The flap that has ensued in the wake of the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina has, it seems, brought an old debate to another level of intense discussion, one that I think can be productive and has so far been mostly civil. Here is my take on it.
Despite the often benign use of it in many cases, the abuse of the Confederate battle flag and what it has grown to represent in its worst context has obviously pushed it to the same status as the Nazi swastika. I applaud South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in taking the overdue lead in removing it from the state capitol grounds. Throughout the South, it needs to be moved to a museum where it belongs.
Monuments, school names, other memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders are another matter. What is most important here is to get the history right and to teach it properly, a job that, in my experience, is insufficiently done. In American history, particularly as it pertains to the slavery issue and the causes of the Civil War, we need to understand the U. S. constitutional debates, the Federalist Papers, the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, the Dred Scot Supreme Court decision, the ideology of the so-called southern “lost cause”, etc. In Texas history as in the case of the other former Confederate states, there should be full disclosure of who these people are that are memorialized in our school names and on our capitol grounds and other public venues. And, in cases where the inscriptions on the memorials are incorrect or misleading, let’s add a plaque explaining the full story with all the warts. I’m all for a special commission to lead and supervise this effort.
But beyond getting the history straight, are we then going to airbrush the visible symbols out of history? Where do we stop? What about the founders who owned slaves, most prominently Washington and Jefferson? How many thousands of name changes would that entail, not to mention their respective memorials in Washington? What about Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, which includes statutes of nine Confederate statesmen and military leaders, including President Jefferson Davis? And was Robert E. Lee a traitor? In what way did he differ from the founders who rebelled? I have already seen some quite intriguing discussions on that point and we should keep having them. But to wipe the record clean as some kind of atonement for our sins is not the answer. These monuments, memorials, and symbols and their legacy should be used as learning tools, understood in full and not removed. Let’s get the history right and learn to live with it, warts and all.