Over the past two weeks a number of friends, colleagues, and visitors to the park felt compelled to share their perspective on the Confederate iconography discussion with me, pushing me to think about the role of honorific memorials in a slightly different way. Meanwhile a number of relevant news articles have popped up on social media and generated further discussion between myself and others. Rather than trying to combine all my thoughts into a coherent narrative, I offer readers a few bits and pieces of my present thinking on this topic.
1. Public Schools have a right to ban symbols that they and the community find offensive and/or threatening, including the Confederate Battle Flag.
Out in Montana a public high school banned the Confederate Flag after a white 17-year-old student made racist comments against blacks, allegedly threatened to hang and drag the lone black student on the road with his truck, and then showed up to school with a Confederate flag on that truck. The School administration responded in kind with the ban, which has now created a firestorm in the community about whether or not students have “free expression” rights to bring the flag to school. Whether or not the community is as concerned about the racist behaviors of some students on campus is left unsaid.
To be sure, the lone black student in the school, Darius Ivory, says he’s not phased by the waving of the Confederate flag, and that’s understandable. What else is he supposed to say in this situation if, as I suspect, he’s just trying to finish school and anxious to get the limelight off himself? A Confederate apologist who felt compelled to tweet his thoughts at me proclaimed victory in light of Ivory’s response. Hey, the Black kid doesn’t care about waving the Confederate flag, so why should the school care about it?! I think that point is irrelevant, however. It bears reminding that not everyone in a given racial group thinks alike or shares the same political views, nor does one person speak for an entire race. Some people in the black community are going to be more bothered by Confederate symbols than others. Ivory’s particular response to the situation doesn’t mean the racist 17-year-old’s actions in this case were appropriate, free of consequences, or fully divorced from his use of a Confederate symbol to further assert his views.
The question of Confederate symbols in schools goes far beyond the viewpoint of any one individual and depends upon the ways the symbol is being used. The Confederate flag within an educational context is certainly appropriate, but a situation similar to the one in Montana calls for a different response from school administrators. Schools have the right to ban offensive symbols and images on articles of clothing such as pornography and alcoholic beverages. Likewise, they have the right to ban threatening symbols such as the Nazi flag and gang-related colors. I don’t see the banning of Confederate symbols in schools as a “free expression” issue, at least as it relates to how any particular student views the issue. Isn’t this story reflective of the blessing of local control in educational matters – schools and communities working together to educate their children in learning settings that they deem safe and appropriate?
2. Some of the most outspoken Confederate apologists and “heritage advocates” are often their own worst enemy when it comes to defending the public displaying of Confederate icons.
Rickey L. Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville who is also black, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the university’s Confederate statue to come down. In response he received hate mail, personal attacks upon him and his family, and racist vitriol that sounds like the words of someone from 1860 and not 2016. Symbols and icons gain much of their meaning through the actions and words of their adherents. If the best argument Confederate apologists can muster in support of keeping up all Confederate iconography consists of personal attacks and blatant racism, they should not be surprised to find themselves and their arguments in retreat, nor should they be surprised when governments remove Confederate iconography from civic spaces and schools ban Confederate symbols from campus grounds.
If we wish to have a civil, honest, and meaningful discussion about the role of Confederate history and the ways we remember and commemorate it today, then we need to move beyond the silly stuff and engage with the history at hand and its significance to today’s society.
3. Calling for a given Confederate symbol to be taken down from a place of honor does NOT reflect a desire to erase or avoid the “warts” of history.
I have been accused several times of being “weak-minded” because there have been situations in which I believed the removal of a Confederate icon was appropriate, such as my long-standing support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. This is a ridiculous charge. Most of the advocates for a more critical approach to Civil War history and the way it’s commemorated are looking to have more conversations about the war. In reality it could be said that there are a lot of arguably “weak-minded” people who struggle to acknowledge the role of slavery and the politics of westward expansion in shaping the circumstances of war in 1861 because such acknowledgements threaten preferred narratives of the war as a conflict solely over states’ rights, tariffs, and/or federal tyranny. As Kevin Levin argued months ago, instances like the one in South Carolina are not so much about interpreting history so much as making a political statement that represents “how a community has chosen to remember the past in a certain place in a certain time.” (Or at least a select part of the community). Erecting a commemorative marker is as much an act of politics and selective memory of the past as much as an act of history.
4. The significance of America’s Commemorative Landscape is shaped by what’s missing from it as much as what’s currently there.
The Memphis Massacre of 1866–a tragic and harrowing event that greatly influenced the direction of the U.S. government’s Reconstruction policies after the Civil War–had a grand total of zero commemorative markers, statues, memorials, or monuments prior to the first of this month, when the Memphis NAACP and the National Park Service worked together to finally put up a historically accurate marker commemorating the event. That it took 150 years to publicly commemorate this event is reflective of a collective desire among Memphians and the country more broadly to forget this act of racialized mass violence and downplay the horrors committed upon blacks during the Reconstruction era. Where are the fighters against “erasing history” in this instance, and why did the Tennessee Historical Commission fight this effort to commemorate the Memphis Massacre? In the case of Reconstruction history, why are the Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed to commemorating Reconstruction history through the establishment of a National Park Site dedicated to its history?
5. Counter-Monuments and -Memorials are often inadequate substitutes for countering or overcoming iconography that celebrates and honors racism, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression.
Yale University recently announced that they would continue to name one of their residential colleges after John C. Calhoun, even though a large number of students and faculty have supported a name change for years. School administrators did decide to name another residential college after Anna Pauline Murray, a Black Civil Rights activist and graduate of Yale’s law school. (This move, I might add, was not really any different from the U.S. Treasury’s decision to eventually place Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill but continue to keep Andrew Jackson on the back). But as Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore argues, “It is not a just compromise to split the difference between Calhoun and Murray; there should be no compromise between such stark contrasts in values. The decision to retain the Calhoun name continues the pain inflicted every day on students who live in a dormitory named for a man distinguished by being one of the country’s most egregious racists.” There are times when splitting the difference and saying “both sides have valid arguments” isn’t enough. Again, we are talking about establishing places of honor for these people by naming residential halls after them. Is John Calhoun someone worthy of honor, and does he represent our values today? If the answers are no, then there’s no need for his name to be on a residential hall.
6. Do we place too much educational value on historical monuments, memorials, statues, and other icons that attempt to tell the story of America’s past?
I think it’s a question worth exploring farther. Historical icons are one tool for exploring and interpreting the past, but iconography often simplifies, distorts, and erases complex histories. If a person only learned their history through historical iconography, what would they tell the rest of us about their understanding of American history?