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Birthplace of the Confederacy backs away from anniversary event

In 1961, Montgomery, Ala., went all out for the centennial of the swearing-in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The 150th anniversary this year is generating far less interest.

February 18, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Montgomery, Ala. — In 1961, whites in this former Confederate capital pulled out all the stops to mark the centennial of the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis, president of the breakaway slave states.

Three Southern governors attended, decked out in period costumes, along with the mayor, an outspoken segregationist. About 1,200 Montgomerians put on a secession-themed pageant every day for a week. Men around Alabama grew beards to 19th century lengths to mark the occasion.

There was a beauty contest, parades attended by thousands and a "Confederate Drummer Boy" event for kids.

On Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. And a band will play "Dixie."

But so far, this year's festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.

Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won't attend. Randy George, president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, doesn't have the event on his to-do list. The office of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley — who, like Strange and George, is white — did not respond to a query on the matter.

"I hadn't even heard it was happening," said Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, echoing many residents interviewed last week.

The event is being organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the self-described "hereditary organization" for descendants of Confederate soldiers. Like other efforts by the group to mark the Civil War anniversary — December's "Secession Ball" in Charleston, S.C.; a move to create a Mississippi license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and Klansman — it is likely to generate heat and headlines.

And yet Saturday's event may also demonstrate the extent to which romantic notions of the "Lost Cause" have become less a defining trait and more a niche issue as the 21st century South prepares for years of sesquicentennial events.

Thomas V. Strain Jr., a national board member of Sons of Confederate Veterans and march organizer, said some of that is to be expected: "It's just not as easy to market three or four generations out," he said.

But Strain and the group acknowledge running into other problems. A recent post by a member on a reenactors' website encouraged marchers to stay at the downtown Embassy Suites because staffers at the nearby Renaissance Hotel had "shown themselves to be Confederate Heritage unfriendly."

Strain, a 39-year-old nursery worker from Athens — a north Alabama city sacked by Union forces in May 1862 — said he's had a hard time finding a legislative sponsor to allow his group to fly a Confederate flag on the Capitol's south lawn. (The group eventually obtained permission from Republican state Sen. Greg Reed.)

Perhaps, Strain said, lawmakers were just busy this time of year. But he also wondered whether even here, in the cradle of the Confederacy, state leaders have succumbed to "being politically correct."

The era of institutionalized racism, Strain said, was "an awful time in our history." He said he simply feels compelled to honor his many forebears who sacrificed for the Southern cause. He wasn't out to hurt feelings, he said, but the Civil War is something the city can't escape.

In Montgomery, a curiously sleepy city of 202,000 on the southern banks of the Alabama River, civic leaders are most focused these days on reviving the ghostly old retail districts surrounding the capital's dignified and imposing government buildings, and attracting more outside business like the $1.4-billion Hyundai plant that opened here in 2005, adding 2,700 jobs.

But they too acknowledge that such goals are tangled up with Southern history.

That past can feel ever present in downtown Montgomery. Just yards from the starting point of Saturday's march is a marker on the spot where seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a bus in 1955 and sparked the famous bus boycott. Another marks the building where a telegram was sent April 11, 1861, to Charleston, authorizing the attack on Ft. Sumter, the first military action of the Civil War. A third marks the site of the old slave market, where a male field hand could be purchased in the 1850s for $1,500.

The journey up Dexter Avenue will take marchers past rows of empty buildings, victims of white flight, the lure of suburban malls, and an economic climate complicated by Montgomery's vexing public relations problem.

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