Back in 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks took offense to an anti-slavery speech delivered by Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. Accompanied by another congressman from the Palmetto state, Laurence M. Keitt, Brooks waited until Sumner was almost alone on the floor of the Senate and then approached him. He called Sumner’s speech a “libel on South Carolina,” and then raised a thick gold-capped cane over Sumner’s head and began to strike him. Brooks continued to deliver blows to Sumner’s head until his stout cane broke and Sumner collapsed in a pool of blood on the floor. When several senators came to Sumner’s defense, Keitt brandished a pistol in their face and warned them to keep away. Sumner barely escaped with his life and was incapacitated for a full three years.
Brooks, however, became a hero to his fellow fire-breathing white South Carolinians. Dozens sent him new canes, one inscribed with the legend “Hit him again!” He died a few months later, after surviving an effort to expel him from the House. But his legacy lived on. As South Carolinians opened the first volleys of the Civil War three years later, wags up north talked of “Poor South Carolina–too small to be a country, too large to be an insane asylum.”
Judged against the Brooks and Keitt standard, South Carolina Congressman Addison Graves (“Joe”) Wilson’s disruption of President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last week with the words “You lie!” looks pretty pale. On the other hand, the flow of support he received from the array of birthers, tenthers, and deathers who now call the G.O.P. home seemed predictable. More than any development in recent memory, it demonstrated the inversion of the Republican Party. No longer is it a party that identifies with Lincoln and Sumner. The G.O.P. of 2009 is led by forty- and fifty-something white men with romantic (and delusional) longings for the antebellum south. Take Joe Wilson.
In 2003, Wilson attacked Strom Thurmond’s natural biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, saying her public acknowledgement of her parentage shortly after Thurmond’s death was “a smear” designed to “diminish Thurmond’s legacy.” Wilson launched his political career working as an aide to Senator Thurmond and has continuously held the staunch segregationist as a hero.
Now Max Blumenthal probes more deeply into Wilson’s relationship with a radical Neoconfederate organization entitled the Sons of Confederate Veterans, SCV for short:
Who are the SCV?… By 2006… the SCV had been substantially taken over by an organized cadre of white supremacists who sought to turn the nation’s oldest Southern historical society into what the veteran white supremacy activist Kirk Lyons called “a modern, 21st century Christian war machine capable of uniting the Confederate community and leading it to ultimate victory,” had seized much of the SCV’s leadership positions, the Southern Poverty Law Center released an extensive list of SCV officials who belonged to “hate groups.”
Lyons, a key member of this new leadership, had harbored dreams of creating a seemingly benign front group for a more sophisticated version of the Ku Klux Klan. “I have great respect for the Klan historically, but, sadly the Klan today is ineffective and sometimes even destructive,” Lyons told a German neo-Nazi magazine in 1992. “It would be good if the Klan followed the advice of former Klansman Robert Miles: ‘Become invisible. Hang the robes and hoods in the cupboard and become an underground organization.’” With the SCV, Lyons discovered he didn’t have to go underground after all. Once Lyons helped install his close friend, Ron Wilson, as president of the SCV, the organization’s political newsletter, The Southern Mercury, was transformed into a propaganda mill for crude white supremacist cant. Mailed to all dues-paying members of the SCV until it folded in 2008, the Mercury published articles describing blacks as genetically inferior to whites, calling African-Americans as “a childlike people,” and warned that if Obama runs for re-election, race riots of an “exceedingly violent nature” would immediately ensue, leaving “entire sections of some of our cities in ruins.”
No doubt about it. Preston Brooks would approve. And so, evidently, does Joe Wilson.