I chose not to comment on this story when it broke the other day in central Texas. Turns out a noose was discovered hanging from a large Sons of Confederate Veterans billboard along Highway 290. This was reported by a member of the local chapter of the SCV, but one Star-Telegram reporter is hinting that something is not quite right with this story. Better to let him tell it:
“It’s racist — a hate crime,” rancher Donnie Roberts said. Washington County Chief Deputy Mike Herzog laughed. “They were the first people who saw those nooses, and then they alerted the media,” he said. I got the feeling he won’t bring in the FBI. “It’s on a busy highway, and nobody else saw it,” he said. It would have taken three people with a bucket truck and extension ladder to hang the nooses, he said. Coincidentally, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans history and heritage group responded quickly with a bucket truck and extension ladder to take them down. The giant double billboard went up last year on the busy highway east of Brenham. Both sides wave battle flags with the message “Southern Born, Texas Proud! Learn About Your Heritage” and the phone number to buy $30-a-year Sons memberships. Chappell Hill physician Robert Stark, also a Sons member, said Roberts saw the nooses first.
So what did they do? Why, they were so insulted and threatened that Stark immediately took a bunch of photos and e-mailed them to a radio station. KWHI/1280 AM’s website headlined “Local Billboard Vandalized.” Roberts declared a “degradation of our historic heritage.” At the sheriff’s office, Herzog called it a “prank.” Deputies will investigate it as criminal mischief, he said. Roberts said he wants the national SCV to investigate a “crime against our people” and will offer a $5,000 reward. He said the suspect might be “white or black.” But he added: “Well, it did happen on Martin Luther King’s birthday.”
Like Andy, I have no idea what happened nor do I really care. That said, there is something fishy here. The “crime” plays right into the SCV’s tendency to see itself as some kind of victim in a society that shows no respect to southern heritage. But the belief that this constitutes a “crime against our people” and the insinuation that the perpetrator was black because it happened on MLK Day undermines their broader claim that southern heritage includes whites and blacks. What happened to all those black Confederates and loyal slaves?
Well, at least they are honest about who constitutes “our people.”
Although not directly related to the Civil War, it is safe to say that the war looms large in this documentary. “A Sleight of History” examines the significance of Foster Auditorium, the site of George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The film explores the issue of historical memory in the American South and questions how we memorialize aspects of our past. Marshall Houston and Sarah Melton produced “A Sleight of History” in Spring 2009 as part of the Documenting Justice program at The University of Alabama. Click here for Sarah Melton’s article accompanying the documentary at Southern Spaces.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked by an editor at one of the Civil War journals to write an essay on the black Confederate controversy. I decided to reflect a bit on what the controversy tells us about the differences between academic and popular history as well as the rise of the Internet as a place where history is both consumed and created. While I am close to finishing I thought I would ask for your assistance with the title. I want to play off of Tony Horowitz’s classic, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Here is a suggestion from one of my friends on Twitter: “Black Confederates: Out of the Attic and into the Mainstream.” Not bad.
Yesterday I posted a video on the Civil War Memory Facebook page about the recent controversy in Jacksonville, Florida concerning Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. The short documentary tells the story of the steps that one local community college professor took to change the name of the school. The center of the story is Professor Steve Stoll, who encouraged a couple of his students to take on the project to fulfill a class requirement. While Stoll claims that at first he simply threw out the idea of doing a survey of the community on the possibility of a name change, his reaction following the school board’s vote [14:30] suggests that he had much more invested in this project. It became more of a personal crusade as opposed to an academic exercise and one which I find troubling.
The documentary provides more evidence that we are moving beyond the old battle lines of north v. south and white v. black regarding our attitudes toward the symbolism of the Civil War. Even though the school community is predominantly black they voted not to change the name, not because they revere Forrest, but because they have other things on their mind [[9:30]. In contrast to Stoll’s agenda and the vote taking by the school board the perspective of the students suggests that these kids are not internalizing these old feuds as part of their own self-identity. In short, memory of Forrest is a battle ground that engages their parents and grandparents. The kids have moved on. [This is an aspect of the story involving the black college students in South Carolina who flew at Confederate battle flag in his window that was missed as well in all the coverage.]
These stories are neither defeats for those who are still fighting these battles nor are they victories for those who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage; rather, they point to the extent to which each generation re-negotiates its relationship to the past.