Edward Sebesta v. Barack Obama and the Battle for Civil War Memory
Looks like anti-Neo-Confederate crusader, Edward Sebesta, is getting a head start on this year’s petition requesting that President Obama not send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. I covered this in some detail on the blog and was very open in my opposition to such a petition. [You can read my commentary here and here.] To sum up, I didn’t see how a petition (written by Sebesta and James Loewen) against the laying of a wreath would lead to anything approaching a constructive and meaningful dialog about the Civil War, race, and memory. More importantly, it all but ignored the fact that we now have a president in office who is ideally suited to encourage and/or lead such a discussion.
Sebesta seems quite pleased with the impact of the petition, though I believe he exaggerates its affect. First, let me be clear that I agree with Sebesta’s general assessment of the problem with the Confederate monument at Arlington. It perpetuates a number of myths about slavery and black Confederates. The monument was dedicated at the height of Jim Crow and ought to be seen as one of the clearest expressions of the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War. While we may agree on interpretation we disagree on how best to engage the general public regarding such sensitive issues.
The fundamental problem that I see with Sebesta’s approach is the potential to alienate certain groups/individuals rather than work to bridge misunderstandings. Consider his characterization of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy as “racist organization[s].” It is beyond debate that both groups have aided in perpetuating stories of loyal slaves and black Confederates, but I fail to see how anything is gained by dismissing them as racist. All this does is harden positions and fuel mistrust. Perhaps dialog is not one of Sebesta’s agenda items. While Sebesta is pleased with the amount of media coverage that the story received it is difficult to measure what was gained. While I did see that a number of major news outlets covered the story none of them engaged in anything approaching a meaningful discussion about the issues involved. No surprise that the media tended to exploit the divisions between various camps that the petition itself encouraged. The discussion on various websites, including the History News Network was not much better.
I think Sebesta also minimizes the significance of Obama’s decision to send a wreath to the new African American Civil War Memorial in D.C. It is much more important that Americans were introduced to a history has all but been ignored as opposed to a monument that very few people visit each year. As opposed to Sebesta, I believe that Kirk Savage was absolutely on target when he urged the president to do so. Sebesta assesses Obama’s decision with the following:
On the negative side, President Obama, by sending a wreath to the Arlington Confederate monument, has legitimized Confederate monuments in general. The neo-Confederates are very keen to have the Confederacy be legitimized by finding and promoting African Americans who praise the Confederacy or at least deny that there is anything negative in honoring the Confederacy. What better African American to do this than the first African American president? Neo-Confederates also keep track of acts of the presidents that can be used to defend Confederates and the Confederacy. For example, the public may not be aware that President Eisenhower had a picture of Robert E. Lee in the Oval Office, but neo-Confederates are.
Additionally, sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial establishes the principal that one gesture compensates for another. Observing the past becomes a racial balancing game. Instead of an action being judged on its own merits, in this case by our commitment to civil rights and racial equality, it becomes a matter of doling out favors to be equaled out between groups.
The problem here is that Sebesta is much more concerned with what “neo-Confederates” will do rather than with what advances the discussion about how we remember the Civil War. Sebesta’s suggestion that the placement of two wreaths implies a “racial balancing game” also falls short; rather, it highlights the fact that our Civil War Memory is complex and divisive. Obama’s decision to recognize both narrative strands of our national memory suggests to me that he is much more concerned with bringing people together rather than having them feel alienated and cut off from a cherished past.
I urge those who are approached this year not to sign this petition. As educators we can play an important role in bringing about meaningful dialog about a period in American history that continues to divide Americans. This is not the way to begin such an endeavor.