For some reason John Brown is back in the news of late with a specific focus on his continuing legacy as well as the pikes or spears that were to be used during the raid. For an excellent discussion of Brown’s life as well as the significance of the Harpers Ferry Raid I highly recommend viewing a webcast from the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s recent “Signature Conference” held at the University of Richmond. You can view all the sessions, including the session on Brown (you need to download Real Player), which featured historians David Blight, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker, and David Reynolds whose recent biography of Brown is well worth reading. One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion is their emphasis on placing Brown’s life and motivation (Calvinism) as well as his actions in the context of black rebellion in the United States and especially in the Caribbean. The emphasis on the latter led me to read Edward B. Rugemer’s recent book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008), which I highly recommend.
Just kidding Ken, but congratulations nonetheless on securing a priceless Civil War document. See the story here.
My recent post on the unveiling of another large Confederate flag in Tennessee generated a number of comments. It’s an emotional issue on all sides and it is unlikely that the interested parties will ever fully agree on whether it should be displayed in public as well as its meaning. But that’s the way it is when it comes to controversial symbols. By definition they are open to multiple points of view. There is a certain amount of legitimacy on all sides and on occasion we can also see these same individuals/groups engaged in actions that betray ignorance and callousness. Consider H.K. Edgerton’s ridiculous suggestion that if you don’t revere the Confederate flag than you ought to be considered a “traitor” or the Auburn official who plucked the Confederate flags from a soldier ceremony. I could go on and on with examples.
Such a state of affairs is one of the reasons why I’ve suggested that the flag ought to be removed to a museum setting where it can be properly interpreted. I don’t understand why more people in the SCV and other Confederate heritage groups don’t consider such a move. Done right the flag would be taken out of a public debate that rarely evolves in a way where any real understanding of history is conveyed; it simply works to fuel passions on both sides. As I see it the problem is that the flag is both connected to men who fought bravely in battle during the Civil War and it is a flag that was used as a symbol against civil rights in the 1950s. You can’t change the history and, by extension, the way people identify with it. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand history and the nature of symbols themselves. Go to the Museum of the Confederacy and you will see the flag in the context of the Civil War. Across Broad Street, at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar, you will see the flag associated with the Civil War as well as a symbol of white supremacy in the 1950s. The flag is there to be better understood.
Now, you might suggest that I am being a bit extreme in suggesting that the flag ought to be retired to a museum. After all, its supporters want to see it in public as a rallying point and as a symbol of pride. Fair enough and luckily we live in a society where that is permitted up to a point. The sticking point as we know all too well is that the visibility of the Confederate flag is determined to a certain extent by society through local assemblies and other levels of government. And let’s keep something very important in mind as we proceed: THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE!
The only difference in the last three decades following the civil rights movement is that a much broader segment of the population can now weigh in on issues having to do with how the past is remembered in public spaces because a broader segment of society is now represented in local government. Because of this the debates are more heated and the outcomes no longer follow what some have taken for granted for far too long. Does anyone really believe that if African Americans had been allowed to take part in local government during the era of Jim Crow we would not have seen a more vigorous and and even contentious debate about the public display of the Confederate flag along with monuments and other public sites? Of course we would. The defensiveness of some who believe that their “heritage” is under attack is a function of the fact that a certain segment of society has had a monopoly on public remembrance. That has changed since the 1960s, but again, it should not be seen as anything more than the same democratic process at work.
So, what is the future of the Confederate flag (along with other symbols) and their meaning? Its future will be determined in every community by those who choose to focus on whether this particular symbol best reflects their values and its collective past. For instance, in Allegany County, Maryland the local school board has prevented the distribution of a pamphlet that depicts the Confederate flag. In Jonesborough, Tennessee the mayor and aldermen voted to allow the placement of bricks with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county in a display to honor its veterans. In both cases, as in so many other examples that can be found in newspapers across the country, these decisions are being made by elected officials who do their best to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Get it right in enough cases and they stand a good chance of being reelected. Get it wrong and they are out on their asses. There is no fixed meaning of symbols with the kind of contested history as the Confederate flag, but if enough people rally to allow or prevent its display in a park or parade, etc than in that sense the community has issued a statement. In each decision the meaning of the flag is fixed until the community chooses to change it.
On one of Robert Moore’s recent comment threads, fellow blogger Richard Williams suggested that the large Confederate flags are examples of “push back” against those who are perceived to be a threat to their preferred view of the past. I think that is a fair characterization, but it is one that I hope I’ve explained in this post lies at the foundation of our democratic process. Let me suggest that the supporters of the Confederate flag ought to be grateful that we now live in a society where “push back” is possible.
I just wanted to take a moment to thank Dimitri Rotov for setting us straight on Civil War historiography:
Agitating against “Lost Cause” historiography invites one into a fantasy struggle against a pretend school of thought invented out of scraps of writing and speech and then built into a menace. Centennialism dresses up as Don Quixote to tilt against this windmill while its real foes line up for hard jousting.
Without his thorough analysis many of us might have continued to read historians such as David Blight, Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Gaines Foster, etc. Since Dimitri has clearly demonstrated that the “Lost Cause” is an illusion I can now move on to more important things such as the “Centennialist School” – whatever the hell that is.