I came across this article by Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University. He says it is offensive to celebrate the confederacy. Is he right?
He asks, “Is the purpose to intimidate African-Americans with a symbol of white racial supremacy?” His answer is, “Undoubtedly so, for many displayers.” Many, not all. Of those who don’t have that purpose, he writes, “Clearly, for many others, Confederate symbolism represents a way to venerate ancestors who fought in the Civil War or admiration for the skills and bravery of the Confederate officers and soldiers they have read or heard about The historian James C. Cobb, in his book ‘Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity,’ takes note of the many European ‘bad-boy bikers,’ street gangs and others of the ‘boogie-till-you-puke crowd’ who use Confederate symbolism as a ‘countercultural message’ to their societies.”
His thesis in the article is, “It was the rallying symbol of a nation dedicated to the preservation of slavery in North America. If we cast a clear eye on the events that created the Confederate States of America in the first place, we can see just why celebrating the Confederacy is offensive.”
His first point in support of that position is, “First, we need to recall that although sectional bitterness between the North and the South began decades before the Civil War, the Southern states never would have left the Union and formed the Confederacy in the winter of 1860-1861 had not a high percentage of Southerners decided that the newly elected U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and his antislavery Republican Party posed either an immediate or long-term threat to slavery (or what they euphemistically often called their ‘institutions’).”
His second point is, “Second, we need to recall just how the Confederacy was created: Southern state legislatures called for elections of delegates to special state conventions, which were given authority to pull their states out of the Union by majority vote of the attendees. … These legislatures and state conventions were disproportionately in the hands of slaveholders, even though only a minority of white Southern families owned slaves.”
His final supporting point is, “Finally, we need, simply, to listen — listen to what Confederate leaders said while they were in the process of creating their new nation. Mississippi’s secession convention felt a need to explain to the state’s citizens (and the world) why it was taking the drastic step of leaving the Union. Its ‘Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union’ said, unabashedly: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’ ”
Additionally, he quotes Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech:” “In a speech in Savannah about a month after the Confederacy was formed, the new nation’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, told his audience that the Confederacy was an attempt to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of equality. Rather, ‘Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its … cornerstone rests upon the great truth … that slavery — subordination to the superior race’ was the appropriate role for African-Americans.”
He allows that “Most of Dixie’s soldiers probably did not go marching off to war as crusaders for slavery. Many were driven by hopes of defending their state, homes and families, and others had romantic thoughts of adventure or achieving fame in battle. Some did not even want to fight at all — they were drafted.”
However, that doesn’t let the confederacy off the hook. “Regardless, they were fighting for a nation designed to perpetuate slavery forever in the United States and possibly extend it southward into Latin America. The Confederacy’s leaders were fortunate to escape being hung or jailed for treason when they lost. They hardly deserve celebratory remembrances today. Displaying their flag is an insult not only to African-Americans but also to all Americans who believe in human equality.”
I would differentiate between the confederacy and individual confederate soldiers. I think descendants of confederate soldiers are more than justified in honoring their ancestors. I think Professor May’s article doesn’t make that distinction, whether he intended to or not. I think many individual confederates had admirable qualities, and I see nothing wrong with giving them due recognition. I submit that’s not the same as celebrating the confederacy.
What do you think?