Obama has called for an honest accounting of America’s history. Here’s how to do it.
Midway through his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama spoke on the Confederate flag, which still flew at the state Capitol in Columbia. “Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong,” he said. “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
The next morning, on Saturday, Bree Newsome—a North Carolina–based artist and activist—scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the flag herself, in an outsized act of civil disobedience. She was arrested, but not before she made a national impression with the latest—and most dramatic—act against the Confederate flag.
Per Obama, the truth of the Confederate flag shift is that, after a century of this distorted remembrance, the South—and the country at large—is making an overdue correction. And although it comes out of tragedy—a racist allegedly killed nine black people with the flag as a backdrop to his hate—it also reflects the fact of the modern South, a growing, more cosmopolitan place, with vibrant cities, Latino immigration, Northern transplants, and a “reverse migration” of black Americans from around the country.
If the past is a place we construct—one that says as much about us as it does the people we remember—then this South isn’t erasing history; it’s working to build a more truthful narrative of the Civil War for a broader, more diverse generation of Southerners. And the push against Confederate flags is just the beginning. With a vast landscape of monuments and plantations, Southerners of all colors will have to place this constructed past in its honest context before they try to build a more usable history for themselves and their descendants.
To call the backlash to the flag opportunism, though, is to miss the decades of anti-flag activism from ordinary Southerners that coalesced in the present moment. Each critic opposes the flag and wants it to come down. What they dislike is the perceived disdain and disrespect in the sudden push against Confederate paraphernalia, as well as a touch of the totalitarian—a drive to “purge” public memory of unhappy, inconvenient history. “We’re, in a way, blowing up parts of history,” said conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday. “[They’re] moving on from the flag to statues, memorials, perhaps Civil War re-enactments, until what else? What else becomes an untouchable or unshowable in our society?”
Underneath this hyperbole are real concerns, shared by those Southerners who see heritage, not hatred, in the Confederate battle flag. “This is an emotional time and we all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War,” wrote former Virginia senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Jim Webb in a call for nuance and understanding.
Webb, like Ingraham, Williamson, Hemingway, and Kristol, is right that Americans need nuance, that we shouldn’t ignore or erase history out of offense or discomfort. But they go wrong when they tie this notion of honest history to the Confederate battle flag.
Far from an authentic symbol of Southern heritage and ancestry, the flag is a propaganda coup, the end point of 150 years of myth-making. The same goes for the countless Confederate monuments that mark the Southern landscape, from equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and mountain carvings of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to highways named for Jefferson Davis and schools named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, father of the Ku Klux Klan. Each calls back to a pre- and post-war romanticism, where the Civil War was a gentlemen’s conflict of dueling ideals—autonomy versus central authority, agrarian democracy versus industrial capitalism—between brilliant, honorable Southerners and their determined, better-equipped opponents in the North.
The truth of the Confederate flag shift is that, after a century of this distorted remembrance, the South—and the country at large—is making an overdue correction.
But this story is a lie. Far from the peaceful society of a young Scarlett O’Hara, the antebellum South was a brutal archipelago of slave labor camps governed by an aristocracy of planters and slave traders. Those men fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and expand it in a vast empire of bondage. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” wrote the Mississippi secessionists. “The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery,” echoed their counterparts in Louisiana.
Far from glorious, this war for slavery was savage. At the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred a surrendering Union force of free-born blacks and former slaves. Likewise, in Centralia, Missouri, Confederate guerrillas executed almost two-dozen Union soldiers after looting a passenger train. And during the Gettysburg campaign, the Army of Northern Virginia—led by Gen. Robert E. Lee—commenced a kidnapping campaign, raiding Pennsylvania towns, capturing free blacks, and sending them South into slavery.
After the war, however, former Confederate leaders would work to obscure the causes and the conduct of the war, building a new narrative of the conflict. Slavery, wrote Jefferson Davis in his defense of the Southern cause, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” The South, instead, was fighting against the “unlimited, despotic power” of the federal government and its “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” of states’ rights. “It is a postulate, with many writers of this day, that the late War was the result of two opposing ideas, or principles, upon the subject of African Slavery. … Those who assume this postulate, and so theorize upon it, are but superficial observers,” wrote former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, just three years after the war had ended and seven years after he gave his Cornerstone Speech defending slavery as the foundation of Southern life. “[T]he conflict,” he continued, “arose from different and opposing ideas as to the nature of what is known as the General Government.”
Concurrent with this whitewash of the causes of the war was a push to enshrine Confederate military leadership as the standard of Southern bravery and valor. Throughout the South, ex-Confederates built and erected monuments to Lee, to Forrest, and to Jackson. It’s here that Lee attains his still-high stature as a gentleman and military genius, despite his slave-holding, his defense of slavery, and a mixed generalship that failed to achieve Confederate war aims, even when odds were with him.
But it’s in the wake of Reconstruction and the white Southern victory over black and Northern political power, notes historian David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, that these monuments became part of a narrative of restoration and victory, and an antecedent to today’s nostalgia:
At the October 1878 unveiling of the Confederate monument in the town square of Augusta, Georgia, one of that state’s most popular Lost Cause voices, Charles Colcock Jones Jr., argued that the South had fought for “liberty” and “freedom” and had lost only because it had been “overborne by superior numbers and weightier munitions.” Then he quickly shifted to a victory narrative. The ultimate verdict of the war awaited the history of their own time. “Nothing has been absolutely determined except the question of comparative strength,” said Jones. “The issue furnished only a physical solution of the moral, social, and political propositions.” To Jones, the South could still win the war politically. The “political privileges” and “vested rights” of Southerners, he declared, “are, in a moral point of view, unaffected by the result of the contest.”
This “Lost Cause,” Blight continues, “became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals.” By the 1890s, it formed the basis for national memory of the war, “a set of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder.” Expressed in academia by the work of pro-Southern historians like William Dunning and popularized by The Clansman, Gone With the Wind, and other successful novels, the Lost Cause became the foundation for Southern memory of the war years and their aftermath.
When white Southerners returned the battle flag to view in the 1950s and 1960s—in defense of Jim Crow and in defiance of the federal government—they did so against this backdrop of Confederate memory. “Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people,” said Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his infamous 1963 inaugural address. “It is very appropriate then that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.”
The simple fact is the flag doesn’t have a different meaning. Its heritage is hate, and we can’t divorce it from Stephens or Wallace or any of the racists and terrorists it’s inspired. But we can place it in its proper context, as Southerners construct a more honest, and more inclusive, heritage. Luckily, this isn’t a new task. In places like Germany and the former Soviet bloc, artists, historians, and ordinary people have worked to place their recent past in context, as both a memorial to victims and as a reminder of local contributions to the uglier parts of human history. In addition to major installations like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there are also smaller projects; since 1997, one German artist has installed small cobblestone memorials in front of the last known residences of the Holocaust dead and other victims of Nazism.
By definition, these projects are contentious. In Eastern and Central Europe, the push to commemorate and memorialize the victims of Soviet communism has brought disputes around the scope and content of these efforts. To emphasize national resistance—the Hungarian revolution of 1956 for example—is also to look away from the people who collaborated or just tried to live their lives. And there’s also the question of what to do with communist-era monuments to the heroes of communist governments. Should those stand? Or should they be removed and brushed into the ash heap of history?
There’s no way to escape these questions or the broad challenge and heartache of crafting a new narrative—a new way for people to see and understand their history. At the same time, we don’t have to knock down Monument Avenue in Richmond or demolish Stone Mountain in Georgia to construct a more honest history of the South. The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana was transformed into a museum of slavery to illustrate the reality of the institution. Other plantations could follow suit, de-emphasizing the lives of the planters and emphasizing those of black Americans. After the Charleston shootings, a statue of John C. Calhoun—famous defender of slavery in the antebellum South—was marked with “racist” in spray paint. I understand the sentiment, but we don’t need vandalism to add context to Calhoun and emphasize his disgraced place in the hall of American politicians.
Beyond flags and statutes, we can work to resurrect and uncover a broader history of the South, to include moments—and people—we’ve forgotten. For instance, with the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson is illuminating our history of lynching, part of a larger project of researching—and marking—our sites of racial injustice.
There’s room for pride in Southern history too. Instead of Robert E. Lee, future Southerners might esteem Cassius Marcellus Clay, a onetime Kentucky slaveholder who embraced the abolitionist cause and became a fierce advocate against slavery, risking his fortune and his reputation for the sake of human freedom. Or they might learn more about Angelina and Sarah Grimke, two South Carolina sisters born into wealth and influence who turned their backs on their class to preach abolition. There’s men like Robert Smalls, the former slave who commandeered a Confederate vessel, rescued his family, escaped to freedom, and served as one of the first black Americans in the House of Representatives; George Henry Thomas, a Virginia-born general who, unlike Lee, fought for the Union; and James Longstreet, a Confederate general who, after the war, embraced Reconstruction and even led a black militia against an armed mob of white vigilantes.
Rev. Pinckney once said, “Across the South we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. How to break the cycle. A roadway towards a better world.”
It will take hard work, struggle, and even acrimony to build a more inclusive heritage for the South. But as we’ve seen, and continue to see, it’s necessary and possible.