Is This an Appropriate Role for the National Park Service?

I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women of the National Park Service, who help to preserve and interpret our nation’s historic sites.  They include some of the most passionate and talented historians.  For those focused on Civil War related sites their jobs come with increased attention and scrutiny by the media as well as various interest groups who have a stake in maintaining or protecting a specific narrative of the war.

I first read about Michael Allen in the news back in December during the heated debates surrounding the decision to organize a “secession ball” or gala as well as the decision on the part of the NAACP to protest the event.  Allen, who is African American, has taken on various roles while with the NPS.  He has been instrumental in expanding interpretation at key sites, including Fort Sumter, to include the story of African Americans and other themes associated with emancipation and race.  He is clearly committed to an inclusive and honest interpretation, which demands that visitors reflect on the tough questions in our history.  On the one hand I am not surprised that Allen would take steps to bring representatives of the NAACP and Sons of Confederate Veterans following the bitter words that were exchanged in the wake of Charleston’s lively secession commemoration.  On one level I even applaud the decision, though from the article it is not entirely clear what came of it.

What I am interested in, however, is whether this is an appropriate role for the NPS.  How exactly does something like this fit into their overall responsibility to interpret and preserve our historic landscapes and structures?  Is there a precedent for such a meeting?  Again, I understand the motivation behind the decision.  Neither party makes much of an effort to communicate with one another or attempt to understand their respective perspectives.

More to the point, it’s not clear to me which constituencies these two organizations represent when it comes to how we engage or consume Civil War sites.  Perhaps that is entirely irrelevant.  Does the SCV represent a view of the war and its commemoration that is held by a substantial segment of the population?  How about the NAACP?  I honestly don’t know.  My guess is that Allen believes so, but I wonder whether this is a result of the media’s continued flirtation with those deeply embedded memes of white v. black, North v. South, and SCV v. NAACP.

16 comments… add one

  • Marianne Davis Jul 6, 2011

    It is not for me to say where the Park Service ought to draw the line in its engagement with parties interested in NPS properties and programs. But I do think that this raises an important issue. We must all remember that INTEREST does not equal EXPERTISE. The NAACP has a clear interest in examining the past, as the Civil War resulted in the emancipation of the ancestors of so many of their members. The SCV has an interest in honoring the ancestors of their own members. But for anyone, including the Park Service, to think that these organizations have access to a deeper truth based on their deeper feelings is a mistake. It does not matter if they represent large numbers of people who believe what they believe (if indeed their memberships are orthodox.) The Park Service needs to interpret the facts as they are known now, without fear or favor. Otherwise we will face history vetted by consensus, no?

  • Andy Hall Jul 6, 2011

    This effort tries to engage the two best-known groups, often at loggerheads, at opposite ends of the public debate about the war and its legacy — more often than not over public display of the Confederate Battle Flag. As you’ve noted before, both these groups long ago settled into their standard talking points and cliched orthodoxy. I don’t see much getting accomplished.

    But what really bothers me is that both these groups share a conceit that they speak for, represent, much larger constituencies or communities beyond their own membership. That’s a bigger problem, because it presumes that any accord or common ground they may eventually find speaks for all descendants of Confederates on the one hand, and all African Americans on the other. That just seems like a really simplistic view.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2011

      You made the point much more concisely. The idea behind the meeting seems to rest on the assumption that some kind of deep racial divide is or could be bridged. The problem is that neither group reflects a broad constituency.

      • Andy Hall Jul 7, 2011

        I should add, lest someone read into my comment above that I see some fundamental equivalence between the NAACP and the SCV, I don’t, and did not mean to suggest that.

        Both organizations are about the same age, roughly a hundred years old. But the NAACP was founded to address real, ongoing and fundamental problems in this country, that affected real people, at the time — lynchings, violence, Jim Crow laws, segregation, voting rights, and so on. And the NAACP has been at the forefront of addressing these issues, both in the courts and in the street. While some question whether the NAACP retains the day-to-day relevance it had in the past, there’s no question in my mind that it has, over its history, changed this country for the better.

        The goals, focus and accomplishments of the SCV are simply not conducted in the same arena; they are not comparable. The only similarity, which is what I was driving at, is that they both seem to be both strident and fixed in their views of the other.

        One final tip to any SCV members looking to take part in Ranger Allen’s reconciliation effort: you might want to tone down the rhetoric comparing the NAACP to the Klan. My “Spidey Sense” tells me that won’t go over well.

  • Peter Jul 6, 2011

    Kevin,
    At the end of the day, the NPS is a government agency. It, as well as everything else in this world, is subject to politics. In terms of interpretation and preservation, the job of the NPS is made far easier when it has local cooperation. No matter how one evaluates the views of either the NAACP or the SCV on the Civil War, one must acknowledge that they are both vocal and influential interest groups on the state level (at the minimum). It seems to me that by bringing these groups together, Allen is telling both of them that the NPS is not favoring one over the other and is also willing to hear them both out. Regardless of any changes to interpretation that may or may not occur, Allen has established a personal relationship with the leaders of both groups. Meeting with leaders from both groups at the same time also establishes that the NPS is not favoring one at the expense of the other. You are astute to note that it is unclear who exactly the SCV and NAACP represent, but that is beside the point. As the lede for the article makes clear, and past experience has shown, both groups are quite capable of hijacking the discussion to serve their own goals. It is also worth pointing out that both the NAACP and the SCV have reservations about federal agencies trampling on the communities they claim to represent. The fact that the NPS is meeting with them, on its own initiative, will be noticed. While arranging a meeting with SCV, NAACP, and the NPS may not directly factor into an “overall responsibility to interpret and preserve our historic landscapes and structures,” establishing an open and civil relationship with two interest groups that have the power to create political problems preserves the ability of the NPS to interpret and preserve historic landscapes and structures. Perhaps the idea behind the meeting is to show both groups that the NPS is not the enemy, and that it is not conducting meetings behind closed doors with one group at the perceived expense of the other.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2011

      Nice to hear from you, Peter. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you’ve said here, though we may have a different view on the relative influence of these two organizations.

  • Marianne Davis Jul 7, 2011

    Peter makes a strong point about why the Park Service may feel they need to build bridges with these, and other, interest groups. It may further the Service’s work to do so. My point, though remains. It is irrelevant that the NAACP, or the SCV, or the Boy Scouts or Campfire Girls represent large constituencies. Their charters are not the examination of history or archaeology. Their following gives them political weight, not historical expertise. The public need to be careful when they listen to either voice pronounce on the Civil War.

  • Jacob Dinkelaker Jul 7, 2011

    The simple fact of the matter for the NPS, is that Interpretation is not explicitly named in its founding legislation. “To preserve and protect,” doesn’t really mean interpretation, yet the NPS has made the case for interpretation. The NPS cannot preserve everything that it is charged with preserving – hence through interpretation the NPS fosters stewardship of its resources by the American people themselves. What Allen is doing, is engaging in the newest form of interpretation – Civic Engagement. People no longer want to be told why a place is important – they want to be engaged with, they want to talk with the Park Rangers to find their own site meanings. Civic Engagement preaches this, and you can find more about it here – http://www.nps.gov/civic/
    Allen giving two distinct groups their chance to have their say – outside of the sensationalized media, outside of that pervasive idea that you are either wrong or right, that there is no gray area. I agree with Marianne, that interest doesn’t equal expertise, but just because these groups are not in the ‘history business’ per say, doesn’t mean they don’t do history, shape public perception, and are Americans themselves who have every right to access our historic resources and their meanings.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 7, 2011

    I will await the comments from certain parties who have in the past expressed concern about giving certain views a sort of legitimacy by countering them that by privileging the SCV and NAACP the NPS is giving their views legitimacy. In this case, however, what other people have said goes to the point: that by giving these groups a place at the table, the NPS awards them the recognition of spokespeople.

    • Marianne Davis Jul 7, 2011

      Bingo, Brooks,
      This reminds me of the days when the news networks only knew two women, Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem. They became the voices of womanhood, and all the rest of us were expected to fall neatly in to one of their camps. That false choice created the terms of a false debate, and set back the cause of reasonable discourse as well as of women. There are lots of ways and reasons to remember the Civil War, and history should not fit quite so neatly into an episode of the McLaughlin Group.

  • Billy Bearden Jul 9, 2011

    What do you mean neither side?
    Come off it Kevin, I have seen many SCV releases asking folks like Julian Bond and Ben Jealous to talk, sit down and have dialogue. I have been inside a meeting with a black Ga State Rep who was specially invited by an SCV camp to hold calm discussions and share conversation.

    Kevin, would you be surprised to learn that it is THEY, not us, who treat us like satan with a plague. Our outreach to the big groups is refused, we are called kkk, racists and worse.

    Yeah, so this Michael Allen gets 15 minutes of fame for having leaders sit together, but then what, those folks go out and cover up the George Washington Statue…

    Perhaps it is time for y’all to call a spade a spade, there is a certain group of people (Read Booker T Washington) who profit on racial strife and perpetual victimization (hint – it ain’t the SCV)

    Till those folks step up and begin following King’s dream of sitting at the table of brotherhood and accepting on content of charicter, then this stupidity of strife will continue

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2011

      You do a wonderful job playing the victim.

      • Billy Bearden Jul 11, 2011

        Thanks Kevin !
        I do the victim thing real well, glad you noticed :-)

        Auburn City Councilman steals flags from graves, Billy protests
        http://www2.dothaneagle.com/m/news/2009/may/06/auburn_councilman_apologizes_for_removing_flags_fr-ar-194242/

        For Billy’s troubles, he is on s pl c’s website taken from said protest
        http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/ideology/neo-confederate

        Been called many many different names, had bottles thrown at me, flipped off, cursed at, threatened, had my vehicle license plate posted online, and most fun of all was at a ‘Let Us Vote” Ga 56 flag rally at the Georgia capitol – a member of a group of counter protestors was arrested by the GSP for brandishing a gun in our direction.

        Even referenced as a ‘Confederate Taliban’ and ‘vociferous’ by posters on your blog.

        Reckon those are as good ‘victim’ bonifides as most people could claim.

        And for what? Taking a stand against those who call my GGGrandfather a nazi and terrorist. Opposing those who would do the aforementioned things to myself and others. Yeah, I’ll be a victim anyday.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2011

          It seems to me you give as good as you get.

  • K.P. Marshall Jul 10, 2011

    The narrow strip of land betwixt the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers is a VERY strange place that someone from off will never be able to understand. My people were among the first Jews to land here in “Our Jerusalem”. We are not at each others throats down here and NEVER HAVE BEEN. Charleston is the most beautiful city in America and I am lucky to be one of her sons. While I was a Cadet at The Citadel a classmate of mine who was also of Charleston came to our home on Tradd Street for supper and saw my parents wedding announcement framed on the wall. His grandmother had the same last name as my mother before she married. We owned his people. I wonder often if his people who were our servants would have ever believed that he eats at our table and to this day has a key to our home in his pocket and has the run of the place whenever he likes. He and I ARE MLK Jr’s dream personified. I hope that Ms. Scott and Mr. Burbage can agree to disagree but I doubt it. The NPS should, in my opinion, be about “this happened here” and preserving the sites. An exhibit on slavery at the Fort Sumter National Monument is not needed. If one wants to know about that painful and shaming stain upon the South the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Avery Center are open daily.

  • Tim Stringfellow Jul 11, 2011

    Well, well, I will make a comment and hope we can get something settled.

    Since to say anything usually puts a person outside the “gray area” and into the Lost Cause camp or the bleeding heart do gooder’ camp, I will take a chance.

    What we need is a book based on the truth without all the politics. Maybe someone will write one so we can get the more important points about the NPS settled and leave all the crying and moaning to the fringe elements. Then the guides can read the book and tell the tourists what it said based on the facts.

    A few years ago a woman at Chicamauga National Park told a group of tourists the federal army won the battle as she proceeded to highlight the defense they put up at Snodgrass Hill before continuing back to Chattanooga after the rout. I got a kick out of it and chalked it up to experience since it really makes no difference what the tourists left with in the overall scheme of what is really important in life. History is very important but some lessons learned are more important than others.

    The danger in interpretation by the NPS is too often it might be the “party line” or what sounds good due to political correctness. They may even ask where the group is from before they give their speech.

    One of my favorite Civil War generals is Pete Longstreet so I will qualify these remarks by stating I even went to the trouble of travelling his grave site.

    The truth is Freeman was correct in his criticism covering Gettysburg regardless of what Jubal Early said or did not say. What Jubal Early and his compatriots had to say makes no difference to me. They had their own ax to grind and could not have been as objective as a professional historian anyway.

    Just as long as we all understand July 2 was the pivot concerning the truth about why Gettysburg happened the way it did, you can blame anyone you like. We just need to start with that and leave the SCV and the NAACP out of it altogether. I do not really care what the NPS thinks about anything.

    Lee was at fault. End of story. Now we just need to know what he did wrong on the 2nd of July. Not before or after. What we need is a “keep it simple stupid” approach without all the politics and preconceived notions.

    Regards

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