The Washington Post
Federal government facilitates donations to group praising Confederate traitors
Uncle Sam is in the curious position of supporting advocates for those who waged war against him.
The federal government facilitates fundraising for an organization that celebrates Confederate troops who attacked the U.S. government and killed its soldiers in defense of slavery and white supremacy.
Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization based in Columbia, Tenn., is part of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a philanthropic funding operation run by the government’s Office of Personnel Management. The campaign allows federal employees to donate to charities they choose through automatic payroll deductions.
“The federal campaign is for individuals to give to charities that they would like to, so if they don’t want to give to our charity, they don’t have to,” said Adam Southern, the organization’s executive director. “We’re not making people give money to us … We meet the qualifications of CFC, so that’s why we’re allowed to be part of that campaign.”
Generally, nonprofit taxexempt organizations that provide services, including “medical research and assistance, education, financial assistance, mentoring, conservation efforts, spiritual development, the arts, and advocacy” may participate in the CFC, according to federal regulations. Sons of Confederate Veterans says its programs cover assistance to undergraduate students, medical research grants, national historical symposiums, the reprinting of rare books “and the erection of monuments.”
The types of monuments the organization promotes — those honoring the Confederacy — have fallen in disrepute as the nation reckons with its institutional racism. The Robert E. Lee statue, long a central feature of Richmond and a reminder of the South’s racist and traitorous history, was dismantled in September. A federal Naming Commission is charged with “renaming and removal recommendations” for all Defense Department items and facilities “that commemorate the Confederate States of America.”
Under a website decorated with a Confederate flag and the slogan “Make Dixie Great Again,” Sons of Confederate Veterans presents a version of history that characterizes traitors as sublime protectors. It says the organization is committed to “the vindication of the cause for which we fought. To your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles which he loved and which you love also, and those ideals which made him glorious and which you also cherish.”
Southern abruptly ended a telephone interview when asked about his organization’s CFC income, saying “I’m not going to comment on that, and I think I’m through with this discussion.”
Like Confederate statues, that income is falling. Office of Personnel Management figures show a steep drop in CFC pledges in general, with contributions to Sons of Confederate Veterans falling from $12,078 in 2017 to $11,432 in 2018 to $6,346 in 2020. That mirrors a decline in the number of donors to Sons of Confederate Veterans, from 58 to 52 to 32 for those years. Federal agencies do not match contributions from employees. Sons of Confederate Veterans was not a CFC participant in 2019.
The shrinkage continues. As of Wednesday, the Office of Personnel Management said 25 federal employees pledged about $4,000 to Sons of Confederate Veterans during the solicitation period that started Sept. 1 and runs through Saturday. That means the last day federal employees can select payroll deductions to this Confederate-praising organization is Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
Southern attempted to justify his organization’s participation in the federal charitable operation by saying after the Civil War concluded, “Confederate veterans are now considered American veterans.”
Not so, says the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Individuals who served in the Confederate forces do not qualify as Veterans,” said an agency statement. “The term ‘veteran’ refers to a person who served in the Armed Forces of the United States. … The Confederate forces are not considered part of the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Congress did authorize “specific benefits for individuals who served in the Confederate forces and their survivors,” the statement added. “Those statutes, however, do not confer general recognition as a ‘veteran’ for VA purposes.”
“Traitors” is a more apt description for the rebels. They met the constitutional definition of treason: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
But the federal government comforts Sons of Confederate Veterans because regulations give federal officials little choice. “If the charity meets the eligibility and accountability standards and is recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization, it is eligible for participation,” according to the Office of Personnel Management.
Edward Sebesta, a Dallasbased editor of “NeoConfederacy: A Critical Introduction,” led a 2010 letter signed by college professors urging President Barack Obama to stop enabling the organization, saying it “promotes a neo- Confederate perspective that challenges American democratic practices, praises and sells extremist and racist books, and offers defenses of slavery.” He said the White House response was perfunctory.
The politics of an organization do not affect its CFC eligibility, and appropriately so, said Marshall Strauss, president of the board for the Workplace Giving Alliance, a consortium of CFC federations.
Office of Personnel Management officials are “mechanical in their oversight. If a nonprofit organization submits the right paperwork the government staff will not judge the appropriateness of the application. This is one of the strengths of the campaign,” Strauss said. “I have seen example after example where, if the CFC had been ideological in its operation, then certain charities on the left or the right would have been declined.”
“One of the strengths of the campaign is that OPM administrators do not approach charity eligibility from an ideological perspective,” he added. “They leave it to the donors to decide. … One of the inevitable consequences of this nonideological approach to who gets to enter the campaign is that every once in a while, a group enters the campaign which … would make most of us wince.”
Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, understands why ideology is not considered in eligibility rules but said allowing contributions to “an organization with a mission in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitution, particularly the 13th Amendment,” which outlawed slavery, is “offensive” and “outrageously inappropriate.”
He added, “I think there’s something wrong with the policy.”