Yes, You Should Speak to Sons of Confederate Veterans

Railroad Depot in Gone With the Wind

Not too long ago I received an email from a public historian who works at a plantation site in South Carolina asking whether he should accept a speaking invitation from the Sons of Confederate Veterans:

I have recently been asked to speak to the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I was surprised, terrified and strangely excited to get the invitation. I have a lot of research on the experiences of the men and women who lived at my plantation for the Civil War time period and I’m excited to be reaching out to a group in the local community who also have an interest in the time period, but I’m a bit nervous as to how I’ll be received.

It’s the policy of my agency that we call the Civil War, the “Civil War.” I’ve already been jokingly told that this group has considered fining speakers for every use of the “CW” word. I want to go in and reach out to this group. I want to present historically correct information. I do not want to alienate anyone or start a riot.

It may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’ve spoken to five chapter of the SCV in Virginia and North Carolina.  It may also surprise you to hear that three of the five talks took place after I began this blog in 2005.  [I even spoke once to a local UDC chapter in central Virginia.]  All of the talks focused on the work I had done on my MA thesis at the University of Richmond on the battle of the Crater and historical memory so as you might imagine I had every reason to anticipate a great deal of discomfort and even outright hostility from my audience.  But the thing is, I didn’t experience much hostility at all.  Sure, there were a few people who dismissed my work from the get go, but the overwhelmingly response was much more positive.  That’s not to say that everyone – or even the majority of my audience – agreed with me. Rather, most people listened closely to the talk and engaged me with some great questions.  I would have to say that I’ve experienced more hostility at Civil War Roundtables over the past few years than I did with the SCV.

So, of course I encouraged the author of the email to accept the invitation and fulfill his responsibility to teach and engage the public.  What other choice is there?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anticipating a flood of invitations from the SCV.  As much as I would like to think that this blog has helped to tear down certain walls there is no doubt that it has reinforced others.  What I am reminded of, however, is the importance of treating people as individuals and not assuming the worst.  I never heard back from this person, but I have no reason to think that the talk was anything but a success, which suggests to me that when people come together to learn good things usually happen.

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.

20 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough Sep 15, 2011

    Very well said, Kevin. If they are willing to reach out beyond the “safe” “Heritage” speakers, then there is a reasonable chance that they will be a receptive audience or, at the very least, treat a speaker like you and the public historians respectfully.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      Exactly, but I also want to emphasize that this is a two-way street. I’ve been very critical of many decisions made by the SCV, but that should not necessarily color my own expectations of what each individual in that organizations brings to the table.

      • Margaret D. Blough Sep 15, 2011

        Agreed. I’ve met a good number of SCV members who don’t even come close to fitting the stereotype. Unfortunately the current leadership of the SCV has done a pretty fair job of driving or kicking many of them out of the organization. Nevertheless, if we take the lazy way out of engaging in stereotypes, we miss the opportunity to reach out and have genuine debate & dialogue.

        I started as a newly minted attorney with what was then District 5 of the United Mine Workers. The UMWA then had a well-earned reputation of being extremely set in gender roles , amply shown in discrimination suits filed by many of the first women coal miners. I anticipated having the most problems dealing with older miners, especially the retirees. I was wrong in many cases about that. More often than not, once they got over the shock of realizing they were dealing with a female attorney, the next thing I knew, they were telling me about their bright young granddaughters and asking me about how these young women could become doctors, lawyers, etc.

  • Bruce Miller Sep 15, 2011

    Even people with badly deluded ideas can change their minds. But authoritarian-minded people can often listen to views they consider heretical in a seemingly friendly mode because they only care about what parts of the presentation may fit into their fixed worldview. Also, far-right groups will sometimes have speakers with an outsider’s point of view in order to reassure themselves they are opened-minded or to give their own ideas legitimacy by putting them on an apparent equal footing with legitimate academic points of view.

    One trick creationist groups used to use was to invite biologists or other scientists to debate “intelligent design” under rules that excluded specific mention of religion. The actual effect of this was to promote their fraudulent claim that “intelligent design” was science. It can’t be adequately refuted without focusing on the fact that it’s a religious view tricked up to sound like secular science.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      Sounds like you are suggesting that SCV members are all “authoritarian-minded” which I reject. To be honest, I am not even sure what that is supposed to mean in this context. What I am suggesting is that when you get beyond our generalizations and actually engage people in honest discussion you get a very different picture.

      • Bruce Miller Sep 15, 2011

        I’m sure there are some SCV member and activists are not. But even before the more hardcore ideological racist times gained a bigger foothold in the SCV national organization and a lot of the state organizations, they were and are promoters of a pseudohistory that served to justify the segregation system for decades. I’m not aware of any social-science surveys that measure opinions and racial attitudes in the SCV. But there is a considerable body of research showing that high racial-ethnic prejudice correlates with general authoritarian attitudes. And part of what that means is that “honest discussion” won’t do much to dislodge their racial prejudices; in many cases, nothing will.

        • Bruce Miller Sep 15, 2011

          Sorry, I didn’t check that very carefully. The first part should read, “I’m sure there are some SCV member and activists who are not. But even before the more hardcore ideological racist types gained a bigger foothold …”

  • Karl Gottschalk Sep 15, 2011

    Good for you. I’d like to see as much exchange as possible. Did you ever reciprocate and ask someone from SCV to speak to one of your classes?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      I actually tried to find someone for my Civil War Memory class, but wasn’t able to make it happen. Good question.

  • Keith Harris Sep 15, 2011

    Sure – I get a few SCV hotheads from time to time who write me off as part of the revisionist history crowd. They sometimes employ some rather unpleasant words in this writing off process. But more often that not, the cooler heads of this organization prevail. They generally do not agree with my points of view but are eager to talk with me anyway. I have never spoken to an SVC group, but would jump at the chance. I have spoken at roundtables where UDC and SCV members regularly attend – the experience has generally been positive.

  • Arleigh Birchler Sep 15, 2011

    I agree 100%. Thank you for posting this, Kevin.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 15, 2011

    I spoke to an SCV camp in Athens, AL once. They fed me barbecue, and listened to my talk with interest. It was a pleasant experience—especially the barbecue ;-)

    • Arleigh Birchler Sep 15, 2011

      The SCV group I used to go to has a fellow who makes great chili. I have been tempted to go to one of the meetings where he will be making chili, but since I have not paid dues in awhile I have not done so.

      • Ray O'Hara Sep 15, 2011

        the fact many SCV members are rational Heritage no Hate types doesn’t overscore the fact that the leadership is rather radical and it is pushing some rather radical claims.

        • Arleigh Birchler Sep 15, 2011

          Ray,

          I think that is the basic problem. Radical leadership has taken over the SCV. They have tried to purge the organization of anyone who does not share their views. The best way to help them achieve their goal is to assume that everyone in the SCV is exactly the same and treat the entire organization and every member as being just as bad as the worst leaders. Kevin’s model of exchange and interaction defeats the radical leaders and undercuts their support.

          • Ken Noe Sep 16, 2011

            Yet you also can make the argument that “exchange and interaction” helps the Lyons crowd by granting them legitimacy and minimizing the purges. Everyone has a right to their own approach, but I haven’t spoken to a camp since the cabal drove several old friends out and then launched a threatening email campaign against a colleague. When I decline, I always explain that’s why.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

              Hi Ken,

              I certainly understand and respect your position. The last SCV talk that I gave was in 2007 so I can’t say how I would respond to an invitation to speak. More than likely I would look into the history of the individual camp.

              • Ray O'Hara Sep 16, 2011

                Ask Mike Furlan about his dealings with Kirk Lyons,
                Lyons was going to Sue Mike for slander because Mike brought up Kirk’s infamous Krystallnacht celebration and party.
                Kirk eventually backed down when the SPLC stepped up and was willing to defend Mike,{they’d love to face Kirk in court} and the case would have been in Middlesex County Mass, the “Peoples Republic of Cambridge, not exactly a Klan friendly area.

                • Bruce Miller Sep 16, 2011

                  Rob Boston posted yesterday at “Talk to Action” about how the Christian Right pseudohistory guru David Barton is suing some of his critics: http://bit.ly/mYyYhQ It doesn’t really enhance your standing as a person whose wants your ideas to be taken seriously if you sue your critics to try to bully them into shutting up. Holocaust denier David Irving tried that with Deborah Lipstadt and wound up bankrupting himself in the process. Also, the British judge that decided the case wrote at length in his decision about Irving’s own brand of pseudohistory and extremist ideology; it’s a devastating analysis.

                • Arleigh Birchler Sep 16, 2011

                  Years ago when I still lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I got into an email debate with Kirk Lyons. I had posted on a group I was invovled in that Texas is in the West. Kirk insisted I was wrong and Texas is in the South. We carried on a mighty debate on the issue and he ended up giving me his Jailhouse Chili recipe. I might still have that somewhere.

Leave a Comment