The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?

Frank Earnest is chief of heritage defense for the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Frank Earnest is chief of heritage defense for the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Story by Paul Duggan


NOVEMBER 28, 2018

In July, a 62-year-old white man named Frank Earnest, one of the country’s most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments, traveled 200 miles from his Virginia home to Washington, D.C., and got in line at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. You could say he stood out among the throng of visitors, most of them black. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Frank sported a thatch of chin whiskers straight from a daguerreotype — an ample goatee reminiscent of that of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, a rebel hero of his. In the lobby, as he emptied his pockets at a metal detector, I waited for the attendant, a cordial woman, to notice his key fob, bearing the Confederate flag and the legend “Don’t Mess With Dixie.”

She flashed him a wary glance: “Don’t mess with Dixie? What’s that supposed to mean?” Frank, a spokesman for the nation’s largest Confederate heritage group, replied evenly, “Means don’t mess with Dixie.” Otherwise, he managed to hold his tongue, a triumph of willpower in his case. With the legacy of his rebel ancestors under constant assault by “nutty liberals,” and with the future of Confederate monuments in jeopardy, he is easily irritated and given to bitter sarcasm. As usual, Frank, in a gray suit, wore an array of Confederacy-themed lapel pins, including two replicas of the flag. I suggested he take them off to avoid any hard feelings in the museum, but he refused. “It would be hypocritical of me,” he declared, breathing heavily as he lumbered toward an escalator. Frank, who is slowed by dire respiratory ailments, paused to rest against a wall, and as he leaned there, defiantly unreconstructed, he seemed a museum piece in his own right, a living relic up from the post-bellum ashes.

I had invited him here for a specific purpose — the same reason I had been spending time with him over the previous 10 months, trekking to far-flung Confederate historical sites. Frank is “chief of heritage defense” for the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans. Like others in the Sons, he insists that he is not racist and that the Civil War was not, fundamentally, about slavery. These days, you can find men (and women) like him at government meetings all over the South, fighting to keep Old Dixie, in granite and bronze, alive in the public square. You can hear them espousing a pseudo-history, the gauzy fiction of the Lost Cause, which soft-pedals the atrocities of slavery and accentuates Confederate grievance and gallantry…