Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000. The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations. I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday. I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews. One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond. If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case. I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg.
Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section. I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing. The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous.
Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress. So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people. At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context. That is much broader than left and right obliques. An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service. Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred. So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites. Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.
I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation. I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements. In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly. This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields. And why is that? I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain. They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context.
By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race. He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.