By now most readers of this blog have heard about the continuing discussions in Memphis and elsewhere on the fate of the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife Mary Ann. Debate over the Forrests, a monument commemorating the general, and the park in which they are currently buried commenced before the Charleston murders, with the name of the park being changed to “Health Sciences Park” (really?) on Union Avenue (that should bring a smile to some faces). In the wake of those murders and the discussions that have ensued, the Memphis City Council took the next step, proposing to remove the Forrests’ bodies and return them to where they were originally buried, a place Forrest himself chose–a Confederate cemetery.
Just because the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house does not mean that the debate over the display of Confederate flags, icons, and symbols is over … including monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. Today we consider the last category.
Monuments are creatures of the place and time when they are erected (and where) just as much as they are ways of paying tribute to a person, event, cause, soldiers … whatever the subject of the monument. They tell us as much about the people who erected those monuments as they do about the subject of the monument. One need only recall the history of the major monuments in Washington, DC, as well as the debates over more recent monuments placed in the nation’s capital to understand this point. Even ugly monuments (see here) have their own special message, although in some cases I believe the monument may actually mock or denigrate its subject (see there).
By now you all know about the decision of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts not to renew its lease agreement with a camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the use of the Confederate War Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the VMFA.
Here’s what the Virginia Flaggers announced on their Facebook page:
This account contradicts a claim offered by Billy Bearden in the comments section of this blog that the lease offered the SCV was a last-minute surprise: the above account suggests that both parties had been negotiating for quite some time. Perhaps the Flaggers need to get their stories straight. They’ve had years to do that.
The Flaggers’ own account also testifies to the organization’s inability to affect the stance of the VMFA. The Flaggers themselves claim that they have nothing to do with the position of the VMFA in 2015, because it was what the VMFA wanted to do in 2010; yet the 2015 agreement shows that matters have not improved, suggesting that the past four and a half years of protesting practiced by the Virginia Flaggers have amounted to nothing when it comes to the VMFA’s position. Other people have claimed that the behavior of the Virginia Flaggers has not helped matters: Susan Hathaway’s disappearance from the sidewalk can be traced to concern about repercussions should the VMFA complain to her employer, who has contracts with the VMFA, about her conduct.
In short, although the Virginia Flaggers like to talk about their importance to the cause of Confederate heritage, all they have done is to testify to their impotence when it comes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. All the Flaggers have achieved during the past several weeks is to erect a third, rather small, flag in downtown Lexington. They claim that size doesn’t matter, but that location is everything.
As before, the blog “Southern Flaggers” offered the claim that the VMFA was in violation of Virginia state law when it acted as it did. Yet, although the Virginia Flaggers have been around for four and a half years, the organization has failed to fight for the rights of Confederate heritage by filing a lawsuit. They have raised money for more flagpoles and flags, and raised money to defend Tripp Lewis when Lewis ran afoul of the law, but they have failed to raise money to battle the VMFA in court. That is a clear demonstration of the group’s priorities: spectacle over substance. Nor have we seen either the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the Southern Legal Research Center, led by Kirk David Lyons, take legal action. This is a rather limp defense of Confederate heritage, suggesting that some folks don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. Perhaps all they want to do is to walk the sidewalks and run their mouths.
Confederate heritage deserves better … although critics of Confederate heritage smile when such tomfoolery is passed off as defending Confederate heritage. After all, isn’t it time for another prom dress lawsuit?
The failure of the Virginia Flaggers and other Confederate heritage groups to take effective action against the VMFA suggests that the real weakness in the movement is internal, not external. Kevin Levin has written that more and more people are turning their backs on a fading Confederate heritage. He may be right, although I don’t care to make such predictions. I’ve already offered my take on this issue. But what has happened at the Confederate War Memorial Chapel … and what has not happened … testifies to the ineffectiveness of Confederate heritage groups and their failure to take meaningful action to protect what they claim to prize so dearly.
There are those people who think that certain Confederate heritage groups are their own worst enemies. There are other critics who claim that they are the unwitting allies of their critics, almost as if they are a false flag operation (pun intended). What seems clear is that the case of the Confederate War Memorial Chapel clearly demonstrates the inability of certain people to effect meaningful and lasting change.
Nothing to see here, folks … just move along.
Word comes from a Richmond newspaper that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has decided to alter its arrangement with a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning the management of the Confederate War Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the VMFA. The SCV chapter will no longer lease the chapel: instead, it agreed to a “use agreement,” terms of which were not specified in the newspaper report.
I guess that answers this question.
The VMFA will take over interpretation of the chapel, and operate it during VMFA hours (securing increased availability for visitors).
No word yet on whether the once-vocal chief of heritage operations, Ben Jones, will respond to this news. We have pondered his silence concerning the VMFA and the chapel before. Maybe he doesn’t think it’s very important.
Otherwise, one suspects, all will remain as before. Clearly efforts to return the flags to the exterior of the chapel have encountered another roadblock. Indeed, if hearts and minds have been changed, it seems that the hearts and minds of people at the VMFA have become even more determined to pursue the course marked out in 2010.
Our friends at the Virginia Flaggers recently offered this 1908 photograph of the Old Soldiers Home at Richmond:
They also offered this text:
Old Soldiers Home, Richmond Virginia, Circa 1908. Look closely at the photo and you will see Veterans in their wheelchairs on the porch on the right. These men answered the call of Virginia to defend her from invasion. They fought with honor and bravery, and spent the last years of their lives on these grounds, now desecrated by the Commonwealth and the VMFA.
RETURN the flags!
RESTORE the honor!
For the flags to be returned, they must be visible in the first place. Could someone show me where there’s a Confederate flag in this photograph?
Indeed, let’s ask: where’s an image of the Confederate flag flying from the portico of the War Memorial Chapel before 1993? Anyone? Bueller?
(Substitute “Hathaway” and the effect is the same.)
No, showing me Confederate flags flying elsewhere on the grounds won’t do, folks. Show me the War Memorial Chapel with flags flying from the building itself … prior to 1993.
We have two poll questions for you to consider today.
The first concerns whether you think the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will permit the return of the Confederate battle flag (or any other Confederate flag) to the portico on an ongoing basis when it renews its agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ camp. This isn’t asking you what the VMFA should do, but what you think it will do.
The second concerns what the SCV should do if the VMFA adheres to its present position concerning the display of these flags. We’ve hear explanations that the SCV’s representatives didn’t know what hit them in 2010, but, whatever you make of those explanations, they no longer apply. Everyone knows the current situation.
Enjoy … the comments section is open.
One of the pet phrases of the Confederate heritage group known as the Virginia Flaggers is “Restore the Honor! Return the Flags!” The target of this declaration is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because the Virginia Flaggers hold that institution accountable for the removal of Confederate flags outside the Memorial Chapel back in 2010. Never mind that that other groups, including the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were complicit in that decision. No one forced the SCV to sign that agreement.
Here’s an interesting analysis of recent events offered by someone claiming to represent the Virginia Flaggers on a Confederate fantasy blog:
A relevant question might be how’s that “not flying the Confederate flag to attract more people” thing working out for Waite Rawls and the MOC. 18 months after the opening at Appomattox, sans flag, the Museum (by their own admission) was in such dire financial straits that it was forced to sell out to Tredegar to stay afloat.
Let’s ponder the implications of that astute analysis. Continue reading
I’ll simply point out that according to the logic whereby the Confederate flag(s) is (are) American flag(s), then Confederate history is American history, and thus the new name of the joint venture reflects the very reality some people want us to embrace concerning the Confederate flag(s). In short, people like the Virginia Flaggers helped inspire this rebranding. Congratulations to them for their success.
As reported on Kevin Levin’s blog (and a host of media outlets, including Richmond’s leading newspaper), the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy have announced plans to merge by 2015.
Not everyone will welcome this news. Rumors of a merger created quite a stir in some corners of the Confederate heritage committee and led to some incomplete reporting. No doubt we’ll hear of a continuing war to eradicate Confederate heritage. It will be interesting to see whether their protests amount to anything. I’ll be interested to learn how the branch of the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox will be treated in this reorganization, as it is a Confederate museum, not a Civil War museum.