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Lincoln statue causes stir in South
To be unveiled in April at National Park Service site in Richmond, Va.

When the International Lincoln Center for American Studies at Louisiana State University holds its annual Abraham Lincoln lecture series each fall, it's pretty much a given that the Sons of Confederate Veterans will show up to hand out fliers proclaiming "Lincoln: Wanted Dead or Alive."

That's why center director Bill Pederson was not surprised to read about a recent controversy in Richmond, Va., over a proposal to erect a life-sized statue of Lincoln and his son, Tad, at a National Park Service site there.

The statue - which apparently would be the first statue of Lincoln to be erected in the deep South, has been met with a flurry of mainly negative comments and letters to local newspapers. Writers tend to use words like "appalled" and "slap in the face" and refer to Lincoln as a "liar" and "murderer."

"I don't think that northerners totally appreciate the feelings of the mainly white southerners who think that their heritage is under attack," Pederson said.

However, Pederson said, those feelings are shared by a very small group of southerners.

Most people in the South "could care less" about Lincoln, he said, although those who do frequently care deeply.

When LSU's Lincoln Center was given that name about five years ago, for instance, the university chancellor got about 40 e-mails protesting the move, mainly from southern states. Given the widespread use of the Internet to link like-minded people all over the country, he said, that number reflects a "fairly small minority" throughout the South.

But Pederson, who often refers to Lincoln in his political science classes, said he has even had students drop his class when he says something favorable about the 16th president.

"Some of these people's families lost everything in the Civil War, and they're still hacked off about it," Pederson said. "They can't get over it."

Anti-Lincoln sentiment appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon in the South. Pederson said he thinks it dates to the middle of the 20th century, corresponding to the rise of the civil rights movement. Pederson said he has talked with older Louisianans who say they don't remember anti-Lincoln attitudes being common when they were young.

He also has researched local newspapers from 1909, when the Lincoln penny was first issued, and found no indication of anybody protesting that.

Pederson said he knows some of the "Confederate heritage" promoters and protesters as former students.

"They claim not to be racist, and I'd like to think that that is true," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't vote for (Klu Klux Klan leader) David Duke."

Archie McDonald, a professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, is blunter about the anti-Lincoln protests.

"We're talking about race," he said. "The bottom line is how we deal with it. Most people in the modern South have come to the conclusion that the direction we're headed is the better one."

Some, however, still look fondly back on the days of slavery or segregation, he said.

McDonald agreed that hatred for Lincoln, like the resurgence of the display of the Confederate flag, was something that was not common in the years after the Civil War, but became more popular with the emergence of the civil rights movement after World War II.

"The attitude (earlier) was one of reconciliation and nationalism," he said. "Things were going in a good direction until the civil rights crisis."

Despite protests, McDonald said, Lincoln is well thought of by most people in the South today.

It is unlikely, however, that the Lincoln-haters and Confederate flag wavers are going to disappear anytime soon, he said.

"Some people are going to fight that damn war 'til they die, and then their children will probably do the same thing," he said. "But it's over, and the right side won."

Doug Pokorski can be reached at 788-1539 or doug.pokorski@sj-r.com.

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