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So Good a [Lost] Cause (Part 1)
Oran Smith, Richard Quinn, and the acceptability of neo-Confederate rhetoric in Southern politics.
Note: this piece is Part 1 of a series. Part 2 can be found here. CW: Racism, white supremacy, racially-motivated terrorism and murder, racist language.
Why can’t people see a window into my heart?
-Oran P. Smith (2019)
Modern history classes instill a subconscious White superiority complex in Whites and an inferiority complex in blacks. This White superiority complex that comes from learning of how we dominated other peoples is also part of the problem I have just mentioned. But of course I dont [sic] deny that we are in fact superior.
Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI)1 cofounder/ senior fellow Oran P. Smith will probably be confirmed to the SC Commission on Higher Education in the upcoming legislative session. His appointment was temporarily blocked by a Democratic filibuster last session, but this is South Carolina, and Smith is very popular among the state’s GOP policy elite. The former head of PPI, Ellen Weaver, is SC’s current Superintendent of Education, and she received endorsements from essentially every GOP power player, even those who initially supported her primary opponent. Smith has a long history of connections to some of the most powerful conservative operatives in the state, most notably convicted political kingmaker Richard Quinn.
Four years ago, Smith failed to gain confirmation to the same post, at least in part due to his involvement in the publication of the Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate magazine started by members of Richard Quinn’s Foundation for American Education (FAE).
Even if you’re not especially invested in a little-covered political appointment in SC, Smith’s defense of his earlier conduct is a test case for just how supportive of white supremacists and people convicted of political corruption you’re allowed to be (and how long you’re allowed to express that support openly) while still being awarded public office.
Who is Richard Quinn?
Richard Quinn, Sr., pled guilty to perjury and obstruction of justice in April 2023, after an eight-year investigation into SC political corruption that also involved a Grand Jury finding that the office of current SC Attorney General Alan Wilson impeded the investigation. (Updated to add: In an unrelated matter, Wilson has been accused of inappropriately directing $75 million in state funds to “his old law firm and other private attorneys,” according to The State. You also may remember Wilson as the guy who had lunch with Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse for some reason. Fittingly for this story, their lunch location was a BBQ restaurant with a neo-Confederate history of its own.)
Among other crimes in which Quinn, his son, and/ or his firm are implicated2 is the payment of $159,000 to my former senator, John Courson, who was at the time chair of the SC Senate Education Committee, and who appointed Ellen Weaver to the SC Education Oversight Committee (EOC). Courson pled guilty to misconduct in office (in exchange for criminal conspiracy and statutory misconduct in office charges being dropped) and resigned from the Senate in 2018, just after appointing Weaver, who was elected EOC Chair the following year.
A self-styled intellectual and historian, Quinn wrote Jessie Jackson and the Politics of Race (1985), in which he compares Jackson to “the populists who came to power in the South during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth… Tom Watson, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Eugene Talmadge, Vardaman , Bilbo, Jeff Davis, Cotton Ed Smith— these were a few of the better-known and more flamboyant figures, desperate men in desperate times, leading a band of ragged and deprived followers down the dusty roads of rural counties and into the state capitals of the South, where they set up shop in the legislature and the governor’s mansion and proceeded to overthrow the older regime which they claimed had been selfish and repressive.”
Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a white supremacist and terrorist who bragged about killing Black Americans as part of the Red Shirts.
Eugene Talmadge, as Governor of Georgia, led a racist and anti-Semitic assault on higher education.
James K. Vardaman once wrote, “if it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”
Theodore G. Bilbo was another noted white supremacist.
Jefferson Davis was President of the Confederacy.
According to the SC Encyclopedia, “Throughout his six terms in the Senate, [Cotton Ed] Smith emphasized his consistent belief in tariff reduction, states’ rights, and white supremacy.”
This comparison, and the positive tone used to describe avowed white supremacists, have the effect of bothsidesing the American history of racism and oppression, where whatever crimes these (white) mean committed, there is a (black) man (supposedly) committing them now. I can’t imagine a good faith purpose in comparing Jackson to men who murdered, oppressed, and demonized Black people and used state power to do so. In the same way, anti-“woke” figures often identify antiracists, especially author Ibram X. Kendi, as “racist,” usually using out-of-context statements that, in context, are explicitly anti-racist, while misappropriating the words of famous Civil Rights leaders to support their interpretations. Quinn and Smith, at least in the not-so-distant past, felt comfortable platforming white supremacists, notably Richard Whitaker (more on him below).
In the same book, Quinn claims these “white populists of the New South” used racism not because they “were afraid of black gains” or of “rape or intermarriage” but as a “means to an end,” politically. He goes on to make the horrifying claim that Bilbo’s “black mistress… would be proof that he was willing to exploit sexually those whom he exploited politically… But, viewed from another perspective, he was not so filled with malice and contempt that he could not enjoy some intimacy with a black, however selfish and exploitative the relationship.”
Crucially, Quinn defines “civil rights” as “a demand for certain entitlements based on constitutional argument”. The purpose of this statement seems to be to set up the position that Jackson’s rhetoric goes beyond the original definition of civil rights into “populism” like that of Pitchfork Ben Tilman et al, and to support Quinn’s argument that “…in general the ‘civil rights’ phase of the movement to improve blacks is over.”
Quinn has evidently been a long-term mentor and financial backer for Smith; in edition to employing him as an editor, his First Impressions, Inc. (named in the indictment) is credited with polling for Smith’s The Rise of Baptist Republicanism (1997).
Who is Oran P. Smith?
Smith is a “political insider” who presents himself as an educational expert (though his degrees are in political science and administration); a chair on the Coastal Carolina University board; and a frequent invitee at legislative committee hearings on education policy, though as far as I can tell he has no training or experience in this area. When Smith addressed the SC House Education and Public Works Committee a few months ago, his presentation played like Wikipedia summaries of history, some self-conducted “research” on education finance, and information from local news. While Smith vowed to share “facts only,” his repeated use of the phrase “school choice” (a pro-voucher term), frequent references to his own research, and appeals to the PPI “data dashboard” clearly exposed his intention to support the cause of school privatization— one of PPI’s clearest and most openly stated missions.
In 1993, Smith edited an anthology of The Southern Partisan’s first ten years called So Good a Cause. When asked some valid questions about his time with the magazine, Smith said he started to change his thinking during debates about the Confederate Flag, which was placed atop the SC State House in 1961, during the heat of the movement to integrate public schools. The flag was then moved in 2000 to an arguably even-more-prominent place atop the Confederate memorial that stands in front of the State House, until SC became the last state to stop flying the flag in 2015. That’s when, according to Smith, he really changed his thinking, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people as they prayed in their church in Charleston, SC, leaving behind a manifesto that echoed some of the talking points that pop up repeatedly in the anthology Smith edited.
In 2019, a student at Cardinal Newman Catholic high school— identified by multiple outlets as Richard Quinn’s grandson— made a video including similar racist talking points as Roof’s manifesto while firing guns at shoes representing Black students, and sent text messages threatening to “shoot up the school”.
One might ask how much credit an adult with a political science degree deserves for figuring out in 2015— after a mass shooting— that there may be downsides to neo-Confederate rhetoric, but it’s unlikely those tasked with confirming Smith will delve too deeply into that question. And while Smith may deserve a modicum of approval for acknowledging, finally, that the flying the Confederate battle flag atop the State House might inspire white supremacists, it’s also easy to read his focus on the flag— like former SC Governor Nikki Haley’s— as a kind of tokenism: see, I’m not a white supremacist, I supported doing this one thing to oppose white supremacy.3
In 2019, Smith asked legislators and critics to “see a window into my heart,” to understand he wasn’t the avowed Lost Causer he once was, that he was no longer the guy who had, up until 1999— the year The Matrix was released—edited a magazine that included pieces from at least one avowed white supremacist, Robert Whittaker.
Whittaker authored a piece in the anthology called “Southern Nationalism” (1982)4 which Smith seemed to feel was worth dredging up 17 years later; he also wrote (around 2006) the “Mantra,” a list of white supremacist talking points that includes the words, “Anti-racist is code for anti-white,” and popularized the “white genocide”/ “great replacement” conspiracy theory that has inspired Roof and other terrorists and extremists, such as the Buffalo shooter.
The idea that “anti-racist is code for anti-white,” of course, has been a major talking point for Moms for Liberty, the Freedom Caucus, and other groups who would certainly deny they are white supremacists. It is baked into the Heritage Foundation-derived budget proviso which these groups have used in SC to ban books about racial injustice and sue school districts. And if Oran Smith spoke out against this kind of rhetoric, or disavowed his close allies, like Ellen Weaver, for using it, I missed that.5
Smith isn’t credited with any of the text in So Good a Cause, so to assess his claims about his changed heart, we’re left with what he chose, as editor, to include, and how he chose to arrange the book.
What is the Southern Partisan?
According to Greenville News, “The Southern Poverty Law Center credits Southern Partisan for helping jump-start the neo-Confederate movement in the early 80s.”
In his introduction, Quinn writes, “We also brought to print some previously unpublished essays by Richard Weaver6 on the importance of the name, roots and family and on the disintegration of the social fabric in America (these long before it became fashionable to worry about the decline of ‘family values’ and long before riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and Miami and elsewhere demonstrated the utter moral depravity of American innercities),” and “It is well to remember that the cause for which we fight is never lost so longs as we offer resistance.” In a similar vein, Hamel writes, “The very existence of Southern Partisan is testimony to the fact that these attempts have not wholly succeeded, much to the chagrin of those ideologues and robber barons who nevertheless continue to make war on this region in the name of the modern shibboleths of ‘equality’ and ‘progress’.”
So what is the “good cause” for which they fight? The main aims seem to be a defense of a certain definition of (white) Southern culture, and the perpetuation of a narrative that has become known as the Lost Cause: a fable of a righteous, morally pure South, led by virtuous military leaders, fighting and tragically losing a battle against an excessively modern, morally bankrupt North whose only advantage, according to General Lee, was “superior numbers and resources”— only to one day Rise Again. Perhaps more importantly, as historian David Bright points out, “By the 1890s…the Lost Cause had coalesced into a series of beliefs and ideas about victory—over Reconstruction. The Lost Cause became a celebration of defeating Reconstruction and racial equality.”7.
The book’s division into five parts, like a play, sketches an outline of this narrative:
“Antebellum Matters” is a series of essay generally organized around creating a Lost Cause mythology.
“Regional Color” generally provides a kind of “aw shucks” down-home gloss to loaded issues like the Civil War, anti-Semitism, and controversial southern “heroes”.
“The War and Related Struggles” intensifies what James Loewen would call the “heroificiation” of figures like Nathan Bedford Forrest while villainizing other figures, like Abraham Lincoln.
“The Battle Continues” ties the foregoing themes into the present— the 1980s and 1990s, the title explicitly tying the military battles of the Civil War to a culture war in the present.
In the lengthy excerpts I examined—which I’ll analyze in Part 2—and in its title, the clear intent of So Good a Cause is to promote a Lost Cause narrative, and, by doing so, to undermine popular— both then and now— ideas about addressing racial inequality and other kinds of oppression in the South. Of course, this narrative is alive and well today, and the recent ridiculousness in Florida is just one of many examples.
As James Baldwin wrote in 1963, “What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.” As a white child of the South, I’ve witnessed a powerful urge on the part of white Southerners to create identities that are positive and that combats willful stereotyping by “elites”. Unfortunately, Lost Cause identity-making paints the real progress of the Reconstruction era— where Black and White Americans actually did make society more just, created the first system of free public schools, and elevated Black people to positions of authority that made reconciliation and improvements possible— as the work of evil “carpetbaggers” (more on all of this in the next piece) ruining what was supposedly great about the South: in the explicit words of many of these authors and the “heroes” they worship, white supremacy.
But we can also look to Smith’s more recent statements to see if his “heart” has changed. For example, in a 2020 Elvis Presley-quoting opinion piece for the Greenville News, Smith argues that to address “education segregation,” “[a] student’s destiny shouldn’t be determined by district lines. Parents should be able to choose any public school that has a seat for their child.” SC schools are dealing with a very real, longstanding, and increasing racial segregation problem; to suggest that the solution to this problem is “school choice”— which is often linked to greater segregation— or private school vouchers— which have their roots in segregationist efforts of the 1960s— reveals a great deal.
Smith also compiled an inflammatory propaganda “dossier” for PPI this year which uses plenty of the similarly radical talking points to smear teachers, “Leftists,” and educational allies as a kind of axis of evil, again in service of a pro-voucher agenda.
Does Smith still believe the South was the moral victor of the Civil War, or agree with the authors he platformed? I’m not sure it matters. A central effort of the Lost Cause is to advance history as heritage, as a way of seeing the world and celebrating a value system, but for historians, history is an exploration of the real past. Smith, like all of us, may be able to redeem his past, but he can’t erase it.
This piece would not have been possible without the assistance of Melissa Goforth, a South Carolina education advocate who also trained in journalism; she lent me copies of So Good a Cause (edited by Smith), The Rise of Baptist Republicanism (Smith), and Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race (Richard Quinn), and offered valuable insights into the connections between the various players.
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Palmetto Promise Institute is a South Carolina “think tank” founded by former SC Senator/ former Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint. He’s perhaps most famous for saying gay and pregnant teachers shouldn’t be allowed to continue teaching. The “think tank” was Ellen Weaver’s only evident job experience, other than working for DeMint in Washington, before she was appointed to the EOC and then became state Superintendent of Education. PPI was named on the losing side of a state supreme court lawsuit, along with SC Governor Henry McMaster, over an attempt to use federal COVID funds as, essentially, private school vouchers. The attempt was blocked by the court.
The 2019 indictment lists “suspicious payments to current and former members of the General Assembly including Senator John Courson, Representative Jimmy Merrill, Representative Jim Harrison, Representative Tracy Edge, and others. The investigation also discovered payments made to the Quinns’ primary business, First Impressions, Inc. d/b/a Richard Quinn & Associates (RQA) by numerous corporate entities, many of whom were registered lobbyists’ principals.” The State Grand Jury charged Quinn with “criminal conspiracy and failure to register as a lobbyist”.
If you’d like to know if Smith or Haley would apply that same standard to their political opponents, ask them how much “Marxism” it’s okay for a “Leftist” to have espoused in the no-so-distant past.
Sample quote from Whitaker’s essay: “Those who espouse the ‘melting pot’ as the purpose of the United States have made it their announced intention to destroy every vestige of cultural and ethnic diversity in this country, which, of course, includes the Southern nation as a primary target.”
According to a speaker, Smith was present at a Lexington Two School Board meeting (where the first speaker, opposed to proposed censorship measures, cited a number of Lost Cause arguments used by a group trying to push “school choice” in the district). Smith is not a Lexington Two resident, and did not speak.
Richard Weaver seems to be a major intellectual lodestar for Quinn, Smith, and the rest of the Southern Partisan gang. Smith quotes him in The Rise of Baptist Republicanism.) In 1981, the FAE was raising funds to convert a Spartanburg, SC, mansion to a physical base of operations, to be called the Richard Weaver College. The “college” doesn’t seem to have ever been completed.
According to historian David Bright, “As the Lost Cause tradition evolved, the old South—slavery, the very idea of race relations, and even the story of the emancipation of four million slaves in war—morphed into sentimentality about loyal slaves, kind and noble masters, and an agrarian civilization destroyed by the ‘Yankee Leviathan.’” Ernsberger JR., R. (2018). ’Cause They Lost. American History, 53(2), 14–15.