James Bessenger wanted to believe the best in the defenders of Confederate heritage when he started the South Carolina Secessionist Party in 2014.

Despite the group's name, his intent was not to mount a modern-day call for South Carolina to secede from the Union a second time. Instead, Bessenger said he formed it hoping his group could discuss history, the Civil War and its influence on Southern culture.

But Bessenger, who is 30, gay and pagan, said a recent email from another Confederate heritage group member opened his eyes to the darker side of the movement, prompting him to walk away entirely from his years-long public fight defending the battle flag and other Confederate symbols.

"I went into this thinking that the people who wave the flag that are racist, I really did believe that they were the vast minority," he said, "and that the people genuinely interested in the history, the education and the academia of the Confederacy were the majority. Now, I'm convinced that's not the case."

The beginning

Bessenger said he founded the S.C. Secessionist Party as an alternative to the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The organization, which Bessenger later joined, supports Confederate symbols and honors the Southern soldiers who fought in the War between the States.

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Members of the South Carolina Secessionist Party in Charleston frequently display the Confederate battle flag at White Point Garden. Matthew Fortner/Staff

The South Carolina division of the SCV boasts more than 3,000 members across more than 60 camps statewide, according to its website.

Bessenger said he was sent a Jan. 26 email written by Randy Burbage, who is both the SCV S.C. Division Judge Advocate and a member of the Charleston-based SCV Camp 4. In the email, Burbage writes about his disdain for Bessenger.

"He is gay, he won't stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and he is an atheist. Three strikes and you are out. Simple as that," Burbage wrote in the email.

Bessenger said he understood the email to mean he is not welcome in the Confederate heritage community as a gay, non-Christian man. Bessenger said he also fears that the larger Confederate heritage movement is attracting "a bunch of racists and homophobes."

"I've always been an outlier in the Confederate heritage movement because I'm not a straight, Republican white man," said Bessenger, who also claimed he has heard SCV members casually use the N-word at regular meetings. 

Burbage confirmed he wrote the email but denied being racist or homophobic. Burbage said the email was sent privately to his brother and was not meant for public consumption.

Burbage also told The Post and Courier that Bessenger's sexual orientation and religious preferences do not disqualify him from being a SCV member.

"I never intended it to come across as reasons for him not to be a part of our organization," said Burbage, who said the reason he doesn't like Bessenger has nothing to do with whom he loves or how he worships. "What I meant by that statement was that I didn't personally want to associate with him."

Different courses

The S.C. Secessionist Party and the SCV have had a strained relationship despite their shared goal of honoring Confederate symbols in the Palmetto State.

Folly Boat

The South Carolina Secessionist Party painted the Confederate battle flag on the Folly Boat for the third time on Thursday. Provided

Bessenger's group has staged regular so-called "flaggings" in which Bessenger and a few other group members wave Confederate flags at highly visible areas, including Charleston parking garages, the Battery and highway overpasses.

The group painted the Confederate battle flag on the landmark Folly Boat on at least two occasions and is responsible for at least two Confederate flag displays in Clemson since September. 

SCV, on the other hand, has maintained a lower profile when pushing its agenda.

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Jamie Graham, S.C. Division commander of the SCV and member of the SCV Litchfield Camp No. 132 in Conway, denies Bessenger's claim that Southern heritage groups are attracting racists and homophobic members.

Graham also said he has never heard any South Carolina SCV member use the N-word, and that the group has African-American members and gay members, too.

"We've got a gay member in my camp here in Conway," he said. "It's a non-issue for us. I've got a cousin who is gay. It's not what I practice, but what someone else does in the privacy of their home is their business."

Differing opinions

Graham pushed back, saying the real reason the S.C. Secessionist Party is disbanding is because of its inability to attract members to its cause.

"The Secession Party considered themselves a heritage group, but as far as really being in the fight, all they did was flaggings and protests," Graham said. "But when you have more protesters protesting you than you have people showing up to protest, there's an issue there."

One issue also still lingers over the S.C. Secessionist Party: A lawsuit filed against the group by a black North Charleston mother after two of her children, who are black as well, were photographed at the Charleston Battery holding Confederate flags and their pictures were then posted on social media.

The suit claimed the social media posts made her children subject to ridicule.

Bessenger said he has notified the attorneys in the suit that his group is disbanding but has not heard anything back.

For now, Bessenger has been digitally erasing his group, taking down its Facebook page and website. He has stopped checking the email address for it, too.

"I've been too jaded," he said. "I can't commit any more energy to this movement."

For him, the S.C. Secessionist Party is a lost cause.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.