There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
Yesterday a reader of this blog asked some good questions about the malleability of cultural symbols in response to my last essay on two recent confederate flag demonstrations in the St. Louis area. My response ended up being pretty long and I want to share it again as its own individual post. I’ve made a few minor edits to the original comment for clarity’s sake. Some of the points I make will be familiar to regular readers, but they’re worth repeating again. As always, please contribute your voice to the discussion in the comments section if you feel so inclined.
Your statement[s] caught my attention because I’ve seen other historians arguing that there is only one correct and appropriate interpretation that can be applied to the Confederate Flag which is that all who display it are white supremacist racists. No exceptions, no contextual interpretation, and no questions asked to clear up the meaning of the usage. Their justification of their thought being that the only cause of the Civil War was slavery due to white supremacy.
I would like to pick your brain regarding their thoughts. Also, could you expand on your statement regarding the flag’s use symbolizing the perceived loss of freedom.
With regards to historians’ claims about the flag I would respond that there are a lot of historians out there, and it’s hard to make such a simplistic conclusion about their views. There will undoubtedly be a range of perspectives among scholars about the meaning of the Confederate flag and the intentions of those who wave it. Regarding scholars who are specially trained in 19th and 20th century U.S. history I think it’s unfair to suggest that they all believe the flag has only one meaning and that those who display it are all white supremacists, end of story. Take, for example, the historian Craig A. Warren’s recent book on the Rebel Yell, which tries to argue that Billy Idol’s famous song “Rebel Yell” (which he often played on a guitar with the Confederate flag on it) had nothing to do with the Rebel Yell of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That interpretation is not necessarily accepted by all historians, but it shows that historians can and do think quite a bit about the context in which these symbols are operating. The conversation historians are having about the flag is more nuanced and complex than how it’s been portrayed in popular media.
Cultural historians analyzing the historical role of Confederate iconography in American society have documented plenty of times when the Confederate flag was appropriated for uses in pop culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts with Confederate flags on stage, Billy Idol’s aforementioned Confederate flag guitar, the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard, and Ole Miss football games where fans flew Rebel flags are all examples of using the flag as a reappropriated cultural artifact. Did everyone who participated in these activities and wave a Confederate flag hold white supremacists views? I doubt it. The flag represented something different to these people.
The problem, however, is that the flag was simultaneously used and proudly waved as a political symbol to support pretty hateful governmental policies towards people of color throughout the 20th century. In this regard there is indeed a clear consensus among historians that white supremacists who supported Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance and rebellion against the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government more broadly. This is not a controversial point and any rational person can do a brief google search and find images of people waving Confederate flags within this context during the CRM. Additionally, many of these same people embraced the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which downplayed the role of slavery as a cause of the war and argued that African American freedpeople were unfit for citizenship, voting rights, or political and social equality with white people in the years after the war. In this sense many of the people who used the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement were doing it precisely because they had looked at their history books (many of which were written by historians at the time who accepted the basic premises of the Lost Cause) and had used their understanding of history to inform their opposition to the changes occurring in American society during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
This is why I tend to think that Confederate flag waving–especially within a political context–is reflective of individual and group perceptions that they are being told what to do by an oppressive government and that they are losing their freedoms and way of life. President Truman desegregates the military and supports anti-lynching bills in the late 1940s, thousands of activists in Mississippi react by protesting and waving Confederate flags. Nine black children attempt to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they are greeted by adults waving Confederate flags around the campus. President Obama is our nation’s first black president and those opposed to his administration create signs that call for his impeachment but then feel the need to place those signs right next to a Confederate flag for added effect. Each of these events are part of a larger historical narrative of the Confederate flag’s use as a political symbol in support of white supremacy. The flag’s use for these purposes is a historical fact and we cannot escape that history, much as it might trouble some people who embrace the flag today.
So where does that leave us?
I think the historian Yoni Appelbaum is correct when he argues that the Confederate flag has a wide range of meanings in pop culture but that within a political context it has consistently represented the principles of white supremacy (although I acknowledge that the line between the two is sometimes blurry). Context matters.
Cultural symbols are flexible enough to have new meanings added to them over time, some of which might divert far from their original purpose (Kanye West’s wearing of the Confederate flag a few years ago is a noteworthy example). But those new meanings are like adding new layers to an onion – the old layers don’t go away because a new layer was added. If the onion’s core layer went away every time a new layer was added, it would cease to exist as such and become something else entirely. The messy history of the Confederacy and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t go away because somebody waving the flag today was ignorant of that history or didn’t intend for that message to be sent to others. History is there whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. Those who choose to wave the Confederate flag today are free to do so if they want, but they must come to terms with our nation’s history and understand that there are potential consequences for waving it, one consequence being that many Americans today find it offensive. Free expression, regardless of context, doesn’t fully shield you from facing consequences for your beliefs. Indeed, one power of free expression is that it allows you to criticize views you disagree with. That point also needs to be acknowledged by those who expect to wave such a charged symbol without controversy or criticism. Ultimately, however, being considerate of how others feel about the flag is something we should all take seriously regardless of where we stand on this issue.
Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.
The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.
When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.
Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.
I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”
That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.
And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from
ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.
Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.