Category Archives: Confederacy

Memories of the Confederacy and Black Lives Matter

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Lee Park, Charlottesville, Virginia

I have written about my family’s Confederate heritage in the past here at the blog (see here and here). My grandparents were like second parents to my brother and I growing up. They sought to instill in us an appreciation and love for our Southern heritage and for our ancestors who helped shape it.

As a child and as a young man, I idolized my grandmother and grandfather. In many ways, I still do. They died when I was in my early twenties–and over twenty years after their deaths, I still have the urge sometimes to pick up the phone to call them (I still remember their phone number with the same ease I remember my date of birth; and I still carry their house key on my key ring). Their portraits hang in my house and I keep their memory alive by talking about them with my children. So, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between my love for them and my yearning to honor their memory from how I think about the South with all its historical complexities. I love the South and much of its history because I associate it with my family, to which of course I will always be devoted.

And yet, I am ashamed that my ancestors were slave owners, and that some of them were instrumental in defining the pro-slavery positions argued in public discourse during the 1840s and 50s. Some of my ancestors served as senior officers in the Army of Northern Virginia and another in the Confederate Senate. After the war, some of my ancestors’ former slaves continued to serve as domestic servants. I wrote about some of those former slaves here.

On the issue of the propriety of displaying Confederate monuments in public places, my views have changed over the years. If you had asked me five years ago about whether or not it was appropriate to display monuments commemorating the Confederacy, I would have advocated for it strenuously. But spending time reading Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West, and other African-American writers; after building building relationships with scholars of African-American history like Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Edward Blum, Edward Carson, Keisha Blain, Robert W. Williams, Vincent Bacote (a theologian), and others in the African American Intellectual History Society; after teaching in the Darrington prison, which is predominately black (and see Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness); and after reflecting on biblical teachings on unity in Christ and neighbor-love, I have come to see this issue of Confederate monuments in a different way.

For example, in my former home of Charlottesville, VA, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has kept vigil over the city square adjacent to the courthouse since the 1920s. It is an impressive statue, and the park where it sits, Lee Park, is beautiful and tranquil. Recently, a fifteen year old Charlottesville High School student started a petition to have the statue removed and to rename the park. The city council has taken up the issue and will decide on the fate of the park in the next month or so. As you might imagine, the issue is extremely controversial.

I recently co-authored a piece over at Then and Now with Edward Carson on this issue. In reflecting on the student’s petition, I am left to ask–who exactly is making the request that the statue be taken down and the park renamed? Is this a group of foreigners? Are they carpetbaggers? Are they outsiders? Or are they members of the community fully vested in its interests? In other words, are the people Charlottesvillians? Virginians? Americans?

If they are outsiders, then their request should be taken with a grain of salt. But if they are full fledged members of the community, then their voices should be taken seriously even by those who would disagree.

Consider a historical parallel. All over the colonies during the 1770s and 1780s, Americans were removing statues of George III. They did so because he no longer served as an appropriate symbol of the people. They were no longer his subjects. And it was entirely appropriate for them to remove those statues. Furthermore, the people hauling down the statues were not Frenchmen or Spanish interlopers. They were Americans. They had the legitimate emotional, political, logical, and historical bases to do so and nobody objected by calling on the historical value of statues of the king of England.

Robert E. Lee–notwithstanding the nobility of his character, his Christian faith, or even his magnanimous attitude after the war–is not a unifying symbol in Charlottesville, or anywhere else. As a symbol, Lee is divisive. To significant elements of our local communities all over the South, Lee is a repelling force. The question of whether or not he should be divisive as a symbol is another question. The fact is, he is.

The last thing Americans need is one more thing to divide them. We are already incurably divided up into factions so much so that another civil war actually seems possible. It is unfortunate indeed that no matter what happens with Lee Park–whether the statue stays or goes–the decision of the city council is going to be divisive.

But here I will offer some unsolicited advice to my friends who would advocate for keeping the statue. First, I am one of you. I have more than my share of Confederate heritage credentials. My great great great grandfather was Thomas R. R. Cobb, chairman of the Confederate Constitutional drafting committee, brigadier general under Longstreet, killed in action at Fredericksburg after hurling back the main Federal assault six times from the Sunken Road. My great great great uncle, Howell Cobb, was former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Secretary of the Treasury under Buchanan, major general in the Confederate army, and Confederate Senator from Georgia.

Second, we who love our Southern heritage need to honestly investigate the impact of our ancestors’ actions on black persons. We need to ask–why do African-American persons react the way they do to Confederate soldiers and statesmen? Why does the pain of slavery endure after all these years? How would we see a statue of Lee or Forrest or A. S. Johnston if we were black and growing up in a small Southern town? And what would we think about Confederate memorials if 7/8 of the period of our experience on this continent since 1619 was defined in terms of slavery or state sponsored apartheid?

Or let us think of the issue another way. What would we as Americans think about a statue displayed in a public park of George III? Or Santa Anna? Kaiser Wilhelm II? Yamamoto? Rommel? Ho Chi Minh? Saddam Hussein? Osama bin Laden? What do all of these figures have in common? The United States was at war with each of these leaders, and many of us can claim family members who fought and died to defeat them.

If black people are Americans, does it not make sense that those Americans would recoil from commemorating the enemy of their country?

We who have emotional attachments to the Southern Confederacy can honor our ancestors’ memory without continuing to ignore and marginalize the historical experiences of our fellow citizens who are African American. We can honor our ancestors’ memories, remembering that they were not gods, but sinful men and women. In honoring them, we must apply honesty and humility when we remember the meaning of their lives’ work, work which was not always performed for the flourishing of all persons. I know that my grandparents would not want me to deify them, but to remember them with honesty. I like to think that my nineteenth century ancestors would want the same.

A fellow conservative recently accused me of being PC friendly the other day because I said that there are valuable aspects to the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone–especially Christian people–should affirm the human personhood of black people. I don’t agree with everything associated (fairly or not) with Black Lives Matter. However, I do think that the statement “black lives matter” is true, and deeply meaningful given that American society has not historically affirmed the truth of that statement.

It is tragic indeed that African American persons often think they need to make the statement at all. It is also sad that more Christian people do not rise up in solidarity with black folks who see the necessity of making the statement.

Count me in as a white Southern conservative Christian who stands in solidarity with African Americans. From a Christian perspective, this seems to be a no-brainer: black lives matter.

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Racism, Exceptionalism, and the Confession of a Southern WASP

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Black folk start with the raw history, the raw reality and the mortality denied by most of American culture and civilization: that we are a people who have been on intimate terms with forms of death in the most death denying, death ducking, and death dodging of all modern civilizations. The mainstream may go sentimental and talk about purity and he or she who is pristine and for the happy ending but we start with slavery as a form of social death in the midst of this death denying civilization.
-Cornel West, University of Washington, Jessie and John Danz Lecture, April 27, 2001

This is such a fascinating statement from West, who was reflecting on the black experience in America from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.

West never mentioned the civil religious term “American exceptionalism” in this lecture of thirteen years ago, but he captured the collective African American ambivalence to the idea. While closed American exceptionalism (Americolatry) posits a pristine and innocent America, African Americans know better. African Americans encounter closed American exceptionalism from the perspective of having the shared historical and visceral experience of slavery and subsequently what West called the “institutional terrorism” of Jim Crow. No other ethnic group had this particular set of shared historical experiences.

Many of us white folks wonder why African Americans do not seem to be able to overcome slavery and Jim Crow as paradigmatic lenses in their collective interpretation of many of their contemporary social experiences in America. Why, many whites ask, must African Americans seem to always go back to race as the overarching explanation for social ills and injustices? Why, for example, do African Americans so frequently seem to first blame police in incidents such as the one involving Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO?

And why, some whites ask, do African Americans think that something called “white privilege” exists, even in the 21st century? And why is it that closed American exceptionalism is often more of a thing for white people and not as much for black people?

I must admit, I myself have been one of those white folks to ask such questions. For most of my life (and without realizing it), I have been a follower of one of Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. Specifically, Bacon’s idol of the cave has subtly enthralled me. This is a pattern of poor thinking that a person follows because his mental habits have been formed by his background, his education, his formative years, etc.

Let me explain: from my childhood, I revered my ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. My great-great-great uncle, Howell Cobb of Georgia, served as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan, and later represented Georgia in the Confederate Senate. His brother, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, was a Georgia attorney who codified the Georgia law code, founded the law school at the University of Georgia, and led the committee that drafted the Confederate Constitution. He served under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet as a Brigadier General at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The units under his command hurled back the main Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights from the Sunken Road, inflicting enormous casualties. Cobb was himself killed during the battle–Cobb County in Georgia is named for him.

My great-great-great grandfather is not only famous for these noteworthy achievements. He was also the leading proslavery spokesman for the Georgia legal community. He wrote An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America in 1858 in which he argued that slavery was essential to the maintenance of virtue in the American republic.

As I grew into an adult, studied Christian philosophy, theology, and the Bible, and then became a Christian intellectual historian, I grappled with the tension existing between the love and pride I have for my family and the base unrighteousness of the causes for which some of them dedicated their lives–slavery and Southern secession. As a Christian, as a member of my family, as an historian, and as a human person–I still grapple, still struggle.

But even as I have grappled with this great tension, as a white man I found it difficult to understand why race seemed to be one of the most powerful explanatory paradigms of social ills for African Americans. After all, from my perspective as a white man, I could see no racism anywhere near me. I was sure it happened occasionally, but since institutional racism was gone for the most part, what’s the problem, I thought.

This is a sad commentary on myself–not until recently have I begun to understand a bit better the answer to these questions about the role of race as explanatory paradigm for African Americans. As a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, I have not had the collective, historical experience of my country turning on me, whip or noose in hand. Now it’s true, hardly anyone in the 21st century has experienced this on an individual basis (although some have). But African Americans–as a people group–possess this historical experience of being on the receiving end of mortal persecution in America. And it has only been in the last fifty or so years out of three hundred ninety five years of African presence on this continent that individual African Americans have shared any semblance of equal status with whites in this country. That should be a particularly arresting fact for any honest person, white or black. It certainly has been for me.

Many white Southerners continue to embrace the heritage of their Confederate forbears. Some still display the Confederate flag, saying “heritage, not hate,” although those numbers are growing fewer and fewer year by year. Still, many native white Southerners like myself–maybe even the majority–would say that their historical experience as a people shaped their culture, their values, even their religious upbringing. It is normal and natural to make such a claim.

And many African Americans, like Dr. West, see their ethnic/historical/communal experience as defining them, shaping their interpretations of circumstances, forming their value systems, creating their culture, and constructing their cultural presuppositions. It is as normal for African Americans to be shaped by their historical and communal experiences in this country as it is for any ethnic group to be so shaped. If more whites could appreciate this profound fact about African Americans–and the representative legion of differences from their own historical/communal experience–perhaps some misunderstanding existing on the part of many whites could be ameliorated. This does not mean whites should respond with pity toward blacks. It means that whites think more about how to understand where blacks are coming from. It means that whites demonstrate more empathy as they consider how social ills in America often affect African Americans disproportionately. And it means that instead of debating whether or not there is such a thing as “white privilege,” whites could unite in solidarity with black and brown people to search for solutions to social ills before it is too late. We should all know by now, that if one ethnic group among us goes down, we all go down.

If I may, let me tell you about another relative of mine of whom I am very proud. My great uncle, the late Charles Weltner, served as U.S. Congressman representing the 5th district of Georgia (Fulton County). He was elected in 1962 and was the only representative from the Georgia delegation to the House to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He lost his seat in the ’64 election because he took that stand. But he didn’t care, because he knew that he was doing the right thing, and that knowledge sustained him.

That brings me back to the civil religious belief of American exceptionalism (what doesn’t, these days?). Closed American exceptionalism–the exceptionalism that leads to idolatry of the nation, because it sees the nation as innocent–refuses to engage in any form of critical self examination. In closed American exceptionalism, it’s “America, love it or leave it,” or “my country, right or wrong.” The problem here is that when the country is wrong, closed exceptionalists remain with the status quo and they hesitate to deal with genuine injustices. Rather, they diminish or deny those injustices. Those injustices fester, and ultimately create crises that tear the country apart (see War, Civil).

But open exceptionalism–that idea that calls on the unique ability of Americans to critically assess the morality of their actions–animates the advances America has made in the direction of justice for all.  Dissent makes America genuinely unique–exceptional–as a civilization. Open exceptionalists, like my Uncle Charles, find their dissenting voices and even though they may go down to defeat in the short term for taking their stands, even though some of them may even sacrifice their lives, they ultimately make invaluable contributions to the restoring of the beautiful ideals that make America truly wonderful–equality, human dignity, and God-given individual human rights.

Closed American exceptionalism shuts out the possibility of critical national self reflection. Therefore, as long as closed American exceptionalism abides as a dominant form of American self-identification, there will be little hope for racial reconciliation and understanding.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in reply to the question, “What is Americanism?” these words–

Americans in the immediate future should place most stress upon the abolition of the color line. Just so long as the majority of men are treated as inhuman, and legitimate objects of commercial exploitation, religious damnation, and social ostracism, just so long will democracy be impossible in the world. Without democracy we must have continual attempts at despotism and oligarchy, with their resultant failure through the ignorance of those who attempt to rule their fellow men without knowing their fellow men.

May we all, white and black, in the authentically patriotic tradition of open American exceptionalism, join hands in mutual and sincere friendship, respect, admiration, understanding, forgiveness, justice, and love.

It Goes On…

In testimony to the deep impact the Civil War (1861-1865) made on Americans, there is an ongoing quarrel between a Southern and a Northern state over the possession of a Confederate battle flag captured at Gettysburg.

Marshall Sherman, a private in the 1st Minnesota, captured the flag of the 28th Virginia in the heat of hand to hand fighting during Pickett’s Charge.

Turns out, Virginia wants her flag back. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has asked Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to loan the flag out to Virginia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Dayton’s response to McDonnell reflects the acidity which plagued relations between North and South all those years ago.

The governor of Virginia earlier this year requested that the flag be loaned, quote, unquote, to Virginia to commemorate–it doesn’t quite strike me as something they would want to commemorate, but we declined that invitation.

It was taken in a battle at the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans. And I think it would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor of men who gave their lives and risked their lives to obtain it. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed subject.

Read the coverage in the National Journal here.

Confederate Unit Flag Returned to Georgia in Pristine Condition after 148 Years

This is a remarkable story. After the fall of Ft. McAllister near Savannah in December 1864, Maj. William Zoron Clayton captured the fort’s flag. After he returned home to Maine at the end of the war, he kept it at his home with a note–“To be return [sic] to Savannah or Atlanta sometime.” So Robert Clayton, Maj. Clayton’s great-grandson, returned the flag to the Fort McAllister Historic State Park. It is to be unveiled April 21, two days before Confederate Memorial Day is celebrated in Georgia.

Here is the entire story.

The fact that so many Civil War artifacts are stashed in attics, cedar chests, closets, basements, and other places of storage in private homes never ceases to amaze me. A couple of years ago, my brother and I went through some footlockers that belonged to our grandfather. They were full of precious historical artifacts. One of the most remarkable was an official furlough pass, signed at Appomattox by a Union officer and given to my great-great-great grandfather, who was a Confederate colonel. We donated everything in those footlockers to the University of Georgia.

Check with your relatives to see what artifacts from history they may hold. You may be surprised what keys to history you might be sitting on without even realizing it!