Can We Right the Past? Memory and the Present

By Caroline E. Janney

Last night, the National Geographic Channel aired the first episode of Katie Couric’s new six-part documentary series, America Inside Out. In Re-Righting History, Couric investigated the contentious and at times violent battles that have erupted in the past three years over the removal of Confederate symbols and names from the public landscape. Beginning with extensive coverage of Charlottesville where Couric was on site for the far-right rally ostensibly to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee, the episode offers an opportunity to reflect on how contemporary Americans continue to both romanticize and struggle to come to terms with the more complex and less triumphant aspects of the nation’s history.

Protesters opposing the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Protesters opposing the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. National Geographic/Katie Couric Media

I watched this episode wearing two hats: as a scholar of Civil War memory and as someone with deep and personal ties to Charlottesville. Throughout, I found myself vacillating between historian and historical actor, attempting to place the contemporary debates within the context of 150 years of Civil War memory while simultaneously analyzing the documentary’s interpretation. But both hats kept reminding me of a core belief: memory is always about the present.

For 12 years I have taught a course titled The Civil War in Myth and Memory. In this senior-level seminar, my students and I explore how the Civil War—and more importantly its memory—has served as a powerful social, cultural, and political touchstone since 1865. We trace the evolving strands of memory—the Union Cause, Lost Cause, Emancipationist Cause, and Reconciliation—from 1865 to the present. Just last Friday, our discussion centered on the contemporary debates about removing Confederate monuments.

After watching the documentary, I wondered how I could use it as a teaching tool in future classes. What follows is a set of themes I would emphasize in a discussion of the film to help students better connect the dots between the past and their present:

Academic and Popular Understanding

The divide between scholars and the general public on the subjects of slavery and the Confederate cause remains notable. Overwhelmingly, professional historians describe slavery as a horrific and brutal institution that shaped every aspect of life in the slaveholding South and the nation as a whole. I suspect that very few college students taking a US history course come away with any other interpretation. Likewise, the vast majority of academics agree that the Confederacy was founded as a slaveholding nation and that white southerners went to war to protect their ability to remain a slaveholding society.

While the documentary certainly does not represent any scientific survey, it reveals the extent to which some Americans refuse to accept either the brutality of slavery or its centrality to the Confederate cause. Interviews with a Sons of Confederate Veteran officer and an Alabama state senator provide cases in point. Alternatively, other interviews suggest that the public is starting to grapple with the nation’s ugly slaveholding and racist past. Couric’s visit to Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the National Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama (which will open April 26 in memory of the more than 4,000 victims of lynching) offer examples of confronting the brutality and inhumanity of our history. Perhaps Gone with the Wind is beginning to lose its grip on the American imagination after all.

But how much longer will it take before the “faithful slave” narrative is erased completely? What will be needed to revise the powerful hold this enduring myth has had on generations of white Americans (both North and South)? How can historians help shape this debate? And more specifically, how can my students, many of whom will not go on to careers in academia or public history, help shift the popular narrative?

Katie Couric speaks with Zyahna Bryant, the high school student who started the petition to remove Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville.

Katie Couric speaks with Zyahna Bryant, the high school student who started the petition to remove Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville. National Geographic/Katie Couric Media

Dealing with Complexity

Historians rightly place complexity at the center of their research, teaching, and public engagement. The more contentious the subject, the more important it is to render the past in all its complexity. But Re-Righting History tends to offer a mono-causal explanation for Confederate memorialization that elides the additional motives of different memorialists at different times and in different places that two decades of scholarship has revealed.

Specifically, Couric’s narration observes that the vast majority of Confederate monuments were dedicated during the height of Jim Crow, and maintains that buttressing racial control was the primary reason for them. While most of the 650-plus Confederate monuments were dedicated by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) between the 1890s and mid-1920s—the same years as the height of lynching, the onset of de jure segregation, and increased efforts to disenfranchise black men in the South—there were several other factors that figured into the surge of monument building. First, these years represented the high point of membership in veterans’ organizations—both Union and Confederate—and their respective women’s associations. The flurry of building Union and Confederate monuments during these decades aligned almost exactly with the prominence of veterans’ groups. Moreover, the 1890s witnessed more veterans in Congress than any other decade, and therefore more efforts to establish national battlefield parks replete with monuments that honored both sides in the name of reconciliation. Second, and related, these decades also witnessed the deaths of many aging veterans, leading to a rush of tributes—most often in the form of stone statuary.

In pointing out these other factors, I am not suggesting that white supremacy played no role in monument building. Indeed, white southerners realized that Confederate memorials served a secondary purpose of reminding African Americans of the racial hierarchy (and monuments to so-called faithful slaves such as those at Fort Mill, South Carolina, were especially blatant about this). But the monuments were not necessary to prop up Jim Crow. The law and extralegal violence of lynching did that. In laying out this broader context I ask my students to consider the multiple factors that went into the memorial landscape. When we point to only one factor, we flatten out the story.

Memory and the Present

This film offers a powerful reminder that memory is always about the present—about using the past to address social, cultural, and or political ideals. When Union veterans launched textbook campaigns in the late 19th century to ensure that the “proper,” i.e. the “Union,” version of the war was taught in classrooms, or when southern states began flying the Confederate battle flag during Massive Resistance, it was about the present, not the past. Such was and is the case in dedicating monuments, naming schools or state highways, flying the Confederate flag, or removing Confederate symbols and names. This documentary provides a stark example: Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler candidly (and chillingly) explains that the alt-right rallied in Charlottesville to protect Lee’s statue in an effort to push back against the “policies of liberals [who] are ethnically cleansing white people from the face of the earth.” Just as the context of the early 20th century shaped efforts to build monuments, the current social and political climate informs calls to both remove and preserve them.

We need to press our students (and perhaps ourselves) to ask what is at the heart of protecting certain symbols or names, constructing new memorials to forgotten aspects of our past, or removing from the public landscape those we have come to evaluate differently in the 21st century. Who should get to make those decisions? What power dynamics are at play? Whom or what do they serve? And can we, as the documentary’s title suggests, ever “re-right” the past?

Caroline E. Janney is professor of history at Purdue University. She is the author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2016).

Editor’s Note: To learn more about how historians have engaged with the issues raised by Confederate monuments, particularly in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, check out the AHA’s resource guide.

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