Southern fried

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

The campaign to rename Jefferson Davis Elementary School in Oak Cliff seemed to reach a decisive conclusion when the school board voted 7-1 recently in favor of changing the name. But partisans in the Confederate camp hint the Jeff Davis fight was but a skirmish in what could become a long and uncivil war.

"Just wait for Chapter Two," Mark Mueller, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said after the June 24 school board meeting.

During debate on renaming the school for the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, of Watergate fame, the eerie sense that old Confederates might be stirring in their graves was heightened by the uncanny resemblance some of the speakers bore to old Confederates. Jim McNabb, who spoke for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, looked as if he might have come to the meeting directly from a skirmish with the blue-bellies, gray hair and beard cut in an antique style designed to lend authenticity, no doubt, to his role in Civil War re-enactments.

On the other side of the aisle from the rebels was at least one person who thought the Civil War haircuts weren't remotely cute. "The public face is historical sentimentality" researcher Ed Sebesta said afterward. "But the private reality is increasingly radical."

The school board meeting seemed at first as if it might become a pretty good Civil War re-enactment in itself. When McNabb and other representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans rose to speak against the renaming, cat-calls and other denunciations rang out from the chamber, especially from black people in the audience.

Jefferson Davis Elementary, named for the president of the Confederacy, serves a student population that is 98 percent black and Hispanic. Parents have been lobbying for years to get the name changed, arguing that a slave-holding champion of the rebellion is not an uplifting icon for African-American and Hispanic kids to see every day on their way to class.

But in these complex times, not even the cat-callers at the recent school board meeting could get their story straight: Some of the most persistent booing by black members of the audience came when a parent rose to thank school board member Se-Gwen Tyler, who is black, for helping them. At one point boos for Tyler threatened to disrupt the proceedings. Some people in the black community are mad at Tyler for helping elect a white board president recently. But Ed Sebesta thought he saw even deeper scores emerging in the evening's acrimony.

Sebesta, who is white, has made a personal crusade of expunging the Confederate aftertaste from Dallas schools and monuments. Seven years ago, Sebesta wrote to the late Yvonne Ewell, then a member of the school board, to plead that she lead the way to getting Jefferson Davis renamed. "I never heard a word from her," he says. In his voluminous files, Sebesta keeps Ewell's front-page Dallas Morning News obituary of last year. The story was accompanied by a photograph of Ewell, who was black, standing in her apartment in front of a large mural depicting the antebellum South, with bales of cotton piled by a river in the background. Of her smiling expression in the photograph, Sebesta says, "What that means is, 'I've got mine, now you get yours.'"

Sebesta was not surprised when it was Tyler who finally stepped forward to help the parents at Jeff Davis, precisely because Tyler is not tied to the old Dallas black establishment. By taking on the school name fight, Tyler tackled an issue the black establishment in Dallas has long been strangely content to ignore -- the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy in the public life of the city.

"Se-Gwen wanted this," he says, "which certainly de-fangs her opposition. She's 100 times more militant than the whole lot of them put together."

Sebesta, who led an unsuccessful fight in the early '90s to have the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from Lee Park, is perhaps better known away from home than here. He is mentioned in the acknowledgments for Peter Applebome's book, Dixie Rising, as well as in Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic. The Washington Post named him last year as the principal source for its story revealing that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, contrary to his denials, had consorted with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group with strong ties to the old white Citizens Councils.

An engineer with a major high-tech company, Sebesta carries out his researches into the "neo-Confederate movement" after work from an office in his home in Dallas. He has provided information to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Mark Briskman of the Dallas office of the ADL and Mark Potok at the SPLC both say Sebesta's research has proved solid.

The main case Sebesta tries to make with his research is that the Civil War re-enactors, local history buffs, and sword-collectors who show up on the surface of issues like the Jefferson Davis school-renaming often are tied, whether they know it or not, to much darker themes and even to organizations that promote racism.

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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