CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Dressed in 19th century period costume and standing on the spot where South Carolina seceded from the United States and set off the Civil War 150 years ago, Henry Kidd explained the Confederate decision this way:
“They wanted to preserve the rights, interests and honor of the South. Slavery didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Kidd, a member of a Confederate heritage group.
Welcome to South Carolina, where some still dispute the cause of the Civil War. The sesquicentennial of the South Carolina secession on Monday, the first of a string of Civil War memorials across the United States over the next four-and-a-half years, brought to the surface some still simmering tensions.
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession was signed by 169 men and the state became the first to formally leave the United States. Abraham Lincoln famously responded that the secession would not stand, and four months later the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
To commemorate the secession, a small ceremony was held on Monday at the spot where the declaration was signed, and a new historical marker was dedicated.
“It’s undeniable that these men sought to preserve the institution of slavery,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, who is white, said of those who signed the document.
“You’re a Liar,” an unidentified bystander shouted at Riley.
Riley continued: “Slavery is mentioned in the Declaration of Immediate Causes for secession 31 times. There can be no celebration in the recording of this moment.”
Speaking after Riley, Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Trust, a group that seeks to preserve Confederate heritage and landmarks, said those who signed the declaration were “the most influential, well-spoken and level-headed men of our society.”
“They’re our people. It’s wrong for us to judge them by today’s standards.”
The controversy over the commemoration of secession follows years of struggle over South Carolina’s Confederate past.
In 1961, when the centennial of the Civil War was commemorated just as the civil rights movement in the United States was finding its voice, African Americans were not invited to the events, Riley said.
Beginning in 1962 the Confederate flag flew just below the South Carolina state flag on the dome of the state capitol in Columbia. It was finally removed to a Confederate veterans’ memorial on the capitol grounds in 2000 only after protests by African American groups and an economic and tourism boycott of the state.
To commemorate the secession, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that said it has 31,000 members in chapters all over the U.S., Europe, South America and Australia, held a “Secession Ball” at Charleston’s Gaillard Auditorium on Monday evening. It featured some 400 guests wearing tuxedos and 1860s-era silk ball gowns, including four state legislators and a Charleston City Council member.
Outside, about 100 demonstrators with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held candles and set off on a march “for dignity” through town to a church. They said the secession ball was celebrating slavery.
“It’s disrespectful. No one should ever have a celebration of the Holocaust. No one should ever have a celebration of 9/11,” said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP.
Burbage, said the event was to share Confederate heritage. “This is no celebration of slavery or anything of that sort,” he said.
Editing by Greg McCune