Editorial: Charleston, America, and the Confederacy's Legacy

Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate flag, which has been at the center of national scrutiny for the past several days.

Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate flag, which has been at the center of national scrutiny for the past several days.

Last week, twenty-one year old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  An act of violence and racial hatred, the tragedy has sparked a nationwide debate over racism and, in particular, the symbolism of the Confederate flag.  The flag of a now-dead nation dedicated to the defense of slavery, the flag that appears in photographs with Dylann Roof, and the flag that today floats free over the South Carolina Capitol grounds.

I suspect, owing to public outcry and political pressure, the flag in Columbia will come down.  The governor of South Carolina has called for its removal, and yesterday Alabama removed its Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds.  Yet while the flag faces greater scrutiny, the current debate cannot merely rest on the Confederate flag. The discussion instead needs to encompass the Confederacy’s legacy in the United States—what the Confederacy stood for, what it means today, and the place (if any) it should occupy in 21st-century America.

Historians have come to a consensus regarding the cause of the Civil War and the Confederacy’s raison d’etre:  slavery.  Whether viewed through the prism of economics (free labor vs. slave labor), state’s rights (right to own slaves as property), civilizational differences (neo-feudalism vs. industrialization), or morality, slavery is the prerequisite to understanding the Confederacy and the war it waged.  As Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens declared in 1861:  “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

I will not go much further in this direction; among scholars, this topic has long ceased being of interest, and in today’s media, it dominates headlines.  The historical evidence and historians’ analysis of it is overwhelming:  the Confederacy fought for slavery.  The Confederate flag is not just a symbol of the armies who bore it, but also for the cause for which they fought.  The Confederate cause.  Slavery.

Yet while the Confederate battle flag may be the most powerful symbol of the Confederacy’s legacy, other symbols abound.  Throughout the South, civic and public symbols commemorate the Confederacy—both her soldiers and leaders, and her fight for independence.

Having grown up and lived in the South throughout my life, in a variety of locales, let me offer some personal examples.

A Confederate Memorial stands in Downtown Hot Springs, along with the Confederate flag.  Such memorials are ubiquitous across the South.

A Confederate Memorial stands in Downtown Hot Springs, along with the Confederate flag.  Such memorials are ubiquitous across the South.

I attended two high schools growing up in Arkansas, one in Bentonville and one in Hot Springs.  In both communities, monuments to Confederate soldiers rest proudly in the heart of downtown (somewhat ironic in Bentonville, since northern Arkansas was steeped in anti-Confederate sentiment).  Another stands in Clarksburg, where my best friend lived; one can also be found in Little Rock, where my girlfriend grew up.  An even grander monument sits on the lawn of the Caddo Parish courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I attended college.  Adorning the monument are busts to Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Pierre G.T. Beauregard, and Henry Watkins Allen (Louisiana’s Confederate governor).  Such monuments to the Confederacy and her soldiers are ubiquitous throughout the South.

For many a collegiate summer, I worked as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in central Virginia.  On my way to work at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine (where the Confederate general died in 1863), I passed Beauregard, Mosby, and Lee Streets, along with Longstreet Avenue (all named for Confederate generals), before turning south on Jefferson Davis Highway (named for the Confederate President).  I knew I was getting close to the Shrine when I drove past Robert E. Lee Elementary School (no introduction needed) in Spotsylvania.  Again, such place names are not uncommon in the South.

Martin Luther King Day offers a moment for reflection on our nation’s racial problems and progress; for a student, it’s also a day to catch up on work and relax.  Yet in Arkansas, however, Martin Luther King Day is also Robert E. Lee Day; theoretically I should have been simultaneously celebrating civil rights and slavery’s greatest defender.  This unholy combo-holiday also exists in Alabama and Mississippi.  Other South states also celebrate Robert E. Lee Day; they’ve simply moved it up a week on the calendar to avoid conflicting with MLK Day.

When I go to home to visit my parents in Lake Charles, Louisiana, they are quick to tell me about the local “Contraband Days,” a local two-week festival celebrating Cajun culture, food, music, etc.  The festivity is named after the pirate Jean Lafitte’s “contraband,” which included African slaves illegally smuggled in the United States.  When I decide to chance a Civil War reenactment instead, I’m surprised to see the Confederates outnumber the Federals three-to-one, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are selling bumper stickers saying “Lee Surrendered, I Didn’t” (I admittedly bought one as ridiculous kitsch).

Now a doctoral student at West Virginia University, I’m largely free of these Confederate reminders (although I occasionally see the clothes of Dixie Outfitters, a company that wildly distorts Confederate and Southern history).  But ultimately, I’ll see them all again.  After all, I am a Southerner, and I can’t help but return to my home.  The South is a wonderful place, filled with wonderful people.  But the South’s past is a dark, unhappy one, and it is high time we reexamined our Confederate legacy.

The Mississippi state flag:  remembering or honoring the Confederacy?

The Mississippi state flag:  remembering or honoring the Confederacy?

Via monuments, school, street, and park names, Confederate holidays, Confederate t-shirts and bumper stickers, and of course the Confederate flag…are we remembering the Confederacy?  Or are we honoring it?  Are we ensuring that our past is not forgotten so we remember its lessons?  Or are we celebrating the Confederacy as a triumphal epoch in Southern history?  Are we honoring the bravery and courage of Confederate soldiers?  If so, do we then acknowledge the horrendous political cause for which they fought?

The reality is that these memorials and symbols do not come with user’s manuals.  Instead, we imbue them with meaning—and increasingly we are witnessing Americans reject these public displays as negative, divisive, and hurtful. 

At the University of Texas in Austin, students are demanding a statue of Jefferson Davis be taken down (the statue has been repeated vandalized with "Emancipate UT" and "Black Lives Matter").  A high school in Fort Smith, Arkansas removed the "Rebel" as its mascot and "Dixie" as its fight song.  St. Louis' mayor has called for "a reappraisal" of a Confederate memorial in a prominent city park and the possibility of relocating the monument.  Mayor Slay questioned whether the memorial "represents a peculiar memorial to what euphemistically was referred to in the American South as a 'peculiar institution' - slavery."  In Baltimore, local leaders are pushing to rename Robert E. Lee Park

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how we deal with Confederate displays.  Communities and public leaders need to think about how these symbols recall the Confederacy, and craft appropriate responses.  Context and public opinion matter, as does the history and significance of the symbols themselves.  Perhaps we leave them as they stand, or maybe we reinterpret them, or relocate them, or rename them, or remove them.  Regardless of whatever course of action is or isn't taken, the conversation itself is important.

By reexamining Confederate symbols, we aren't denying history.  We're confronting it.  We're acknowledging the racist legacy the Confederacy left us, affirming that legacy doesn't belong in the twenty-first century, and ensuring that we remember, not celebrate, this dark moment in American history.  Slavery, the Civil War, even the Confederacy will not be forgotten.  Civil War battlefields are hallowed ground today, as are the cemeteries where the men who fought now rest.  The 19th-century continues to fascinate Americans, as I’m sure it will in the future.  Yet our understanding of the past changes, and the modern world has a right to refute the ideologies and symbols of the past.  It's important that when the Confederate flag comes down, we continue to examine the myriad other symbols of the Confederacy that still surround us.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

This is the first such editorial here at Civil Discourse, and as such we'd like to spend a few words explaining how such a contemporary and political piece fits into the wider vision of our blog, and what you the reader can expect from our blog's editorials in the future.  Undoubtedly, most of our content thus far has been historical and "traditional" in nature--explorations and stories about the Civil War and Reconstruction.  That emphasis is unlikely to change in the future--we hope to tell compelling stories that shed led on the past.

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