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.