Perceptions and Meaning of the Confederate Flag: An Interview with Two Scholars
Editor’s Note: In the wake of the massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, President Lincoln’s Cottage sat down with historians Dr. Vernon Burton of Clemson University and Dr. Edna Medford of Howard University to discuss perceptions and meaning of the Confederate flag currently and in popular memory. Using the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Presidential Oral History standards as a guideline, we present a transcript of the conversation.
All photographs are courtesy of the Library of Congress.
President Lincoln’s Cottage: Is there anything about the events over the past few months, the massacre in Charleston, the Confederate flag being removed from the S.C. state house grounds, that surprised you?
Dr. Vernon Burton: When they asked me about the flag coming down I said I was not as optimistic as most people were. I actually thought it might not come down. It’s something I had hoped for my whole life just about. I think I certainly was surprised. I think the difference, the real difference, wasn’t so much outside forces or so much the influence of Governor Nikki Haley, or from business. But I really think it ironically was really part of Southern Heritage. We’re so used to seeing the bad side of Southern Heritage with waving the flag and what it means. But when the victims’ families spoke about grace, forgiveness, for this horrible, horrible murder, and asking God to forgive him. And President Obama reflected those words when he gave his speech, grace. If you listened on both sides of the aisle, of the legislators again and again, people appealed to another Southern cultural tradition, the culture of faith. The other thing we have to remember and often forget is that when the flag went up on top of the State House Capitol, there wasn’t a single African American state legislator, even though the number was in large proportion. With the Voting Rights Act, it was not until 1970 and the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Federal Government and a special election in 1983 that the first black state senator was elected. But what a difference that made. What a difference it made to have black and white views at the table actually having a dialogue about what this meant. I was really pleasantly surprised that people spoke would speak about their colleagues and their dear friend who they respect so much, Senator Pinckney, and I think it shows the way the Voting Rights Act made a difference and secondly that the way religion played out in this is phenomenal. So I was surprised and pleasantly so.
Dr. Edna Medford: I think I was most surprised with how quickly things changed, and how quickly attitudes need to change. Even so I’m concerned that this is not permanent, that it is the flavor of the month, that people were rallying around the idea of removing the flag, because everyone was upset that nine people had been murdered. So it was politically correct to get on board. But that after a period of time, we would go back to right where we were before. And I’m still not certain that’s not the case. I’m not so sure this is a permanent change. It’s easy to remove a symbol, it’s not easy to change people hearts. I’ve seen it, I was in Richmond over the weekend, and they were preparing for a rally in support of the flag in Petersburg. The reporters asked two young people, a young white man and a young white woman, about why they supported the flag. They both said it was the “heritage” and the reporter asked what it was about the heritage, and neither of them could answer that. They’re just repeating what they’ve heard so often. But they really don’t understand what it is that the flag and those symbols represent, to people that don’t have their background. And so I’m fearing that there’s going to be a backlash because people are saying you can’t take away all of our heritage. And I think it’s because we don’t understand who we are as a nation and what the [Civil] War really was about. Until we learn to do, and start at a very early age, we’re going to keep having these issues.
VB: I agree with Edna, I don’t think it’s an easy thing to remove the symbol. It’s very difficult and that’s why I was surprised. But I think what Edna is saying is also what’s worrying me. The flag is only a symbol. What really matters is why in a state that until 1940… [was a] black-majority state, why would this flag be flown and particularly what the flag had come to mean. It was ubiquitous when I was growing up. And I’m not sure everyone understood, especially whites, what the flag meant at that time. I’ll give you a strange example. I was a member of the Southern organizing committee who fought against segregation and [for] voting rights. And we were naïve enough to have a black and white hand clasping over a Confederate flag, the battle flag of Virginia. That was then, many years ago, this is now.
There is no doubt now that no one could not understand it symbolized first a fight to keep people enslaved and for slavery, and even more importantly, ultimately, in 1948 White Supremacists understood what it meant. And starting [at] that time with Harry Truman integrating the military and asking for a commission [on] and [a] bill of civil rights, the Dixiecrat Party is formed and Strom Thurmond runs on that party, and they used it as their symbol and they were a party opposed to integration, opposed to African Americans rights. And throughout the Civil Rights Movement it was flown as a symbol of opposition to African Americans’ rights as citizens. The larger issue is why was it done for so long while knowing this, and secondly, we should not forget the larger problems that go along with this idea of White Supremacy and white privilege. This is the issue like [the] school to prison pipeline, the disparities in education the disparities in wealth, the disparities in wages. Those sorts of issues. I agree with Edna but I do think getting the flag down was an important first step, and I don’t think it was easy as I said. I had predicted it probably wouldn’t happen.
PLC: What messages are you hearing about these symbols being removed or retained? Is removing these symbols enough? Is it symbolic, of change that has occurred, change that’s to come, or is it simply symbolic of appeasement?
EM: I think it does show that there has been some change, but I think this movement that we’re seeing at the moment, I’m afraid it’s not permanent. That’s the big issue for me. It became… I’m afraid people saw it as the right thing to do because the shooting was so horrific. But people will forget and go back to where we were. It’s the underlying issues. That flag represents oppression [and] hate; it represents a heritage based at least in part in slavery. I don’t think people really understand that, they don’t accept that. Once we get over the fact that a State Senator was murdered along with eight of his parishioners, we will go back to accepting the flag as a symbol that’s okay. We are also very resistant or reluctant to look at Confederate symbols as representing pride in what was done by a group of people to their nation.
We tend to forget that this was disloyalty. It isn’t even about how black people felt about the flag. It’s about what that flag and other Confederate symbols represent to the rest of the nation. Unless we’re willing to deal with that history, we’re not ever going to change. Now what I’m saying is that we know that all of these issues were there before. Racism has always been there. Prejudice. Discrimination. Oppression. They’ve all been there. But the hate speech seems to have come out more since Obama was elected president. When we were talking in 2008 [about] “a post-racial” society, some people felt we’d turned a corner. But I think what this shows is that we’re not there yet. Just because the flag has been taken down, doesn’t mean we haven’t actually made a step towards reaching a post-racial society. Not at all. Not when we still can’t say we came to get this done. But what are we doing about all the rest of the issues in the African American community? It isn’t just about the symbols.
VB: I think that was a terrific answer by Edna.
You could look at it all three ways and give a valid answer any way. What I had said earlier still goes. Some of the people in the legislature in South Carolina who voted to bring down the flag finally, were some of the same people who were sponsoring and arguing for a strict photo voter ID law in South Carolina that I testified against in Washington, D.C. I think that some of the ambiguity that Edna is addressing as well – these issues are all related in our society. It’s too easy to say we’ve solved the problem. That is my concern. That by bringing the flag down, we are no longer racist. I will say that now the NAACP can remove their boycott, the flag is no longer flying. That has not addressed the underlying issues. At the same time I think it’s a significant step when you see how closely people were arguing and tied to this idea of heritage and not seeing or at least not admitting things to other people.
I was struck that Lindsey Graham was on national TV shows and saying that it was heritage and then a day or two later was standing with Nikki Haley and others arguing it should be taken down. A lot of it had to do with how the victims’ family reacted, the business Republicans, and Nikki Haley’s hopes for a career outside of South Carolina since this is her second term and she can’t run again. So there are a lot of things going on and I do share Edna’s concern that taking the flag down and letting people say we’ve solved the problems. We haven’t solved the problems. That flag was just a symbol of what the problems are. In an ironic way I think the heritage people have a point in that it is just a symbol that means bad things to a large group of people, but it doesn’t address the racism and white supremacy that has gone on in America for a long time and continues.
Dr. Medford to Dr. Burton: Are you concerned that this is getting to the point where there is going to be a major backlash? The flag is down now, but people are saying we need to remove all the monuments to Confederate officers, like Lee [and] Davis, and we need to change the names of the schools and the parks.
VB: There is definitely a backlash. With the flag and symbols we’re going to make progress. At Clemson we’re dealing with [Ben] Tillman Hall and I’m seeing progress made. It doesn’t solve the problems, but what I’m most hopeful about is dialogue. With the flag, I saw dialogue on both sides of the aisle that I never imagined was possible in the State Legislature in South Carolina. People are beginning to talk about this, and learn from history books and not just the monument they see that glorify White Supremacists. As part of the compromise to get the flag removed from the top of the State House to where it was just removed from in front of the State House [at] the Confederate Memorial, they built a memorial to African Americans. They specifically said it couldn’t represent any individuals in the memorial. Not a single African American is named on the State House grounds in South Carolina. That’s where we learn our history and see who our role models are going to be, who we recognize. I had to change that because Strom Thurmond’s family added his African American daughters’ names. But that’s a little bit different.
All the named buildings are for people like Wade Hampton, who led the overthrow of an interracial government. Or “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the prototype of the Southern demagogue. Or James F. Burns who was one of the most hounded politicians from being the Cardinal Richelieu of the Senate to Secretary of State to serving on the Supreme Court and literally came back to South Carolina to fight integration and support segregation. And then Strom Thurmond was the Dixiecrat candidate. Those are the kind of issues that really bother me. At a minimum we need to put up monuments of some people who stood up against the grain, especially African Americans. There are a lot of them in South Carolina. And then tell the full story if we don’t take down Tillman Statue. Let’s say that he represents one thing to a certain group of people, education for whites, better representation for the upcountry. But he also advocated for lynching and led disenfranchisement. So that’s important. At least we have a dialogue going now. If nothing else, let’s try to convince people [that] we have to tell the whole story. Because people do in fact get their role models from people we hold up, build statues to, and name buildings after. It’s not just a symbolic thing. But it says to young folks, if you want to have a monument raised to you, come back and fight for White Supremacy.
Confederate veteran Alfred Waddell led the overthrow of Wilmington’s (N.C.) integrated city government in 1898.
PLC: People are so used to hearing and saying that the victors write history. How does the Lost Cause narrative play into 21st century understandings of the Civil War and its symbols?
EM: I’ve always been taken aback by how the whole nation, and how the North, is complicit in this whole Lost Cause thing. It’s almost like at some point the North became embarrassed at having won the war, so in order to release themselves from their guilt they decided to allow the South to take pride in what they had done, even to the point where people have embraced Southern heritage in a way one wouldn’t expect. So I don’t quite understand what’s going on then. But when the North did that, it made it possible for these kinds of things to occur. For the flag, and all its symbolism to dictate how people would respond to what the war was about. It’s not a Southern problem, it’s a national problem, it does have to do with us not being willing to accept what the war was about. Everyone understands it’s difficult to look back at what happened 150 years ago. It was a terrible time in American history. But if we can’t acknowledge that people’s lives were destroyed and the country was imperiled, we can’t move forward. That’s the responsibility of all of us. It’s really easy to say that those who honor the flag are doing something wrong, but the reality is as a nation we have given people the right, almost encouraged them to honor the flag and to honor Confederate symbols. So we’re all responsible for that.
VB: I got in a lot of trouble at the first Fort Sumter [ceremony at] the beginning of the [Civil War] sesquicentennial [saying] that the flag represented treason and that they need to think about the difference of celebrating versus commemorating the flag at Fort Sumter. Actually, the Sons of Confederacy started to march away, they were part of the thing. But then they realized we were on Fort Sumter [an island] and they couldn’t get away so they came back. What I said was we think of December 7th as a day of infamy, we think of September 11th as this horrible event. And it was very similar to the firing on Fort Sumter. This was an act against the United States. That’s not something to be celebrated…. I wrote the Age of Lincoln [and] I tried to argue that you can’t really separate Reconstruction from the Civil War. It’s really the Long Civil War. So who won Reconstruction? In the end, the Confederates came back in control, who through violent coup d’état overthrew legitimate interracial governments. So in some ways, they ironically became the victors of the Long Civil War.
EM: No, absolutely, you’re right.
VB: As Edna said, the North was supporting this; they literally didn’t stop the overthrow of democratically elected governments. In that case, who does it mean actually won?
EM: That’s a good point.
VB: It dovetails nicely with Edna’s comment about the North being complicit, in the sense that they didn’t do anything [to stop] this terroristic campaign. I’ve always said that we think of terror and 9/11, but for African Americans, they have lived in a terroristic society and been victims of terror with someone like Tillman advocating for lynching, churches and school burnings didn’t start with this even in Charleston. There’s a long history in that church itself, it has a long history of assassinations, of whites assassinating people, burning that church. So part of the African American experience in America is being subject to a terroristic society with very little ways to appeal politically, legally, out of that. So it is complicit.
One of my PhDs wrote a little interesting piece that people misunderstood when he said people should remember that when the Confederates left the Union, they thought they were sort of the inheritors of America. They still thought of themselves as Americans. The sense of that is White Supremacy was very much an American value, that they were championing that. If you look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates I think that gets at something of the complicity Edna was talking about.
PLC: How have your students used, discussed, and treated symbols of the Confederacy in the past? And has that changed in light of recent events?
VB: Even different than that, what really shocked me at Clemson when I first came there, was the sense of grievance after the election of Obama [in 2008]. As if white students thought they were being put upon. They couldn’t say certain things or express their views. I was in shock. That goes along with initially after the shooting. You heard a lot more from students defending and saying – not all but a significant number – saying this is about heritage, not hate. That started to drop off after the Republican leaders in South Carolina – after Governor Haley announced her intent to try to get the legislature to take the flag down. Initially you heard a lot of it among the students that it doesn’t mean that, it’s just a heritage thing. People could have might argued that 30-40 years ago. I used to say to my students and other people.
Harvey Gent, the first person to integrate schools in 1963, even though it was after Brown v. Board. It’s the last state to integrate under court pressure. And Harvey Gent used to say if you can’t appeal to the morals of a South Carolinian, you can at least appeal to their manners. I used to tell student, now I’m not trying to tell you how to think, but even if you think this, and you realize that the battle flag of Virginia, which was not South Carolina’s in the first place, came to represent and has represented for decades for African Americans a championing of enslavement, [a] fight to make slavery viable, then it becomes a flag that has become symbolic of opposition to blacks’ rights as equal citizens. As I said, particularly starting in 1948, it became the flag of those opposing integration, opposing voting rights. And this continued – for it to be that symbol. If you really want to claim that you have such pride in Southern heritage, then deny the manners that you would fly this? Remember Robert E. Lee didn’t want the Confederate flag, the battle flag of Virginia, certainly not used at his funeral. I’ve made some headway with that but not much.
EM: Certainly here at Howard, students have had the attitude that the flag shouldn’t be flown, that it does belong in a museum, that Confederate leaders shouldn’t be celebrated because what they did was treasonous. But in terms of what happened in South Carolina, with the tragedy and then the flag being pulled down – with the tragedy my students didn’t see it as something out of the ordinary, unfortunately. It was no surprise. For them, this is what America is. Every day, they live their lives expecting that something bad will happen to them. They certainly wouldn’t’ have expected someone coming into the church, even if we’ve had that history of churches being burned and Christians attacked. But they almost expect that they’re going to be disrespected by the police, that somebody is ready, waiting in the shadows to do them in. It’s business as usual to them. It’s a hard part that I’ve had with them is to try to get them to see that despite the fact that racism still continues in this country, the issues have more to do than just individuals, it’s more systematic than that. They think it’s more than just an individual act, but I think they then feel they have to be wary of every white person they meet.
What I’d like them to understand is that just as you don’t want to be judged by your affiliation with a race, you should not be doing that to other people. You shouldn’t be looking at every white person as a potential enemy because their skin is white. But it’s hard to explain that to students when they’re being bombarded daily with these issues, whether it’s because they’re being murdered for being black, being stopped by the police, being hassled some place when they’re trying to have fun. It’s become a serious problem. I think more so than when I first started working here 22 years ago. I think students have become more hardened, they expect the worst now. They think they’re prepared for it, and it’s kind of a defeatism there. That they’ll never be regular American citizens because regular American citizens are never going to treat them that way. So they go out expecting confrontation. This whole issue with this guy who was shot recently because his car lurched forward… I don’t know if he was trying to get away. I expect that at some point he really expected a confrontation by the police before.
I’ve been stopped by the police before and I too felt there was going to be a confrontation here unless I’m very, very careful. I was stopped with husband many years ago and the police officer was absolutely outrageous. My husband is a very forceful person and I would have expected him to respond in a very negative way but I was surprised at his demeanor. He did everything right because he understood that our lives were in danger and it didn’t matter he was a lawyer working for the D.C. government at the time. But he played it right. And I think a lot of black men and women especially are fed up and feel that they shouldn’t have to “play it right.” That they shouldn’t have to cower in front of police officers. That they should have the same rights as everyone else. More so now—maybe not more so now. But those recorders that the police officers have, they’re actually recording what’s actually been happening for a long, long time. My students are aware of that. And I think they really do feel vulnerable at this time and place, to what’s been going on for a long time but what’s more visible now.
VB: But what I think Edna said about the election of Obama and a hope of a post-racial society… it has actually brought out the worst part. People did react in the wrong way with this. Just because I’ve done the Texas and South Carolina photo voter ID cases, those two laws were brought about in the “crisis” that was perceived when Obama ran and you had a significant African American minority turn out. And I think that went off in all sorts of ways – the disrespect of Obama by Representative Wilson of South Carolina here saying “You lie.” Those sort of things. It’s no wonder your students feel that way. I do think these things have existed in society. We now have more coverage of it. With the Civil Rights movement, people didn’t believe the horrors of Reconstruction. Civil Rights Movement was captured on television. People saw the horror when the Civil Rights movement was caught on camera. It made a huge difference. They couldn’t deny police dogs and [water] hoses were set on people and peaceful protesters.
PLC: Have there been conversations amongst students, faculty, and administrators about graffiti and other acts of civil disobedience regarding symbols of the Confederacy?
EM: I don’t know that has happened here on this campus. I don’t doubt the students have been meeting with certain professors who are activists. I know students have been very much involved with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and #BlackVotesMatter. I doubt seriously they’ve had discussions with the administration. In fact I know it’s been rather [difficult] with individual professors who have attempted to guide them in the right direction, responding appropriately without endangering their lives, because students can sometimes become very emotional, understandably about these things. I know that when the Baltimore incident occurred, some of my students went up there and were protesting, and came back and told me they were protesting. And my comment to them was, “Well, I hope you were protesting appropriately. I hope you weren’t breaking into people’s property because then you wouldn’t be any better than the people who started this in the first place.” You know, I’m the old lady in the department. How could I know anything about protest? Sometimes I have to tell them when I was a freshman at Hampton [University], I was very much involved in protests against police brutality, and I learned some things from being in those protests. I’ve been more careful, I’ve been more discriminating about what I get involved in, I want to make sure what I’m involved in is for the right reasons and not an emotional response. So there are some of us that are tempting to explain that there are appropriate ways to respond. And so far I think that’s happening.
Senator Ben Tillman on African Americans: "We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."
PLC: Is there any outrage about Tillman Hall at Clemson?
VB: It’s primarily been an African American graduate student from Decatur, Illinois, who did the Tigers on the Stripe on YouTube. He was pointing out that the stripes – he’s coming from the North – that those stripes represent the stripes on the backs of enslaved peoples as well as the stripes on the primarily African American convicts who built Clemson. It had a lot of actual blowback and anger and some got really nasty.
On Tillman Hall, the faculty senate was going to vote and they said there was no way they’d vote to change the name of Tillman Hall, so they asked me to come speak at least to put it in perspective for the faculty who were arguing to change the name. So I agree to come and give a talk and I felt good after it even though the Provost said we don’t want this, please don’t do this. But after I spoke – he was there, I did a power point – the Senate voted overwhelmingly to change it. The Trustees just said absolutely not. Now the interesting thing is after this massacre the Trustees are now under consideration and going to form a committee.
After that, the Clemson Alumni magazine asked me if I would take my remarks and write up an article about the memorials. And they took out some things I wish they hadn’t. Before hand, I said I’d only do it if you promised to publish it. They promised me, gave me their word it would be published. I prayed a lot about it…The day it was supposed to go into press for production some woman called me in tears. Someone somewhere said he had to pull the article. That’s how divisive the issue is. And that’s before the massacre.
But now at least there’s been some movement. They’re setting up a committee to look into these naming practices. So I have some hope that we will move in this direction. I even offered a compromise of Matthew Perry-Tillman Hall. Matthew Perry was the black attorney who argued to get Gant in. Or Gant-Tillman Hall. At the minimum we had to tell the true story of what Tillman represented. And not just the part of it why he’s championed by whites, but also the worst of a Southern demagogue, who advocated lynching, who led the disenfranchisement of African Americans and led the legal segregation. But they pulled the article after they’ve given their word, really bothered me as you can imagine. At the same time I can see some progress. We’ll see where this committee that they’ve set up with the faculty will go because they initially stonewalled it and said “no way.” After the massacre, they say they’ll study it, which is better than saying they’re not going to do it.
PLC: How will this change how you teach the Civil War?
VB: I’ve always taught the history the way I’ve taught it. But I’ll use this particular incident to show what it took – this horrible, tragic event – for some people to recognize that this battle flag of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Armies of Tennessee was appropriated as a symbol of White Supremacy and hatred. This is what it took to for that kind of recognition to take down the flag. Memorialization and memory are about that kind of present, not about the past. I also think that this is a very teachable moment for us if we use it the right way. Out of this horrible, tragedy, we do have a teachable moment. I think this Clemson thing is a good example. They said they weren’t going to change it, it’s just part of our history, but now suddenly things are happening.
EM: I’m certainly not planning to change the way I teach. I already try to be very inclusive about how I approach history. My students know the basic facts of the war and beyond. I use a lot of primary sources. So I let them come to their own conclusions. I don’t believe that it’s my position or my right to tell them how to think. But I need to guide them to a variety of sources and let them come to an interpretation of what was occurring. It’s easy to be here on this campus, that is predominantly African American, and give a perspective on the war that is Afro-centric, but I think there is a problem there as well. In order to tell the complete history, you do have to look at it from various perspectives. You do have to let your students know – my favorite line of the justification of why the war is being fought is from the Confederate soldiers “I’m fighting because you’re down here.”
I’m sure that was the perspective of many students. I make sure to tell my students that most people didn’t own slaves. Most people didn’t benefit from slavery financially and certainly did benefit socially and in other ways. But my students hear the whole story and that story also means that they hear about the people who were fighting on the other side, the Union side, who were fighting for a variety of reasons as well. Not everybody was fighting to end slavery. In fact, as we all know, that’s not why they’re starting to begin with. It’s certainly about the expansion of slavery, it’s about the Union, it’s about secession. But I try to give a broader perspective to my students. They’re coming without knowing very much about the war or slavery or Reconstruction. It’s surprising to me that these African American students aren’t being told what was going on during that period. So they’re getting this for the very first time in most instances.
PLC: What role do or should historic sites play in today’s narratives about race and equality?
EM: Historic sites are doing a lot better job than they used to. I think the reason why African Americans even today, don’t go to sites, especially sites that deal with the war, is because we don’t feel that we’re really a part of that history. We understand we’re descended from enslaved people. But we don’t feel a part of America. I remember telling people once that most of us don’t go to Presidential Libraries. We don’t need even go to the Grand Canyon. I spent one day at the Grand Canyon, and there were hundreds of thousands of people at the Grand Canyon. I encountered six black people there that day, and three of them were from my own family. We don’t see ourselves as part of America, even after 150 years. We really don’t see ourselves as part of the country. So we’re not even going to these historic sites. For so long when I went to Civil War conferences, I might have been the only black person in the room. There would have been just four or five other people of color. That hasn’t changed very much over the years. It’s wonderful that these historic sites are beginning to deal with some of these issues. But we still have the problem of trying to get black people into these places. We have to get them to feel they have a right to be there. And that they should be there. And that there’s something there for them.
VB: I think Edna is right on target. But like what I said earlier, I think it’s so central, because it does tell the story. That’s where people learn their history, just like on the State House ground [and] Fort Sumter. Particularly, plantations and such in Charleston to understand exactly what those plantations were for – the forced labor, the constant threat of violence, if not the use of violence; what that’s done to black and white southerners and their culture. The emphasis on violence. I think all of that needs to be a part of our understanding because history is important. History is so important in a democracy, it’s so important to understand it. It’s why we have so many issues today. Why students reacted the way they did, they don’t know what Tillman stood for. Most of them totally don’t understand that the Civil War was a war about slavery. And those who do admit it think that slavery wasn’t that bad, a Gone with the Wind, Tara plantation mythology and don’t understand the horrors of slavery, the terrorism. It’s not until after 1965, the Voting Rights Act, that you can honestly say African Americans in the former confederate states didn’t live in a terroristic society. And there are still vestiges of that, what Edna was talking about. All those instances from Ferguson to Baltimore, North Charleston, this particular horrible massacre at Mother Emmanuel, the church of such significance fighting for black rights against terror that has been released on that church again and again.
We put our history into sequence and one things leads to another. We have to understand that. That’s why people have so many problems understanding what affirmative action is, what other kind of issues are. They don’t put things into their historical context. When they do, they don’t know much more than what’s in the celebrated monuments of James Burns and Ben Tillman.
PLC: How do historic sites train staff to deal with inappropriate visitor comments?
EM: We can’t solve all the problems over night. We can only try to move forward. I’m hearing great things about what’s happening at the Cottage. I ran into one of my colleagues here on campus who had taken her students over. I was angry with her because I would have wanted to go with her. I had offered to accompany them. But she said she found out that you were there. It was an English class, not a history class. She thought it would be such a great experience. This is really great. If we can get more people to do that. African Americans have to understand that this place exists for us too. I agree with Vernon. People are getting a lot of their history at historic sites. But if African Americans are not participating in it, we are not benefiting; it’s really unfortunate. It’s so hard to convince people they are welcomed. That they don’t have to feel uncomfortable going to historic sites. It’s a part of their history too. It’s really difficult to get them to see that. So no matter what you’re doing sometimes it’s going to be for naught. There’s only so much you can do there. If people aren’t hearing they’re welcome, you can’t force them to come. You can only make sure they’re getting the message they’re three. Offering something useful to them. And then hope they’ll take the time to partake in it.
PLC: Where do we go from here?
EM: In terms of your site, continue doing what you’re doing because I think you’ve been very successful with that. In terms of what we do with symbols and how we want to commemorate our past, I think Vernon is right, it has to begin with discussions. I’m reminded that when Clinton was president he had a commission on race. It went nowhere. I think it just scratched the surface. And I think people didn’t want to have candid discussions about what was going on in the country and what had gone on in the country to move forward. If we as a nation can do that, if we can acknowledge what the past has been, what the present is, and what the future could be if we work together, we can resolve those issues together. We’re so afraid to talk. I understand that we’re supposed to be politically correct. But maybe we should be less politically correct. Maybe we need to get in a room and say exactly what we need to say. And have the other person actually listen to what we’re trying to say. And maybe that’s the beginning.
VB: I think that we need to deal with the history of White Supremacy, what it’s meant. We need to do that in history courses. We need to do that in terms of the horrors of our history – the sort of violent over throws of democratic governments. We’re coming up on [the sesquicentennial anniversary] of Reconstruction. People argue that the identity of America is found in the Civil War. And yet I think what we became is in fact hammered out during Reconstruction. As I’ve argued you cannot separate one from the other. I hope we can use that as an opportunity to reconsider what reconstruction was, what it meant, and the opportunities that were there and the lessons. [Historian] C. Van Woodward used to say that revolutions do go backwards. I think that’s what Edna was saying earlier about her concern about the backlashes. There was a backlash to the election of President Obama. We can’t let that happen.
What I’m hoping for, and what I’m seeing some hopeful signs of, is true dialogue. A lot of people say we talk too much but, as Edna suggested, we haven’t talked to each other; we talk past each other or refuse to hear. The tragic situation was the first time certain legislators in South Carolina actually listened. I read the transcripts and it was amazing for people to say “I am going to vote to take this flag down because it hurts my friend, the African American Senator’s or Representative’s feelings.” If we can have dialogue, I’d like to think that if this were Lincoln’s Cottage, we can appeal to out better angels. I hate to think it takes this horrible massacre tragedy to make us think about those better angels, but I’d like to think that there’s an opportunity here that we can continue dialogue. At the same time, I do worry about the backlash that Edna mentioned. I’d like to think people can work things out at a time when people don’t believe in compromises.
South Carolinian Robert Smalls who emancipated himself during the Civil War and served nearly a decade in Congress in the 1870s and 1880s.
There are ways that we can understand how these people are named for buildings and monuments, to explain what these things mean. I don’t mean to mislead. It is a very beautiful monument to African Americans on the State House grounds. But the idea that it’s not supposed to represent a Denmark Vesey or a Dr. Benjamin Mayes or even Judge Perry. And then you have an African American in an astronaut suit who is of course Ron McNair. But to deny that – that part of the whole thing was to not single out individuals – but to look at a group of people, when I think of we have so many role models that we can hold up. Like from my hometown Dr. Ben Mayes, who understood the humanity of his oppressors, instead of Preston Bush who they have a monument of. There might not be a Dr. King memorial if there wasn’t a Dr. Mayes. Or people who lost everything who we don’t even see as heroes but were truly heroic who brought the Brown v. Board case ending segregation. These were real country folks who risked everything for the betterment of their children and these are people we can tell their stories and put monuments to them on the state house grounds, instead of what we’ve done, at least in South Carolina. Some states do better. But certainly we have not in the state of South Carolina. Also linking the Civil Rights Movement from the Civil War to present day. We have another group of extraordinary heroic folks, instead of the ones we put monuments up to.
We also need to deal with the real issues. The flag is a symbol. But it’s what’s underneath that really matters. How do we get to that very difficult place that we can get people to recognize what that flag was a symbol of? It was part of a culture; it was a ubiquitous part of that culture. Why did it take this to remove something that had such a horrible connotation to a significant group of people? There are seven state flags that evoke the Confederate flag, which again, these flags are the flags of the state. Many of these states have significant African American populations in them, so that flag has a particular meaning for folks that is not a good one. There is a lot to be done on both the real level, of dealing with the lingering and continued effects of an enslaved people, and then later at best second-class citizens without the same privileges. The redlining, the denial of opportunity for African Americans. It was after I left at the mill that African Americans that were allowed to work in the cotton mill, which was the only job besides farming. How do we deal with all these effects? People don’t understand how one layer of oppression builds upon another. Someone is starting with a heavy load on their shoulders and is ten yards behind in the race.
So I think that’s important. That we deal with those issues. That’s the thing I tried to layout in the photo ID cases that we tackled about. I’m absolutely amazed people don’t understand this in history. Historians have done an amazing job in the last 20 years. Historians have done a lot better job. Why has the public not grasped it? Why is it that the general reader the general citizen isn’t understanding the work that’s been done in history? We have to do better to understand the difference between commemorating and celebrating. There has never been a real commemoration of Reconstruction. I think that’s important. The National Park Service is actually looking into that now, so I’m hopeful that’s a positive sign.
EM: I agree with everything Vernon has said. I too am concerned with that fact that we are working so hard as historians to present a balanced history, a complete history, and it seems it’s not getting down to the masses, and that’s truly unfortunate.
VB: I’ve said often that two things changed the American South: air condition and the Voting Rights Act. It’s ironic in this time of not great support for education that we understand more about how much air condition works—because if we care about anything in education it’s science and technology—and not how the Voting Rights Act worked when it’s the center of democracy. It’s what Abraham Lincoln understood, that democracy is not static, it moves forward, it retreats. It is depressing when we see periods of retreat. I think it’s important we have to be vigilant and get our history. I’m not talking about celebrations. But to get the history, the interpretations we get out to the general public in ways they can understand it. At least they would have to confront it. Right now it can be ignored.
EM: Absolutely. So much of it depends on what flies in Texas. Texas has so much to say about what goes into our textbooks, unfortunately.
Dr. Orville Vernon Burton is Professor of History and Computer Science at Clemson University, the Director of the Clemson CyberInstitute, and a member of the President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisory Group.
Dr. Edna Greene Medford is Professor, current Chair, former director of the Department of History’s graduate and undergraduate programs at Howard University; and a member of the President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisory Group.