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.
A couple weeks ago I linked to a video of Ron Paul lecturing a group about the Civil War and today I came across another segment from that same talk. It’s more of the same nonsense. I don’t know what is worse, not knowing any history or butchering it in the way that Paul does. He doesn’t seem to know the first thing about Jefferson, the Hartford Convention, the relative importance of the tariff as a cause of the war and even the fact that both the United States and the Confederacy instituted a draft.
What I find more troubling, however, is that someone like this has any interest in leading this country. I truly do not understand why someone who is this antagonistic about the role of the federal government would want to serve in its highest office. The ease with which people throw around words like nullification and secession disgusts me. In today’s climate it is used as little more than a scare tactic and reflects a defeatist attitude.