As many around the country and city rally to take the Confederate monuments down, Seber Newsome III has been one of the most vocal supporters of keeping them up. Though he's unequivocally pro-Confederate, Newsome firmly believes that does not make him a white supremacist--he says he doesn't even know what a white supremacist is.
Last month, after reading an August 2017 article on Folio Weekly's website about Save Southern Heritage and Save Southern Heritage Florida, the latter which he belongs to, Newsome contacted Folio Weekly threatening to sue us for associating him with a man whom the Southern Povery Law Center has described as a white supremacist. He wanted to set the record straight, so we met in Hemming Park on one of the first hot afternoons of spring. 'I'm not a white supremacist," is one of the first, and last things he says during our interview.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Folio Weekly: How do you feel about the Confederate monuments?
Seber Newsome III: I want them to stay where they are.
Do you have an emotional attachment to them?
Yeah, cause my ancestors. My great grandfather and his five sons fought at the same time. He was in his mid-40s, he fought in the Seminole Wars ... they all survived. He surrendered at Appomattox. See, I was born in Jacksonville ... I enjoyed going to Raines, and, you know, worked menial jobs, and I joined the Army. [...] While I was up in Fayetteville, I went to a traditionally black college, Fayetteville [State] University ... Growing up, I didn't learn anything about the [Civil] War. I didn't have flags, or battle flags or any of that. My mother never talked about her ancestors.
Well, in 2015 after Dylann Roof did that horrible thing he did and I saw all the monuments coming down, it upset me. And I did some research and that's when I found out about my ancestors. My mother had already passed away and I never knew. I never knew.
Do you think she was ashamed?
I'm sure that her father heard from his father and probably told him about what happened. My mother probably could've told me firsthand 'cause her father. I never asked, and she never said nothing.... So after that, I started getting involved and started doing research. I went to Tallahassee, I spoke about General Kirby Smith when they started taking his stateu out of statuary hall in Washington, in the capitol building. I went down there and spoke five times in front of the senate and the house. I was the only one.
After Dylann Roof, that's when it all started, falling like dominoes. They changed the Florida seal. The Florida seal used to have five flags. Great Britain Spain, France and the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia
Some people find it very hurtful, black people specifically.
The South wouldn't have survived one day without the blacks working the farms.
They consider the Confederacy an afront on their dignity as human beings, what do you say to that?
What about from United States when it was first founded with slaves? What about the 75 years before the Civil War?
They look at the Confederacy as a symbol of that.
No, the Confederacy, they seceded because of the way they were being taxed. Just like the United State did that from England.
I know you believe that, but slavery is mentioned in all the Articles of Secession as the cause.
It was one of the causes, it wasn't primary.
You don't think that's revisionist history?
The winners always write history. So, whatever they're learning in school today, they're not learning the truth. ... The Corwin Amendment offered one month before the war, Lincoln told the Southern states and Florida ... 'Come back into the union and keep your slaves.' That's what it says. The South said no. That is proof that it was about more than slavery.
Isn't the current debate about more than just the monuments? You're not involved in this because of some statues, I'd think.
It's part of history, it's heritage. You don't know what's written on that monument do you?
Well, I've read it.
I want you to read it and you tell me in that, what is about slavery, a lost cause, or anything else.
It glorifies the Confederacy.
It's to the soldiers.
The soldiers of the Confederacy. That's not a logical leap that's very far to say that glorifying the Confederate soldiers is glorifying the Confederacy.
Well, I checked and my ancestors didn't own any slaves. Ninety percent of the soldiers or more did not own slaves. ... When you get home, please read all this, so you will understand what I'm talking about. Because you're going based on what you learned in school and what you learned is not the truth.
Being pro-Confederacy is in in many people's minds akin to supporting white supremacy.
I don't know what white supremacy is.
To elevate the white race above other races on the basis of thinking that other races are inferior.
Well, I'm not that.
But people that are involved in the organization you're involved with...
I don't know of any.
The Save Southern Heritage Group.
Save Southern Heritage Florida.
But you're an affiliate.
I don't know nothing about that group, I have never met the man that you wrote about. I'm in Save Southern Heritage Florida.
Both you and him are on the Facebook group for Save Southern Heritage.
A lot of people are in that group.
Is your group a subsidiary of Save Southern Heritage? Isn't that your parent organization?
No, we're separate. We're Save Southern Heritage Florida.
So you have no affiliation with Save Southern Heritage?
I'm just a member, a dues paying member. You'd have to contact [the organizers]. 'Cause I don't know. All I know is we're trying to preserve the history and heritage of the South and Florida.
Well, specifically the Confederate South, not just the South, there's a lot of other history that has nothing to do with the Confederacy. I mean, that only existed for four years, maybe five, depending on how you measure.
Yeah, we're trying to preserve everything to do with the Confederate States of America.
You're taking a few isolated things and building your entire argument on them and ignoring other things, which you're saying I'm doing because I don't believe that the Civil War was primarily about taxes.
I think slavery played a part, but it wasn't a major part.
But the Articles of Secession disagree with you. ...They were arguing over whether the new states were going to have slavery. And that was a big part of what was going on at that time. There wasn't just a couple of small things, there was a huge national conversation about this. Meanwhile, the Northern states were outlawing it and the Monroe Doctrine was it, the Southern states wanted the new territories to have slavery because they wanted to maintain a majority of slave-owning states.
Right, that had something to do with. But the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one. All it said is all the states in rebellion, the slaves are free. Well, that's like us going to Mexico and saying everybody down there, do what you want.
It wasn't quite that, because the North's argument was that they still had authority over the South.
We've been to some museums where up on the wall, in the museum, [it says] "The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one."
So, you're wearing a Confederate flag today.
I'm proud of my ancestors; are you proud of your ancestors?
Aren't we all? That doesn't mean they didn't do things that were wrong. That doesn't mean they didn't support a cause that was wrong.
Well, my ancestors, like I said. [...] I checked the census, they did not own slaves. So they were not fighting for slavery 'cause they were poor dirt farmers.
What if they did? What if they did own slaves? What if you were wrong? What would you say then?
That's a hypothetical. I'm not going to answer hypothetical questions.
What about WWII? I was thinking about this; WWII was not primarily about exterminating the Jews, but it certainly was a key feature of the German regime. If we were Germans and someone in Germany were glorifying the Nazi regime and they were arguing as you are, 'This is history, my ancestor fought in this conflict, they didn't work in an extermination camp,' and yet a Jewish person would find that extremely hurtful to see a swastika or other symbols glorifying the Nazi regime.
Well, the soldiers, they probably have had to either join the army or they would have been shot.
One hundred and fifty years later, do you think that soldier would want their ancestors to wear a swastika?
I'm not trying, you can't compare us. [...] I'm talking about my ancestors, Americans. They were soldiers.
If the people wanted to take down the monuments, would you support it? What if Jacksonville voted to take them down?
Sure, if the people vote to take them down, fine. Or move it. Not just take a sledgehammer and tear it to pieces. If that's what the people want in Jacksonville. But all these places: Gainesville, Tampa, Manatee County, Orlando, all these polls that have been taken, the people from the polls don't want them gone. The politicians are not listening to the people.
But here they are. Nothing has happened. Yet what would it hurt if they did come down?
It would be a slap in the face of history.... If people are offended by it, they need to read. Go on the internet... Like they're doing in St. Augustine, they're contextualizing the one downtown, the big one, the Confederate monument.... If that will satisfy people to put up something to contextualize it, fine, do that. Put more, what I've been preaching for two years, let's put up monuments, statues, a commemorative wall, anything down here to tell all of Jacksonville's history. Put up monuments, statues to James Wheldon Johnson, or Arnett Girardeau, or Clara White, put up statues and monuments to them, so people will see all of Jacksonville's history. Put up more monuments. America builds monuments, it doesn't take them down like ISIS.
It's one thing to say don't take it down, it's another to get up on a microphone and unequivocally say you don't want them down. It's a different degree of activism.
You don't see anybody saying take down the Martin Luther King signs and if you read the FBI reports on him, you would be shocked at some of the things he did. And you don't see nobody complaining about that. I don't care, put up a sign for him.
Are you saying that Martin Luther King is equivalent to Jefferson Davis?
Oh, he did worse things than he did. You need to read the FBI file that they have on him, what he did to women. See you haven't read that, have you?
No, I haven't.
Go home, Google "FBI file on Martin Luther King." The night before he was shot, what he did in a hotel room with certain kind of women.
I know he was a philanderer.
To say the least. And oh, everybody says, oh Martin Luther King, he was just a great person, he was like walking on water. No, no, he was far from it. But nobody's coming down here to take down his signs.
Regardless of his personal decisions, what about the causes that he fought for?
That's fine. He was peaceful. He wanted peaceful demonstrations.
It was peaceful demonstrations geared to get civil rights and economic equality.
I'm all for that. I'm all for a lot of things that this Northside Coalition and all these things, what they're for, except for the monuments.
They look at it as glorification of white supremacy, that's what they see that monument as.
Before 2015, I didn't even know this was here. And I live and was born and raised in Jacksonville. I bet the majority, probably 70 percent of the people in the Northside of Jacksonville where I'm from have never been down here to see it. These monuments are not causing the violence in Jacksonville, drive by shootings .... This is not causing unemployment or death, or crime, this is a piece of granite. To dead soldiers. It says on the bottom, Confederate memorial, it's not to a lost cause, slavery, white supremacy, which I still don't know what that is. I didn't have no white privilege when I was growing up. I just think it's all silly. ... It's been here 119 years, not until the last two or three years has anybody even mentioned taking this down.
What about Robert E. Lee's comments after the war? He didn't want monuments to the Confederacy. He wanted to heal the wounds, not further throw salt on them.
[Points at the Hemming Park statue] How is that opening a wound? That's to honor people who served, dead soldiers.
People who fought against their country and lost.
The Confederate states seceded because of taxes, just like America did from England.
I know that you believe that. And I think a lot of people would argue that you believe that because you're rationalizing, so you don't say, 'The South was evil, their cause was evil.'
I don't think my ancestors were evil.
Do you think slavery was evil?
What about people whose family did own slaves? Were they evil?
That's the way it was then. That's just the way it was.
That's how people feel about the Confederacy [that it was evil].
Do you think Abraham Lincoln was a bad president?
Well, he caused a million deaths.
What about Jefferson Davis?
He was the President of the Confederacy, just like Lincoln was the President of the United States.
They fought each other. There's always a such thing as surrender. The South eventually did. Why fight the war, why fire the first shots? You say it's because of taxes.
Right, states rights and taxes.
But most people believe, when you say states' rights, that's just code for states' rights to own slaves.
Well, all I can say is, go read some books, learn the truth like I've done.
However they got there, was the outcome of the war correct or incorrect?
Well, slavery was doomed to end anyway.
Do you wish the South had won?
Cause of slavery?
No, just generally?
No, it wasn't meant to be.
That's not what I asked.
I believe in fate; it wasn't God's plan. The South was doomed to begin with.
You're not even wearing a Confederate flag today, you're wearing the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Why that one?
'Cause this one gets more attention. I want people to know that I'm proud of my ancestors.
You don't have to wear that shirt to prove that. ... What about the people who say that the reason others look down on Southerners is because some Southerners continue to glorify the Confederacy, which they see as a symbol of racism and slavery?
Like I said, they need to go and read and learn. Look at the monument, do some research on it, find out why it was put there. [...] Winning to me is to keep that and put up more monuments all over the park to famous blacks. To me that's winning. That way you can tell all our history.