Re-Righting History

Katie Couric’s new show on National Geographic Channel debuted on April 11, 2018 with an episode on confederate monuments, including the violence perpetrated by the neo-Nazi proconfederate racists in Charlottesville.

You can access the episode here if you missed it.

Or here, for as long as it’s available on YouTube:

This was a pretty good episode. Ms. Couric looks at different views of the issue. As usual, the neoconfederate viewpoint supporting leaving the monuments where they are is made up of fake history. Ms. Couric also interviews reputable historians such as Gary Gallagher. She also speaks with responsible local citizens who both want to keep monuments and move monuments.

Historian Caroline Janney, who is taking over for Gary Gallagher as Professor of History and Director of the Nau Civil War Center at the University of Virginia, has this review of the episode. She writes, in part, “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?”

Although generally positive, Professor Janney also points out some shortcomings in the show. “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.”

Take a look at the episode and see for yourself. It’s very well done.

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