Difference Between History and Hate on Civil War Symbols

515J7ZrZkWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.


Emancipation, Django, Slavery, and Lincoln

New Orleans          To celebrate New Year’s Eve, we went to see Quinton Tarantino’s Django and thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  I understand this is controversial and that deadly serious topics are supposed to be dealt with solemnly without humor, but to the degree that Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln was all about him and the politics of emancipation, Django was all about slavery and it was terrible, profound, and felt realistic in its horror and contradictions.

All of which made me read the great historian Eric Foner’s Times op-ed on today’s 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with great interest.  A warning to those who like their history mythic, rather than real, and their heroes legendary, rather than human, Foner provides a bracingly corrective telling of the real evolution of Lincoln personally and politically, rather than the storybook statue.

Among the highlights worth noting in Lincoln’s initial path to progress in the first two years of the Civil War until 1862:

  • Initially he wanted a state by state solution with federal financing for the “property loss” of the slaves.
  • The timeline would be gradual.
  • He advocated repatriating slaves and colonizing a homeland outside of the United States.
  • Lincoln’s annual message to Congress dated December 1, 1862 in Foner’s words “devoted a long passage to gradual, compensated abolition and colonization.”

After 1862, Foner reminds us that Congress moved in advance of Lincoln in 1862 by abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, authorizing the president to accept black enlistment in the Union Army, and emancipating the slaves of South leaning holders in Union Army controlled territories.

Foner also issues a corrective on most American’s understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation itself, including the Spielberg cinematic treatment:

The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

In an era where there seems to be little growth by public figures rather than increased intransience and secularization of all positions, Foner makes his case for Lincoln having been a man of his times, but moving with the times to change and grow, not perhaps in the way we would paint him in our imagination, but in ways real and material for his time in searching for a path forward.  It’s worth examining his final argument in full and reckoning with it even today:

While not burdened with the visceral racism of many of his white contemporaries, Lincoln shared some of their prejudices. He had long seen blacks as an alien people who been unjustly uprooted from their homeland and were entitled to freedom, but were not an intrinsic part of American society. During his Senate campaign in Illinois, in 1858, he had insisted that blacks should enjoy the same natural rights as whites (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but he opposed granting them legal equality or the right to vote.  By the end of his life, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his last public address, delivered in April 1865, he said that in reconstructing Louisiana, and by implication other Southern states, he would “prefer” that limited black suffrage be implemented. He singled out the “very intelligent” (educated free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy. Though hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks.

And then there was his magnificent second inaugural address of March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln ruminated on the deep meaning of the war. He now identified the institution of slavery — not the presence of blacks, as in 1862 — as its fundamental cause. The war, he said, might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery. And God might will it to continue until all the wealth the slaves had created had been destroyed, and “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Lincoln was reminding Americans that violence did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. What he called “this terrible war” had been preceded by 250 years of the terrible violence of slavery.

In essence, Lincoln asked the nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of slavery. What were the requirements of justice in the face of this reality? What would be necessary to enable former slaves and their descendants to enjoy fully the pursuit of happiness? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer. A century and a half later, we have yet to do so.

Yet another resolution for this year and undoubtedly many to come.

President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Photo credit to Library of Congress