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.”
It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.
After Virginia no other state has done more to commemorate the American Civil War than North Carolina. Their state commission has done an excellent job thus far of organizing activities that reflect an incredibly rich and complex past. They are doing their very best to make the war relevant to the state’s diverse population by focusing on a wide range of themes from the military to race to memory. I have a number of friends who are directly involved in the commission’s work and I can say with confidene that they are making an impact on a number of levels.
Even with all the work this group has undertaken it appears that not everyone is satisfied. In fact, there are two Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations taking place in North Carolina. The other one is being called the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial and they even have their own website. The commission is headed by Bernhard Thuersam, who works as a home designer. So, why an alternative commemoration?
The following documentary by filmmaker Shukree Tilghman will air on New Hampshire Public Television on February 12, 2012. It looks to be pretty interesting. Watch the trailer for some truly bizarre claims made by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. My personal favorite: “After the war there was a major move to squash Confederate history.” Only someone completely ignorant to the trajectory of Civil War memory could make such a ridiculous claim.