Civil War Memory at Ole Miss

Thanks to everyone who left a comment on the student video about some of the challenges surrounding the place of Confederate memory at the University of Mississippi.  I wanted to share the following comment from Boyd Harris, who is a PhD student in history at Ole Miss:

Thank you for posting this video, Kevin. I am a third year PhD student at the University of Mississippi. Needless to say, this is not the first time I have seen this video. The legacy of slavery, the war, and racism is very apparent on the campus landscape. We have a Confederate cemetery (right behind the basketball stadium) and several statues and markers commemorating the Civil War. The Lyceum (the oldest building on campus) has visible bullet holes from the 1962 riot, when James Meredith needed the National Guard to just register for classes. Even the name “Ole Miss,” which was created in the early 20th century and is a variation on what slaves called the mistress of the plantation denotes the South’s racialized past.

But let me tell you about the students. A lot of the conversation about this video has dealt with Hannah Loy’s views. Have I met people like that here? You bet, but they are in a quickly growing minority. Teaching the American history surveys (History 105/106) has provided me with ample opportunity to observe discussions about slavery, racism, and the Civil War. What amazes me every semester is the eagerness of the students to talk about these complex and difficult topics. The students bring their own observations and biases to the conversation, but more importantly, they also bring a desire to gain further knowledge about their past. I never have to prod my students to discuss these issues. I mostly take on the role of moderator in order to ensure an open and safe environment for these discussions.

I wish I could say that we change everyone’s mind, but of course that is not true. What I can say, however, is that I am seeing progress at the University of Mississippi. In the past two years I have seen Colonel Reb discontinued as the mascot and James Silver honored at the university that shunned him fifty years ago. This year the William Winters’ Institute for Racial Reconciliation will operate a tent in the Grove on game weekends. The goal is to challenge the long held view of African Americans that the Grove is a Whites-only space. Progress will be slow, after all this is Mississippi, but I have witnessed first hand the possibility of change at the University.

Boyd’s comment reminds us of the importance of the generational divide that shapes how Americans remember the Civil War.  The standard narrative can be found in this recent news article that described the sesquicentennial in Mississippi as “angst-filled.”  No doubt, you can find a great deal of strong emotions there, but we should not lose sight of the fact that young Americans are much more open to talking about some of the more difficult questions in an open and honest manner.  I saw this first-hand as a history teacher in Virginia.

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The South Will Rise Again

This short film follows two students at the University of Mississippi in the wake of the decision to discontinue the playing of “The South Will Rise Again” at the end of football games.  It offers some insight into the racial and generational divide at the university over the continuation of some of its more controversial traditions.

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If By Pro-Union You Mean, Pro-America

Richard Williams believes that I run a pro-Union blog, which I assume stands in contrast with a pro-Confederate blog.  It’s kind of funny to be labeled in a way that suggests that I am somehow still fighting the war.  On the other hand, I do not claim objectivity when it comes to this history.  Who could possibly do so given the issues involved and the scale of violence and destruction wrought.  No, I do not believe that the Union was wholly good and the Confederacy evil – that would be to apply an overly simplistic moral formula to a very complex subject.

So, if you have any doubt as to where I stand let me lay it out for you on a fourth-grade level:

  • I do not believe that secession was justified given the reasons presented. [I am speaking specifically of the lower South states.]
  • I also do not believe that secession was constitutional.
  • Abraham Lincoln was justified in using military force to suppress the rebellion of the southern states.
  • Lincoln and Congress were justified in going against slavery as a means to save the Union.
  • The abolition of slavery was a good thing for the entire nation.
  • The preservation of the Union was a good thing for the entire nation. [The right side won the war.]
  • The outcome of the war placed this country on track to becoming the leader of the free world.

I was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey.  I was not raised on a pro-Confederate or pro-Union interpretation of the war; in fact, I don’t remember learning anything about the Civil War until I was well into my 20s.  If what I listed above makes me pro-Union than so be it.  It seems to me to be a pretty mainstream/uncontroversial view.

Rather than a pro-Union blog I prefer to see it as a pro-America blog.  Enjoy the increased traffic today, Richard.

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Coming to a Town or Computer Screen Near You

Just wanted to give those of you in the Boston area and beyond a heads-up as to where I will be speaking in the next few months.  It should come as no surprise that most of these talks will be about my Crater book.  I will have books with me and am more than happy to personalize your copy.  Luckily, my schedule is still flexible enough that I can add dates if interested so please feel free to contact me.

I am also happy to talk with your group via the Internet.  Over the past few years I’ve visited a number of high school and college courses to talk about various topics related to blogging as well as my research.  Below is an example of a Skype discussion that I did two years ago with an American Studies class at Skidmore College.  The professor assigned my blog as part of their reading and after a week of talking back and forth in the comments section we got together to chat live.  I had a blast.

Click to continue

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Coming Soon To a Theater Near You

“Our movie is really about a working leader who must make tough decisions and get things done in the face of overwhelming opposition.” — Stephen Spielberg

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