When a Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans state officer requested a gubernatorial proclamation designating April as Confederate Heritage Month, the request was fulfilled by a fellow member – the governor.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who has held public statewide office since 1996, is a member of Rankin County’s Lowry Rifles Camp #1740 of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), an SCV officer confirmed to Mississippi Today.
That membership makes him the most prominent sitting public official in the United States who is a known member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the SCV and similar groups.
“He doesn’t attend regular meetings, but his dues are paid and his membership status is current,” said Marc Allen, Mississippi SCV public affairs officer and a member of the same chapter as Bryant. “Gov. Bryant has Confederate ancestors like many people in Mississippi do. This is one way we can honor and pay respect to American veterans.”
Bryant’s office did not respond on Wednesday to repeated calls, text messages and emails seeking comment.
“The continuous acknowledgment by the governor as he celebrates and recognizes the month of April as Confederate Heritage Month, and his membership in such organizations as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, cannot help but be of concern to me and members of the Legislative Black Caucus as well as other residents in the state,” said Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is the largest pro-Confederate group in the South, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SCV is a self-proclaimed “heritage, not hate” group.
In Mississippi, Allen said, the group’s activities range from maintaining Civil War cemeteries and Confederate monuments to helping people trace their genealogical history.
Males over the age of 12, who provide proof of descent from a Confederate soldier, may join the organization. National, state and chapter dues typically total less than $100 per year.
“In 1896, General Stephen D. Lee charged the SCV to carry on the good name of the Confederate soldier and to carry on the vindication of the cause,” Allen said.
“We help people do a lot of things. We help people do genealogical research. We do civic projects,” he said. “We’re all about Mississippians celebrating Mississippi, and we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Although those who fought in the Confederate army fought with valor and pride, what they fought for was wrong,” Williams-Barnes said. “It is a constant reminder to people in Mississippi of the demeaning and inhumane acts which were inflicted on our ancestors.”
“It’s time to move forward,” she said. “It’s time to move Mississippi forward.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a running list of “hate groups,” or organizations that hold “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
The law center does not list the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a hate group, although analysts there said hate groups work hand-in-hand with the SCV.
As South Carolina officials sought to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds days after the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, the Sons of Confederate Veterans hosted numerous flag rallies, strongly opposing the flag’s removal.
In Alabama, after Gov. Robert Bentley removed the Confederate battle flag from the Alabama capitol grounds in 2015, Sons of Confederate Veterans members protested that decision, sharing the same podium with leaders of groups like the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group.
Heidi Beirich is intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center and has studied and written about the Sons of Confederate Veterans extensively. Beirich called Bryant’s SCV membership “shocking” and “troubling.” She said that Bryant is the most prominent public figure in the nation who is a known member of the organization.
Hundreds of Sons of Confederate Veterans members left the organization in the late 1990s “because SCV leadership would not stand up against hate groups members who had joined the organization,” Beirich said.
“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of SCV members who are known members of hate groups,” Beirich said. “Bryant shouldn’t be playing footsie with them.”
“From my perspective, it’s inappropriate for a sitting governor to affiliate himself with them,” she said. “It’s disturbing that (Bryant) is a member of a group that has lost hundreds of members in recent years because they wouldn’t stand up against racism.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans has adopted an anti-hate policy, which is published on its national website. After the Charleston shooting, while plans were being made to host a flag rally in South Carolina, the top national SVC official released a statement condemning the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations “expressing racist ideals or violent overthrow of the United States government.”
The Charleston massacre reignited a national debate about Confederate imagery and symbolism like statues, flags and even names of buildings and parks. That conversation crept into Mississippi.
More than 60 notable Mississippians, from John Grisham to Morgan Freeman to Hugh Freeze, signed a letter in 2015 pleading for state leaders to fly a new state flag. More than a dozen Mississippi cities and towns stopped flying the state flag, along with all eight public universities.
Last year, when Bryant signed his fifth Confederate Heritage Month proclamation, a few dozen people protested outside the state Capitol. Online petitions have circulated in recent months, aiming to protect Confederate monuments in several Mississippi towns.
In the past two legislative sessions, 41 bills regarding the state flag were filed. All died in committee.
Preserving the current state flag — which is the last state flag in the country containing the Confederate battle emblem — remains a strong focus for Mississippi SCV chapters.
For years, Bryant has ardently supported the current state flag. In doing so, he has cited the 2001 state referendum in which Mississippians voted overwhelmingly — 64 percent to 36 percent — to continue flying the current flag.
Bryant is not the only prominent Mississippi politician to cite the 2001 vote. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has said the issue should go back to a ballot like in 2001. House Speaker Philip Gunn has been the only top Republican leader to speak against the state flag, but since his 2015 comments, no flag bills have moved out of committee to the House floor for debate.
State attorneys representing Bryant defended the governor the past year against a federal lawsuit, filed by a black attorney from Mississippi who claimed the flag brought him physical and emotional harm.
Last year, Bryant spoke out against public schools and universities that have chosen to lower the state flag because of the rebel battle symbol it contains. In an interview with WAPT, Bryant said that university leaders were ignoring state law and not setting a good example for their students.
“Now, there may be portions of the code that I don’t like, but I abide by it,” Bryant said. “There is not a punishment within that statute, but it clearly says you should treat the state flag with the same respect and etiquette (as the American flag), and they’re simply not doing that. For the presidents of universities to ignore it, the state code, is troubling.”
Bryant has supported displays of the Mississippi Economic Council’s bicentennial banner, but notes that it is a banner and not a state flag.
The governor’s name is published on numerous Sons of Confederate Veterans documents and web pages. On two different Mississippi chapter Facebook groups, Bryant is referred to as a “proud member” of the SCV. He has been the guest speaker on numerous occasions at different group chapter meetings across the state, according to SCV meeting minutes.
Other prominent former politicians, including former U.S. Senator Trent Lott and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, have held SCV membership. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Millsaps College history professor Stephanie Rolph, a Southern historian whose research has centered around white resistance of civil rights, said that the Sons of Confederate Veterans “equates the Southern rebellion with this hyper form of patriotism, as if these white men were more patriotic than their northern neighbors and that their entire purpose of fighting this war was thoroughly identified with preservation of liberty.”
“The SCV’s connection with what they call Confederate heritage brings with it an enormous amount of baggage that reflects white supremacy in the state,” Rolph said. “For Gov. Bryant and other leaders who claim that membership and are subsequently quite proud of it, I think they are making a not-so-subtle statement about which realms of Mississippi history they choose to embrace. Membership in the SCV chooses a version of Mississippi history that is not inclusive or comprehensive.”
Allen said the Sons of Confederate Veterans does not receive special treatment from the state because Bryant is a member.
The only state funds the SCV receives go directly to the maintenance and upkeep of Beauvoir, the Biloxi home of the only president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. The home is owned and operated by the SCV.
The state of Mississippi allocates $100,000 a year to Beauvoir, which is appropriated by the Legislature in its annual budget through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, according to Chris Goodwin, the public information director at MDAH. In the appropriation, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not listed as the benefactor; instead, it is designated to the “capital development and maintenance of the Beauvoir Shrine.”
Bryant is not the first governor to sign the Confederate Heritage Month proclamation. Each governor since Kirk Fordice – also a Sons of Confederate Veterans member, according to Allen – in 1993 has signed the same proclamation.
Mississippi is the only state to recognize Confederate Heritage Month, and it is one of seven states to recognize Confederate Memorial Day, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Last April, former governor Ronnie Musgrove told Mississippi Today he would not sign the proclamation in its current form today.
“We are a historical organization and this is what we do,” Allen said. “People want to take pot shots, and that’s fine. We have the right of free association as defined by the writings of the Constitution of the United States, and we choose to freely associate. And we welcome everybody.”