Southern Cities Should Look To Richmond

Since South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced on Wednesday that she supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds a flood of announcements have followed. Today the governor of Alabama ordered the removal of a Confederate flag adjacent to a Confederate memorial on the statehouse grounds and a number of governors are calling for the discontinuation of license plates that feature the flag.

There have been calls for other states to remove Confederate flags from public places as well as demands to change the names of streets named after Confederate heroes. Not surprisingly, some are now calling for the removal of Confederate monuments that adorn public grounds throughout the South.

The rush to remove all things Confederate is disconcerting to many, who believe that we are riding a slippery slope that will eventually erase all signs of the Confederacy. The discussion has been very heated over the past few days. A good deal of what has been written has been incredibly thoughtful while just as much that has appeared betrays very little understanding of history. The same can be said of the commentary found on mainstream news outlets. No doubt the intensity of the discussion is exacerbated by social media. We all have an opinion and we can easily express it.

At some point, however, communities around the South that face these challenges are going to have to make some tough choices. Will they allow the intensity of emotion to hold sway or will they try to rally the many stakeholders around serious discussions about the memory of the Confederacy in the 21st century? For those that choose the latter they should look to Richmond, Virginia – the former capital of the Confederacy – for guidance.

During the Civil War 150th Virginia led the way in engaging its citizens around the tough questions of its past. Its Civil War sesquicentennial commission organized a wide range of activities that brought together people from diverse backgrounds. Many of these events took place in Richmond. Private and public organizations took steps to add monuments that broaden the commemorative landscape of the city beyond the narrow focus of the Confederacy. Richmonders also faced questions about the preservation of land connected to its slave past. City residents had the opportunity to voice their views on the above mentioned issues as well as others related to the memory and commemoration of the past through events sponsored by “The Future of Richmond’s Past.” The merging of The Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center promises that history education and events that examine how the city should move forward with its past will continue. This just scratches the surface, but it is clear that Richmond provides a model for other cities.

One thing that the media has missed is that this current wave of interest in the display of the Confederate flag and other iconography did not begin following last Wednesday’s shooting. Many southern communities have engaged in discussions over the past decade and it will continue.

If some are uncomfortable with the nature of the discussion/debate we ought to remember that the initial shaping of the Southern landscape around a narrow Confederate memory took place at a time when much of the population (particularly the African-American community) did not have the privilege of voicing their perspectives. In fact, it could be argued that the pervasiveness of Confederate flags, street names, and monuments on public ground helped to solidify white control of government and even justify it through the 1960s.

I am not surprised by the emotion that has been exhibited by people on both sides of the issue. I even welcome it, but once the calls for immediate action die down elected leaders on the local and state levels, as well as other community leaders, will need to figure out how best to move forward and engage their residents about where and how to remember/commemorate the past.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation. 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.

7 comments… add one
  • Annette Jackson Jun 24, 2015

    Very thoughtful, Kevin. Not everyone will be happy no matter what. As to Richmond, some are already not taking things well as they either see it as stripping their heritage, or not addressing the real issues..

  • John Betts Jun 24, 2015

    Where’s the “like” button? 😉

  • Marian Latimer Jun 24, 2015

    I spent nearly an hour of my life this evening, on the phone with my cousin, who is married to a guy from Mississippi and they go back there “all the time” and everyone gets along and is happy. They have to live together. She actually was serious when she asked me what was going to happen to the Gettysburg Battlefield when they closed it down. I asked her to Google the Lost Cause because she seemed to think that everyone was being driven out of business (actually, it was kind of gutsy for Amazon to shut down the flag after the orders increased 2000%, if I heard correctly) when actually this will be good for small businesses. The flags won’t be stripped from cemeteries, private property, or cars. She claimed up and down that there were African Americans selling the flag in Mississippi on the streets during the 4th and on and on. No one had ever said to her that the flag bothered them. And therein lies the point, because 150 years later, people still don’t want to discuss it, especially the injured party living on a much lower percentage in terms of opportunities, income, and assets than their white peers. Speaking up might get you dragged behind a pickup truck. In one sentence she tells me she is not prejudiced and in the next, she talks about her old neighborhood in Detroit and how bad it is. It wasn’t like that when she got married in 1978. And when I point out I used to go into Detroit for concerts, etc, by myself on weekends at night or whatever, both she and her husband act like I’d be going into Isis territory now. The bigotry is not stated but implied. There were no grocery stores in Detroit until recently because people were stealing. This is also why the very first enclosed mall ever in Metro Detroit (also close to her old neighborhood) is shuttered because of thugs, not because malls are a dying breed all over. In fact, I can throw a stone and practically hit one–that I presume is closed because the stores moved out by the interstate. And Walmart.

    I guess I’m just venting because I cannot believe this is another grandchild of the civil rights activist I grew up with. And she had more access to her than I did because we moved out of Detroit to a rural area. I do not know what you can say to people like her and her husband. They do not want to listen.

  • Michael Williams Jun 25, 2015

    Are you happy now Kevin?

    Let’s use Confederate headstones for driveway gravel while we’re at it.

    Because that’s the road your headed down.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 25, 2015

      What an idiotic comment.

      • Annette Jackson Jun 25, 2015

        I agree, Kevin. And I don’t think Mr Williams read today’s essay or he might not have posted it.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 25, 2015

          Clearly, he didn’t read it or the message just went over his head.

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