A Republican state official in Alabama has come under fire in recent weeks for speaking to a neo-Confederate group about his efforts to return portraits of segregationist former Govs. George and Lurleen Wallace to the state Capitol rotunda.
But in a Tuesday phone interview with TPM, state Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) flatly dismissed criticism of the neo-Confederate League of the South as a hate group—and said he’d be happy to speak before the group again.
“There was no hate in that meeting except for one thing,” Zeigler told TPM. “They hated it when the fried chicken ran out.”
Zeigler, 66, was elected to public office last November for the first time since he served on the state’s Public Service Commission in the 1970s. He was active in the Conservative Christians of Alabama and other religious political groups, according to The Associated Press, and as auditor has dubbed himself “Waste Cutter.” Earlier this year, Zeigler criticized the removal of Confederate flags from state Capitol grounds and accused Gov. Robert Bentley (R) of ordering the removal of Confederate flag merchandise from the Capitol gift shop in what he called a “purge of Confederate history.”
But Zeigler’s been most persistent in calling for the return of the Wallaces’ portraits to the Capitol rotunda. The Alabama Historical Commission decided late last year to move the portraits to the building’s first floor in order to make way for Bentley’s portrait and to allow for a more “‘sequential’ presentation of the state’s history,” according to AL.com. The portraits’ relocation prompted some to speculate that the commission had bowed to political correctness, given George Wallace’s notoriety as a segregationist. Wallace is infamous for his inaugural promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and for physically blocking a door on the University of Alabama campus to prevent two black students from entering and integrating the school. His wife, Lurleen, succeeded him as governor and carried on his segregationist policies for more than a year until she died from cancer in 1968.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog first reported last month that Zeigler addressed the September meeting of the League of the South’s Alabama chapter in Wetumpka. Hatewatch reported that Zeigler discussed his efforts to return the portraits to the Capitol rotunda at the meeting, but further details were unclear.
So TPM spoke with Zeigler about the event, which he likened to a “Sunday school picnic.” He explained that the head of the group’s Alabama chapter, realtor Mike Whorton, is a friend of his who took an interest in the efforts to return the portraits of the Governors Wallace to their “rightful and historical place” in the Capitol rotunda. Whorton then invited him to speak on that topic at the September meeting, he said.
“It was like a Sunday school picnic. Nicest people I’ve ever met, 70 or 80 people there,” Zeigler recalled. “They’re family-oriented. It started with a prayer, Bible reading, then my speech and a lot of questions.”
The League of the South’s national president, Michael Hill, told TPM on Tuesday that he attended the meeting. He recalled that Zeigler spoke for 35-45 minutes, largely on the subject of the Wallaces’ portraits, and received several ovations.
The group’s former website states that one of its core beliefs is advocating for “the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic.” For his part, Hill described the group as “traditionalist” and more conservative than expressly Republican.
But the group has long held down a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups.
“This is a group that as a matter of faith is opposed to interracial marriages. They’ve defended segregation,” SPLC spokesman Mark Potok told TPM. “They’ve defended slavery as being ordained by God. The list goes on and on and on.”
Potok pointed to some recent writing of Hill’s in which he argued blacks, whom he referred to as “negroes,” were “more impulsive than whites” and would lose a “race war” for that reason. He chided Zeigler for claiming that the League of the South is no hate group.
“The idea that a statewide, constitutional officer would address a group that sees the south as belonging to white people and white people alone is incredible,” Potok told TPM. “Zeigler is supposed to be taking care of our state’s financing and serving all Alabamians, black and white alike. He appears to be too thick to figure out what this group really is or perhaps the bottom line is that he’s simply sympathetic.”
Asked if he agreed with the League of the South’s secessionist views, Zeigler responded: “I don’t know anything about that.”
“They didn’t give a speech to me,” he told TPM. “It was the other way around. I gave a speech to them. I think they agreed that the portraits of the two Gov. Wallaces, the only female governor we’ve ever had and the only four-term governor that we ever had, should be put back up where legally they’re required to be.”
The auditor even said he embraced the SPLC’s criticism of his address to the League of the South.
“I thank the Southern Politically Correct Law Center for criticizing me. I hope they criticize me some more,” he told TPM. “I’m a Republican official in Alabama and it has helped me that they have harassed me about exercising my First Amendment right to go speak to whatever group I choose.”
The League of the South issued a statement to Huntsville, Alabama TV station WAFF last week that praised Zeigler for supporting the state’s “traditional, Southern Christian heritage.”
“The League of the South is proud to have had State Auditor Jim Zeigler speak to us recently on the matter of the removal of the George C. and Lurleen Wallace portraits from the rotunda of the Alabama State Capitol,” the statement read. “When attacked by the very liberal Southern Poverty Law Center for having met with us, Mr. Zeigler, unlike most elected officials, stood his ground and sided with those who built Alabama’s traditional culture rather than those who are busy trying to tear it down. The League encourages other Alabama elected officials to stand with Mr. Zeigler – and against the SPLC and their liberal, anti-Christian allies – in support of our State’s traditional, Southern Christian heritage.”
Zeigler told TPM he was not a member of the League of the South and that the speech was his first interaction with the group. Hill confirmed Zeigler wasn’t a member of the group.
But Zeigler said he thought the League of the South was a “wonderful group” and didn’t rule out attending future meetings.
“If they invite me back, I’ll go back again if they promise to have more fried chicken,” he said.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.