By the time Kate Medley and I found Kevin Davis, on the second day of our whirlwind visits with Mississippi Confederate flag fans, we were moving fast, especially as a storm was threatening to move in from the Gulf. (We had memories of Hurricane Katrina moving toward Mississippi as we bolted out of Natchez during our earlier Klan series a decade earlier.)
Like Larry McCluney Jr., Davis is a history teacher and an on-again-off-again member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans due to descending from numerous southern soldiers, some of them killed in the war. His views on the history around the flag and the war did not exactly match up with McCluney’s, either, especially on his easy admission that slavery caused the war.
Davis also articulates an important point that McCluney touched on: southerners fought the war (to maintain their rights to slavery) to honor their ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. To the South, as historian Chandra Manning explains in her book, “What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War,” the war another vital step in declaring independence from a greedy overlord. The North, though, also fought to honor the Revolutionary War legacy—by keeping the union together.
Here is an excerpt of Davis’ comments, much of which did not make it into the Guardian article:
Me: Do you fly a Confederate flag?
Davis: No, since I am a teacher. Now, I teach at a private school, but I did teach at a public school for most of my career. I go to SCV meetings, and I have a car tag that has a Confederate flag on it.
How do you teach the Civil War, and what caused it?
When I teach it, I teach that it was two causes: slavery and states’ rights. I’m not naïve enough to say that if there had’t been slavery—we wouldn’t ever had a Civil War had there not been slavery. Once it got started, that’s not necessarily what the average soldier was fighting for anyway. Half of them didn’t have slaves anyway. They were living in the society where maybe one day they hoped they’d be rich enough to have one, but I mean most of them didn’t. So once it got started, it was more about defending your home and the cause of governing yourself and all that stuff that’s connected to states’ rights.
But now again: Would state’s rights alone been enough to break away without the slavery issue? No, it wouldn’t, but why people thought was about all of that stuff, not just slavery.
You can’t divide the issue. That’s what states’ right was about: protecting slavery. And the tariffs. It wasn’t only about slavery, but there would not have been a war over tariffs. That would not have caused the war alone. That is part of states’ rights.
Let’s just be honest about that, right?
Right. I’m just saying once the war got started, most of those people, that’s not necessarily what they thought about on the battlefield every day—I’m risking my life to save slavery—because half of them didn’t have anyway. They were fighting to protect their homeland and this belief that had absorbed everybody—the cause or whatever you want to call it—the belief that they were doing the same thing that their ancestors had done in the revolution. They didn’t like the policies of King George or Parliament, so they fought a revolution to break free from that and have a new country.
Really, what they were trying to do with the Confederacy—they were looking at the federal government like a tyrant and decided to do the same thing so they thought they were right or justified. Had they won, we’d still be celebrating them as much as George Washington was celebrated for leading the Continental Army, you know. Really, they were trying to accomplish the same kind of thing, but …
I spoke to someone yesterday who said they should done a gradual emancipation.
I think if they would have just been able to compromise another 20 years, modernization would have caused slavery to become outdated anyway. It would have become more economical to use steam-powered equipment and stuff that came out in the late 1800s than it would have been to feed and house slaves. I think slavery would have probably died on its own by the turn of the century anyway. We don’t know that for sure, though. To me, it’s plausible.
Another thing a lot of people don’t realize is that they also had slavery in the north, in the late 1700s.
I’m fully aware of it, but I get you.
The reason they really stopped doing slavery in the north is because it was more economical to pay a factory worker a dirt-cheap wage and not have to clothe them and feed them, so they didn’t need slavery. So then slavery became a regional thing, but actually it was everywhere to start with. That’s kind of the way I teach stuff: bring in all those aspects to get a whole understanding of it.
To me, that’s why I think it’s (Mississippi flag) is OK because it’s a thing that honors the sacrifices of my ancestors. … Even though some of my ancestors owned slaves, obviously I would say it’s wrong, andI hope I wouldn’t have owned a slave 150 years ago, but nobody really can say that, you know, unless you were born and raised in a different time. You could speculate what you would or wouldn’t have done, but you really can’t know for sure. We know that slavery was wrong now in our modern times, but I just don’t think you gotta automatically say everybody’s racist or it’s totally wrong because it’s there to honor what they thought they were doing, just like any other war, you know.
Me: Would you be upset if the Mississippi flag came down?
I would be sad about it, not violently upset. I would not be up around the last flag making a chain gang to keep somebody from taking it down. Not that upset, but I would be sad if we get to that point because then that piece of history to me would be gone. Mississippi is one of the states that had the most Confederate casualities in the Civil War, and like I said before to me that’s just a piece of history that is a remembrance of that. To me, it’s why it’s on there. It has nothing to do with hatred or racism or anything like that to me. It’s all about being a memorial for the sacrifices and death of my own ancestors. Any Mississippian had multiple ancestors that fought in the Civil War, whether they know it or not. They would’ve had some that died, left widows and all that stuff. Really what it’s all about to me: So we don’t forget that.
Have you had conversations with people, particularly African Americans, who feel a different way?
No, not really. I mean, I’ve had conversations about it in Sons of Confederate Veterans and different places. [Note: SCV has some black members.]
Me: Is that something you would do?