Friday, October 16, 2020
October 16, 2020: Confederate Memory: Flags, Statues, and Names
[On October 12th, 1870, Robert E. Lee died—but not before the post-war deification of Lee was already well underway. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that process and other aspects of Confederate memory, leading up to a special post on a great recent book on the subject!]
On long-overdue changes, and why we need to go further.
As I draft this post in mid-June (what can I say, I have a lot of locked-down time on my hands), the George Floyd/#BlackLivesMatter protests have produced (among many other effects) a striking set of changes when it comes to the nation’s longstanding and frustratingly omnipresent commemorations of the Confederacy. Statues of Confederate generals and leaders are coming down all over the country, and their former pedestals and controversial locations are being turned into sites for art, performance, and collective celebrations. The US armed forces are considering renaming bases and facilities named after Confederate figures, and a bipartisan Congressional committee has endorsed the plan (although, shocking precisely no one, the most white supremacist president in history disagrees). And, in one of the smaller yet also more striking moments, NASCAR has announced that it will no longer allow Confederate flags (long a central presence at NASCAR events) to be part of their races or speedways in any way.
On the one hand, these changes seem like nothing more than common sense, a long-overdue response to the deeply bizarre phenomenon of the United States commemorating and celebrating a group of traitors who fought against and sought to destroy their own nation. But on the other hand, that phenomenon has been part of the nation for more than 150 years, and as those various examples illustrate has permeated so many official and unofficial levels of American society and culture (well beyond the former Confederate states). Like the schools named after Nathan Bedford Forrest (and other Confederates) that have drawn attention in recent years, these ubiquitous Confederate presences have become not just accepted but in many ways second-nature, a fundamental part of the American landscape that for far too long and for far too many of us has seemed unworthy even of comment. So while it might seem clear that we should never have featured Confederate commemorations, or should have done away with them decades if not centuries ago, this moment and process of disentangling us from all those layers of collective memory is nonetheless impressive and important.
But while I do believe that there is significant value in such symbolic changes, we can’t stop there. As I mentioned in one of my current reading posts last week, historian Heather Cox Richardson’s vital new book is entitled How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020); as I traced in this Saturday Evening Post column inspired by her book, she doesn’t mean the presence of Confederate names and commemorations. While of course white supremacy has been foundational to America since 1619 (and before, but that makes for a clear demarcation point), it’s nonetheless fair to say that Reconstruction marked a potential turning point, a moment when the nation could begin to move toward more genuine equality and justice for all Americans. But through the various histories and conversations I’ve traced this week, among many others, America became instead more white supremacist than ever in the late 19th century, and has in so many ways remained so ever since. Which is to say, rooting out the Confederate legacies in American society and culture is gonna be a much more involved process than changing some names and taking down some statues and flags—but I’m sure glad we’re starting to do that.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Confederate or Civil War memory you’d highlight?