I saw, today, that the Southern Poverty Law Center issued their “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy” report, yesterday. Anyone who has watched the SPLC over the years knows how they are inspired and, to be clear, they simply don’t recognize complexities in the story of anyone associated with the Southern Confederacy. Of course, it’s not surprising that they built the foundation of the report on the backdrop of the Dylann Roof story. After all, why wouldn’t they? It serves as the perfect rhetorical architecture, tapping into emotions and revived racial tensions in the wake of that event. If you have any doubts, look directly at what they had to say:
Following the Charleston massacre, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an effort to catalog and map Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. This study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503.*
Now I could go into a point-by-point critique of various remarks made throughout the report, but it’s really not necessary. Their position, albeit accompanied by blinders, seems simple enough… in that public symbols of the Confederacy are nothing more than white supremacist-motivated and rooted in the era of Jim Crow. I don’t see anywhere that they actually have either an understanding of anything else… or that they would care to acknowledge any other understanding. Giving wiggle room would, after all, bring their actual agenda into question. In making an argument, that’s simply something you’d prefer not to do… although that tactic is also disingenuous.
Additionally, the SPLC is motivated from the “top-down”approach to history, which is a broad-brush approach without regard for what might have actually motivated monument placement/road namings/etc. at the local level. I’ve spoken many times before, throughout this blog, about the “bottom-up” approach to history, and the clarity that it offers for those who really (and, yes, I’m directing that to those who like to make the “heritage” argument as much as to those who want to dismiss it) want to try to understand localities and its citizens at a particular time.
I see, for example, that the two Confederate monuments in my home county (Page County, Virginia) are on the SPLC map. It’s convenient for them to lump those two monuments into their narrowed definition, without any considerations as to what the actual stories are behind the two monuments. Having spent considerable time studying the stories, and finding private papers of individuals who were behind the monuments, I actually know the real story, and at no time (yes, even in private papers) was there any mention about raising monuments to keep another race in check, or anything of the kind. In fact, local Confederate veterans may have been less than happy about the first monument (1898), while a spearheading son of a Confederate veteran spent more time anguishing over who was “loyal” and who was not, in the second monument (1918)… and hence (quite possibly), there was no plaque (as had been planned) of all of the names of those who had served. [see a little about those situations in this post from 2009]. I won’t even get into the complicated story of slavery in Page County and how it may AND may not have inspired county citizens to serve in either the ranks of the Confederacy, or in some other capacity in support of the Confederate government.
So, before singing the praises of the SPLC and their report, ask yourself about when and where history is convenient to them, and when it is not. To be frank, ask yourself the same of anyone, whether they be for or against Confederate symbols in public spaces. While there are a number of people who wish to dismiss, out-of-hand, any notion other than “the Confederacy was… no matter what personally motivated individuals… about sustaining slavery”, there’s a bigger story, and, yes, it is relevant to the stories of those monuments…. especially those in those quiet little Southern towns. Begin asking yourself why people want to dismiss that part of the story. Does history really matter to them, or is/are agenda(s) best served by being carefully selective with the history?