Memorializing the Confederacy in the Confederacy
Forrest County Courthouse and Confederate Monument located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A couple days ago, in my role as a member of the advisory board of the USM Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, I organized and moderated a forum on Confederate memorialization. The context of such an event is contentious, to say the least. For the past 102 weeks (they are counting), protestors have appeared every Sunday to demonstrate against the removal of the Mississippi state flag from campus, which occurred in the wake of Dylan Roof’s attack in Charleston, S.C. The Mississippi State flag is the final flag in the country to include the Confederate battle flag. Any discussion of memorialization connects immediately to the debate over the flag, which led the Sons of Confederate Veterans to advertise our event and ensure that some folks were present to represent their views. A few did show up, including one woman — wearing a shirt with a small Confederate flag — who decided to film the proceedings without asking permission and another who audibly moaned and called the panelists’ “idiots” under her breath. Coming face-to-face with right-wing internet culture was certainly an experience (the one who kept moaning called a grad student — who had said nothing during the proceedings — a “social justice warrior” after he expressed displeasure at her rudeness, which included calling an undergraduate a “shitface”).
They needn’t have worried as the views of the SVC would have been represented regardless, in some form at least. Confronted with the notion that the Confederacy cannot be distinguished from the cause for which it was fought (slavery, for the record, or, if you prefer, white supremacy), some audience members seemed bewildered, others launched canards and red herrings at the presenters. What seems to come up most often, both from proponents and opponents of the monuments, is the idea that one can abstract the Confederacy out of its specific historic context and instead stand it as an almost universalizing principle (honor, loyalty, defense of family, etc). One person stood up and said that it was impossible to know why many of the soldiers fought in the Civil War, so to memorialize them was not necessary to memorialize slavery or white supremacy. This is a red herring. It is true that we cannot know why many individual soldiers fought in the Civil War; but it is also true that we do not memorialize individual soldiers (beyond the commanders). The memorial in Hattiesburg, for instance, is dedicated to the Confederate soldiers who fought for “their country.” The memorial stands in for the soldiers as a group who, together, fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Whether or not any individual soldier did not agree with or did not even understand why the war was being fought is irrelevant to what the Confederacy stood for and to what these memorials in turn represent.
It is precisely the need to be clear as to the meaning of the Confederacy that complicates one of the first fallacies to come up at our panel: the slippery slope (combined with a bit of whataboutism). The idea that we cannot distinguish between a statue of George Washington — or even Thomas Jefferson — from someone like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis is absurd on its face. As Josh Marshall says, “the first question we should ask is: What is the person known for? How did they earn a place in our collective public remembrance?” If the answer is simply and only “the Confederacy” then we have a problem; if the answer is more complex, then we can have a good discussion. The only reason we remember either Lee or Davis is their association with the Confederacy. Washington and Jefferson, for all their very real faults, are remembered for more than their position as slave-holders (though we should do better at incorporating that into our memory of both).
As several of the students in the audience recognized, the case of the Nazi past is instructive. Although it elicited gasps from our neo-Confederate audience members, the comparison may not be exact, but it is apt. It is not worth outlining all the pros and cons of the comparison, except to note that both the Confederacy and Nazi Germany were regimes that fought in the name of white supremacy and the enslavement and murder of a specific group of people (even if the ultimate goal was not shared and the targets were different and — significantly — defined in very different ways). Generally speaking, Germany does not have memorials to the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. This absence is not because German families do not understand the sacrifice of the soldier. Indeed, historians have not shied away from asking, not only to what extent were ordinary soldiers perpetrators of the crimes of the Nazis, but to what extent they were — especially toward the end of the war — also victims. These questions are complex and the histories that emerge out of them are likewise complicated. But memorials do not lend themselves to complication; rather, they simplify, usually in the name of glorification. They stand for what we want, as a community, to represent “us.” They are, in this sense, active in the production of community. As Germany wrestled with and eventually came to terms with its own crimes, it decided that it would not recognize even the abstract values of the World War II soldier because to do so would be to bind it to the cause for which it fought. We should recognize the same with Confederate memorials.
We need more shame in this country. The resistance to acknowledging what the Confederacy was and what Confederate memorials represent is, in itself, a resistance to shame. Shame of our country; shame of our ancestors; shame of ourselves. But shame is a good thing for a community to acknowledge because it helps it recognize error; it helps us mature. Those who defend the monuments want to be proud of their ancestors; the urge is recognizable. But ultimately, it is fine to be ashamed of them. Their crimes only reflect upon you if you allow them to.
At the end of the event, a student asked if the German example offered any lessons for us today. Although I was serving as moderator, not as panelist, I took the question as the only Europeanist present. I explained a bit about how in some ways Denazification paralleled Reconstruction. If both ultimately failed, they did so for different reasons and, I argued, Denazification at least set the groundwork for a later re-appreciation of the Nazi past in the way that the end of Reconstruction and the urge to forgive and forget did not. In that regard, I said, the German experience of memorialization has only limited value as a lesson to us because we missed our opportunity; we will, I argued, have to find our own path.
And yet, thinking on it a bit more after the event, I considered that it took about two generations for Germany to reckon with its crimes. In part, this was due to outside forces (film, especially) that encouraged Germans to look at the Holocaust in new ways. In part, however, it was also due to the passage of time; the grandchildren of the perpetrators were more prepared than their parents to deal with the guilt. If we see today’s debate over memorialization as a fight not over the Civil War, but rather over Civil Rights, then we might have some reason to hope. The grandchildren of those who fought Civil Rights are and will continue to come of age. All snark about millennials aside, it may be up to them to reshape our culture of memory.
Originally published at Andrew Israel Ross.