Outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida can now be seen in the form of graffiti on Civil War monuments in New Orleans. It should come as no surprise. Monuments to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were spray painted with the names of Martin and two other local African American men, who recently died as a result of violent clashes with city police. The spray painted names are themselves a form of memory, but the use of the Davis and Lee monuments add meaning that go far beyond confronting random graffiti on the side of a building.
Irregardless of whether the graffiti can be traced to the black community, the act itself serves to remind the surrounding community that this violence is perceived to be racial in nature. The use of these particular monuments not only points to the history of racial tension in the community, but to the institutions themselves that were responsible for creating these public spaces and largely responsible for legally enforcing inequities within the public sector. The damage to these structures reflects a sense of alienation from the community and a rejection of the community’s values as represented in these monuments.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the decision to deface these particular monuments reflects the extent to which memory of the Civil War has been eclipsed or shaped by our collective memory of the civil rights movement. It is likely that the perpetrators of this act know very little about Davis and Lee, but they know enough to connect them to the history of race in the United States during the past 150 years. That is clearly a recent development. The appropriation of the meaning of these sites as stamped with a history of racial injustice is itself an attack on the values and preferred Civil War memory of previous generations.
It is unlikely that the monuments will be cleaned in time for the “Final Four” showdown this weekend. That’s OK for at least one person:
Pastor Shawn Anglim of First Grace United Methodist Church has a different take on the graffiti that has focused on the controversy surrounding the meanings.“Right now, it’s a need for conversation. And whether done in proper way or not, maybe it’s OK it’s up for a week or so. And it gets some people talking a little bit,” Anglim said.
I think it’s time for Robert K. Krick to get a new angle. How much longer do we have to be subjected to vague references of an “anti-Lee” cabal among academic historians? In 2007 I was asked to respond to a presentation he gave as part of the University of Virginia’s commemoration of “Lee at 200.” In it Krick accused academic historians of intentionally distorting the history of Lee through an embrace of psycho-history and an over reliance on interpretation. It appears that when it comes to Lee: No Interpretation Necessary. If you want to know what Lee believed, just read his own words. It appears little has changed in five years.
One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time. Nonsense, Krick said. He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”
Can someone please name one historian who has recently made such a claim? This is nothing more than a strawman argument. The article does not mention whether Krick had anyone specific in mind and I suspect that he failed to do so. And I don’t know one historian who brushes off postwar accounts as unreliable. What a silly thing to say. The only example Krick could muster was a recent story out of Ohio in which a teacher reprimanded a student for including Confederate sources. Krick wrote to the teacher and we can only hope that this is the end of the story, but it tells us nothing particularly interesting about how historians treat postwar Confederate sources.
I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862″ symposium on CSPAN-3. It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial. The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas. The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas? Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising. McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted. I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.
There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer. There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians. All of them are well respected scholars. That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year. Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable. Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories. You have to include at least one woman and an African American. In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.