In 2000 the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed me about neo-Confederate distortions of Civil War history. The interview came the year before David Blight’s Race and Reunion appeared, and years before blogs became an established part of the scholarly landscape. I recall that many of the people who seemed to pay the most attention to the piece were folks who espoused the arguments I was challenging. If you read the piece, you’ll see that several of the themes people argue about today are far from new, and they’ve been contested for some time.
The point is that some of us have been at this notion of challenging and contesting certain versions of Civil War history for some time. As I said at the time:
This is an active attempt to reshape historical memory, an effort by white Southerners to find historical justifications for present-day actions. The neo-Confederate movement’s ideologues have grasped that if they control how people remember the past, they’ll control how people approach the present and the future. Ultimately, this is a very conscious war for memory and heritage. It’s a quest for legitimacy, the eternal quest for justification.
Over a decade later, I would make some slight modifications to this final statement, just for clarity’s sake. Not all of these ideologues are southerners (and I’d argue that most white southerners are not actively seeking to control the past, although a good number of Americans, especially white Americans, passively accept certain components of this narrative). We can argue about the use of the term “neo-Confederate,” but it was state of the art ten years ago: I’m still working on the ways in which Secession Apologists and Confederate Romantics, two clusters that hold on to key components of this interpretation (which I hesitate to call “Lost Cause”) differ from those folks who find common cause with the League of the South and other such organizations.
I was reminded of the influence of these interpretations and the way in which understandings of the past influence understandings of the present (and vice versa) when I came across a comment in Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog this morning from a mother who was looking for information to help her daughter complete a school project.
My daughter wanted to do a report on Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the female spy for the Confederacy. Her teacher told her that the report was supposed to be on someone who made a positive contribution to America, so she would have to choose someone else because the Confederacy was only trying to destroy America. I responded that I thought it it was a positive contribution for the South to take a stand against what they thought was an encroachment of the Federal Government on State’s rights, which is what we learned from last year’s Civil War Reenactment we attended. (Sounds like the same mess we are in right now.) Her teacher is going to allow her to do the report. I hope we can be persuasive enough. If you have any information she can use to prove her point about the South taking a stand being a positive contribution to America, we would greatly appreciate it.
There are so many things one can say about this comment that’s it’s hard to know where to begin, and yet one would want to proceed carefully so as not to be unfair to anyone. The comment offers evidence of the durability of certain notions and the way some people obtain and apply their understanding of history. How would you respond to it? How would you design teacher education programs to equip teachers with ways to respond to this parent’s inquiry?