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.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

15 comments… add one

  • Andrea Jan 10, 2010

    It's interesting to contrast this with your earlier posts on the reasons African-Americans aren't particularly interested in the Civil War. I think one of the more important things we (as white Americans studying the Civil War) can do *is* to call out the organizations and ideologies surrounding the Civil War that are explicitly or implicitly racist, and that furthermore it's something we *have* to do if we're to achieve any credibility with people of color.

    If we flinch and hesitate to call out the demonstrations of racism because we don't want to hurt the feelings of other white people, what does that say about us and how we prioritize the feelings and experience of the people of color who are directly impacted by the racist actions and speech? I personally would feel like I'd sold out if I privileged the feelings of a group with racist ideology over the impact their ideology has on minorities.

    That being said there are ways to go about it. Jay Smooth's “How to Tell People They Sound Racist” is an excellent primer: http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2010

      You hit the nail on the head. I just don't think that this is a productive way of highlighting the issues. In fact, I think it only makes people more suspicious of one another and less likely to communicate with one another. Thanks for the link.

  • Jared Frederick Jan 11, 2010

    To not honor both sides is to forget the sacrifice of both sides. When people forget, they repeat. Need I make it clearer?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2010

      I think you've read my blog long enough to know that I am not suggesting that we forget anything. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite. We need to deal with our memory of the war in its entirety rather than engaging in protests that promote mistrust and very little meaningful communication. Need I make it clearer?

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Jared Frederick Jan 13, 2010

        Kevin, I wasn't being critical of you in any way whatsoever. I was aiming at Sebesta.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 13, 2010

          Thanks for the clarification, Jared. Please remember, however, that you never have to worry about being critical of me. :D

  • margaretdblough Jan 11, 2010

    Kevin-I agree with you. I see nothing good about two extremes ranting at each other. That's pretty much how we got into the Civil War in the first place, and it contributes nothing to anyone's understanding of why the war with the highest death toll in US history was not against a foreign enemy but was a civil war. It is staggering and amazing that approximately 150 years after the Dred Scott decision, the First Lady of the US is the descendent of enslaved blacks.

  • Ken Noe Jan 11, 2010

    This debate reminds me of the old adage that the political spectrum is really circular, with the two end points almost touching. Here, both poles really are interested in the Civil War only so far as they can use it as a blunt instrument to shape contemporary America. Pro-Confederate bloggers will respond exactly in kind, quietly grateful that they don't have to scour the internet as hard to find the next thing to be outraged about. Symbiotically, Sebesta's friends and foes then will rant together in time like two sections of the same chorus. Count me out as well.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2010

      That's a nice way of putting it, Ken. A petition only reinforces positions that are already well established and fails to educate people who know so little about the relevant history. It would put Obama in a position where he would have little room to maneuver. I am beginning to think that this is more about Sebesta than anything else.

      • jfe Jan 11, 2010

        Sebesta (aka Crawfish) has a long history of extreme hatred of modern Confederate partisanship. He was an occasional fixture on the newsgroups, where he would rail about the neo-Confederate scholar James I. Robertson. (I am not making any of this up!) There is reason to believe some of his animus is very personal, and some of the opposition to him has been very ugly. It is unfortunate, IMO, that he has pulled any serious scholars into his circle.

        He used to have a website known as “Temple of Democracy.” Don't know if it is still up or not.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2010

          Here is the website: http://templeofdemocracy.com/

        • Brooks D. Simpson Jan 11, 2010

          If you might recall, Jim, Ed also decided that I was with the forces of evil, although none of my neo-Confederate critics have ever picked this up. He went after me for my comments on the Christian Science Monitor about the new account of the Wilmington Riots of 1898, in which I noted that the researcher who had investigated the history of the event would face charges that she was simply being “politically correct.”

          Here's the article:

          http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1222/p03s03-ussc….

          Note the predictable structure of the piece (and the accuracy of my prediction).

          Ed's a self-promoting fraud. People who might be inclined to side with him on some points soon find out how much of a fraud he is. He's a gift to the very people he opposes, and helps to polarize arguments. Just remember, Ed's always looking for the spotlight.

          Look, if Ed was really serious about this issue, he'd call for the removal on the monument. Period. Instead, as you can see, he'd like to play some more games, especially those that allow him to use the first person singular and plural on a recurring basis:

          http://arlingtonconfederatemonument.blogspot.com/

          Note: if I was the mindless PC left-liberal-whatever some people claim I am, I wouldn't be saying this, now, would I?

          • jfe Jan 11, 2010

            I confess I had forgotten that exchange—but then, I tried to ignore “Crawfish” (Ed's nom de net) as much as possible. But I think your characterization of him is a total bullseye.

  • Bob_Pollock Jan 11, 2010

    This is a bit off the actual topic of this post, but I'm curious about the reference to Eisenhower having Lee's portrait in the White House, given the comments Eisenhower apparently made regarding Grant which are on this website:
    http://www.granthomepage.com/grantgenius.htm
    Anyone know more about Eisenhower in regard to all of this?

  • msimons Jan 12, 2010

    I for one am glad that Pres. Obama placed a Wreath at the African American Civil War Memorial . If the Government going to place flowers at one CW Memorial at Arlington they should be placing them at all 3. Sebesta is wrong in his methods IMO All his efforts hurt any efforts to discuss these things in a Historical no emotional manner.

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