Good day Austin:
For the better part of two years around the turn of the century I traveled on Martin Luther King streets across America with photographer Michael Falco for a series of newspaper articles that became a book: Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America’s Main Street. It was the best experience of my life as a reporter. It was a revelation.
(On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Falco did a battlefield-to-battlefield journey with a pinhole camera and produced a beautiful book, published this year, Echoes of The Civil War, from which I have a used a few images here.)
Above is a photo Falco took along the MLK Drive in Chicago of ..
… stately Griffin Funeral Home from where they buried Jesse Owens and Elijah Muhammad, and where, each morning they raise to half-mast a Confederate flag (along with American flag and a black freedom flag, and a POW flag. It is a practice begun in 1990 by the late owner, Ernest Griffin, when he learned that his mortuary stood on the site of Camp Douglas, a notorious prisoner-of-war camp where more than six thousand Confederate soldiers died. Remarkably, it turned out that before it was a prison, the camp was a Union training and induction center where Griffin’s own grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. Griffin devote the last years of his life to the study of Civil War history, going South to appear before meetings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. His funeral home has become a place of personal pilgrimage for the descendants of the Confederate dead who have heard about the black funeral home on King Drive that daily pays its respects.
“I have literally seen prejudices dissipate,” says James O’Neal, Griffin’s son-in-law, who continues his father-in-law’s work. He recalls coming to work one morning to find a white man curled up in a van in the parking lot. The van had Michigan plates, but the man had a deep Southern drawl and said he had lost a great-great grandfather there. “You could tell by his demeanor that he did not wish to be in the middle of an African American community, so I said, “Do you know your ancestors name? `Yeah,’ He was very belligerent, `Yeah!’ I said, ‘Just a second.'” O’Neal brought the man inside to meet his father-in-law. “I said, `Dad, this gentleman lost his ancestor.’ Dad talked to the young man, found his ancestor’s name in the book of all the casualties, and talked to him for twenty minutes,” says O’Neal. “When the young man left here he had a smile on his face, a change of heart, and you could tell that his demeanor had reshaped itself.”
I repeat the story because it says something, at this perilous moment, about the capacity of history, even or perhaps especially, the most fraught history, to produce transcendent moments of reconciliation and mutual understanding.
Someone who understands that is Jerry Patterson, the former land commissioner, state senator and Marine veteran of the Vietnam War.
Jerry Patterson’s great-grandfather, Cpl. James Monroe Cole, was a Confederate prisoner of war at another Union POW camp – Camp Morton in Indianapolis.
“The family lore is that he was so ornery that if he fell in the creek, he’d float upstream,” Patterson told me.
I called Patterson amid the controversy that followed the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, because I valued his judgment on such things and because, quite typically, he had waded right into the controversy, with a provocative Op-Ed in the Dallas Morning News this week.
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.”
All Americans would certainly agree with the statement above. In light of the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, maybe knowing who wrote it might help generate, if not agreement, some level of understanding. Sadly, the miscreant dirtbags who perpetrate violence are probably too far gone for that.
The effort in Dallas to remove Gen. Robert E. Lee’s monument is among many similar efforts underway across Texas and the South. As a descendant of several Confederate veterans, and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I can support the removal of the Lee monument. It may surprise you to learn this.
I supported the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol, in large part because it was historically inaccurate. The battle flag never flew over a state capitol. Instead, South Carolina should’ve done what Texas has done for at least 30 years, and fly the first national flag of the Confederacy instead of the St. Andrews cross inspired battle flag used by the KKK.
The city of Dallas shouldn’t do this in a haphazard manner. Instead, the city council should develop guidelines to measure monuments, as well as the names of parks, streets, and public schools. Statues and other memorials that don’t live up to the guidelines should be removed or renamed. Certainly, any commemoration of a white supremacist should run afoul of these guidelines.
Should we replace the Robert E. Lee statue with a statue of a more politically acceptable historic figure, such as Abraham Lincoln? Would anyone object to a statute of Honest Abe?
Well they should object. When measured by any standard, the “Great Emancipator” was clearly a white supremacist.
In his white supremacism, Patterson writes, Lincoln was no different than most white males, North and South, at the time.
From his Op-Ed:
Monument removal is a slippery slope fraught with unintended consequences. Would a monument to Buffalo Soldiers pass muster? Probably not. After all, couldn’t it be argued that Buffalo Soldiers participated in a genocidal, white supremacist, war against an entire race of people, the Plains Indians, that in effect enslaved them on reservations?
I’m sure the comments that follow this narrative will say: “Secession was treason and Jeff Davis, General Lee and all Confederates should’ve been hung, not commemorated.” However, the events of 1776, 1810 (Mexico’s secession from Spain) and 1836 would also therefore be treasonous acts. And by the way, a reason Jeff Davis wasn’t tried for treason after the war was the concern by Washington he would be acquitted.
Early in this narrative I wrote I can support the removal of Confederate symbols. All that is needed to gain my support is to change the name of Dallas’ Lincoln Street, Lincoln Park and Lincoln High School. Surely any criteria council would adopt would support the removal of white supremacist names, and Lincoln was certainly that.
And, that quotation above about slavery being a “moral and political evil”? That was in a letter written by Robert E Lee in 1856 while stationed in Texas, five years before the Civil War began. Lee also wrote from Texas in January 1861, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union,” and, “secession is nothing but revolution.”
History is not easily compartmentalized. It isn’t simply right versus wrong, black versus white, or blue versus gray. But there’s an entire crowd of folks who want to do just that because they believe it is all those things, and most egregiously, they believe there is an individual right for all to go through life unoffended.
Equal treatment. Fairness. Consistency. Who in this progressive and enlightened age can oppose any of those principles? In fact, maybe if we just removed all names and statues of historic figures. All streets would have numbers and letters, and all schools, like in New York City, would be Public School No. _.
We certainly don’t want people to go through their snowflake lives being offended by history.
Patterson’s commentary brought some harsh on-line comments but also some thoughtful letters that the Morning News ran.
Here are two.
An unfinished portrait
Jerry Patterson argues that Lincoln was a white supremacist who supported the deportation of blacks and said that the difference between the white and black races would forbid the races from living together on terms of social and political equality.
Patterson paints a portrait of Lincoln that is unfinished. While it is true that Lincoln said these things early in his career, the full measure of Lincoln is that he, like all great human beings, was a person of intellect, capable of improving his positions when enlightened to errors in his thinking.
Struggling with the great issue of slavery, Lincoln said this in a letter, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery … I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
We know the path he ultimately chose, and it was not in support of white supremacy. It’s not where you start, Mr. Patterson, it’s where you end up that counts.
Lori Folz, North Dallas
Patterson selective with facts
Jerry Patterson brings interesting but selective facts to the debate about removing Confederate monuments. History shows that most white men of the era of Lincoln and before were white supremacists. Nonetheless, Lincoln freed the slaves.
The Confederate monuments are not relics from the distant past, but were erected in the 20th century in a tsunami of white rage against signs of black progress. The Confederate symbols, along with the KKK, had all but disappeared until the huge resurgence of fear and bigotry on the part of working-class whites in the 1920s. Thus, Patterson is disingenuous to suggest these are long-standing relics of a glorious and gentle 19th-century Southern past. It is not unlike the backlash to the election of our first black president by the rise of the alt-right.
Let’s erect monuments to our great American scientists, choreographers, writers, artists, entertainers, humanists and move Gen. Lee into a stately museum, along with Confederate flags. And, Mr. Patterson, I am no “snowflake” but a white, tough as nails, Texan-New Yorker with Southern roots and a Daughters of the American Revolution pedigree.
Donna Ross, Frisco
I had dinner with Patterson Monday night to talk about all this.
He understands the moment of peril we find ourselves in.
Patterson thinks a Confederate heritage rally and March in Austin on Sept. 2 is a bad idea that will only create another potential flash point, whatever the sponsors’ intentions.
“You can’t keep people (counter protesters) away so you just ought to quit, stop, go away. Nothing good is going to come of it. Do it next year. Let things cool off a bit,” Patterson said.
(Note: the rally has been postponed to a later date.)
He also thinks it best that Confederate re-enactment groups not bear the Confederate battle flag in Austin Veteran’s Day Parade.
I understand the connotation that goes long with the Confederate battle flag today.
I get it. It’s been co-opted and, I wouldn’t fly one except at a reenactment or something like that. I wouldn’t and I made that suggestion to the Sons of Confederate Veterans – you know, maybe we should use the Stars and Bars and not the battle flag and, oh my god, these guys are clueless. “We have to defend our heritage.”
“Whatever, OK guys. You want to lose or want to win? You want to win, you’ve got to be smart. You guys aren’t smart.”
“One thing they said when they objected to my suggestion of not using the battle flag the Klan uses and going to the Stars and Bars, one thing they said is true. “We won’t get anything for that because they won’t stop there.
Patterson thinks the cause is lost, at least in the cities.
I think all these things are coming down, particularly in municipalities because municipalities are liberal. In the city of Austin, all those City Council members are just tripping over themselves.
We need to slow down and think of what we’re doing here. It’s a slippery slope. Jim Bowie was a slave trader. And that is where they go next, I goddamn guarantee it.
As it happened, the next day, Tuesday, President Trump held his infrastructure press conference when he memorably returned to events in Charlottesville.
This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
I called Patterson.
“That’s cogent. That’s true,” he said of that line by Trump.
Let’s pause here, in case you are not aware, but Patterson is not an admirer of President Trump. He was not an admirer of candidate Trump. He wrote-in someone for president. (Also note: Patterson’s son, Marine Lt. Col. Travis Patterson, with four combat tours, is among the pilots of Marine One, President Trump’s helicopter.)
From Jim Malewitz at the Texas Tribune in December 2015.
Former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is not running for state railroad commissioner, and he suggests that Donald Trump has something to do with that.
Patterson was one of several high-profile Republicans flirting late last week with a bid for David Porter’s open seat on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production.
But he removed himself from that discussion on Monday, saying he “has better things to do,” in a statement that also expressed disdain for Trump’s presidential ambitions.
“I also believe a nominee of the Republican Party should be able to enthusiastically support all other Republican nominees. With the possible if not probable nomination of Donald Trump for President by my party, I could not do that,” Patterson said. “Telling Trump supporters that they should vote for Jerry Patterson while simultaneously opining that anybody who votes for Trump is an idiot is not a good formula for success.”
But, having made what Patterson thought his cogent statement, what was really stunning about Trump’s remarks at Trump Tower was his suggestion of a moral equivalence between the protesters — who appeared to the naked eye to be replete with torch-bearing Klansmen and neo-Nazis — and counter protesters in Charlottesville; that while you had some bad hombres in each camp, there were also some “very fine people on both sides.”
America was not used to hearing a president speak with such deference about so reviled a group of political outcasts or to see those outcasts basking in his lack of opprobrium.
TRUMP: OK what about the alt left that came charging — excuse me. What about the alt left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, what about the fact they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news.
That was a horrible day.
I will tell you something. I watched those very closely. Much more closely than you people watched it. And you have, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now.
You had a group, you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.
REPORTER: Do you think that what you call the alt left is the same as neo Nazis?
TRUMP: All of those people — excuse me. I’ve condemned neo Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. So. Excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups, and you see and you’d know it if you were honest reporters which in many cases you’re not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
But they were there to protest, excuse me, you take a look the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left, you’ve just called them the left, that came, violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
REPORTER: You said there was hatred and violence on both sides —
TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame, yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don’t have any doubt about it either. And, and if you reported it accurately, you would say it.
TRUMP: Excuse me. You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group, excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park, from Robert E. Lee to another name.
George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So will George Washington now lose his status — are we going to take down — excuse me. Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How ’bout Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Ok, good. Are we going to take down the statue because he was a major slave-owner? Now we’re going to take down his statue. So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo Nazis or the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You got a lot of bad people in the other group too.
REPORTER: You said the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?
TRUMP: No. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before, if you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides.
At this point I was wondering where Trump was getting his information about what went down in Charlottesville, which seemed so detailed and yet so discrepant with the coverage I had seen.
My first thought was maybe Alex Jones, who I have paid a lot of attention to the last year or two, and has proven to be an alternative source of information for Trump.
But, it appears it was another seemingly fringe political figure who I have been paying attention to for nearly two decades: Jared Taylor of the white nationalist site, American Renaissance.
CNN did a report yesterday noting the uncanny similarities between what Taylor had said this week about the events in Charlottesville and what Trump, almost immediately after, was saying.
From 2000 to 2008 I was the only mainstream reporter to cover four biennial American Renaissance Conferences.
After the first, I wrote this: Nietzschean Henry Higgins Strives to Make White Nationalist Presentable.
April 4, 2000
RESTON, Va. – April 1 was Census Day, the moment the 2000 census was supposed to capture, marking the first census of a century that promises by its mid-point to record a United States that is less than half white. By coincidence, it was also opening day for a conference of some 200 white men and a handful of white women who are appalled at that prospect and astonished by the apparent willingness of most whites to let it happen.
“We’ve lost the ability to say ‘us’ or ‘we.’ Most whites simply cannot bring themselves to say, ‘This is our culture, this is our nation and it belongs to us and no one else,’” declared Jared Taylor, the charismatic convener of the fourth biennial American Renaissance Conference, named for the publication that he edits.
Attendees suffered no such lip-lock. The conference brought some of the leading intellectual and political lights of the white far right to the Sheraton Hotel in this planned community a traffic jam from the nation’s capital. For two days, they talked to one another in tones by turn defiant and despairing of the demographic changes threatening white dominance in America and the West, and their determination to rally dormant white racial consciousness to turn back that day or at least to go down in history as those who dared curse the twilight of white primacy.
“Our people are going to be extinct if we don’t stand up on our hind legs and do something,” said Gordon Baum, the affable St. Louis lawyer who heads the national Council of Conservative Citizens, which counts as members at least 80 legislators across the nation.
They talked about an America that they believe once was and ever ought to be a white, European-American nation. Theirs would be a nation bound by blood and sanctified by the genetic scientists who appeared before them as a place where white people might rightly prevail over the black and brown people; a nation where what they consider the natural hierarchy might finally triumph over what they count as the false promise of egalitarianism.
In the words of Samuel Francis, an influential writer and one of its leading ideologists, theirs is “a movement that rejects equality as an ideal and insists on an enduring core of human nature transmitted by heredity.”
This is, of course, many giant steps outside the modern American political mainstream. For the weekend, the Sheraton was a place where racial diversity was denigrated and John Rocker “the one sane man in sports,” Taylor said was celebrated. But, with the exception of a handful of protesters who showed up on the eve of the conference, the broader world barely took notice.
To the faithful in attendance, and to those who warily watch their progress, the American Renaissance Conference represents a notable coming together of previously disparate forces under the banner of white nationalism. Its numbers may be small, but its wingspan stretches from the outskirts of politics and academia to the far reaches of the racist right. And, under Taylor’s tutelage, it is a movement endeavoring to subvert stock stereotypes.
Like a Nietzschean Henry Higgins, Taylor, who was raised in Japan by liberal Presybterian missionary parents, is trying to create a respectable and presentable white racial nationalism.
In advance of the conference, he promised a highbrow affair. “We’re the uptown bad guys,” he said with his genial lilt and disarming self-awareness. The invitation reminded guests that this was a “three-star hotel” and instructed, “Gentlemen will wear jackets and ties.”
Taylor is a graduate of Yale University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies. And he noted that among the featured speakers, only he and Sam Dickson, a fire-breathing Atlanta attorney who closed out the event with an assault on “multiculturalism and race-mixing,” lacked a Ph.D. The others included academics from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and the second-in-command of the right-wing French National Front.
Taylor, at least in his public role, also tries to steer his operation away from obsessing on the Jews or spinning conspiracy theories too tightly.
At the first conference in Atlanta in 1994, David Duke, who showed up at the hotel, agreed to remain outside the meetings, lest his toxic celebrity poison the infant effort. Duke attended this year, fresh from a bracing appearance at a Richmond shopping mall where he encouraged whites to buy at stores being boycotted by blacks protesting the county’s designation of April as Confederate Heritage Month. At the conference, Duke was received politely but accorded no special attention.
Both friend and foe credit Taylor, 48, as smart, smooth, and so far at least somewhat successful.
Leonard Zeskind, who is writing a book on white nationalism tentatively titled “Barbarism With a Human Face,” believes Taylor’s progress was made possible by the end of a Cold War that once provided the right with sturdy American identity.
“The white nationalist movement has emerged in the critical space between the conservative movement and the Aryan Nations types, and that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” said Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Kansas City, Mo. “Their immediate goal is not to win the battle of ideas but to bring their ideas into the battle.”
Of the view that whites are losing their privileged status in America, Zeskind said, “They are right about that.”
America in 1965 was more than 80 percent white. The 2000 census will find a country a little better than 70 percent white. By 2050, it is projected that America will be barely half white, 26 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black and 8 percent Asian. Immigration, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and higher birthrates for some of the non-white populations account for the change.
White supremacy was encoded in the United States until 1865 in slavery and then until 1965 with Jim Crow, said Barry Mehler, director of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Only for the last 35 years has the ideal of equality been dominant.
At the time, I thought if white nationalism ever gained mainstream purchase in American political life, it would be through Jared Taylor – smooth, sophisticated, well-spoken and, in this realm, extraordinarily careful and able to make his arguments in the most disarming way.
What I couldn’t have imagined is that Taylor and white nationalism might gain that purchase in the person of someone as incautious and uncouth as Donald Trump, and that Donald Trump would somehow be president of the United States. (The last American Renaissance conference I covered was in the 2008, when Barack Obama was on his way to being elected president.)
I wrote about Taylor a couple of times during the 2016 campaign, including a January 2016 First Reading, The `great white hope?’ Behind the white nationalist robocalls for Trump in Iowa.
Taylor told me then:
To me the wonderful effect of Trump is to reopen all these questions that the smug liberals had considered closed for all these decades – the whole question of who do we want to come to America, do we dare make a choice, do we dare express ourselves and have a preference. I think single-handedly he has done in just a few months what scores of us have spent decades trying to do – reopen this question. I think it’s absolutely marvelous.
Whether he himself has any kind of really developed racial consciousness, frankly I doubt it. I think it’s just instinct, he goes on his instincts, and his instinct, like most white Americans, is that he prefers European civilization. But whether or not once he was in office he might start saying things about how he likes being around white people or that there wasn’t anything wrong with an immigration law that was designed to keep America majority white, whether he would say things like that, I have absolutely no idea.
Finally, to help place all this in context, I called Derek Alderman, a geographer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who I’ve grown to know very well, initially because he had studied and catalogued the MLK street phenomenon.
There’s going to be an even greater push for monuments and names and symbols to be toppled, literally and figuratively.
These monuments speak to how much white supremacism was really grounded into the landscape in much of America. Even though neo-Nazis and Klansmen and others are protesting allegedly around protecting these monuments, the monuments themselves are stepped in a white supremacist history that is much deeper and broader than just a group of radicals and a group of extremists.
Virginia is going to great pains to make sure that everybody knows that the folks here in Charlottesville were somehow outside agitators, which is a very ironic turn of phrase because that’s exactly the same kind of arguments that were used against the Civil Rights Movement .
It’s very interesting that this is happening in Charlottesville. That is place very strongly associated with Thomas Jefferson. Here’s Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the country but with a very conflicted, very controversial history with slavery. People have used the fact that this is the hone of Jefferson’s University ironically, like somehow seeing white supremacy in Jefferson’s Charlotte is just somehow an antithetical thing to see. That’s a very limited interpretation of white supremacy.
I really think what has to happen, there needs to be a much more systematic study – I don’t mean in a dry academic sense, but more public policy and in terms of people actually taking control of their cities, a real active study of our monuments and our memorials, and that’s not a study tha would always lead to monuments being pulled down or places being renamed.
The point is that we really need to start taking a very sober look tt he memorials and monuments and statues, why they were created, when they were created, for what ideological and political purpose were they created rather than trying to see them as ta very innocent reflection of history, which they are not.
As soon as that monument was created it was doing its own erasing of history, because there were other histories that were not celebrated on public space. It’s very complicated about whose history are being erased and where and when that’s happening
We need a much more sophisticated treatment of the memorial landscape across America. It’s not about black and white or yes or no or binary. It’s really some very tough public policy.
There needs to be bigger memory work and needs to be bigger discussions and bigger reckonings with the history of white supremacy
The removal of a statue is just a start what really needs to happen.
Alderman talked about what have been called monument graveyards.
Maybe you need to have place set aside where that monument goes, where people can visit. It’s a final resting place with some context to it.
Alderman said that Confederate markers are not limited to the South.
The large number of streets in the US, not just in the South, that are named after Confederate figures, it really represents, for the South to have lost the Civil War, it really has won the war for memory. Jefferson Davis’s name is really all over the map, and Robert E Lee, the same way, and it’s fascinating.
I think part of it is – to sort of play devil’s advocate – some of it in Robert E. Lee’s case,he has a following as a military figure that for some people extends beyond his role in the Civil War. So you have figures that have reputations that sort of transcend region and transcend a specific issue.
However, I think the real reason you see a lot of these things, you see the power of the Daughters of the Confederacy, particularly in the early 20th Century and reaching it the mid-20th Century.
They were very aggressive in promoting the memory of the Civil War, very aggressive at promoting and expanding that memory into places, trying to get Jefferson Davis’s named across major highways across the U.S.
I also think, historians would argue, that it was basically during the latter part of the nineteenth century early part of the 20th century where you had this sort of regional reconciliation that happened, where, at least for white America, there was a coming to terms with the Civil War and really trying to move beyond it and there started to be these very romanticized notions of the Civil War, romanticized notion of slavery that didn’t just take off in the South but they actually became part of the national memory
You had two big periods of this Confederate memorial creation. One was the late19th and early 20th Century, really the height of Jim Crow and the height of lynching, and then you had the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. and it was very much tied to retaliation or intimidation toward African Americans.
By the time we hit the 1960s, the 100 year anniversary of the Civil War and heart of the Civil Rights Movement, you saw a fair number of monuments and memorials and naming that were happening both in honoring the Civil War and romanticizing it, but also very much about being almost a weapon amid these freedom struggles and the anxiety it created in white America and the social structure they were used to, the status quo. So you saw a lot of Confederate names being put on schools around the time in actual opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
The last few years I’ve been doing a lot of work in plantation tourism and what I find is when we survey and interview people who visit the plantation museums in New Orleans and Charleston and in Virginia, we find there are a fair number of people who visit these plantations who are not southerners and when they visit often come with these very romanticized notes of what the old South was like and what slavery was or was not like.
One of the big reasons is that there is the creation of this national memory of the Civil War and slavery and the Old South that until recently was highly romanticized and really highly offensive if you were an African American but it made white Americans comfortable with that very divisive part of their past.
I’ll close by returning to an MLK – the Martin Luther King Street in Selma, Alabama.
It was there, where I first met Marion Tumbleweed Beach living on MLK.
It was a visit timed to the 2000 election in which Selma elected its first black mayor, though Tumbleweed, her house flying a red, black and green African liberation flag had – for her own typically iconoclastic reasons – planted in her lush yard a campaign sign for Joseph T. Smitherman.
Smitherman was the white incumbent who had been mayor when King was leading the voting rights struggle in Selma and Tumbleweed, who had helped King with the Montgomery bus boycott and had been asked by him to return to help in Selma, was charged with finding the “outside agitators” swarming into town to support the protests places to stay.
Despite Tumbleweed’s support, Smitherman lost. Selma had elected its first black mayor. And I wrote:
Less than a month after the election, a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, suddenly appears outside the Joseph T. Smitherman Historic Building, a city-owned museum of Confederate artifacts, and the city is again consumed in conflict. Over Martin Luther King Day 2001, protesters led by Rose Sanders lasso the five-ton monument and try to pull it down. It doesn’t budge.
Tumbleweed thinks it would make more sense to place some sturdy wrought-iron benches next to the monument so people could sit and talk about it. “Most of the people in Selma, white and black, have never had conversation with one another,” she says.
“All people have to have their heroes and symbols,” she says. “To attempt to take them away is to make an enemy.”