Moving Beyond the Unreconstructed White Man

The coverage of the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in connection to the 1-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has been incredibly disappointing. With few exceptions the reporting has done little more than reinforce overly simplistic generalizations about the history and current state of this debate.

A new documentary hosted by NBC’s Trymaine Lee and the New York Times’ John Eligon is a wonderful example of this flawed approach.

In their attempt to “understand hate, heritage, and the legacy of the Confederacy” Trymaine and Eligon travel to Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. Certainly the places they chose to visit are appropriate, but they end up interviewing older white men, such as Bertram Hayes-Davis, who continue to admire the likes of Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and who believe that slavery wasn’t so bad.

You can read John Eligon’s op-ed in The New York Times, which closely follows the narrative in the documentary above.

According to Gordon Cotton, who is 82-years old, his great-great grandmother and owned 30 slaves, “provided clothing and food and medical care. She had one who made baskets, and she always bought his baskets.” Cotton describes Jefferson Davis as a “hero.”

Between Eligon’s op-ed and the documentary we learn next to nothing about how white southerners today view the history and memory of the Confederacy as well as their monuments. Readers and viewers are introduced to the last of an old guard that grew up at a time when the Lost Cause was the dominant narrative of the Civil War.

In focusing on this narrow and increasingly irrelevant group of white southerners we learn nothing that helps to explain why we are even having this debate about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War. There is nothing that acknowledges the growing generational divide that has shaped this debate or the increased ethnic diversity that now defines much of the South. Finally, there is no indication that the location of Confederate monuments outside the former Confederacy has also sparked fierce debate. In other words, this is not solely a regional issue.

Most importantly, it reinforces the false assumption that this is a debate that can be drawn solely along racial lines.

Interviewing a couple of “Unreconstructed” and elderly white men not only tells us next to nothing about the current debate, it grossly distorts it.

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9 comments… add one
  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 13, 2018 @ 4:59


    If you have not watched the episode entitled “Whose History” on the America Divided series, I would encourage you to take the time. It is stunning.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2018 @ 5:33

      Will check it out. Thanks, Eric.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 13, 2018 @ 4:57


    I just finished watching the doc. This type of project would not and could not have been made even five years ago. I think it effectively and powerfully shows exactly why the Lost Cause is dying.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2018 @ 5:34

      Probably right about your first point and I agree with the second, but that wasn’t their goal. They used these interviews to make broader points about the divide over Confederate monuments, which is not accurate at all for the reasons I suggest.

  • Kellen Aug 12, 2018 @ 10:27

    That’s encouraging to hear, but what is there to debate?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2018 @ 11:51

      There is a group here calling for a change to the name. It has no chance, but it is getting a good deal of media coverage.

  • Kellen Aug 11, 2018 @ 15:55

    The coverage is indeed poor, but only because it contemplates the legacy of slavery from the useless prism of Lincolnesque Emancipation Mythology. In the 21st century, the deliberate refusal to dig deeper and more honestly into historical truths is baffling. For example, in addition to visiting Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama, why not also visit Boston, Philadelphia, and New York for a discussion on the sadistic brutalities of international slave-trafficking? Why not walk the streets of Boston and consider its voracious consumption of slave produce? Why not tour Faneuil Hall and remind Bostonians of the slave auctions that took place there? It seems the MSM is only interested in presenting a distorted and incomplete view of slavery, and accordingly, in perpetuating the false narrative that slavery was unique to the South.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2018 @ 2:30

      Why not tour Faneuil Hall and remind Bostonians of the slave auctions that took place there?

      Bostonians are debating this right now.

  • Msb Aug 11, 2018 @ 10:41

    Weirdly enough, a British paper, The Guardian, did a better job with this kind of story. With a wink to English literature, it’s called “Pride and Prejudice” and interviews white Southerners who fly the CBF. But the authors are also careful to interview, and quote, CBF opponents to balance each apologist. The standard argument, as one would expect, is that flying the CBF honors various Confederate ancestors. Though the article notes the prevalence of the CBF as a symbol of white supremacy post-Civil War, the current fliers skate over that. Apart from some errors of fact about Reconstruction and “Black Confederates”, I thought it was a useful piece, particularly for a British audience new to the argument. Sad that a US paper can’t do as well.

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