Can the Lost Cause and Civil Rights Narratives Co-Exist in the South?

Update: This story from yesterday’s New York Times on Mississippi’s planned Civil Rights museum slated to open in 2017 fits right into this post.

Unidentified Photo From Civil Rights Era

Unidentified Photo From Civil Rights Era

While interpreting the Jefferson Davis and Confederate Soldiers’ Monuments on the Alabama State House grounds a little over a week ago I couldn’t help but wonder whether this Lost Cause narrative and a growing commitment to remember the civil rights movement can co-exist. It’s hard to miss the latter in a place like Montgomery and other Southern cities. Jefferson Davis now looks down on the Rosa Parks Museum and a number of markers that remind folks of the slave trade and civil rights era. On the one hand these monuments, museums, and markers represent an evolving story about how communities choose to remember their collective pasts. At the same time it is hard not to feel the rub between the competing values that these sites represent.

Perhaps these two narratives do not conflict for most people looking for the history of the South. In Natchez, Mississippi there appears to be some recognition that the city’s heritage tourism has shifted in recent years.

“Younger people don’t care so much about the past or the old stories,” said David S. Dreyer, a local historian who volunteers at the museum. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told here, but people might not get that with just the Pilgrimage. We need to find a way to tell new stories.”

Although only three people were touring the museum, Dreyer vigilantly told the story of African-Americans in Natchez through the decades, explaining that slavery and cotton allowed Natchez plantation owners to build some of the most palatial antebellum mansions in history.

He moved into Reconstruction, when the city had its first African-American mayor. It would be more than 100 years later, in 2004, when Natchez would elect another black mayor. Then again, Mississippi hasn’t elected an African-American to statewide office since the late 1800s. Dreyer, who is white and an Indiana native, showed the group a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. near a wooden white cross, reminiscent of the kind that Ku Klux Klan members placed on Southern lawns in the 1950s. “My parents were involved in the civil rights movement,” said Isabel Jackson, who lives in southwestern Michigan. “It was important for us to come here. We felt like we needed to see this part of the city’s history.”

This last point is certainly one factor that is pushing reminders of the Civil War further into the background in some of these communities. The children of the civil rights generation are now old enough and sufficiently curious to want to see the sights and meet the people who fought for freedom in the 1950s and 60s. For communities such as Natchez it may come down to dollars.

At the same time, however, this story is also about what members of these communities believe is worth remembering. This weekend there is a story out of Richmond, Virginia about whether a new baseball park ought to be built on a site connected to the city’s history of the slave trade. These places and stories matter to people in Richmond and they believe they are worth preserving, in part, because they likely believe that visitors will also want to experience these places. No longer is the story of slavery and Jim Crow something to hide from the local public and the rest of the country.

The perceived conflict between the Civil War and Civil Rights pasts in the South may come down to the following: My school’s recent trip through the South (see posts from last week) went looking for important moments in American history, but we also went looking for inspiration and lessons that could be infused into our own lives.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

21 comments… add one
  • Chris Shelley Apr 7, 2014 @ 14:22

    I am wondering: what book has the most recent scholarship on the relationship between Southern slaveowners’ control of the legislatures of slave states and poor whites (or at least non-slaveowners)? I’m especially interested in the violation of civil liberties of these states in regard to free speech and abolition.

    • Chris Shelley Apr 7, 2014 @ 23:10

      And I apologize if this inquiry doesn’t belong on this thread. I tried to find a topic more related and failed.

  • Marian Latimer Apr 6, 2014 @ 15:31

    That photograph makes my blood run cold. It does indeed speak a thousand words. Those who defend the Confederate flag and heritage need to look at this photograph and the man wearing the CSA kepi. The intent is very clear and they are using their history to make it clear.

    On the subject of Governor Wallace, Kevin, did it come up that at the end of his life, he asked for forgiveness and repented his past? I wonder if he was completely sincere, but it appears that there was some reconciliation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 16:55

      We did discuss Wallace’s public life in full.

    • BorderRuffian Apr 7, 2014 @ 4:39

      “Unidentified Photo From Civil Rights Era”

      Right- “unidentified.”

      For all I know this could be an Ole Miss fan giving a Tennessee (Alabama, LSU, etc) fan the finger.

      But look closely and you will notice something funny about the photo- it’s a cut and paste.
      What’s with that?

      • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2014 @ 5:33

        It’s a close-up of a collage of civil rights era photographs that were featured on the wall at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. A list of credits was included in the description, but I didn’t include that.

        • Andy Hall Apr 7, 2014 @ 6:37

          Another image of the same two men appears here. It was taken on June 1, 1966, at Philadelphia, Mississippi. The identification reads, “three young white men watch the March Against Fear as it enters the town of Philadelphia. The one in the middle gives the finger and wears a Confederate flag shirt. The march went to Philadelphia to protest the unsolved murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.”

          This image took all of about 90 seconds to find, so BorderRuffian/Battalion’s feigned confusion over its origin is even more disingenuous than usual.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2014 @ 6:39

            Thanks, Andy.

  • Steve Apr 6, 2014 @ 8:42

    I have some observations that never seem to be addressed when it comes to the civil rights movement, as always racism is pointed towards the South and the North get a free pass. 1. the slavery issue is always portrayed as the white man owning the black man, yet the slave owning native Americans and black slave owners are never addressed -why? 2. The KKK is always portrayed as ” Southern thing” yet there are pictures of thousands of Klansmen rallying in Washington D.C. , carrying the US flag and not one Confederate flag to be seen. 3. Why did it take some Northern states to ratify the 14th amendment as late as 2003, never addressed 4. A vast majority of sun-down towns are located in the North and Midwest not in the South? 5. The Underground Railroad going to Canada not the “North”. 6. The laws the northern states had on the books the keep blacks out. 7. How the loyal league and the G.A.R. Came to the south starting trouble between blacks and whites as documented in Nathan Bedford Forrest testimony in front of congress. I do not deny there was racism in the South but it was also very rampant in the North. When Civil Rights is addresses we need to tell the entire story not just in one area.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 8:49

      Hi Steve,

      I appreciate the comment, but I am not going to allow this thread to be side tracked. I have address the issue of race in the North on multiple posts throughout the life of this blog. Of course, there was racism in the North. No one that I know denies this. My personal library is filled with studies of the history of race in the North. Just the other day I recommended Thomas Sugrue’s wonderful book, Sweet Land of Liberty. On the GAR I highly recommend that you read Barbara Gannon’s recent study. Again, you are more than welcome to comment on the topic of this post.

  • Andy Hall Apr 6, 2014 @ 8:41

    The Lost Cause and Civil Rights Movement narratives are not compatible. African Americans have always been part of the Lost Cause narrative, even back to its precursors before the war, the narratives adopted by slaveholders to counter the rising chorus of anti-slavery rhetoric. The Lost Cause explicitly and intentionally depicts enslaved persons as being unfailingly loyal, happy with their lot, and having no aspirations other than a desire to serve their masters. You see that theme all the way through the creating the Lost Cause. It’s a meme that remained virtually unchanged through the early 20th century.

    You wrote:

    The rise of a Civil Rights narrative seems to me to help explain why the Lost Cause crowd has gone to such lengths to promote the Confederacy as somehow engaged in civil rights through the promotion of the black Confederate, etc.

    That’s correct, although I think it’s also something that many of those who promote it are not really conscious of — it just “feels right” to modern Americans who reflexively distance themselves from the paternalistic, demeaning attitudes toward African Americans that were the norm until just a generation or two ago. They push the idea that “black Confederates” is a new and untold story, but it’s not — it’s a deliberate repackaging of stories that are as old as the war itself, re-imagined in a way that is more palatable to a modern audience.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 9:05

      Good point. The stretching of the Lost Cause narrative to accommodate blacks is meant to re-position the Confederacy in an overall progressive narrative that helps to explain the civil rights era. The Lost Cause narrative has had to “get right” with the civil rights era and the dramatic overall shift in Civil War memory.

      Obviously, I don’t think it can and that is what is reflected in stories out of Natchez and Jackson, MS, Richmond, VA and elsewhere.

      • Andy Hall Apr 6, 2014 @ 9:27

        I should’ve added at the end of that first graf that Lost Cause depiction of African Americans is fundamentally antithetical to the core goals of the Civil Rights Movement, which are to secure equal standing before the law, unfettered access to the voting both and the political participation, and knocking down racial barriers in public access and commerce. Real Confederates of 1861-65, like most whites in mid-19th century America, would find those ideas to be an abomination. Their descendants today who insist otherwise aren’t really fooling anybody but themselves.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 9:38

          I am also reminded of the signs that the sanitation workers in Memphis carried in 1968: “I Am A Man.” The Lost Cause narrative never treated African Americans as men, but as childlike pawns.

  • Aaron Ethridge Apr 6, 2014 @ 5:14

    Another question is: how does the Lost Cause change the memory of the Civil Rights movement? I wonder if the former has something to do with the “taming” of the movement in recent memory.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 5:23

      Hi Aaron,

      That’s an interesting question given that I tend to think of it in the opposite direction. The rise of a Civil Rights narrative seems to me to help explain why the Lost Cause crowd has gone to such lengths to promote the Confederacy as somehow engaged in civil rights through the promotion of the black Confederate, etc.

      • Aaron Ethridge Apr 6, 2014 @ 6:40

        That’s true. It’s interesting how black confederates sort of collapse the time between the CW and the CRM. Seems that it might be a part of a longer argument of how Southerners have always had good relationships with their African-Americans. The sort of co-opting of King that has occurred recently by all sorts of people – including Southern conservatives – might be part of this process.

        Interesting, thought-provoking stuff as always.

  • Michael Williams Apr 6, 2014 @ 4:10

    Kevin I want to ask you something.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 4:21

      Go ahead and ask. Make sure it’s in the form of a question and has something to do with the content of this post.

  • CMcWhirter Apr 6, 2014 @ 3:10

    I think the monument at the rest stop on I-65 when you enter the state is interesting because it seemingly attempts to reconcile the two historical events (although I suspect it was not intended to do so). “We dare defend our rights” could harken back to a Confederate soldier but could also speak to a freedom rider. It’s a false equivalency because the two movements were diametrically opposed to each other but it’s one of the few instances where members of both movements could find positive meaning in a single monument.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 6, 2014 @ 3:22

      Interesting that you mention that monument. We stopped at a rest stop on I-85 in Alabama, which includes the very same marker. The rest stop is named in honor of Governor Wallace. We planned on stopping for a bathroom break, but between the marker, the Confederate flag and the name of the rest stop we had a fascinating discussion.

      It’s a false equivalency because the two movements were diametrically opposed to each other but it’s one of the few instances where members of both movements could find positive meaning in a single monument.

      One of the students made just this point.

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