The Confederate Heritage Trust hopes that folks come out to the Secession Gala they’re hosting on Dec. 20 at the Gaillard Auditorium.
The local chapter of the NAACP hopes that you don’t.
The civil rights group even plans to protest the $100-per-person event, which organizers say “will commemorate and celebrate the state of South Carolina for the second time becoming an independent nation.” The gala will feature a play about the conference leading to the drafting and signing of the Ordinance of Secession and a ball afterward.
Now, at the request of the City Paper, Mayor Joseph P. Riley is speaking out about the controversial party, noting that the Secession Gala is a less than ideal way to begin the Lowcountry’s Civil War sesquicentennial efforts.
“It’s something that is the opposite of unifying,” Riley says. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
According to ball organizer Jeff Antley, the Confederate Heritage Trust did not reach out to the NAACP or other African-American groups when it began planning the Secession Ordinance play and party, a bash they’re calling the “event of a lifetime.”
Antley is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, while the Confederate Heritage Trust is a nonprofit designed “to engage in the preservation and protection of burial and battle sites, and historical monuments and icons [of] the Confederate States of America, and to present the true history of the South.” The nonprofit is made up of several SCV camps.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, confirms that her group was not contacted by the Confederate Heritage Trust, although the civil rights group has spoken with the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, which is handling most Civil War Sesquicentennial events.
The mayor differs with ball organizers who believe that the signing of the Ordinance of Secession is something to “celebrate.” For him, it’s a tragic moment in American history. “To me, it’s certainly not a celebratory event. It’s a rather solemnly observed moment in our history that I think most Americans, if they could rewrite it, they would write it differently and wouldn’t have South Carolina leaving and the separation of the United States of America,” Riley says.
Mayor Riley points out that South Carolina’s secession had dire consequences. “It led to the breakup of our country and led to the Civil War, in which our nation lost nearly 700,000 citizens.” He also notes that the War Between the States resulted in “the destruction of one part of the country, and it took the whole country a substantial period of time to recover.”
And although the Secession Gala is being held on city property, the mayor says the city of Charleston is not sponsoring the event. “The Gaillard is a public facility that is available for the public to use,” Riley says. “It’s not something that we’re sponsoring, nor was there any need to.”
He adds, “The city doesn’t censor the shows or plays or the events that go on in the auditorium.”
According to the mayor, the city can’t discriminate when it comes to renting out the public facility, regardless of who asks to rent out the Gaillard, whether it’s the Ku Klux Klan, a neo-Nazi organization, or some other unsavory group. “It’s owned by the citizens of Charleston. It’s open to the public,” he says, adding that as long as the event was lawful, the group paid the going rate for renting the facility, and performed the required duties, the city would have to comply.
It’s the same sort of adherence to the First Amendment that has forced some municipalities to unwilling allow white supremacist organizations to host a march or parade.
Riley adds, “We live in a free country. People have a right to have their views and their beliefs that we may disagree with.”
Of course, none of this should be taken as a sign that the mayor is not in favor of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States. In fact, he applauds the efforts of the biracial Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, which is sponsoring several Civil War events, including an ongoing lecture series, a screening of Ken Burn’s Civil War PBS series, and a candlelight sunrise concert commemorating the attack on Fort Sumter.
“They’ve been working very hard,” Riley says. “They committed to using this time of observance of the beginning of this tragic war as a time for understanding.”
The Historical Trust differs sharply from Confederate Heritage Trust when it comes to Civil War Sesquicentennial events. According to the Trust, the 150th anniversary “is not a celebration but a commemoration to honor the 620,000 American soldiers, sailors, and mariners who lost their lives during the conflict.”
The mayor believes that the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial efforts, led by the Historical Trust, will give all Charleston residents “the opportunity to try to understand better what happened, why it happened, and what we learned from it.”