the SCV and the rest of the Confederate heritage community moved from a defensive posture in the faceof increasing attacks on Confederate iconography to a moreoffensive-­oriented strategy that allowed African Americans themselves to speak for theorganization and the Confederacy. In doing so they reinforced the myth and offered conservative black Ameri- 154 Black Confederates at the Civil War Sesquicentennial cans an outlet tovoice their political agenda within the heritage community. Pronouncements of slave loyalty to master and the Confederacy from both white and black Confederate heritage advocates were often coupled with public statements against affirmative action, the...


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