Update: Thanks to William Black for taking the time to respond to this post.
I passed this essay along by William Black last week and have been thinking about it ever since. Black is currently a Ph.D candidate at Rice University in history and writes about his embrace and eventual abandonment of neo-Confederate ideas about role of slavery in causing the war, Reconstruction, and the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. According to Black, had he gone to school with Dylann Roof, “we would have agreed on a lot.”
This essay is well worth reading, but it is not a story of a one-time- or recovering neo-Confederate.
Black may have embraced the tenets of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but he points to the crucial ingredient that is missing if we are to grant him his neo-Confederate bona fides:
I’m not the kind of person you’d typically picture as a neo-Confederate. I’m not an alt-right Twitter egg. I don’t own a gun. I’m a liberal, college-educated white guy in my late 20s who grew up in the Memphis suburbs and is currently working on a PhD in history — someone you could point to as evidence for the “purpling” of the South.
The picture that quickly emerges is of a boy with a deep interest in Civil War history, who enjoyed visits to battlefields and stories of brave Confederates fighting a war for noble causes in a desperate struggle. But that these views were reinforced in a high school history class does not make you a neo-Confederate.
Historian Gary Gallagher has talked about growing up in Colorado and learning about the Civil War through National Geographic’s centennial publications. He went on to devour Douglas S. Freeman’s biography of Lee and other reprints about Confederate leaders that were available at the time. He fondly remembers summer trips to Gettysburg that reinforced a narrative that celebrated the prowess of Confederates and downplayed, if not ignored entirely, the role of slavery in the war and the tough questions related to Reconstruction. I suspect that some of you came up through the ranks of Civil War history this way.
That alone does not make you a neo-Confederate. Gallagher, like Black, had come in contact with a Lost Cause narrative that remains quite vibrant throughout much of the country. Both had these early stories reinforced in the classroom.
As you might suspect, I have come across many people over the past few years who sincerely believe that thousands of free and enslaved blacks fought for the Confederacy. That belief alone does not make them neo-Confederates. Most are simply repeating what they learned after doing a quick search on the Internet. Their understanding tends to get bogged down by significant gaps in their understanding of the relevant history and much of what they do claim to know is the result of an inability to properly interpret primary sources or simply factually wrong.
What is missing from Black’s story is the political piece. At no point are we led to believe that Black’s interest in the Civil War and the Confederacy shaped his political views and outlook on race. Black and Roof may have had much in common in how they understand the relevant history, but at some point their views radically diverge.
To me the tell-tale sign of a neo-Confederate is one whose understanding of the past and the present is often indistinguishable. The one informs the other and vice-versa. In fact, in my experience, I find that an interest in history often plays second fiddle to to the current racial and political climate.
Black never appears to have developed this side of the coin. In fact, you get the sense that he grew up in a family that encouraged critical thinking and instilled in him a strong moral foundation. He points to the beginning of his disillusionment with the Lost Cause at the age of 16 following an SCV meeting, which his father described as “silly”.
Again, I don’t think Black’s story is unusual or a reflection of a brief embrace of neo-Confederate ideology. What we have is an early enthusiastic embrace of the Lost Cause narrative that eventually gave way to a more serious interest in the subject that will hopefully one day culminate in a a rewarding career as a professional historian.