Sons of Confederate Veterans Forced to the Back of the Bus

Even in the “Heart of Dixie” the Sons of Confederate Veterans can muster little more than a few hundred people from its ranks to commemorate the inauguration of Jefferson Davis.  Based on the YouTube clip below yesterday’s event sounded more like a political rally than a reenactment.  The speaker’s comparison of the SCV’s challenges with Harry Potter and Rosa Parks reflects an intellectual bankruptcy that is bound to continue to marginalize the organization throughout the sesquicentennial.

The news coverage of the event thus far has been minimal and anything but flattering.  [Consider the Associated Press’s coverage.]  Just about every article that I’ve read takes note of the Civil Rights history of Montgomery, the decision on the part of local and state officials not to participate, and the lack of interest among local business and civic leaders.  This stands in sharp contrast with the centennial commemoration of Davis’s inauguration.

There is something truly perverse about the SCV appropriating Rosa Parks and the memory of African Americans being forced to sit in the back of the bus.  African Americans were forced into the position of second class citizens by law and not of their own choosing.  At no time has the SCV operated under these conditions.  They have been free to make their case in the court of public opinion and in recent years they have failed miserably.  A partial list of recent SCV debacles include:

The most recent circus is centered on a proposal to offer a series of vanity license plates in Mississippi, one of which will feature Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Even the editorial board of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi thinks this is a bad idea.  “What is appropriate is a proposal in the Legislature to designate a Civil Rights Memorial Day as a counterbalance to the state’s Confederate Memorial Day. This would be in keeping with earlier legislation that combined observances of Robert E. Lee’s birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s.”  Did they really have to propose Forrest?  Consider Robert Moore’s recent suggestion, which would have had my support and I suspect many others as well.

It goes without saying that bad history and a memory of the war that few people embrace is not a recipe for success.  Our next stop on the sesquicentennial tour will be Fort Sumter in April.  The SCV will be lucky if they arrive on the back of the bus.  At this point I am imagining something more along the lines of a Go-Kart.

We’ll Always Have the Centennial

Update: I suspect that this is not the kind of coverage that the SCV is looking for. “They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide. It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.”

Centennial Commemoration of Jefferson Davis's Swearing In Ceremony

From Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Making the Modern South)by Robert J. Cook:

“The pageant took place during the week of February 12, 1961.  Attended by an estimated 50,000 people, it was a colorful affair complete with voodoo dancers and minstrels.  The accompanying brochure bore witness to the business community’s support.  One advertisement–for Montgomery Fair, former employer of the bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks–featured drawings of Civil War regalia and a southern belle and boasted that it had been central Alabama’s “leading department store” since 1868.  Another, carrying a Rebel flag, proclaimed “Winn Dixie and Kwik-Chek Show Phenomenal Growth During a Century of Progress in Dixieland.”  Spectators who paid up to five dollars a ticket watched a sixteen-segment performance by a home-grown cast numbering over a thousand.  The two-hour pageant, a combination of the spoken word, music, and dancing, began with a salute to the Belle of the Confederacy an then took viewers through the major events of the secession crisis. In a section entitled “General Davis Speaks,” the audience heard an almost verbatim staging of the Confederate president’s inaugural in which he trumpeted the cause of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession.  On leaving the coliseum, spectators were greeted with a crashing fireworks display to mark the founding of the southern nation.  A watching journalist pronounced the whole performance a genuine “spectacular,” though he did complain that in the inauguration scene Jefferson Davis had been portrayed “as a corn-pone politician at a Black Belt party rally.” (p. 81)

  • On February 17, a large crowd gathered at Union station to welcome a local attorney who played the part of Jefferson Davis.  Upon his arrival, Davis was escorted to the Exchange where he was met by the serving chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, J. Ed. Livingston.
  • The following day a large parade was held along Dexter Ave.  Carriages contained the sitting governors of Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi.  For the reenactment of Davis’s swearing in, Alabama governor, John Patterson played secessionist governor A.B. Moore, city commissioners Lester B. Sullivan and Frank Parks acted the parts of the original reception committee, and state circuit judge Walter B. Jones played the role of Georgian Howell Cobb to administer the oath of office.
  • That night 5,000 people attended an elaborate secession ball.
  • Governor Patterson relayed shared the following assessment with Karl Betts: “…the Centennial observance here was most outstanding.  The entire city really got in on the act, and I do not believe that I can recall more community spirit and interest in any other event.”  A member of the chamber of commerce said that he had “never seen the people of Montgomery join in anything so wholeheartedly.” (p. 82)

The Washington Post reports the following:

“This Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. A band will play “Dixie.”  But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.  Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Gov. Robert Bentley (R) – who, like Strange and George, is white – did not respond to a query on the matter.  “I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, said, echoing many residents interviewed last week.”

We’ll always have the Centennial.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Civil War

Today the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibition, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, opens to the general public and will run through to the end of the year. I am hoping to make the drive to Richmond to check it out at some point very soon.

An American Turning Point is not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.

The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War.  I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history.  Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit.  Enjoy.

Teaching Virginia’s “Reluctant Decision”

Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes.  We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede.  This is not an easy task.  While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult.  Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.

Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.  In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia.  In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861.  What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee.  The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery.  As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation.  In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it.  And that brings us to the final problem:  We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South.  It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.

This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.  For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement.  Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages.  The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion.  I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.  The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues.  In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union.  Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present.  The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves.  The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter.  Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.

I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.

Are Americans Divided Over the Civil War?

According to our mainstream media, which thrives on conflict, Americans are hopelessly divided over the Civil War.  Open up a newspaper and you can find scores of articles with titles such as, “After 150 Years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States,” and “150 Years Later, State’s Secession Still Stirs, Still Divides.”  Turn on cable news and you will find the various talking heads arguing the same tired script that tugs more at the viewer’s emotions rather than their intellect.  Consider a recent episode of the Ed Schultz Show, featuring the always lively, Al Sharpton.  Spend enough time in these places and you might even come to believe this alluring cultural meme.

Now, I don’t doubt for a moment that Americans disagree over fundamental questions about the history of the Civil War as well as how it ought to be commemorated.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with or even interesting about that alone.  What I am questioning is the way it divides Americans.  It’s the “Still” in this little narrative that troubles me since it implies little to no change in the overall contours of where the nation is in terms of its collective memory.  As far as I can tell Americans are not sharply divided over these questions in terms of their regional identification, political affiliation or connection to the Civil War generation itself.  In short, we are not living in a “House Divided” and to push such a narrative is facile at best.

The ongoing controversy about how secession ought to be remembered in South Carolina along with tomorrow’s Secession Ball illustrates this quite well.  What I am struck by is the level of agreement over how this bit of history is being commemorated.  While the mainstream media is enjoying highlighting the racial aspect of this divide by noting the scheduled protest of the NAACP at every turn, if we look closer we see a very different story.  Charleston Mayor, Joseph Riley, has been outspoken in his belief that the celebration is “unfortunate” and “the opposite of unifying.”  The state’s major newspapers have all struck a similar tone:

There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union.  But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.

Spend enough time watching interviews that include representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and you might assume that everyone with Confederate ancestry is united around a certain view of the war.  Not so fast.  Consider native southerner, Edward Ball:

I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”

I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.  But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is already shaping up to stand in sharp contrast with the divisiveness and narrow scope of the Centennial celebrations – a period that ought to be understood in terms of both a regional and racial divide.  Perhaps the most profound change can be found on an institutional level.  Consider the recent and upcoming events sponsored by the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission not to mention the overall focus on and acknowledgment that slavery was central to understanding secession and war by every other state sesquicentennial commission.  The documents central to South Carolina’s decision to secede are now in the hands of people who have been educated during one of the most vibrant periods of Civil War/Southern historiography.  After displaying the Ordinance documents to a UDC sponsored memorial event, Eric Emerson, executive director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, expressed his hope “that people will develop ‘a deeper level of understanding’ of secession and war that goes beyond the nostalgia and gets at the heart of one of the most turbulent and talked about periods in South Carolina history.”  None of this fits neatly into the “America Divided” meme.

We can continue to get lathered up by focusing on Secession Balls and interviews with the usual suspects, who profit one way or another from promoting this “America Divided” narrative or we can step back and acknowledge the vast shift that has taken place in our society that has the potential to bring us even closer together.

We are not living in the 1860s and we are not even living in the 1960s.  Look Away, Look Away…