Trayvon Martin and Civil War Memory

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.

If only we knew how to talk about such things.

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24 comments… add one
  • Lyle Smith Mar 31, 2012 @ 9:16

    Focusing on the Civil War and historical white supremacy is just easier than doing the hard work of rectifying problems that exist in America today.

    Blaming dead people is not taking the road less traveled.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 31, 2012 @ 9:39

      We blame dead people all the time. I see this as a form of social/racial commentary rather than an attempt at “rectifying problems.”

    • Margaret D. Blough Apr 1, 2012 @ 7:37

      Lyle-If we don’t know where we’ve been, I can’t see how we can possibly know where we are going. In the Martin case, one of the themes that has not received as much attention as some others is the basis of Black distrust of police, ESPECIALLY in the South. It doesn’t make sense if one doesn’t know that, once Reconstruction ended, White Supremacist governments used criminal laws that were only applied to Blacks, primarily men, to recreate slave labor, and (2) rather than being source of protection against those harming them, law enforcement frequently were part of and even leading the Klan and Klan-like groups attacking them (a deputy sheriff was convicted in the Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner killings for civil rights violations-the release of the three from jail in the middle of the night was a critical part of the murder plot)

      • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2012 @ 8:24

        I don’t disagree with you Margaret on the importance of knowing history. I’m just saying pointing fingers at the past is an easy way to avoid having to pay attention to the present.

        Also I don’t think you’re wrong about where Black distrust of police comes from. The only problem is it becomes anachronistic as each day passes. It’s like our President said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2012 @ 8:36

          I’m just saying pointing fingers at the past is an easy way to avoid having to pay attention to the present.

          I still don’t understand this. Americans direct their attention to the past all the time to address a wide array of current problems/concerns.

          • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2012 @ 9:14

            Oh, I thought you understood me. Your first response was just a re-wording of exactly what I had said.

            You said: “We blame dead people all the time.”

            I said: “Focusing on the Civil War and historical white supremacy is just easier than doing the hard work of rectifying problems that exist in America today.”

            These statements seem to be saying the same thing, i.e. focusing on the Civil War and historical white supremacy rather than doing anything today is blaming dead people. We agree.

            You said: “I see this as a form of social/racial commentary rather than an attempt at “rectifying problems.””

            I said: “Blaming dead people is not taking the road less traveled.”

            Again, two statements saying the same thing, i.e. social/racial commentary is easy, whereas rectifying problems, is not.

            You just put my statements down in your own words.

            To do be more present what I’m getting at is blaming historical white supremacy on all things bad that happen to Blacks in America today. Not everything that happens now can be connected to the past and it seems to be easier for some people to blame it all on history rather than whatever is going on at present.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2012 @ 9:20

              Got it. Thanks, Lyle.

            • Michael Douglas Apr 1, 2012 @ 21:31

              >>>To do be more present what I’m getting at is blaming historical white supremacy on all things bad that happen to Blacks in America today. Not everything that happens now can be connected to the past and it seems to be easier for some people to blame it all on history rather than whatever is going on at present.<<<

              One of the problems though, Lyle, is that, in the words of that insightful southerner William Faulkner, "The past is never dead, It's not even past."

              That perception is particularly applicable to race relations in this country. And much of what lies at the heart of black/white race relations in our society is traceable to slavery and its aftermath in this country, in general and in Dixie, in particular. I've said before that the past *and* the present of race in this country is the turd in the punch bowl that most white people don't want to touch. And that's to our detriment as a society.

              The present does not arise out of a vacuum. We are forever visited by the sins of our fathers. You say that it seems to be easier for some people to "blame it all on history" rather than what is going on at the present. Perhaps you need to take a good look at exactly what *is* going on at present.

              You assume that people blame "all things bad" that happen to blacks in this country on historical white supremacy. I'd say that some people blame certain issues on *current* white supremacy and its attendant racism. The fact that this racism has its roots in historical white supremacy is relevant and remarkable. Just because the sh*t sandwich has had its crust trimmed doesn't make it any less a sh*t sandwich.

  • Connie Chastain Mar 31, 2012 @ 8:47

    This post is yet another example of how anything can be construed as “civil war memory” and used for the purpose of evilizing white Southerners….

    • Kevin Levin Mar 31, 2012 @ 8:50

      The defacement of these monuments in response to what many perceive to be a racial incident suggests that the Civil War still looms large in our culture. How this “evilizes” anything, however, is beyond me.

      • Connie Chastain Mar 31, 2012 @ 19:46

        The Martin case is a contemporary tragedy. It has nothing to do with the Civil War. That some punks used it as an excuse to vandalize some Civil War related monuments doesn’t connect them.

        Demonizing white people was part of the media frenzy surrounding the Martin case (identifying the Hispanic shooter as white); just as demonizing white people is the reason nearly anything can be construed as “civil war memory.”

        • Kevin Levin Mar 31, 2012 @ 19:59

          It apparently has something to do with how we remember the Civil War. Why else would one deface a Civil War monument? I have no idea where you get your news, but I have yet to see a news channel “demonize” white people. You are a very confused person.

        • Margaret D. Blough Mar 31, 2012 @ 21:45

          Connie-Hispanic is ancestry or national origin. It’s not a race. Spaniards are overwhelmingly white. Latinos or Hispanics (Americans with origins/ancestry in Spain or Spanish-speaking nations of Central and/or South America) can be a range of races, including Caucasian, Black, and Native American or a combination of two or all.

          Kevin is right. I saw no demonizing of whites. There is an issue of whether there was racial profiling regarding Martin (the existence of racial profiling by some (not all of the accused) police departments is very well documented). Statements Zimmerman made on the 911 call raised the issue in this case, not just his racial status. Whether that is true is one of the issues currently under investigation.

          • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2012 @ 4:52

            To defend Connie Chastain a little bit here there has been out right dishonest reporting about this case.

            There was no racial profiling by George. NBC, wanting to make the story about race (demonize certain people maybe? – I wouldn’t call it demonize or evilize, but it certainly was meant to make George look racist before the entire world), inaccurately reported the police call to make the initially identified white shooter look as if he shot Trayvon because Trayvon was black.

            Here’s a Washington Post journalist on this with the transcribed words of the call to the police. There is a tremendous difference in what they reported and what was actually said.


            … and then there was a mob, and Spike Lee re-tweeted someone’s address, t-shirts labeled “Cracker Ass Pussy” were made, and Confederate monuments in New Orleans were vandalized.



            • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2012 @ 5:16


              I am not about to allow this post to be sidetracked by what really happened between Zimmerman and Sanford. The post was simply to draw attention to how this has spilled over into the subject of this blog. T

              • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2012 @ 5:24

                That’s cool. Connie’s point, however, was hinting at why the Confederate monuments were vandalized… because of the issue of white on black in the Trayvon Martin case.

                • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2012 @ 5:33

                  Yes and my response to this is simply to point out that the perpetrators of this defacement were likely using the monuments to make a point about race in America. Whether they were justified is another issue entirely.

                  • Lyle Smith Apr 1, 2012 @ 5:45

                    Yeah, I agree with you. I’m not agreeing with Connie taking issue with you or your post. I think she misunderstands you.

                    I just think some of her grievances are grounded in fact and that she is not totally off base in some of what she says, at least when contemporizing.

          • Connie Chastain Apr 1, 2012 @ 5:03

            Margaret, in our culture, Hispanic serves the function of race, in that criticism of or disagreement with Hispanics is characterized as racism.

            • Margaret D. Blough Apr 1, 2012 @ 7:25

              In “your” culture?!?!? What culture is that? BTW, you’re shifting your ground again. You were accusing people of “demonizing” WHITE people. Now you’re saying that HISPANIC is considered to have the function of race in forming the basis of charges of discrimination. Again you make a gross overstatement in saying that criticism of disagreement with Hispanics is characterized as racism. In the first place, I hope you aren’t claiming that there is no discrimination against Hispanics on the basis of ancestry/national origin (which is also illegal). It also helps to avoid charges of racism if you can avoid seeing one person’s actions as being a charge against a group to which they belong.

              The reality is that Hispanics self-identify racially as a variety of races, including increasingly identifying themselves as “Other” rather than as either black or white. In the days of Jim Crow, as many as could often identified as white, not only because of racial divides in their countries of ancestry/origin but because, given an option, they identified with the caste at the top of the heap.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Mar 31, 2012 @ 12:10

      Normally I’d ask you to explain what you mean, but I’ve come to understand that you don’t really know what you mean. I guess you don’t consider monuments to Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee ways in which the people who erected them wanted to remember the American Civil War .. and how they wanted subsequent generations to remember it. I also guess you don’t understand the significance of the comments expressed in the defacing of those two monuments. As for “evilizing” white southerners, your repeated invoking of that phrase without substance has rendered it a trite expression, akin to “Polly wants a cracker.” (Pun intended) You’re in the business of “evilizing” everyone with whom you disagree, Connie, in the pursuit of Connie Correctness. Guess you couldn’t flag today.

  • M. Fox Mar 30, 2012 @ 13:21

    Sanford, Florida’s Civil War history: Sanford was named after “General” Henry Sanford, a US diplomat from Connecticut who received the honorific title of general because he paid for a Union battery during the Civil War. Sanford bought the land after the Civil War from Joseph Finegan, a former CSA general. Finegan sold the land to Sanford for for $18,200 to raise funds to pay his legal expenses from his successful attempt to regain possession of his family plantation, which had been appropriated by the Freedmen’s Bureau for use as an orphanage and school for black children.

  • Peter Winfrey Mar 30, 2012 @ 12:31

    The third monument that was vandalized, the obelisk that memorializes the Battle of Liberty Place between the Metropolitan Police and the White League in 1874 has been vandalized many times before. I remember seeing images of it when people spray painted swastikas and “KKK” on it.

    It once stood at the foot of Canal St., but when the aquarium and Harrah’s Casino where developed, it was moved, and a controversy arose over where it would be moved or whether it should be displayed at all, as some saw it as a symbol of the racism and the Jim Crow era. They finally placed it next to the aquarium where it is now, hidden away, off the beaten path. It is a monument that memorializes a old view of people, one that the people and the city of New Orleans are unsatisfied with, but the past still remains.

    • Margaret D. Blough Mar 31, 2012 @ 15:06

      It isn’t just an old view of people, it’s a blatantly false one. The White League was no more a group of otherwise peaceable group protesting against oppression and mowed down by their oppressors. This wasn’t Tienanmen Square, Louisiana style. The White League had already cut a murderous swath through Louisiana and was dedicated to nothing less than the violent overthrow of the Reconstruction government and the suppression of blacks.

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