MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The only black man clad in the gray woolen uniform of a Confederate soldier, H.K. Edgerton stood up Monday and told the crowd at the Alabama Capitol building to never forget his fellow African-Americans who died fighting for the South in the Civil War.
The nearly 150 people who gathered there for Confederate Memorial Day — a state holiday commemorating Southern soldiers killed in the war with the North — cheered.
"I'm very proud that Alabama still has this as a state holiday to celebrate the men and women who gave their lives after they were invaded," said Edgerton, 69, a Confederate flag slung over his shoulder.
Alabama is one of the last states in the country that still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day as an official holiday. The day brings controversy and confusion, with critics arguing about the appropriateness of the anniversary, supporters saying they want to honor their dead and some people just upset that their errands are upended by the closure of government offices.
"It's about time that we stop having any official memorial days for the Confederacy," said Heidi Beirich, director of the hate-watching Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On the north lawn of the state Capitol, members of groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans met at the base of an about 80-foot-tall limestone and granite monument to dead Southern soldiers.
As dozens of Confederate flags waved overhead, speakers lamented the demonization of the South and its soldiers.
"They died for what was right: freedom, liberty, self-government, state's government — our rights," said the Rev. John Weaver, a Georgia pastor who gave the keynote address.
Jay Hinton, a Montgomery lawyer who wore a Confederate commander's uniform, emphasized that he only wanted to pay respects to the soldiers as he posed for photographs in front of a Civil War-era cannon with Edgerton.
"He's a representation of that this isn't a racial thing. That's my brother," said Hinton, 52, as he gestured at Edgerton, the black war re-enactor.
Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. Georgia also marks the occasion but removed the reference to the Confederacy in 2015.
But for some unaware Alabamians, the state holiday celebrations hampered a trip to the local driver's license office.
"Wow, Alabama," said Shay Ferguson, a 21-year-old student who arrived at the motor vehicles department to find it empty. "It's kind of sad."