Rick Perry’s Confederate past

Salon Exclusive: The Texas governor's uncomfortably close ties to groups that glorify the Lost Cause

Topics: Rick Perry, War Room,

Rick Perry's Confederate pastRick Perry

[UPDATED BELOW]

Rick Perry made national headlines in 2009 when, during a speech to a Tea Party group, he floated the possibility that Texas could secede from the union. But the governor’s substantive ties to the neo-Confederate movement may be deeper than previously known.

A 1998 voting guide published by a leading neo-Confederate group and obtained by Salon not only endorses Perry for lieutenant governor but also describes him as “a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.” Perry’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the governor’s possible membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This is the document, published by the League of the South on its website DixieNet.org; it was unearthed by Edward Sebesta, a Texas-based independent researcher and co-editor of “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction.” (Click the image for larger size.)



The organization that publishes DixieNet describes its mission in openly secessionist terms: “The League of the South is a Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic.” Its core beliefs include the abolition of the income tax and central banking, a Southern republic that “revives the use of State Militias in place of maintaining large, standing armies,” and a society that “perpetuates the chivalric ideal of manhood.” The group rejects “the American Empire that now occupies the South.”

Perry, who in 1998 was Texas’ commissioner of agriculture running in a fiercely contested lieutenant governor’s race, was praised by the League of the South as a “solid, conservative candidate” who would provide a “tremendous boost” to efforts in the Legislature to proclaim April as Confederate History and Heritage Month. (A few months after the election, in April 1999, the Texas state Senate did just that, though it’s not clear if Perry played any role.) On Election Day ’98, Perry narrowly beat out Democrat John Sharp to become the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction — an outcome that positioned Perry to rise to the state’s top job two years later, when George W. Bush left the governorship to become president.



What about the Sons of Confederate Veterans? Founded in 1896, it offers genealogical services, sells Confederate memorabilia and literature, and has lobbied to make Confederate flag license plates available around the country, and to keep the Stars and Bars flying at government buildings.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group experienced years of internal conflict between moderate and radical factions, essentially between those who wanted to focus on maintaining historical sites and supporting research and those who were committed to glorifying the Confederacy — in some cases, out-and-out white supremacists.

The latter faction seems to be in the ascendancy these days.

Visitors to the Sons of Confederate Veterans website are confronted by a video of a man in a gray uniform who proclaims, “One hundred and fifty years ago the men of the South left our homes and families to protect them from an illegal invasion and to fight for the rights our states held under the Constitution.” He continues: “Too many in your time want to tell lies about us and the reasons we went to war. We fought for you. It is now your turn to stand up to the South.”

Slavery is not mentioned.

The group also says the “citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America.”

Ray Wainner, Texas division adjutant at the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told me that Perry’s name did not appear in the group’s membership records — but that they only go back to 2001. The national office of the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not immediately respond to a request for comment. And Perry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether or not Perry was ever a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, we know for certain that he has a little-examined history of associating with neo-Confederates and expressing sympathy for their cause.

In 2000, for instance, Bush was locked in a heated South Carolina presidential primary contest with John McCain in which the question of the Confederate flag and its presence atop the state’s capitol played a prominent role. (Bush basically punted, saying it was a state issue.) At the same time, back in Texas, the NAACP demanded that two plaques bearing Confederate symbols be removed from the state Supreme Court building. The plaques were ultimately removed (sparking a decade of litigation pushed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans), but not before Lt. Gov. Perry weighed in on the side of the neo-Confederates.

According to the Washington Times (via Nexis), in March 2000 Perry fired off a letter to Denne Sweeney, Texas commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans: “Although this is an emotional issue,” he wrote, “I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques, and memorials from public property. I also believe that communities should decide whether statues or other memorials are appropriate for their community.”

(Sweeney, for his part, later ascended to the position of commander in chief of the national Sons of Confederate Veterans, where, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, he presided over “a purge of some 300 members, accused of disloyalty for criticizing racism in the SCV.”)

After Bush was elected president and Perry became governor, he maintained his warm relations with Confederate-affiliated groups. Perry was featured in the United Daughters of the Confederacy magazine for a July 2001 visit to the 25th anniversary celebration of a library that had been given an archival collection of Confederate materials. (Click the image for larger size.)



(The United Daughters of the Confederacy is the group whose patent was opposed in 1993 by Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, which in turn earned her the opposition of the League of the South in that 1998 voter guide above.)

Fast-forward to 2007, when, after being reelected for the second time in a landslide, Perry invited right-wing rocker Ted Nugent to play at his inauguration ball. Nugent showed up in a Confederate-flag shirt (and toting a machine gun, picture here), prompting a minor outcry from black groups. But Perry’s spokesman went on the record saying that Perry would have invited Nugent even if the governor had known in advance that Nugent was going to wear the flag shirt; and Nugent himself said Perry called him in the days after the event and, speaking about the controversy, encouraged Nugent to “give ‘em hell.”

In 2008, Perry was featured in the pages of the Confederate Veteran, the magazine of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He is pictured presenting a state flag that had flown over the capitol to Billy Ford, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp in Corsicana, Texas. That group’s mission statement says it exists “to preserve the memory of the Confederate soldier, and to help to spread the truth of the cause for which he fought.” (Click the image for full size.)



So how does the Perry of 2011 — the likely presidential hopeful who will have to appeal to plenty of Northerners — view the Civil War and these neo-Confederate groups? We may find out soon. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is pushing for a Confederate-flag license plate in Texas, but when the state motor vehicle board voted on the matter back in April, it was a 4-4 tie, with one absence. Since then, one member died and the board is waiting for Perry to appoint a replacement. Stay tuned…

UPDATE 7/14/11: Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier issues this denial: “[T]he governor never joined that group nor has he ever paid any dues to it.”

I’ve asked her if he has a position on the pending license plate issue, and if I hear back I will update this post.

UPDATE 8/8/11: Sweeney disputes the SPLC’s characterization of his tenure at the national Sons of Confederate Veterans. He emails:

The part about the purge is absolutely false — there were no such purges, even on a small scale. At one point, some members proposed that we purge those few dissidents who were trying to overthrow the elected leadership of the SCV in court, but I and other members of my administration quickly put a stop to such actions, which were against the SCV bylaws. Also, there were no criticisms of racism — this is a myth started by the dissidents when they lost in court; they then tried to destroy the SCV at the state level by alleging that the SCV was being overtaken by racists. I personally investigated this matter and no one was ever able to supply me with any names of alleged racists.

We take our history and heritage stance very seriously and would quickly remove any members who proved to be racists. As a result, we have a number of African-American members and are actively seeking more. Any man who is descended from a Confederate soldier is welcome to join the SCV.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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