One of the favorite pastimes of historians is exploring the evolution and transformation of historical memory — that is, how people remember the past. Often, in fact, people’s understanding of the past is little more than a patchwork of memories not grounded in any familiarity with basic historical narrative, let alone scholarship, but derived from various notions, many of them dated, derived from family lore, local tales, civic ceremonies, and scattered exposures to history in primary and secondary school. Some of this survives first contact with real research, while other assumptions collapse immediately or wither away as one learns more about what happened in the past. This is often the case with family history, where those stories one once heard don’t hold up very well when someone’s curiosity gets the better of them … or one discovers part of the family past that no one talked about, and not always because they were ashamed of it.
When people come to reflect on the transformation of American historical memory over the past decade or so, one thing they will probably notice is the decline of Confederate heritage, especially in the last five years. Oh, they will come across accounts of flag-raisings, controversies, and so on, but they will also notice that Confederate heritage as heritage — as an understanding of the past — is not only on the defensive but also in decline. To some extent, this is obscured by the internet and social media, which gives fringe groups a chance to spread their message. Just as some historians have used social media. blogs, etc., to build a career and a presence they would not have without those tools, so too have some of these groups established themselves as easy “go to” sources for a mass media that rarely engages in serious journalism about matters pertaining to history and historical memory.
The resulting noise can be shrill, loud, and entertaining. Recall the laughter that greeted the efforts of a recent heritage group to take to the air to spread their (misspelled) message. The event had much to do with grabbing attention and becoming a source of predictable ridicule, but it had nothing to do with Confederate heritage. It didn’t change any minds or hearts, and it didn’t educate anyone. The same goes for stories of raising large flags here or there. You know now by heart the ensuing media account, complete with comments from the people who raised the flag, the landowner in question, and opinions from neighbors and passersby, some of whom express admiration, while others express irritation, even outrage. At the end of the day, however, all we’re left with is another flag that some venerate, others despise, and most of us treat as a curiosity with less impact than a billboard.
The events of last spring revealed that defenders and advocates of Confederate heritage have failed to offer a persuasive justification for their activities that indeed does change hearts and minds. The best they can show for their efforts is a preservation of the status quo when it comes to the display of Confederate icons, flags, symbols, or prominent individuals. Elsewhere such items have been removed from public view or transferred elsewhere. Virginia serves as a prime example. For all of the attention-getting activities of one group, the display of Confederate flags in public spaces has declined in Richmond, Lexington, Danville, and elsewhere. Confederate History Month is no more. In keeping with its current mission, the Museum of the Confederacy is now part of a broader-based effort to interpret the American Civil War from multiple perspectives. Elsewhere commemoration of the Confederacy is on the decline, as we saw in Charlottesville. Raising a dozen flags in random places near interstates and main thoroughfares has not slowed that process. Rather, the erosion of Confederate heritage proceeds at a steady, even increasing pace, precisely because hearts and minds are changing and voices that were once silenced are now heard.
Now, one can blame this all on political correctness or some such nonsense or the triumph of left liberal Marxist fascist carpetbagger scalawag revisionist activist academics and other outsiders, and that notion makes some people feel good. Bless their hearts. The truth is easier for other people to grasp. Many of the people who have pushed for change are white southerners (one of the members of the South Carolina state legislature who voted in favor of removing the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds at Columbia was a student of mine at Wofford who was very, very southern). Black southerners, long ignored, claimed their place in the public square and made sure they were heard. They’re southerners, too, and they have a passionate interest in reminding all southerners (and Americans) of all that went into Southern and American history. It was not the bloggers or the outsider activist historians that achieved this sea change in attitudes. Southerners, black and white, are primarily responsible for what has happened.
And there is one other loosely-defined group that’s responsible for what’s happened. The very people who advocate that we honor Confederate heritage (or at least tolerate their desire to honor it) have contributed significantly to the erosion of support for the very things they support. This is in part due to their failure to articulate a compelling reason why we should honor or at least respect Confederate heritage. The leading Confederate heritage groups have failed miserably at this task, as the experiences of Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, demonstrates. All of Jones’s accomplishments were related to struggling to preserve the status quo, and they were few in number. Nor have the traditional Confederate heritage organizations done a good job at distinguishing themselves from white supremacist and southern nationalist groups whose message of southern identity is frames in terms that smack of racism and the world of whites only. Perhaps this is in part because of the significant overlap in membership between these groups, much to the dismay of those Confederate heritage advocates that shun such associations (but fail to establish a separate identity that could salvage their honor and reputation from stereotyping). At times, however, it has been easy to document how the Sons of Confederate Veterans at various levels work with such people, regardless of what the organization says about its intolerance of hate groups. Rather, the facts on the ground should that various SCV leaders and members not only tolerate such intolerance, but that they also embrace and support it. That evidence of these associations is often provided by these groups themselves on the internet and social media simply documents the self-destructiveness of such groups.
In acting in such irresponsible fashion, the leadership of the SCV has surrendered to local chapters and other heritage groups the opportunity to represent Confederate heritage on the public state, in the eye of the media, and in the popular mind. Some of these groups are ridiculous, while others have gained what notoriety they have in good part due to their amusement value and more than a passing resemblance to the cast of a funny reality show (that such groups have not explored this avenue as a way to spread their message continues to amaze me, because they are naturals for such a format). That traditional Confederate heritage organizations have surrendered the initiative to such clowns, many of whom make it painfully clear that their interest in Confederate heritage is rooted in a desire for attention and as a way to express their political views (which tend toward the conservative and sometimes reflect intolerance and occasional outright bigotry), is illustrative of their own intellectual bankruptcy and failure to lead.
One of the best ways to erode support for the preservation and honoring of Confederate heritage is to let these supporters of Confederate heritage, especially if they are drawn from these extreme groups, talk into the microphone or chat with an interviewer. During the debates of the last spring and summer, I looked to see an able defense of Confederate heritage by one of its proponents. I looked in vain.
Those folks who wish to eradicate Confederate heritage are fortunate in having such advocates of Confederate heritage do the heavy lifting for them. So long as people are able to mock you, they feel no need to respect you or take your message seriously. By surrendering the defence of Confederate heritage to such fringe groups, traditional Confederate heritage organizations have forfeited their right to our respect. Those people who want to honor and respect their ancestors should understand that those ancestors would have had nothing to do with these clowns, and that Confederate heritage advocates disrespect, denigrate, and disgrace those men and women that they pretend to honor.
The times are indeed changing, and Confederate heritage in its present form will soon be gone with the wind. What will replace it is a matter worthy of contemplation and discussion by people who are serious about figuring out what to do. As of now, that excludes members of Confederate heritage advocacy groups.