Southern fried

What's in a name? A lot of ugly history, at least when it comes to Jefferson Davis Elementary.

As so many of the people who spoke against the renaming were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Sebesta went home and devoted his weekend to digging out what he had in his files on that group. Some of the materials Sebesta produced for the Dallas Observer reached way back, including clippings from The Dallas Morning News and Times Herald in the 1950s, when the SCV was campaigning against integration. Some were more recent, as in the 1980s when the local SCV ran the following ad in its journal: "The journal has available for immediate shipment a small supply of signs to display Early American-Southern tradition. They read 'White Only' and are professionally done."

Perhaps more unsettling are the more recent materials, including copies of the SCV's newsletter, The Rebel Rouser, and other publications which seem to show a pattern of affiliation or support between the SCV and a magazine called The Southern Partisan. The magazine has been a principal vehicle for expression of ideas and ideology associated with the League of the South.

Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has denounced the League of the South for promoting religious and racial intolerance. A number of groups, including the ADL, have found the League of the South especially worrisome because it appears to have a much better educated, more middle- and upper-class constituency than groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but, according to its critics, espouses similarly racist ideas.

William Murchison, a columnist for the Morning News and one of the incorporators of the League of the South in Texas, paints it as an entirely harmless historical debating society. "The league is an agglomeration of people," Murchison says, "some of whom are pretty highly educated, some of whom are probably just more sentimental Southerners, who hate to see the dying of the light, the fading of the flag.

"They're really nice people," he says. "Their agenda probably has more to do with inculcating a taste for chicken-fried steak than instigating another war between the states."

Denne Sweeney, a software engineer who is an officer of the SCV in Texas and who attended the school board meeting, said afterward that he knew absolutely nothing about the League of the South. His organization is strictly non-racist, he says, and their only purpose is to preserve certain truths and traditions in the history of the South. "Our charter is to preserve the true history of the South and to protect the Southern soldier's good name," he says. He says the group, according to its by-laws, can't be involved in direct political activity. To the extent there is any larger political philosophy, he suggests it probably has to do with the 10th Amendment and the protection of states' sovereignty from federal intrusion.

Mark Mueller, an attorney who is also an SCV member and who spoke at the meeting, says the school board's vote in favor of the renaming and against the SCV in no way spells the end of the debate on renamings. Four more schools in Dallas as well as many more in the North Texas area still bear the names of confederate heroes. "This isn't over," Mueller says. But neither Mueller nor Sweeney would say what the Confederate camp's next move might be. "We're still studying that," Sweeney says.

Jim McNabb, the SCV member with the re-enactor mutton chops, says the real mission people should be talking about is "taking back America, not just the South but the whole country, and making it a God-fearing nation under the Constitution.

"We haven't lived under constitutional law since 1862," he says. "Lincoln did away with that."

Digging through his mountains of material, Sebesta produces a photograph of a T-shirt marketed by Southern Partisan in its 1995 Christmas catalogue. On the front is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln over a Latin motto which, loosely translated, says, "The Way of All Tyrants."

"The disconnect in all this is the public hypocrisy of these groups," Sebesta says. "They always have an interesting sort of cover story, but when you go to the real issues, it's pretty ghastly."

Linda Wilson, PTA president of the newly renamed Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Oak Cliff, really doesn't have time for any of it. "We don't have any desire to slam Jefferson Davis or even talk about him to the kids," she says. "We just want them to have somebody's name up there, Barbara Jordan, that we can talk to them about and be positive."

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