SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Savannah say their organization is completely separate from the extremist groups that caused violence in Charlottesville, Va. while flying the Confederate battle flag, but local historians say it's not surprising those groups used their symbols.
The violence in Charlottesville started with the city deciding to remove a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee, but historians say it's different from the one in Forsyth Park.
Stan Deaton, a senior historian with the Georgia Historical Society, said the Confederate statue in Forsyth Park hasn't created the same kind of tension. He said it's built in a style more to pay tribute to the dead of the Confederacy, rather than a big, military-style monument, and it's not a prominent feature in the city.
He thinks both of those contribute to the absence of outcry, but said it's not surprising these symbols are contentious.
"In modern society, it's not surprising that these symbols of the Confederacy, removing them, their place in modern society has sort of become a lightning rod for who we are as a country," Deaton said. "Who's included? Who's not? What stories are going to be told? What should we do with the symbols of the parts of our past that make us uncomfortable?"
Jack Wray said he found his connection to the Confederacy almost by accident through a family member and joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Savannah shortly after.
"We are a peaceful group simply honoring our ancestors," Wray, who is a past adjutant, said. "The sons of confederate veterans is a historical, heritage honor society. Those three words are the key foundation. We are historical, preserving our history. We are heritage, defending and supporting our heritage in the south. Honor. That's the third word, and what we are honoring are those who fought for us the same way the patriots fought in the Revolutionary War for freedom against government control."
He said watching white supremacist groups incite violence in Charlottesville while parading the Confederate battle flag was infuriating.
"It makes me violently angry and mad, and this whole organization of the SCV, that has already spoken many times, are violently against that kind of disgraceful behavior," Wray said.
Despite the Sons of Confederate Veterans' public condemnation of "the misuse of southern symbols," Deaton says it's not surprising extremist groups use them.
"I think that the reason white supremacists and even extremists, Nazis, use the symbols of the Confederacy is that I think it's been widely known that the Confederacy was a movement that began to preserve the institution of slavery," Deaton said. "After the war, they kind of wanted to rewrite that."
Wray disagrees, saying the groups using Confederate symbols don't understand their meaning.
"Lack of education," he said. "That's the short answer to that question. Purely ignorance and lack of education of what they really mean."
Deaton said protesters in Charlottesville weren't the first groups to use Confederate symbols in that way.
"During the civil rights movement, they were used as opposition to both the movement and opposition to a larger role in federal government, in states where civil rights laws were being enforced," he said.
How Americans remember the Civil War and its focus has become a battleground itself, Deaton said, but he said Confederate emblems and modern extremist groups, like those in Charlottesville, aren't that different.
"The use of Confederate symbols for things that in the 20th and 21st centuries most of us find repugnant, like white supremacy, but the fact is historically, those things are linked, whether we like it or we don't," Deaton said.