History teacher Larry McCluney Jr., a national officer in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was one of the more fascinating Mississippians we interviewed about the Confederate flag. We also talked, or listened, to him the longest because he really likes to talk about Confederate history as he teaches it. Because I could get such a small amount of what he said into my Guardian article, I’m pasting some sections below that can help clarify the official arguments of the SCV—which I would describe as being framed to defend soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War and to demonize the North, especially Abraham Lincoln. I find that you spend a lot of time in conversations with people who support the flag listening to them explain what was wrong with the North and Lincoln, leaving me wishing we could just stipulate that few were perfect back then and go deeper into the substance of why my home region seceded and fired on Fort Sumter.
But here are some excerpts. This post is a bit long, but I encourage reading to the end for a fuller understanding of SCV’s arguments, and for my short responses. By the way, McCluney prefers to call it the “War for Southern Independence.” And don’t miss his comments below about Trump to a black student upset about his election to the presidency.
McCluney: (People) think about the cause being slavery.
Me: Do you agree with that?
Slavery didn’t cause the war.
Me: Was it the main cause?
No, no, no. What caused the Civil War, as some people incorrectly called it, was firing on Fort Sumter. Now, if you want to talk about the many facets and issues, slavery was an issue, not a cause. Reason why I say that, first two years of the war, Abraham Lincoln said we have to preserve the union. Jan. 1, 1863, when he passes the Emancipation Proclamation, he changed the war effort because he was losing from a political point of view; he had to change the war to a moral issue. TheEmancipation Proclamation didn’t free nobody, except in territories that the union army occupied. How can one country pass a law and force another country to obey it? It has to be done by force of arms.
(Sighs). You can study this, talk about Tariff of Abominations, you can talk about over 50 percent of nation’s GDP was going with the South. If you focus on slavery, this entire nation was guilty of it. (When the) slaves in the South were picking cotton, you didn’t hear anything from the industries up north complaining about where the resources were coming from that they needed for the textile factories. If you say that this was all about preserving white supremacy, I don’t buy that.
Me: Some of Confederate leaders said it (was about white supremacy), though.
A very small minority. Because you have so many people that focus on South Carolina and Mississippi’s secession ordinance. Go and look at other states that seceded. Nothing mentioned there about slavery.
Me: Texas did.
No, it does not mention that they were seceding to preserve slavery. It said that they were joining their sister slave states.
(Note: The Texas Declaration of Secession called black Americans “an inferior and dependent race.”)
Me: Now, Mississippi’s (declaration of secession) is pretty straightforward that it was about slavery.
So, we condemn the entire region because of what South Carolina, what Mississippi said? And if you look at the Mississippi secession ordinance, it does not mention that. It mentions in the principles that they were basing their secession from.
But I don’t buy white supremacy, either, and here’s the reason here. You had northern states by law would not allow free blacks to live within the boundaries of their principalities. For instance Abraham Lincoln’s state of Illinois, it was against the law if you were a man of color to have residency there. Indiana, Ohio. So, if you focus on slavery and racism as issues of that, nobody, nobody is innocent on that. So I don’t buy slavery as a cause.
But keep in mind saying it from a historical and political point of view, not my personal point of view.
Me: The North was in a different place with freeing of slaves by then.
Now you’re going way back. I’m gone simplify very easily. Slavery was a state issue; the Constitution said that. Each state had a right to determine whether slavery was gone be legal or not within its borders. Why is that? Because the Constitution does not address it. You know as well as I do, if it’s not implied, not written, not inherent, then it must be a state right. If slavery was the cause of the war, why did Abraham—the original 13th Amendment that was proposed, he was going to put it in the Constitution, and the South still turned her back on it to protect slavery. Let’s go back to my original premise: It was the union the first two years of the war; the last two years it became a moral issue. …
Me: Mississippians and other southern states straightforward wanted new states to be slave states.
Put it this way, alright: Way before the war you have a southern Democrat, Stephen Douglas, who created the notion of “popular sovereignty” to let territories decide when they entered the union whether to be slave or free, OK. So it came down to that as new states came in. But, you know, keep it mind that even back in colonial days, every colony, every state up to the mid-1800s had slaves, and some people, they kind of raise their eyebrows at me when I point that out. No, no, no, the north have always been free. No, no, no!
Me: Do people really believe that (northern states didn’t allow slavery)?
There are some people who truly believe that, yes. I say no, it’s not true. Why is it the North didn’t keep their slaves? As the North changed to a more industrial state, climate not right at the time for that type of particular cash crop that slavery being used for (cotton), no need for it. What did they do with those slaves? Did they free ’em? No, they didn’t free ’em!”
Me: Some did.
Wellll, some did, but the majority were sent down South and sold.
Me: Abolition was going on, too. That was having an effect.
Yeah, well, there was abolition going on, but you go back and look at the Dred Scott case. This country is so many different, how do you say, political innuendos that have been passed just to make people happy. But the Dred Scott case said once and for all that there was no such thing as a slave or a free state. Slaves are property, and therefore you can take your property anywhere in this country. So, is there a such thing as a free state? Gen. Grant owned slaves; Abraham Lincoln owned slaves. At that time, women could not own property.
So when he married Mary Todd who was the daughter of a slaveholder, (Lincoln) became the owner of slaves. Now, let’s look at, you brought up about abolition. Everybody thinks abolition started in the north; abolition started in the South.
Me: Mid-Atlantic, but yeah. I descend from some of them and slave owners, too.
Well, you think about it, it just makes sense that’s where (abolition) started. This nation has always had an idea that, and even Abraham Lincoln dabbled in that idea, what do we do with these slaves once they’re free, throughout Jacksonian America through the 1840s and ’50s all the way almost to the war. There was the Back to Africa movement; that’s how Liberia got started; free the American slaves. So you have that. In fact, there was even the idea – I can’t remember the source where I read it – Abraham Lincoln was thinking of carving a way, a piece of a state that African Americans could move to and start their own state. Either Mississippi Delta or western part of Texas. I find that intriguing; here we have the great emancipator, but he was the product of the time. He was just as racist, if we use terminology today, as anybody else, but he was a product of the time. That was the norm.
A strange character, though, would be Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee; both broke the law educating blacks because both wanted property at the time to be learned, to meet God through their religious beliefs. Of course, Lee didn’t own slaves; he inherited them. In the will, Mary Custis, her father in the will requested that Robert E. Lee immediately and as soon as possible to free those slaves; it was his wish. And being a soldier and away from home, owning such a huge estate that he inherited through his wife, it required servants to run it. He gradually emancipated them.
That brings up a point about gradual emancipation. You know this country is the only county I know of in history that fought a war to free people according to Lincoln’s views of the last two years. France, Britain, a lot of European nations that had legalized slavery, they went through gradual emancipation and they paid the owners.
Me: Is that what you think should have happened?
Yes, there should have been proposed about gradual emancipation. … Every major political issue this country had before 1860, (they asked) how will the southern states, the slave states follow through with this? Had to consider that. Take the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder. The original Declaration had in there to do away with slavery. The southern colonies would not have gone along with the Declaration of Independence if that wasn’t stricken. So the founders said we will strike that and deal with that issue later. Slavery was on the way out! It was a gradual thing. When they get to the Constitution, southern states would not have adopted the Constitution if they didn’t leave out about the issue of slavery.
By 1799, slavery was dying except for one thing that was invented. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin that made cotton more prosperous. Slavery was dying.
Me: But by the war they had been the reason for so much prosperity here.
They were so embedded into it financially. I mean, we know, we always—see that’s another fallacy I have to deal with when we get to that topic in college. I teach straight up the truth. The fallacy a lot of young people today think, when they think of southerners, all southerners owned slaves. It’s not true. It was estimated that less than 4 percent of the families of the South owned slaves. Now, but when you break it down—and I saw you scratch your face. That may be a figure you think is a little bigger.
Me: Well, yeah. (Both laugh.)
I said families.
You’ve got to keep in mind, when a father dies, they’re transferred on [to family members; thus, the same “family” in the 4 percent count]. Majority of slave holders might have only held one slave. A large percentage of whites in the South did not own slaves. Don’t buy this picture, everybody thinks of big plantations, “Gone with the Wind.” Very few of what we would classify as elite planters who owned 100 or more slaves. Largest slave owner in South, and that’s documented, was Wade Hampton, and believe it or not, he owned 1,000 slaves. But they all weren’t in South Carolina; spread out in different plantations throughout South he owned. [so would count as one family]
When war comes, (they were) able to finance entire legion; paid for uniforms, horses, guns, everything. Fallacy is when they look at me as a typical southerner, your family owned slaves. I tell them, my ancestors came here with grant of land from fighting in the American Revolution—his reward, to develop into plantation eventually.
… Most of your whites that are going to fight in the war did not have a dog in this hunt. Look at your fire-eaters, your politicians that voted for secession at that time, looking at it from an economic point of view. Wanted to protect, I believe, what they called their way of life.
Me: Let’s bring it into the present. You teach history. You say you teach the truth. Are these the kinds of things do you teach? Do you have to censor yourself?
I don’t censor myself. If a child wants to know, I’ll gonna tell them. I’m not going to tell them my opinion without showing ‘em the facts. Take for example what we talked about the 13th Amendment. I show them the original 13th Amendment that Lincoln was in support of. We called him the Great Emancipator; yet he was going to put it in the Constitution. All it had to do was to be ratified by the states. In fact, the majority of southern states were ready to ratify it, but the South did not.
Me: When you teach, these are the kinds of things you get into?
It doesn’t bother me to teach about slavery. I teach to an audience that’s going to be 99.9 percent African American.
Me: Do you have stressful moments in that?
No, I’m comfortable with it.
Me: Do you talk about being a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or do you keep that separate?
My kids know. I mean, I drive up on campus, and I have my tag and my sticker on the back of the truck. They know, but they also know me as a teacher that cares about them, or else I never would have been voted as the Mississippi History Teacher of the Year by the Daughters of the American Revolution over the state of Mississippi. That’s a big thing to me.
I wish my students were here. You could ask them. I prefer that my students speak for me instead of me talking about myself. I don’t pull any punches. Some teachers have, I guess, they consider it a sensitive topic, but well (pauses) I’m going to go ahead and say it. I try to be sensitive, but I’m not, what’s the best way to put it, I’m a pointblank person. Don’t ask me if you don’t want to know because I’m going to come and say it in a very pointblank way.
I have a student that I care a lot about, and I won’t mention her name.
Me: She is black?
Yes. And she would even come right out and say that she’s an über-liberal, and she knows I’m a conservative. The interesting thing that we end up finding out that we both agree a lot more than we disagree. I tell her, what does that make you? You’re not as liberal as you thought you were. And I’m not as conservative as you thought I was.
She was sitting in my American history class. We were watching the day after the 2016 election, and she was sitting there, and she was crying. I looked at her and I said, “What’s going on?”
(McCluney uses a high voice) “Trump won the election.” And before I knew it, I done said, “Well, suck it up, buttercup, he’s your president now.” She goes, “He’ll never be my president.” I said, “Well, think about it. An African American he was elected president. Did you see the country go to hell in a handbasket? I don’t think that a Republican being elected is going to lead to the downfall of this country, either. We’ve been in existence over 200 years.
I said I find it interesting when you compare this timeline of history taking place now. Let’s go way back to (Andrew) Jackson. Anytime there’s a transition like this from a political party that’s been in power so long, people go a little crazy. I look at the state of affairs of this nation right after (Trump’s election, how some people went around, sore losers in a sense. If they found out somebody was a Trump supporter or voted for Trump, how do you know? He’s white, he must’ve voted for Trump. That’s not true. Trump lost the popular vote but wins electoral vote, so what does that tell you? When we deal with issues of racism like that, there’s enough blame to go around on both of the spectrum here.
You know, let me say this. That war (the Civil War) was a very defining moment in U.S. history. When I say defining moment, before that war, we were the United States. After that war, we were THE United States if you think about it because it was after that they decided to make it very clear that no state had the right to secede. That was added later on. States gone be forced to adopt what we call the Civil War amendments and things of that nature instead of letting the people as every other state had the right to vote on them.
Did you know that if you were a white Democrat during that time, you did not have the right to vote during that period we call Reconstruction? The only people who could vote were unless you were a white Republican or an African American Republican. So you disenfranchise the majority of the people in those states. So I guess what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?
Me: On the Trump thing, that exchange is super interesting. What do you think about more open racists, whether Klan groups or other, using the flag as a symbol?
It’s very simple. Go back and look at the Klan throughout the eras the Klan existed. In its heyday, its high point, in the 1920s, when it was over a million members, and it was the social thing to do and, believe it or not, the majority of them were in northern areas. Look at the symbols they had: you never saw the Confederate flag. In the March on Washington, you saw the Christian flag and the U.S. flag.
Look at the Klan today. The Confederate flag didn’t start appearing in the Klan until after World War II when we have the Civil Rights Movement beginning, OK?*** Those men, I wish somebody would take them out in the woodshed and just beat them, because they have no right, no right whatsoever, to take that symbol, the symbol of my ancestors, the symbol my ancestors followed into battle, the symbol my ancestors bled on. They call it the Confederate flag. It’s the soldiers’ flag, the battle flag. They have no right to use it for something it was not intended to be used for. If people believe we should ban it, we should ban the U.S. flag as well.
(***Note: The Ku Klux Klan was dormant in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement until 1963 in Mississippi. The Citizens Council, created in 1954 in response to Brown v. Board decision did embrace the flag, however.)
Me: When you say ban, you mean period, or …?
Me: From anywhere?
From being seen in public.
Me: Well, there’s banning and then there’s removing it from the Mississippi flag. (Note: Few people or organizations in the U.S., including the NAACP, have called for banning the flag from private display.)
Wait, wait, wait, don’t confuse the Confederate flag with the Mississippi flag.
Me: I am not. That’s why I’m saying this.
I’m saying the Confederate flag, as some people say to only be used and displayed in a museum as a relic of the past, then we have to do the same for the U.S. flag. Let’s remember: This country might have abolished slavery in 1865, but did you know that this country did not outlaw U.S. shipping to be involved in the slave trade?
Me: I believe I do know that, yes.
They were involved in that. See, it really irks me that people do not seem to understand that out of all the African slaves brought to the new world, the majority of them, a HUGE percentage, if I remember, less than 20 percent of African slaves brought here to what we would call the United States. The rest would go to the Caribbean, and South America, mostly in Brazil. A huge, if I remember 60 percent went to Brazil. I may have inflated that number, but it’s pretty high on that.
So if that small number, if I remember correctly it was like 4, 5, 6 percent came to United States at that time… the slave trade still went on under the U.S. flag. Interesting thing about the Confederate Constitution, when it was adopted, which mimicked the U.S. Constitution, and it was not in the U.S. Constitution, but the Confederacy made sure they abolished the slave trade, period.
Me: Now, the Mississippi flag, tell me what you think.
I always believe in education. Education to me is the first step to curing a lot of problems. And if you know anything about the Mississippi flag, everybody will say first, people who are anti-flag, it stands for a symbol of oppression. So where do you get that from? What’s the Confederate flag? It may have incorporated the Confederate battle flag, but there hasn’t been a Confederate flag since 1865. The Mississippi flag was created in 1896. I was involved in the 2001 vote. I spoke at, you know, William Winter had five different areas around the state for public opinion. And the problem was he had so many people coming in waving the confederate flags, my ancestor did this, did this during the war. That has nothing to do with the Mississippi flag.
When they asked me to speak and I spoke, I said I’m not gone give you a history war of the Civil War or anything like that. That has nothing to do with this flag. The original name of the Mississippi flag is the “unification flag (with) red, white and blue stripes showing now part of the union. Interesting thing: Since that flag was created, it was carried to Cuba in war, regiments from Mississippi when put into the regular army carried the state flag proudly; in World War II, the Mississippi National Guard … I have a state flag that was given to me flown from a helicopter in Desert Storm.
Me: I believe you.
In a speed round at the end of the interview so I could give him to Kate, McCluney provided these arguments for not changing the Mississippi flag:
- Would disrespect military history of this state.
- Not the symbol of Jim Crow. “Actually it was created before Plessy vs. Ferguson. Let’s put that to the side.”
- To people who say, “it reminds me of slavery or holds this state back economically,” McCluney says, “We haven’t had slaves in this country since 1865. When I talk to an African American, or person of color, I say, “YOU did not experience slavery. You have the privilege of living in a free country.” Now, nobody said this country is perfect, OK. And we have our problems, our issues. But as far as this, how can a flag hold back people educationally, how could a flag hold people back economically? … Since that flag was voted on in 2001, we have two car factories in this state after that flag vote; we have the second largest shipbuilding industry in the U.S….”
- “How can that flag suppress people. If it wasn’t for Dylann Roof, we wouldn’t be having this talk right now. I really don’t believe, there will always that issue. But the Dylann Roof situation was a horrible, horrible thing, and politically certain groups seized that opportunity to make it seem like the Confederate flag came down the pole, walked down into that church and killed those people. And we always look at the pictures of Dylan Roof waving the Confederate flag, but you know when they first brought it out, the day the shooting took place, the pictures they were showing was Dylann Roof actually stepping on a U.S. flag. You don’t see that no more. All you see is the pictures of him with the Confederate flag because it fits that agenda. It fits that message they’re wanting to get across. That was horrific to my organization when that took place because you have a lot of people who would use those symbols that our ancestors had during that time period for a purpose it was not meant to be used for. My organization is the, I like to think we are THE authority on what is Confederate and it’s part of our symbol, and it is trademarked. Some of these people just need to be taken out to the woodshed and just give them a good ole-fashioned butt-beating, I think.”