Little Rock President Obama, delivering the eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, slain in his own church in Charleston, South Carolina along with eight members of an evening prayer group, drew the line importantly between history and hate, saying:
“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”
The tragedy continues to roil politics in many southern states and cities on the question of what to do with Civil War symbols and continuing celebrations. The Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu for example has now called for the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in that city’s central business district. Many others in the South are taking similar stands.
In Arkansas on Wade’s World on KABF talked to W. Stuart Towns, a retired professor of speech and rhetoric in Florida and Missouri, who has written extensively about Civil War memorabilia in the South and in that state. We wanted to closely examine the distinction between recognizing and learning from history as opposed to celebrating and elevating symbols of hate and division.
The conversation in Arkansas on these issues after Charleston has been muted and restrained, which Towns and I found somewhat surprising. From his research for his recent book, Arkansas Civil War Heritage: A Legacy of Honor, Towns pointed out that in many ways Arkansas was generally subdued about its Civil War history though there were seven hundred Civil War engagements ranking the state fourth in the number of armed conflicts among southern states during the war. He noted that there are fifty different memorials around the state to the Civil War currently. Many of them are more along the lines of historical markers noting for example where General Grant built a canal around Lake Village in the southern part of the state as part of the blockade of Vicksburg or the commemorative explanations in the northwestern part of the state to the battle of Pea Ridge. Seemingly we can agree that simply recognizing history is not the flashpoint for hate.
On the other hand there is no getting around the prominence of the central star in the Arkansas state flag that was explicitly added for the Confederacy and still flies everywhere. Towns also pointed out there were two memorials in various locations at the State Capitol in Little Rock, one to Confederate veterans and the other, somewhat bizarrely, to Confederate women left behind during the war, almost a caricature of the worst of Southern mythology. Undoubtedly, these were the results of determined lobbying, but nonetheless, undeniably inappropriate in their placement. Towns retired to Forrest City, named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, probably best known from his record as a Confederate General and as a founder and leader of the Klu Klux Klan after the war. We discussed what to make of that problem. Towns claimed the name came from Forrest’s role in building a railroad in the area that was central in moving the crops out of largely agricultural eastern Arkansas. Nonetheless the shoe of history no doubt pinches since the city’s demographics establish that 61% of the city is African-American and only 35% are white.
President Obama in his eulogy noted,
“For too long,” Mr. Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions….”
We can only hope so, while praying that the answers will come soon and will be the right ones.