When a Reader Contacts My School

This morning I was informed that a reader of this blog had written a letter addressed to the headmaster of of my school. The reader took issue with my decision to strongly discourage students from purchasing Confederate flags at Civil War gift shops during our March trip. The letter correctly notes that I stipulated that “if [students] did buy the flags he would require that they keep them out of sight.” According to this individual, this constitutes nothing less than “censorship.”

Let me say a few words about this so there is no confusion. I have been very clear on this blog over the years that I believe the Confederate flag to be a controversial symbol. Its meaning goes beyond the soldiers who marched with it and the Civil War entirely. I do not use flags on my battlefield walks given my pedagogical goals and I strongly believe that the flag’s presence must have a purpose for fear of it being misinterpreted.

Readers of this blog know that I believe the best way to understand the historical context of the Confederate battle flag is in a museum setting, where it can be properly interpreted. In public, that setting or context is jeopardized and open to multiple interpretations. There is the danger of social media, which we’ve seen time and time again. I also discouraged them from purchasing the flags because I didn’t know how their parents might respond. These were calls that I made as the responsible adult. Anyone who has ever chaperoned a trip of this scale will understand.

More disturbing, however, is that the author made a number of assumptions about the talk that I presented at my school on the history of the Confederate flag as part of our speaker series on the history of race in America. The letter accuses me of presenting my “attitude toward the Confederate flag…” For a writer who hopes to be taken seriously this was a strange move to make since he was not present for the talk. I did no such thing. What I presented was a history of the Confederate flag from the war through to the present day. The talk did indeed emphasize its role as a symbol of “Massive Resistance” during the Civil Rights Movement because it is well documented as part of the historical record. The talk overall followed the interpretive trajectory of John Coski’s authoritative study, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem.

The author goes on to remind our headmaster that one of South Carolina’s current black Senators favors flying the flag on capital grounds. He also referenced two Jewish senators from Florida and Louisiana. I am sure the headmaster of a Jewish day school was surprised to learn that there is a sizable Jewish constituency in Florida.

Finally, the author graciously offered to address our student body about Southern heritage during a Roundtable trip through New England in November 2015. It’s safe to say that this is not going to happen.

As I approach what may likely be my final year of high school teaching I am grateful to have worked at schools that placed their trust and confidence in my teaching and expertise. I’ve worked hard at building a reputation as a teacher and historian, which is why I find it funny that a very select few of you believe that you had any chance of doing damage to it. As in other cases, this letter was immediately forwarded to my department chair and then to me. We exchanged a few laughs and now…

…it goes into a file called, “Wishful Thinking.”

13 comments… add one
  • Paul Reber May 15, 2015

    What a hoot! The news here is not the letter, but the retirement announcement. You seem a little young to be entering retirement…or does this mean you will be devoting all your energies to your blog?

    • Kevin Levin May 15, 2015

      Hi Paul,

      I made the announcement a few months ago, but I am not retiring. My goal is devote my energies to a broad range of things related to history education. In the fall I am teaching a research seminar at the American Antiquarian Society, working with Facing History (here in Boston) on unveiling a new curriculum on Reconstruction and finishing my book on the myth of black Confederate soldiers.

      • Michael Conlin May 16, 2015

        I’m glad to see that you’ve picked that up again. Last I read you were tabling that project. I look forward to reading that.

  • John Tucker May 15, 2015

    As a living historian and re-enactor who portrays both sides, it is kinda of had to do it without buying a flag.

    In addition I collect them and also fly them at certain time but I always include an US or Union flag. It is nothing more than support for the soldiers and not the politics or the reasons of it.

    Then there is the old argument about the US flag and slavery and what some would call atrocities under it. You just have to understand that it is just a piece of cloth. It is not the flag that offends as much as how it is used and by who. The agenda is the issue.

    • Kevin Levin May 15, 2015

      I want to be clear that I am talking about the flag as an educator and historian. People are free to do believe what they want about its meaning and do what they want with it on private property.

      • Mark8 May 15, 2015

        “People are free to believe what they want about the flag….”

        Except your students, of course: They must parrot what you say the flag means or get an “F” in your course, naturally–because they didn’t listen hard enough or something

    • Msb May 16, 2015

      “You have to understand it’s just a piece of cloth.”

      That may certainly be your understanding. But a person flying a flag has not only no right but also no power to determine other people’s reactions to it.

      • John Tucker May 17, 2015

        Allow me to repeat myself…While the Confederate flag may not be intrinsically racist, it represents the entirety of southern history, much of which was racist. There is a connection to racism and the confederate flag. People have the right to be offended, but they should not assume the motives of the person owning the flag, because it means something different to each person.
        The Confederate flag has changed greatly since its creation and is likely to continue to do so. There may come a day when the blatantly racist meaning of the flag fades away along with the scars of integration. Until that day comes, the responsibility falls upon Confederate flag flyers to explain what it means to them. As for the rest of us, we should keep an open mind, about a symbol that has stood for so much to so many, be it right or wrong. It aint the flag. It is how the flag is used and by whom. Frankly many of the hate not heritage agenda cause the problems for the flag. If Southerners done respect the flags, how can we expect ANYONE else to?

        and for those who HATE this flag and think they are doing so in remembrance of Union Soldiers, READ THIS

        RESOLUTION OF SUPPORT
        DISPLAY OF BATTLE FLAGS OF THE CONFEDERACY
        119TH NATIONAL ENCAMPMENT OF THE
        SONS OF UNION VETERANS OF THE CIVIL WAR
        LANSING, MICHIGAN AUGUST 19, 2000
        A resolution in support of the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.

        WHEREAS, we, the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, condemn the use of the confederate battle flag, as well as the flag of the United States, by any and all hate groups; and

        WHEREAS, we, the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, support the flying of the Confederate battle flag as a historical piece of this nation’s history; and

        WHEREAS, we, the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, oppose the removal of any Confederate monuments or markers to those gallant soldiers in the former Confederate States, and strongly oppose the removal of ANY reminders of this nation’s bloodiest war on the grounds of it being “politically correct;” and

        WHEREAS, we, as the descendants of Union soldiers and sailors who as members of the Grand Army of the Republic met in joint reunions with the Confederate veterans under both flags in those bonds of Fraternal Friendship, pledge our support and admiration for those gallant soldiers and of their respective flags;

        THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that we, the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in 119th Annual National Encampment, hereby adopt this resolution.

        Dated in Lansing, Michigan, on this nineteenth day of August, in the year of our Lord Two thousand.

  • Christopher Shelley May 15, 2015

    No doubt that file will be a round one.

  • Marian Latimer May 15, 2015

    This may warm your heart, a different sort of flagging by high schoolers just over the border from Charlotte in SC:

    http://www.wsoctv.com/news/news/local/york-county-teen-upset-over-school-policy-flying-f/nmGJF/?ref=cbTopWidget

  • Boyd Harris May 16, 2015

    What amazes me about all of this, including the story out of York Co., is that no one has mentioned the real problem with these flags: disruption. When a teacher is in charge of a classroom, the primary problem is disruption. Anything can cause disruption and that results in getting behind schedule. Confederate flags, no matter what you personally think of them, are divisive symbols. Therefore a good teacher should not allow the display of them on grounds of it causing a disruption. Same thing goes for the kid with a giant US and POW/MIA flag on his truck. That is a distraction and apparently caused a disruption, leading the administrator to have them removed. Should it have been handled better? Perhaps, but the subsequent fallout is even more disruption.

    Finally, my small opinion on the “rights” of schoolchildren. They have none, unless they are 18 or older. If they are not 18, then they are minors. If they are 18, then they waive rights while on schoolgrounds. Schools must control large numbers of children and that means a lot of infringement of their “rights.” That’s fine with me. Once they attain adulthood, then they can festoon themselves with Confederate, U.S., or Belgian flags all they want. But until then, it is a distraction and a disruption to other students and should not be allowed.

    PS: That is a hilarious letter, particularly the part where some rando just invited themselves to talk to schoolchildren. Yeah, that’s not weird or anything.

    • Kevin Levin May 16, 2015

      Confederate flags, no matter what you personally think of them, are divisive symbols. Therefore a good teacher should not allow the display of them on grounds of it causing a disruption.

      I couldn’t agree more. There is a time and place to examine Confederate flags and that has almost always been for me and my students in a museum.

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