Confederates and Lynching in American Public Memory

About this Episode

Guests
Hasan Jeffries, Sarah E. Gardner, Steven Conn

This year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the nation’s first memorial to the over 4,000 African American victims of lynching—opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The opening of the memorial, however, coincides with a recent intensification in debates over Confederate monuments. How do these two trends in commemorating our nation’s past relate to one anther? What messages do these differing monuments send? And what’s at stake in the battle over them? On this episode of History Talk, hosts Jessica Viñas-Nelson and Brenna Miller speak with Professors Hasan Jeffries, Sarah E. Gardner, and Steven Conn to discuss the controversies surrounding monuments and memory in America and how we reconcile the history behind them.

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Cite this Site

Brenna Miller, Jessica Viñas-Nelson , "Confederates and Lynching in American Public Memory" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
June, 2018
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/confederates-and-lynching-american-public-memory?language_content_entity=en.
June, 2018

Transcript

Brenna Miller 

Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Brenna Miller.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

And I'm your other host, Jessica Vinas-Nelson. This year, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation's first major memorial to the victims of lynching, opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite being a crime of public spectacle, an intensely visible crime meant to instill fear, lynching has been met with largely public silence and relative invisibility of the over 4000 African Americans lynched in this country's history.

 

Brenna Miller 

The opening of the Lynching Memorial has coincided with increasing controversy concerning Confederate monuments around the country and the messages they send. For example, Alabama's governor, Kay Ivey, did not attend the opening of the Lynching Memorial, and instead released a video touting her efforts to preserve Confederate monuments. What do all these monuments really represent? What's at stake in the battle over them and what do the competing narratives of history that these controversies speak to reveal about the deeper issues facing the U.S. today?

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Today, we've invited three scholars to discuss the debate over Confederate monuments and the new Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. In the studio with us, we have Dr. Hasan Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, where he focuses on civil rights and Black Power movements.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Great to be with you.

 

Brenna Miller 

On the phone we have Dr. Sarah Gardner, a distinguished professor of history at Mercer University, where she focuses on nineteenth-century America, Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the Civil War in print culture.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Hey, it's good to be here.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Also, on the phone, we have Dr. Steven Conn, the W. E. Smith Professor of History from Miami University, where he focuses on American cultural and intellectual history.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Hi, guys.

 

Brenna Miller  

Thank you to everyone for joining us today. So over the last year, the controversy over Confederate monuments has cropped up again and again. Can you briefly explain what the controversy is about with respect to these monuments? And why has it become so intense recently?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

The reason that these controversies have popped up, at this particular moment, is that, I think for lots of Americans, those symbols, those monuments have become a kind of wallpaper that nobody really noticed. And because of a whole set of contemporary political developments, not the least of which is the resurgent white nationalism that we've seen, really starting, I think, and it became much more visible starting in about 2015. Other people have pointed out these symbols, which maybe we all walked past all these years and didn't quite pay attention to, so they became a focal point for debate controversy, and in some cases, violence, because people finally started to point out that they were there in the first place.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Well, I would just have to offer a friendly amendment to that.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

You look at South Carolina, for example, the NAACP had a ongoing boycott, over a decade or so, because of the Confederate flag in the state official things, if you will, within South Carolina. So the friendly amendment is this has been on the radar of black folk for quite some time.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Sure.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And in an organized fashion, but even just in sort of the casual day-to-day occurrences. So in recent years, I think perhaps following, most publicly, the shooting at the AME church, Charleston, South Carolina, reached a different level of public consciousness, public notice, particularly in mainstream media and in white eyes. But for African Americans, there have always been many people who have said, "Listen, this is an issue, this is a problem, something needs to be done about it."

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah. And I think I would just add to that, that in the wake of recent shootings, those who wish to preserve Confederate monuments have doubled down with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other organizations that do bring attention to what might seem invisible to some folks, but is painfully obvious to others.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

So what are these monuments and other forms of public commemoration of the Confederacy, then, represent today?

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Well, I'll say that they represent the same thing that they've always represented, and that's white supremacy, right? I mean, they went up at a time when Reconstruction Era and coalition governments were overturned or later, when civil rights organizations and policies threatened Jim Crow. Monuments are for the living, not for the dead, and the goals and desires of societies that erect them, so the message seems pretty clear to me what they represent.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

For me, at a much more abstract level, they represent one of the few things I think I've really learned about history. And that is that losers have much longer memories than winners. And to be on the losing side, not only of a war, but indeed of history itself, is something that white Southerners, in particular, have had to live with now for, well, 150 years. And I think that those monuments, at some level, are a testament to just how long and how bitter those memories are, and how they hang on, even into the present.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

But to a certain extent, yes, they lost the war, but they won the Reconstruction.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And when we look at when these monuments go up, particularly that first big wave after 1895, we're talking about the height of Jim Crow, I mean they were winning that. It was reinforcing this notion that, "We are on top and we will continue to be on top." And I think it was more just using. I mean, certainly there's some lost cause in there, you know, there's some psychological Freudian things that they got going on with the Civil War, but it provides a sort of convenient way of promoting white supremacy. And the idea of, "This is the ultimate objective, to have black people undertow," and I think that really helps to fuel the reasoning behind it, even during a time when they are really on top. That bottom rail -

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yep.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

As I like to say, the bottom rail is on top, right.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

I absolutely agree. I mean, what else does a monument of a white guy holding a gun, placed in neighborhoods where Reconstruction governments were overturned, say to people as they walk down the street? They assert authority, right, that, "We are the ones on top."

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

So maybe we could think about this as having two phases, that the post-Reconstruction Era, which was a lot of equestrian statues and a lot of monuments in the town square, represented the triumph of the Jim Crow order. But by the time the flag, in particular, shows up again as a symbol, Jim Crow was under attack. It's that post-war, civil rights era when the order of segregation is now under national scrutiny and that's when, in sort of round two, people start waving these flags more and more energetically. I think that's actually when the flag goes up on the state capitol in a lot of those southern states, is in the '50s and '60s. They finished the Stone Mountain Memorial, I think, in the 1960s.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

You're right, the part two, I think, is important. But that moment, Georgia, for example, redesigns its state flag in 1954 or 1955, in direct response to exactly what you're talking about the Brown decision, but schools hadn't been desegregated. So it's not like they had actually lost anything yet.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Right, right, right.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

The perception of the coming assault, right, so it was preparing the defense, rallying the troops, but they hadn't actually lost anything yet.

 

Brenna Miller 

When were most of the Confederate monuments built, who sponsored them, and what messages were they intended to send when they were constructed?

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Most of the monuments went up as Reconstruction Era governments collapsed, all right, so it's going to be different in particular locations. But when the federal government retreated from its commitment to Reconstruction, however strong that commitment might have been, when local communities, either through legal or extralegal means, overturned government and a conservative white majority was voted into office, that's when these monuments begin to go up, so it's around the 1880s, 1890s, through the early teens and early '20s. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was a huge promoter and sponsor of these Confederate monuments. These are private organizations, heritage kinds of organizations that sponsored and did fundraising campaigns to collect the money to build these statues.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And I think it's important to note that up until very recently, nearly all of these are on public property. That's private funds, but public property and in prominent public places. So literally in the public square, outside of county courthouses and the like. So it's not only saying that we are in charge, but we are in charge through these institutions, through the mechanisms of political control. And I think that's critically important to keep in mind. It wasn't just some nice old ladies who thought this might be a good idea, right? I mean, it was the full support of the state apparatus behind it in the society as a whole. And that's why, when we look back at it now, we're not just talking about, "Hey it's unfortunate, we may disagree, but everybody's entitled to their political opinion." These are state representation.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I want to rant a little bit about Stone Mountain. So starting in the 1920s, a group of private Georgians raised money to hire Borglum, the sculptor who did Mount Rushmore, to come do the Confederate Mount Rushmore, and it's going to be the three generals on the horseback and it's the world's largest bas relief sculpture, etc., etc. Well, Stone Mountain is where the Klan was resurrected in 1915. So the connection between these monuments and these paramilitary terrorist organizations that are in charge in the South, I mean, it's as clear as day, really, and there it is on that site.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And as you said earlier, it's not completed in the '20s.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

That's right.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

It's resumed in the '60s and completed in the '70s, right?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Right, right, they run out of money in the '20s and then it's half done, and then all of a sudden, Civil Rights Movement happens.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah, it's clearly problematic for at least a significant portion of the population of Atlanta. It doesn't become sort of a public problem in Atlanta, I don't think, until the Olympics, so in 1996, headed to Atlanta, and then they're like, "Holy crap, what do we do now? We have this gigantic monument where track and field is going to be held," or whatever it was, it was out at Stone Mountain. So only when it becomes a PR concern, does it matter.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Right. I would just add, while it was certainly not a concern as a possible issue until the Olympics and you're right, til 1996 and the sort of the world is looking and what happened to the "City Too Busy to Hate"? It was a big concern for black folk, Steve, as you pointed out, this is sort of a recreational park, place where you could go and -

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Have a picnic.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Yeah, have a picnic and splash around a little bit. And black folk were like, "That's not for us," right? It was clear. So these monuments are also not only signaling white supremacy, they're also sort of declarations of ownership in these public places. Like, "We own the courthouse, but we also own this public space," right? And you knew if you were in Georgia, and I went to undergrad there in the '90s, even that late, we just didn't mess with Stone Mountain, Georgia. That was white folk territory, that was Klan territory, that was racist territory, like Forsythe County and these other places. So I think that's important and part of the context too. It's declaring ownership over these public spaces, declaring them for white people only, whites only, it's really an extension of sort of Jim Crow mentality into the modern era.

 

Brenna Miller 

So a lot of the conversations surrounding Confederate monuments seems to focus, at least in terms of funding them, around questions of heritage and history. So what role did these ideas play?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Let me just sort of pull the lens back a little bit. Anytime you hear the word "heritage" being used, your antenna should go up. Somebody is trying to pull a historical fast one on you, when they substitute the word "heritage" for the word "history." The word "heritage," I think, as we use it nowadays. implies always something warm and fuzzy and wonderful and it's about folk dancing and different kinds of foods, and it never actually reckons with the realities of history. We're celebrating our heritage, we pretend it's our history, and therefore we don't have to ask any hard questions.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I mean, heritage is an industry designed to make money in some way and it's designed to foster affinity. So the appeal is to the emotion, not to reason, they're not to intellect, and foster warm, fuzzy feelings among like-minded people.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

And it's also about ownership. Nobody owns history. But you can say routinely, "Well, this is my heritage, and therefore you can't criticize it because it's mine." But it really is a form of intellectual dishonesty anytime you see that. And you see the bumper sticker write, "Heritage, not Hate." Well, that's nonsense, right? That's a way of playing fast and loose with the historical realities of things.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

If anything, I think it's the heritage of hate. I mean, white supremacy was at the center of the Confederacy, you're talking about promoting and preserving the Confederacy and its long legacy. If anything, I certainly understand for the tourism of heritage and all that, but at its core, we're talking about promoting the core elements of a white supremacist culture, and we want to talk about hoop skirts and magnolias and mint juleps, but it was all the accoutrements of white supremacy. And so its hate is truly at the center of it all, whether or not we want to pretend, or those who want to celebrate it, pretend that it exists or not.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Well, so monuments are a big focus of these debates, but are there other sites or symbols that speak to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and continued inequality that should also be revisited?

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Public schools, street names should be part of the conversation, right? Why is anyone driving down Robert E. Lee Boulevard?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Sure, Dixie Highway.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Jefferson Davis Highway, Dixie Highway, Confederate Avenue.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

I think it's worth noting too, that the schools, Steve, as you pointed out, I mean, it's part of the second wave. So the monuments, we see the birth of the monuments in the turn of the twentieth century, but we see the schools being renamed after the Brown decision, right? And then 10 years later, when desegregation in the South actually begins to occur, the rise of private white academies, but then you also have black folk actually entering into white schools and then you begin to see a big push, "See if we can pay for private white schools with public money, but short of that, we are going to rename these schools after these Confederate generals." And we haven't said, but part of the problem isn't just that the Confederacy was about white supremacy and promoting white supremacy. People can dismiss, "Well, that's just black people being sensitive," right? Perhaps, but they were also traitors, right? I mean, they actually went against...they tried to break up the Union, right? That, in and of itself, is enough and ought to raise flags, if you will, on the issue of, "Should we should we be propagating Confederate mythology and the like?" Or should we be saying, "Hey, we need to reimagine the reimagining, the revisioning, and actually move away from the heritage and deal with the actual history."

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

There's a kind of two-part success that Southern mythologizers have had. One was, "Yeah, this had nothing to do with slavery, it has nothing to do with race." And the second was, "Yeah, it was about states' rights, it wasn't about tearing up the constitution and being traitorous." Yeah, it's kind of astonishing. I would add to the schools and the streets, especially in places like Mississippi and South Carolina, there has been, over the last generation or so, the development of a tourist industry around those old stately plantation homes.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Right.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

And very few of them, at least, to my knowledge, have confronted the question of slavery at all. We've seen this a little bit at Mount Vernon and a little bit at Monticello, but I think the vast majority of these, they may even use the word servants rather than slaves.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yep.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

So I think those places continue the moonlight and magnolias version of the Old South that we all pretend was what the South was really like.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah, I think even at Monticello, there's this separate tour, it's not part of the main tour, that takes you to the slave quarters, and actually talks about slavery. It's not part of the main tour.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

And I don't want to put people down, but as I said, I think in a lot of these much smaller, less high-profile places, you don't see any of this.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Right. Yeah. There's more concern about getting the China pattern down correctly. What did the molding look like?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

That's right and the clothing and all that stuff. That's right.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

That is certainly, I think, an apt description, particularly of the private, old antebellum mansions that really drive some of these small Southern rural counties. But I will add, James Madison's plantation estate just did a new exhibit, it went online last year, "The Mere Distinction of Colour," that really takes on, head-on, challenges in a very unvarnished way, not only the history of slavery at Montpelier, and that's the name of his estate, Montpelier, but really, the history of slavery in America. So the Father of the Constitution has 100 or so enslaved people in his entire life, never frees a single soul. But they there have really done a fantastic job of challenging the normative narrative of slavery in American history in part by engaging the descendant community of enslaved people there. And one of the reasons why I think they're able to do it there, Madison never had any children. So there's no white descendants, there's no -

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

To fight back.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Exactly, who were so caught up, as you saw with Jefferson and the Mount Vernon crowd, right. So there was a little bit more space there to really create without having to sort of deal with well, that, "A Jefferson would never have. He never would have had relations with a Sally Hemings." So you don't have that sort of cultural contemporary baggage.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Right.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

What is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, and what is its purpose?

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

The Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, the longtime director of that, had, for two decades or so, focused most of his energy around criminal justice and pursuing justice for juveniles and those who have been wrongly sentenced, especially juveniles, to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Alabama, in particular. And over the course of his legal career, he realized two things. One, that so much of what was impacting the lives of African Americans on sort of a daily basis, inter-generationally, was this legacy of trauma connected to a long history of racial violence in the South. Of which lynching was the most spectacular, if you will, form, but that this was an extension of the violence that undergird white supremacy and the beginning of, or would lead to, the kind of violence that undergird Jim Crow and the post-Jim Crow era, which led him to say, "Listen, we need to have a reconciling, we need to have a moment and a place to think about the long history of racial violence and its meaning and its legacy and the ways in which it continues on today, if there's ever to be any kind of racial reconciliation, not just in a place like Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederacy, but in America as a whole," and so that was some of the thinking that really went behind the creation of this memorial that marks this period in American history that we are too willing to overlook, to pretend didn't happen, to pretend wasn't celebrated, to pretend wasn't public. And so it's a powerful memorial. I got to see it, as they were building it, from a distance. I tried to talk my way in but couldn't get in, and looking forward to going back this summer to check it out. But by all accounts, it truly is powerful. And because it causes you to pause and just think, and the way it's done with these images that are up with these heavy, sort of metal cylinders, marking every county where a known lynching had occurred and you see the scope of it. I mean, at its height, two people, two African Americans being publicly murdered every week. I mean, that's a phenomenal number and a phenomenal rate. And this draws our attention saying, "Listen, we can't have any reconciliation until you have some truth. And the truth has to begin with the central role of racial terror and violence in our society, but as it relates to policing the color line."

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I've written quite a bit publicly about all this Confederate celebration and whatnot. And it's easy to feel discouraged, given the drift of the conversation and the public discourse and whatnot, but this Montgomery project, we can see that, as the latest in a series of institutional developments, which I think really are asserting, in creative ways, that there really is no American history without African American history and the centrality of the African American experience to everything that has gone on on this continent since about 1607. So I'm thinking in particular, about the Smithsonian's African American History Museum, which opened about two years ago, give or take. I'm thinking as well about the plantation that has opened as a museum of slavery outside of New Orleans.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

The Whitney.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Is that the Whitney? The Whitney Plantation.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah, I'm thinking even about the site of the first White House at Independence Park in Philadelphia, which has now a small but extensive discussion of George Washington's slaves, the four slaves he brought with him to Philadelphia when he was president and living in Philadelphia. So and now maybe they're going to be venues where we can confront these topics and talk about them.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah, I think, too, the placement is interesting, not just that it's in Montgomery, Alabama, for very good reasons, but it overlooks the state capitol and it's just down the street from the Board of Paroles and Correction. And so a place perhaps, where justice may be achieved, not quite achieved, this national memorial can do what state governments have failed to do.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

So why does the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama focus specifically on lynching? And what has been the role and function of the historical silence surrounding lynching? Why has there been so much silence? And is the memorial an explicit effort to break that?

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

I think part of it, on the silence, and the silence is very important, because the silence is contemporary. During the height of lynching, there was no silence. These things are not only covered by these newspapers, and you had a handful that might have said towards the end, like, "Hey, we need to reconsider this, especially as we're moving into a somewhat moderate, modern era," but these things are being advertised, right? There's going to be a negro barbecue outside of Atlanta, right? Come on down.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yep, yep, yep.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

The special trains that are being announced. The last major one, Claude Neal, I believe, down in Florida, you have two or three thousand people who show up. And you look back at some of these photographs that were taken of these events, that nobody's wearing a hood, nobody's hiding, in fact, people are smiling, right? I mean, these white folk are literally posing for these pictures, so it was very public facing. The silence comes later and the silence becomes deafening. In part, there's some shame, there's some guilt. There's some fear on the part of black folk, right? Like, why don't black folk want to talk about this, because that has a lasting trauma. When you meet the children of people who have been murdered and lynched and they're still with us, as adults, and they're like, "Our family never talked about this, for 30 or 40 or 50 years," and why? Because that's the trauma that they are living with. But the ramifications of that are really powerful because when I bring this up to my class, my college students, maybe would or wouldn't be surprised about how many don't even know this ever happened. That lynching in America never occurred, that the spectacle murders, they had never heard about it, right, and so when you present it to them, they're like, "Oh, my goodness. Like, what does it mean, not only that it happened, what does it mean that I've never been taught or told about this before?"

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

There is some level of shame involved about this, individually, collectively, nationally, which I think is part of what reinforces this silence, because it reminds them of all this shameful, horrific business.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

I think some of what you're speaking of, about the shame and the not wanting to be reminded, is beared out in some of the media coverage over the Lynching Memorial, where in every article you find, there are these accounts that foreground white Montgomerians, as if they have a special voice on the matter, where they doubt the veracity of the numbers lynched and they also raise concerns that such history, it stirs up trouble and causes a backlash.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

There are lots and lots of Americans and I don't even want to put them down for this, who really think the job of history is to make you feel better. It's a therapeutic thing, "We're going to feel good about ourselves and our country." And that's not the job of history. The job of history is to tell the truth about the past as best as we can manage to do it. And that doesn't necessarily make you feel good about the past, or make you feel good about your great-great-grandfather. But I think that's what people want out of history and that's where it bleeds into this notion of heritage, which is a kind of therapeutic thing that just makes you feel good.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

The backlash, and what it screams to me, is that the opponents of the memorial are not at all concerned with forgetting history or with rewriting history, because they're more than willing to forget or ignore this part of history. What they're worried about is they can't control this part of the narrative.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

I find it more than more than a little ironic that those who have littered the landscape with these participation trophies to the Civil War are the ones who want to say, "Why can't you forget it? The past is the past, right?"

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah, that's right.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Right. Right.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

That's not us today. Yeah. Silence is a kind of amnesia in that sense and it seems to be important to those people, because immediately it becomes personal and defensive. "Well, I didn't lynch anybody." Well, that's certainly not the point.

 

Brenna Miller 

To what extent did these monuments speak to the past versus to more presentist controversies and debate?

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yes.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

I - yeah. My answer for the living, and the longer a society tolerates these kinds of confederate monuments, the longer we countenance their presence in public spaces, or as long as we continue to countenance their presence in public spaces, sends a message that we countenance what they represent about the past, right? That we're saying, "We're okay with this."

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And it's been a thread too, with these Confederate monuments, right? So the Confederacy was about white supremacy, why that particular kind of white identity and white nationalism. The monuments when they were erected during the height of Jim Crow, the emergence of Jim Crow, the revival of the Klan, it's about white supremacy, a particular kind of white identity in a particular kind of white nationalism. When you get the renaming of schools and integration of Confederate flags in the 1950s and 1960s, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, and once again, white nationalism, white identity, white supremacy. And even today, when you're talking about removing them, and people rallying to their defense, whether it's in Memphis or New Orleans or in Charlottesville, it's about white nationalism and white identity and white supremacy. Perhaps for some, it's more clearly articulated, whether it's those who are on the white supremacist right, alt-right, however, you want to define or name them, or it's slightly, slightly more coded when you have the president of the United States talking about, "They have good people on both sides, and this is about heritage and all this other stuff."

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

It was "Good people. Good people on both sides."

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

But there's a through line through it all. It absolutely reflects the contemporary moment. But the contemporary is connected to the past and I think that's important to keep in mind as well.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

The way these fights keep recurring at flashpoint moments across the last 150 years, I'm struck by something that the really wonderful Southern historian, Drew Faust, wrote years ago about war and she said that, "What war really is, ultimately is a narrative." You need a narrative in order to make sense out of what is otherwise just state sanctioned murder, and we have as a nation a fairly good consensus about the narratives of many of our wars, World War Two, the American Revolution. We're pretty ambivalent about the narrative about Vietnam and I think we have no consensus about the narrative that makes sense out of the Civil War. In fairness, I think it's not a 50/50 split. I think a majority of Americans understand perfectly well what the Civil War was really all about, about slavery, white supremacy, Southern aristocracy, and everything else. But what you do have is this sort of intractable minority that generations come and go, but it still seems to be there.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Yeah. So I don't know, I think you're right, in that this is about narrative and about the Civil War, but I don't think it's just a intractable minority that is clinging to this idea that it was an unfortunate lost cause. I think that if you asked the majority of students, "What was the principal cause of the Civil War?", Southern Poverty Law Center just did a report on this, took a survey of a thousand students, the vast majority were talking about states' rights. I mean, so -

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Okay.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Whether it's that intractable minority, they're controlling the narrative. And it's confusing, because the Civil War itself, right, not only does the South believe in white supremacy, but the North believes in white supremacy, too. So is this a battle against racism and white supremacy, if...No, you can be anti-slavery at one point in the war and still believe in white supremacy. So those things that we say are sort of absolutes are not. Because we're talking about the nineteenth century, right? An era where slavery was a national phenomenon, not just a regional or sectional issue.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Yeah, I guess two things. One is, someone should do a study of who goes on all of those plantation tours in Savannah and Mississippi. And my guess is you're going to have a fair number of Northerners who want to sit on the porch and see the fine china and the hoop skirts. So they're buying into the mess as much as anyone. The second point, anti-slavery advocates, many were certainly white supremacist, were racist, and we sort of untangle that in my class. That's another thing that sort of blows my students' minds, because for them, it is clear in their heads that abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates had to have some kind of enlightened view about race and that's patently untrue, and so it makes their heads hurt.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Just on this question of how do we reconcile this issue of traitors, and so on the one hand, this isn't about slavery, right? But on the other hand, it's also framed as being about black people. Like if it wasn't for black people, there wouldn't have been this Civil War.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

 Right.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And so if it's just about black people, well, then all can be forgiven, right? I mean, there's sort of this twisted logic on the one hand that if it's about black people, then it really can't be all that bad. But then again, it's not about black people. It's the schizophrenia that race and racism have caused in America, where it's the logic of the illogical when it suits particular purposes.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Yeah. And I would add to that, that certainly in the generation after the Civil War, the Republican Party banked itself on waving that traitor flag. They were not invoking the Civil War, because of the glorious emancipation. All those Republican politicians ran for office against Democrats by saying, "You caused the Civil War and you are all traitors," and that vanished by the early twentieth century.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

So how do we go about changing this narrative? Do we think things like the Lynching Memorial and other, say, plantation tours that give a more honest rendering of history will have an impact on the conversation? Or will it continue to be a more so "choose your own adventure" type of history? And with that, what do you expect to happen with the challenge, essentially, that the Lynching Memorial issued to the 800 counties in which lynchings occurred? They made duplicate statues for every county to claim and put up in a public space to commemorate those lynchings. What do we expect to happen with these monuments? Will they be claimed? Will more Confederate monuments come down? Will more go up?

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

The one thing about that, that they offer that any county can claim a duplicate statue, is that the county has to demonstrate that it's made systematic efforts locally to address racial and economic injustice. Alright, so the way I understand it, you can't just claim one of the statues, and that's going to be a tough go for some of these counties.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I would be very, very surprised if, in the next 10 or 20 years, we see any more Confederate monuments go up. There are going to be a handful of these things that a couple of yahoos put up on their front lawns, but in terms of public money, public spaces, and so on, we're not going to see that. I think I'm prepared to put five bucks down on that.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

I think Steve's right, I think that some will stay up. Most will stay up, I think some will continue to come down. I think those that come down will come down in places where you have large black populations, majority black populations, and you have elected officials who are responsive to them. So not surprisingly, you saw it in Memphis, you saw it in New Orleans. But then, state of Alabama, the state of Tennessee passes a law saying, "You can't remove Confederate monuments." I mean, so there are those who are trying to maintain them, certainly not going anywhere in the age or era of Trump. But I also think that there is heightened mobilization around the need to remove these symbols of white supremacy, whether they are physical manifestations, or changing names, because that is an important process of getting the history right. But if we continue to go down this path of ignoring the past, then we're not just rewriting history, we're not even rewriting, we're committing educational malpractice because we're not educating our students. We're not educating the youth. We're not educating the future about what actually happened in the past and that, to me, is the real tragedy of it all, right? As educators, as teachers, we want to get the history right, we want to get the history correct, but we're also bound, if you will, by the Hippocratic oath, "Do no harm," and when you're promoting these lies and these myths, then you're in fact doing harm.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

I also think there is an interesting sidebar question. Let's pretend for a moment that they all come down, that all of these statues get moved off their pedestals and so what do you do with them? And I've been to a couple of places in Eastern Europe and what used to be the Soviet Union, where all of these statues of Lenin, Marx, Dzerzhinsky and all these other guys, that all came down in '89 and '91, get moved into public parks or they get put into cemeteries. It's an interesting way of reorienting the way you look at these monuments, they're not in the central square of the town anymore, but they're over there in that statue park and sometimes they're lying on their side, because they didn't feel like putting them back up again. Sometimes people graffiti them, whatnot, it's what do you do with these things? Are there other possibilities? Can you use these monuments in a productive way? And I don't know if that's true, but I think it's worth thinking about a little bit.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

No, it is. I always find it ironic. The city of Selma, down in Alabama, had, for years, debated and wrestled with a sort of bronze bus statue that was in the public square to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Klan and in the end, they wound up having it moved to the cemetery. Still in Selma, but of course, it's a segregated cemetery, right? I mean, so even in sort of moving it out of the way and saying, "Okay, now it's being taken care of by those who are still sort of the sons and daughters of the Confederacy." Now, it still is in this sort of segregated place that is still harkening back to sort of a Jim Crow era and what white supremacy means, not only in life and in death. So cemeteries themselves don't actually represent sort of, "Hey, let's put it over there." It is a good question, right? I mean, look, you could melt them down, take a picture, and put them in a museum, like, "Look, this is the era..." I don't really care what you do with them, but they do need to be moved and not kept in these prominent public places, where there's still signaling that white supremacy is still okay. I think at the heart of this controversy, if you will, surrounding the presence of these monuments and memorials and the like is something as old as the nation itself. And that is a deeply rooted belief in white supremacy, that manifests itself in many different ways, some explicit, some implicit. And until we come to sort of a public recognition of that and reconcile that white supremacy and democracy cannot fully coexist in a way that is sort of true, although we pretend that it can, then these statues will still be around, these memorials will still be around, and we'll still be debating whether or not they should be there. And even if and when they do come down, we still will not have solved anything, we will just simply have removed from public view these symbols of an ideology and a belief that is as old as a republic.

 

Jessica Vinas-Nelson 

Well, we'll wrap it up on that note. Thank you to our three guests, Hassan Jeffries, Sarah Gardner, and Steven Conn.

 

Dr. Steven Conn 

Thanks so much.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Thank you.

 

Dr. Sarah Gardner 

Thank you.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thanks, everyone. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and the history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Vinas-Nelson. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more on our website at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening.

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