Statues like flags are ridiculous things. They sprout out of a fevered dream of history and with just a little time they grow stale. Their fields of red no longer resonant as blood, their extended bronze arms point aimlessly to a slice of serene blue. As symbols, once they lose their initial value to prop up a cause or venerate a person for some godforsaken battle, they become light with irony, ripe for mocking.
The occasional historian or amateur student of the past will point out this or that detail, but to the passing crowd, they are chunks of bronze baking under a summer sun, with funny names and sometimes overly earnest faces. Our state capital hosts a perfect satire of George Washington. In battle regalia, he sits astride his steed, right arm directing our attention dramatically toward the un-seeable James. Ah, how spectacularly serious he is! How earnest the conjurer of clay who put it all together, high on the pedestal, to symbolize his unattainable stature. The two words follow, statue, stature. A clever lawyer who once gazed from the nearby General Assembly Building used Washington’s horse’s prancing derriere to make a more substantial point. We are always looking up someone else’s ass. That’s what statues do, too.
Everyday tourists stop and snap Instagrams of George to pass along on Facebook, proof of their travels to the exotic realm of our Southern capital. There’s a kind of buffoonery in all this activity, but a little history making as well. For the thoughtless recipients, a short summary text will suggest how they should be understood. For the serious students, an overwhelming urge to correct and revise, shouting out details that change subtly the way this thing, this metal, this clothe should be viewed. So, though funny, it’s instructive, too. The value isn’t in the thing, itself, but the conversation that we might have.
I have now read at least three dozen articles on ‘the meaning’ of the Confederate flag. No doubt, the same earnest discussion will whirl around the statues of the generals who decided to cast their lots with the slave owners and plantation looters nearly two centuries ago. Their greatest feat, of course, had nothing to do with the war they provoked by refusing to rely on slave labor; but in the mind bending ways they changed the history of their defeat. Huzzah! Could Mad Men or Madison Avenue have galvanized a more brilliant campaign? You may thank the ladies of the Daughters of the Confederacy for these efforts, and various Confederate leaning charities. For the only worse thing than going down in ignominious defeat, economically as well as militarily, is to be told that the reasons for which you fought– a man’s honor, or your ‘way of life’, or your sense of privilege and entitlement– is a groundless lie, supported by nothing but the vapors of a fevered imagination. Or worse, to be told that you are a black person, or a poor person’s equal. Alas, to be no better than all those others you sought to define yourself against, and earnestly subjugated with violence when necessary, or with cajoling when not. It’s a wistful feeling too, this loss….Had it not been for the calamity of the war, you might have continued your subjugation of blacks (and poor whites too, when we get down to it) in your highly refined manner until the end of time.
Yes, that loss was unforgivable, and, of course, the Ladies of the South would not have it! Heaven forfend! So they formed their clubs and got right to work. They organized burials of Confederate soldiers, established and cared for permanent Confederate cemeteries, organized commemorative ceremonies, and sponsored impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition. The Daughters of the Confederacy were “strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.” By World War I, the United Daughters of the Confederacy grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women. The Weekly Sift does a nice job describing the ideological gist of the so-called Lost Cause narrative these groups promoted:
“Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.”
“But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind [hat tip, Margaret Mitchell!], a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.”
That revisionist and deeply patronizing view of the reconstruction period is now named the Dunning School after its primary proponent, William Dunning. According to Adam Faircloth, Dunning and his ilk, “All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence [read KKK] to oust the Republicans from state power.”
Eric Foner highlights the duplicity in this view, and some of the havoc it allowed:
“The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction. It was a justification for the white South resisting outside efforts in changing race relations because of the worry of having another Reconstruction.”
“All of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped to freeze the minds of the white South in resistance to any change whatsoever. And it was only after the Civil Rights revolution swept away the racist underpinnings of that old view—i.e., that black people are incapable of taking part in American democracy—that you could get a new view of Reconstruction widely accepted. For a long time it was an intellectual straitjacket for much of the white South, and historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system in this country.”
To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you could watch the 1915 silent movie, The Birth of a Nation, which evokes white hooded Klansmen as heroic knights, saving white Southern womanhood. Birth of a Nation, by the way, was the most popular film of all time until that ultimate paean to the Lost Cause, Gone With the Wind broke its records.
“It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”, said President Woodrow Wilson, cheering a private screening of Birth of a Nation. Robert Wormser does a nice job detailing the effect this massive propaganda victory had for the Lost Cause advocates:
“The film swept the nation. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston and Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). Gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. Thomas Dixon reveled in its triumph. “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
I must confess I do not know if Dylann Roof ever watched Birth of a Nation, but his rhetoric sounds frighteningly similar to Dixon’s and I do know he worried greatly over the fate of Southern white womanhood whom he feared would be defenseless against rape if he didn’t single-handedly kill as many black people as he could. “You have to go.” This weird trope from deep in the bowels of the Jim Crowe South has been a fixture of rightwing paranoia since the days of slave patrols. It’s also nearly the exact opposite of reality for a period when white men appropriated black women at opportune times for whatever their needs might be. Speaking clinically, one suspects there’s not a little transference going on here. If you’re surprised at this, you haven’t been paying attention. The entire Lost Cause story line is based on the idea that the white majority has been unjustly injured by outside agitators who do not understand the loving dynamic of their superiority. The patronizingly glib sound you hear is the echo of Strom Thurmond filibustering with his last breath any attempt to integrate—make equal—the white and black people of his state, even as he fathered an illegitimate child with his black mistress. Is he far from Dylan Roof? Perhaps only in his choice of weapon, the ballot, rather than the bullet. Indeed, Roof reportedly spent a good bit of his internet time perusing The Council of Conservative Citizens whose website Roof cited as a source for his radicalization. The CCC, as it is lovingly known, echoes nicely it’s more famous, if violent, precursor, the KKK. The CCC has also helped deeply conservative candidates across the South, including our very own former Republican Governor, George Allen, who also liked to tout the Confederate Flag.
Here’s a bit of what went down in that church in Charleston last Sunday….While Dylann Roof stood up and pulled a gun from a fanny pack, aiming it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. Roof responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” When he expressed his intention to shoot everyone, Sanders dove in front of Jackson and was shot first. The suspect then shot the other victims, all the while shouting racial epithets. He also reportedly said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” He reloaded his gun five times.
This is intentional. So are the monuments to the Lost Cause that litter our avenues. So are the flags that decorate our license plates and top our trailer parks. So is the money that flows from white supremacists groups to our politicians. So are the delusional screeds that inspire our Dylan Roofs. To channel William Faulkner, the past isn’t dead, the past isn’t even past. If you’re going to talk about statues and flags, pay attention to who is promoting their presence. The false history offered by these people is an old phenomenon that’s as fresh as last week.