Silent Sam. A statue to a bygone era

Don McCullough

History is Written by the… Losers?

November 17, 2017

There’s a house on High House Road that I pass by every morning. For the instant I pass it by, I always feel uncomfortable, like I should avert my eyes or ignore it or do anything, really. It’s not actually the house — it’s the bright red and blue flag hanging defiantly outside of it. We all know the one. There has been a change in the past few years, subtle and unnerving, with pride in one’s confederate heritage or history becoming increasingly public, and displays of it becoming more aggressive (think about the riots at any college campus hosting an alt-right speaker). What’s going on?

“It was about states’ rights.” “Taking down Confederate statues erases history.” Yes, but what specific right was the South most afraid of losing? What version of history does it present to the public? This is how the Lost Cause narrative starts; this is how America remains a divided nation.

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy

The flags and the statues and the comments are just the surface. The growing popularity of the “Lost Cause” is retrogressive and incredibly harmful to our progression as a nation and society. Essentially, that narrative perpetuates the idea that the secession of the South during the Civil War was motivated not by slavery, but by other factors like states rights, taxation, and economic factors. The Confederate flag and statues have become increasingly conflated with pride in one’s “southern heritage” and history.

In recent years, the “Lost Cause” narrative has gained power, especially among the conservative Republican base. Even General John Kelly, the current White House Chief of Staff, recently commented, “But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.” There was no mention of slavery in his answer. This whitewashing of history cannot be allowed to go on.

The overwhelming consensus among modern historians [support] is that the South’s secession was indeed because of slavery. According to Michael E. Woods in the Journal of American History, “Public statements by preeminent historians reaffirmed that slavery’s centrality had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” The states’ rights that they sought to protect? It was the right to own slaves. The anger over taxation? It was because slaves were being taxed as property. The desire to keep the independence of the strong regional economy? It was because, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of Alexander Hamilton states, “Hey neighbor, your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor.”

Mr. Hutchison gave insight into the rewriting of history: “Even after the civil war, with the constitutional 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and Reconstruction and laws no longer in states’ favor, the Jim Crow/Black Codes/sharecropping laws were half a step removed from slavery. The states wanted those laws, so they flipped and retold the history and what became the narrative was the Civil War was about the lost cause for states’ rights. But that’s not what any of the states argued when they seceded. The secession ordinances passed by southern states (notably South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi) make the anti-state rights argument, and assert that reason for secession is slavery and they didn’t believe the federal government was adequately protecting it. The Confederacy was twice as big as the Union federal government… If they were concerned about states’ rights, why would they create a federal government bureaucracy larger than that of United States from which they were rebelling?”

In a world of globalization and increasing (though still limited) diversity in all areas1, how can this racist rewriting of history be possible?

Alternative History

The way the subjects of the Civil War, slavery, and race in America are approached is undoubtably a crucial point in the students’ historical and political socialization (i.e. the development of their thoughts and beliefs about history and politics through interactions with others). Over the years, in every one of my social studies classes that discuss the Civil War, there’s been at least one student absolutely convinced that states’ rights (or taxation) was the true cause of the war, not slavery. I’ve heard comments outright disparaging minorities and jokes that aren’t really all that funny.

Using Green Hope High School as a case study, the perspectives of teachers in the Social Studies department give a glimpse into what curriculum is taught and how, and the changing dynamics of the classroom in this modern age.

Mr. Hutchison — AP United States History

“The curriculum standards are developed through a political process.” [The curriculum is written by a statewide committee of education professionals, passed through the state Board of Education and Board of Legislature, and reinterpreted at the county and campus level.] “When push comes to shove, what students get is largely dependent on whose listed on their schedule; there has to be a certain amount of professionalism and personal autonomy guaranteed by standards in academic framework.”

“States’ rights” and the Lost Cause are completely upended by actual historical evidence; The Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction Eras created those myths, and they were reinforced by southern organizations and institutions (KKK, daughters of confed., WASPs). These terror and social control and propaganda organizations reshaped the narrative across the south in education with textbooks, rewriting history literally, erecting monuments and memorials that provide social history people see all the time. Those say that this is what is important, honorable, and definitive to memorialize in public space — it sends a message. Kids can zone out in class, but if they walk past confederate general memorials everyday to school, that’s what’s ingrained in psyche.” [An example of this would be the statue of Silent Sam, a confederate soldier, located on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

Mr. Hutchison stated that within the social studies department department last year, there were quite a few instances that were overt instances where students made overtly racist and white supremacist comments, especially in classes that challenged that beliefs most directly (like Holocaust and Genocide).

Research done by Brian Levin at California State University surveyed schools nationwide and teachers, students, and administrators. It found that since the election, there has been a massive spike in these kinds of racially charged incidents, violence in schools that is nativist and racially and ethnically motivated. Scientific evidence supports that yes, discourse has gotten more polarized and harsh. Mr. Hutchison remarked, “The thing is, these ideas don’t pop out of nowhere; they were held before, just not expressed before — people feel that they now can say these things without getting in trouble or it’s acceptable or their ideas have been given validation.” Mr. Richardson added, “Certainly there are people who do not argue in good faith but everyone here is trying to better themselves.”

Mr. Richardson — Sociology, AP United States History

“I think teachers have an obligation to teach both history and historiography, and the second of those two is how history has changed, and how the teaching of history has changed over time. So much of it is letting someone read the words, of the Mississippi secession document 2 and the Corner Stone speech 3. Any reasonable person is going to be see historical contextualization but and that the Civil War cannot be not about slavery. W.E.B. DuBois stated in 1903, ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line’ — that’s arguably true today, but the difference is we’re discussing it in polite society.”

Moving Forward

With the rise of “alternative facts” and the Lost Cause rewriting of history, how can we ensure the truth prevail? We learn the unequivocal facts: The Civil War was about slavery. The states’ right was the right to own of slaves. The secession ordinances 4  prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt. We hold each other accountable for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We look at our history — our true history — to define our future. I don’t look away when I drive by the house anymore.

1 Green Hope’s student body is 8.2% Black or African American, 6.4% Hispanic, 3.4% biracial, 0.2% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 30.7% Asian, and 50.7% White.
2“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world…”
3Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
4 A fantastic resource for seeing these documents and more is The Confederate and Neo-Confederate ReaderLoewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. University Press of Mississippi, 2010

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