Sons Of Confederate Veterans' Stewart: Plates Commemorating KKK Leader Not About Slavery

After Governor Haley Barbour refused to denounce the proposed Mississippi license plates commemorating a former KKK leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, John King decided to bring in Sons of Confederate Veterans' Greg Stewart to defend his group's effort. And of course Mr. Stewart said this has absolutely nothing to do with slavery, or the Klan or racism. They're just wanting to honor this former Klan leader because of his military record in the Confederate Army.

After Governor Haley Barbour refused to denounce the proposed Mississippi license plates commemorating a former KKK leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, John King decided to bring in Sons of Confederate Veterans' Greg Stewart to defend his group's effort. And of course Mr. Stewart said this has absolutely nothing to do with slavery, or the Klan or racism. They're just wanting to honor this former Klan leader because of his military record in the Confederate Army.

That might be a little easier to swallow were it not for his group's recent history. David Neiwert wrote this about them after he found out that Joe "You Lie!" Wilson was a member -- Obama heckler Joe Wilson a member of neo-Confederate SCV, fought to keep Dixie flag flying in South Carolina:

Looking into the background of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, after his heckling of President Obama last night, I came across this:

Joe also has been a member of the Columbia World Affairs Council, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Sinclair Lodge 154, Jamil Temple, Woodmen of the World, Sons of Confederate Veterans, ....

This is an organization that, as the SPLC has detailed assiduously, has been taken over in the past decade by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession and defend slavery as a benign institution. Leading the takeover is a radical racist named Kirk Lyons, who's been an important legal figure on the far right for some years.* [More below]

Full transcript via CNN below the fold.

KING: Potential problem for Mississippi Republican Governor Haley Barbour's potential campaign for president. There's an effort in his state to create a special license plate honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest who became a notorious Ku Klux Klan leader after the Civil War. The NAACP asked Barbour to denounce the effort. He won't.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR (R), MISSISSIPPI: I don't go around denouncing people. The Nathan Bedford Forrest tag is not going to happen. Isn't that what you asked me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean do you --

BARBOUR: Is that what you asked me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's what I asked.

BARBOUR: The answer is it's not going to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's talk this over. Derrick Johnson is the president of the Mississippi NAACP. Gary (sic) Stewart is with the Sons of the Confederate Veterans which supports the Forrest license plate. Mr. Stewart let me start with you because of that. You can see already this is opening up some wounds. Some people saying the KKK, the history of racism, it's a stain on the state's past. Why open these wounds? Why do you think this plate is a good idea?

GREG STEWART, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS: Well, this has been an eye opener for a lot of us. In a sense we're moving towards this 150-year anniversary and it's a time to go back and review our history. Apparently they've been very successful at smearing this particular man. We didn't know that they've been that successful because I just heard from your introduction that you said he was a notorious Klan member.

That's a matter of debate. We don't believe it and we think he's worthy of a tag for the purposes that we use the tags for, which is a noble purpose to collect money to repair the flags returned to us by northern states many years ago, given to us as gifts and we think we should take care of those things and we should not ask the taxpayers in Mississippi to dig into their pockets at this time.

KING: Mr. Johnson, let me come in on that point and let me play devil's advocate for a second. Let's set history aside. A citizen of your state says let's have this plate. It's up to the taxpayer to buy it. They can walk away if they don't want it. They can ignore it if they don't want it. They can even feel offended. That's essentially the position you just heard. What's wrong with that?

DERRICK JOHNSON, PRES., MISSISSIPPI NAACP: Well, first of all, we should not glamorize a racially hatred history. We're not doing anything to smear Nathan Bedford's name. Nathan Bedford Forrest smeared his own name when he committed acts of treason against this country and joined confederate states to break away from the country. He smeared his own name when he set up himself as being one of the first head of the Christian Knights of the KKK. It was his action that smeared his name.

KING: And so, Mr. Stewart, answer that and in the sense that we have this right of free speech and it is our most cherished right and so citizens can say and think just about anything, but with that right comes responsibility, so as you hear the objections from the NAACP, from African-American members of your own community, what then if you have this license plate and there are -- maybe there's some debate but there's also considerable objection, what's to stop somebody from saying you know let's have a James Earl Ray's license plate or a Lee Harvey Oswald license plate or an Osama bin Laden license plate for that matter.

STEWART: He's made those arguments before and we've heard them and I want to say this in the nicest way so that, you know, I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. But when we went through these images and selected the years that we wanted to do it and Nathan Bedford Forrest was considered by us, the NAACP and slavery issue and the Klan issue, those were never considerations of ours, so it's really not about these issues that he's bringing up.

We're saluting Nathan Bedford Forrest for his service as a Confederate soldier during the war and his accomplishments, especially in north Mississippi that were notable. You know, obviously people like Erwin Rommel came all the way to this country to study his military tactics and they still study his military tactics. So he's a famous person and he can help us sell tags and that's what we're doing for a noble purpose. It has nothing to do with glorifying slavery or excusing slavery or excusing the Klan.

KING: You talked about Rommel coming over. But what do you think the reaction in Germany would be if they decided to sell a license plate to Adolf Hitler's history as a great athlete in high school or someone who got an "A" in, you know, in language in high school. What happens in the rest of your life matters does it not?

STEWART: It does, but redemption counts too and if everything -- if everything they say is true about this man, if every single word of it was true and we don't think that it is, but if it were, certainly he is worthy of redemption. We gave it to Robert Byrd. We gave it to Hugo Black. We're given it to George Washington.

KING: Does the general deserve redemption?

JOHNSON: Well for us it's not this one guy, it's the whole philosophy around the Confederate and the heritage of the South. Our concern is we should not celebrate a time in our history where it was OK for one human being to own another human being. That was immoral. It is un-Christian. It is not something we should celebrate.

It's not just Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is the whole confederacy as we know it, the glamorization of a very negative period in our history it should not be something we celebrate, should not be something we honor. There is no honor in owning another human being. There is no honor in states committing acts of treason, breaking away from this country. There is no honor in domestic terrorists and for African-Americans in this state, that's what that past means to us.

KING: Mr. Stewart let me come back to where we began, which is your governor's position on this. He was asked about it and he would not denounce it as the NAACP has asked, but he also did not even say whether he thinks it's a good idea or a bad idea. He simply seemed to say well the votes aren't there in the legislature so it's not going to happen.

Should your governor, if he is to be a leader of your state and perhaps somebody who wants to be leader of this country, should he say -- at least have a courage to say -- "I support it" or "I reject it, I think it's a good or I think it's a bad idea"?

STEWART: Well, I'll say this: he has an opportunity to stand up and make a statement in support of the Confederate soldier that served honorably. But if he doesn't take that opportunity, that's fine. He's a politician. He's a very able governor.

But he's not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He doesn't have the same charge that the rest of us have taken. So, I understand that.

And if he wants to run for president and I understand that that's being used against him to try to corner himself in some way, he should just run on his record. He has a good record, and leave it at that.

KING: Mr. Johnson, what did you think of the governor's answer?

JOHNSON: Well, as the head of the state of Mississippi, he should not tap-dance around a serious question for close to 40 percent of the population and many white Mississippians who also want to move beyond this place. The reason why organizations such as this exist in Mississippi are able to have airspace is because the tolerance level for racial hatred is too high in this state.

And what we're saying is to the head of the state, why don't you join forces? Let's deal with racial reconciliation and let's begin to denounce issues as it relates to racial hatred.

KING: Derrick Johnson, Gary Stewart -- gentlemen, it's an emotional debate. I appreciate your time and your insights today.

STEWART: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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