HOT SPRINGS - In a conference room at the Velda Rose Hotel, about 75 people have shown up for a full day of Lincoln-bashing. One of the featured speakers, Sam Dickson of Atlanta, notes that it's not a bad turnout for a town the size of Hot Springs. Especially considering that tickets are $50 apiece (lunch included).
Dickson compliments those in attendance, saying "If there's to be a future for White European Christians on this continent - and that's very much in doubt," it will be thanks to groups like this one, "that save the memories of what we were."
Abraham Lincoln has been dead 140 years; a stranger in town might wonder why people are holding a hatred party for someone who's been gone so long. What has he done to them lately? Well, lately the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission discovered that a 3-foot-high bronze statue of the 16th president that the commission had owned since the 1960s is a more important and valuable work than the commissioners had realized. They decided to display it more prominently, in the Hot Springs Civic and Convention Center. Members of the Hot Springs chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans noticed, and objected to the statue's exhibition on city property, calling Lincoln a "war criminal" among other things. When the Advertising and Promotion Commission stood fast, the SCV decided that "education" about Lincoln was in order.
The gathering today is officially called a "Seminar on Abraham Lincoln - Truth Vs. Myth" and is sponsored by James M. Keller Camp 648 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That's the Hot Springs branch. The commander, Loy Mauch of Bismarck, says it's the largest SCV camp in Arkansas, with 111 members. Don Dukes of Hot Springs, lieutenant commander of the Arkansas Division (that is, top dog in the statewide organization), is also present. He says there are about 20 camps in Arkansas - Jonesboro, Little Rock, Fayetteville, etc. - with a total membership of over 500.
The people attending the seminar are a normal-looking bunch. Nobody's wearing a Confederate uniform, although there are a bunch of Confederate flags on the podium. The crowd is all-white, mostly male, middle-aged and up.
Lee Matous of Hot Springs, who sent out a press release about the seminar, is a recruiting officer for the SCV. "Every member is a descendant of someone who fought for the Confederacy," he tells a reporter, and "We're a heritage group, not a hate group. We even have one black member. He's also a descendant. There were black people who fought for the Confederacy." Matous makes a point of saying, "This is not a League of the South event," referring to another "Southern heritage" group, one considered more radical than the SCV. Matous also says that historians from the other side, Lincoln defenders, were invited to the seminar to confront the principal speakers. None attends. A UALR professor tells an Arkansas Times reporter later that he was invited to the seminar, but he didn't interpret it as an invitation to speak up for Lincoln. In any event, he was uninterested.
After an invocation, Mauch briefly welcomes the invited speakers, whose expenses, but not speaking fees, were paid by the James M. Keller camp. (Because of these expenses, and the meeting room and the lunches for everybody, nobody gets in free. Even a reporter and a photographer from the Arkansas Times pay $50 apiece, a demonstration of superior generalship by the Keller camp. Journalists usually stand like a stone wall when solicited for payment.)
Mauch explains the need for the seminar. "When we [Lincoln detractors] speak, we're accused of falsely distorting history and spreading hate. I was taught that Lincoln freed the slaves. He freed no one. I was taught he loved black people. In fact, he hated them and thought they should be sent back to Africa. I was taught that he saved the union. He destroyed the consensual union. I was taught that he was a God-fearing man. In fact, he was an atheist."
Dr. Clyde Wilson is a longtime history professor at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, and the author of more than 30 books. "The understanding of Lincoln is covered in mythology," he says. "Lincoln was not a god, and nobody thought he was until he died. He was a scheming lawyer and politician who pursued his own interests, that of his party, and that of one segment of American society."
From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Wilson reads unflattering comments made by a history professor about the people scheduled to speak at the Lincoln seminar. The professor said that historians like Wilson were "at the fringe of academia."
"He appears to be a one-book wonder," Wilson says. "He published his dissertation about 15 years ago and has done nothing since. I've talked to prominent historians who've never heard of him. This is about the way we're allowed to speak in this country. He could have said, 'I don't agree with them, and here's why.' That would have been legitimate historical discourse. But instead, it's 'these people - they're not legitimate.' This kind of thing happens all the time."
In objecting to the Lincoln statue, the SCV is not simply resisting a statue of a historical figure, or a work of art, Wilson says: "It's an idol, a graven image, that's supposed to be worshipped. This is not something the people of Hot Springs chose for themselves. It was given by a rich man from Chicago for his own motives. If a rich man donated a museum of Michael Jackson costumes, do you have to accept it? The only value of the statue is that it was done by a particular sculptor. Trade it or sell it, and get something more appropriate.
"Historical revisionism is not an evil thing, it's a good thing. The revision of Lincoln is happening now. Whenever I write something critical of Lincoln on the Internet, I get dozens of complimentary messages, most of them from the North."
Donald Livingston, an author and professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta, says that Lincoln was not popular when he died, "but now - Jefferson is a hero, Washington is a hero, Lincoln is a divinity. He died for our sins. That's why all the hysteria about him."
Lincoln overtook Washington in popularity about the time of World War I and the completion of the Lincoln Memorial, Livingston says. What was happening then was centralization of power, and sending troops out for imperialism - the same things that happened under Lincoln. But Livingston agrees with Wilson that "The Lincoln symbol is losing prestige."
According to the seminar program, Al Benson Jr. is a native New Englander who now lives in Louisiana, a writer and publisher of his own quarterly newspaper, The Copperhead Chronicle. He says he's learned of half a dozen Union officers who were Communists. He reads what he says is praise for Lincoln from Karl Marx, and praise from Lincoln for leaders of the Socialist revolution in Europe in 1848. Lincoln tried the same thing in 1861 that the European socialists tried in 1848, he says. "We're still under Reconstruction, except now it's the whole country." Socialists created the trouble between black and white in America, Benson says, and they were also behind the change from sovereign states to centralized government.
Robert Freeman, historian of the Keller Camp, acts as a moderator for discussion of each speaker's remarks. He backs up Benson's talk by saying that a copy of Marx's "Das Kapital" was found in Lincoln's Springfield, Ill., office, given to Lincoln by Charles Sumner, a U.S. senator and abolitionist from Massachusetts. Freeman says that Lincoln corresponded with Marx and wanted to meet him, but never did. Dickson, however, is less impressed by Benson's remarks. He says that Lincoln didn't co-operate with Communists the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt did. "That was much more heinous," he says. Heads nod.
When it's his turn to speak, Dickson assures the crowd that "Like you, I'm a white Southerner." He's from a family of "old-style" Southerners, he says. According to the program, he's an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in real estate litigation; an author ("Shattering the Icon of Abraham Lincoln"), and "has served as attorney for several Southern and Rightist individuals and groups … " In 1978, he ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia on a segregationist platform. He got 11 percent of the vote.
Dickson may be the best speaker of the seminar participants. He also may be the one most likely to say something that might be called "extremist" or "racist." Generally, the speakers are fairly careful about their remarks; a listener has the impression they'd like to say more, but they know the media are present. Besides his dark broodings about the future of white Christians, Dickson says "Scratch a liberal and you'll find a Communist," "Lincoln is a keystone in the arch of this whole evil system that is destroying our country," "Most people today believe that the races are equal. Two generations ago, nobody believed that." He speaks admiringly of Ann Coulter.
Lincoln was not a "people's lawyer," he was a lawyer for the railroad interests, "the most corrupt element of society," Dickson says. He opposed the Mexican war, wanted Texas to stay Mexican, "probably because he was a hireling of New England interests that didn't want more agricultural areas in the country."
"Slavery was the law of the land, it was in the Constitution," Dickson says. "If a president can unilaterally abrogate the law [a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation], what keeps the next president from issuing the enslavement proclamation?"
Though this is not a League of the South meeting, several of the participants have League connections. Dickson is a member of the League, and according to a League web site, Mauch is head of the group's West Arkansas chapter. Dickson is also a member of the board of directors of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Descended from the old White Citizens Councils who fought integration in the 1950s and '60s, the CCC is widely regarded as racist. Trent Lott and other politicians have gotten in trouble when their dealings with the CCC were exposed.
Freeman is the last speaker of the day. The title of his talk had caused a ripple of shock when it was revealed in newspapers in advance of the seminar: "Homage to John Wilkes Booth." The presentation proves to be a little less than was expected - mostly a narrative, fairly straightforward, of Booth's assassination of Lincoln, mixed with favorable quotations about Booth from pro-Southern newspapers of the time. Several of the quotes mention how good-looking Booth was. One suggests that he'll eventually have a monument bigger than Lincoln's. "As Lincoln's reputation rose to that of a deity, Booth's sank to that of a madman and ham actor," Freeman says. Murdering a president is not good public relations.
For all their huffing and puffing, the anti-Lincolnites have not budged his statue from the convention center. According to Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, the bronze statue is one of half a dozen made from the original mold for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was given to Hot Springs by a wealthy businessman.
Arrison says that the SCV invited the commission to debate whether the statue should be removed. The commission declined. "There's nothing to debate," he says. "Lincoln is one of the top three most-admired presidents. The statue is a priceless artifact. It's not going anywhere."