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Essay The Confederate Flag and the Meaning of Southern History by Kevin Thornton For most of this century, public memory in the South has cherished the noble Lost Cause. The Confederate monument in Yazoo City, Mississippi, erected in 1909 by the local United Daughters of the Confederacy, tells the story in one sentence : "As at Thermopolyae, the greater glory was to the vanquished."1 To anyone conversant with ancient history, the Yazoo City monument proclaims that the men and women of the Confederacy fought for nothing less than the principle of liberty. Like the ancient Spartans who sacrificed themselves before Xerxes' army, these southerners courageously struggled against an overwhelming invasion to preserve a civilization. They did not falter once defeat was imminent . Indeed, their tenacity in the face of defeat ennobled them beyond victory; they won the greater triumph of embodying, to future generations, the causes of honor and home and patriotism. In 1909, the legacy remained that of the Confederacy in the South. And like the Confederate monument in Yazoo City, it was constructed entirely for whites. For many people today, the idea that white southerners fought for liberty in the Civil War seems perverse: The legacy of the Confederacy is not courage in the face of adversity but racism. "I have to tell you this vote is about race," said Democratic Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois in her widely quoted attack on the United Daughters of the Confederacy seal from the Senate floor. "It is about racial symbolism. It is about racial symbols, the racial past, and the single most painful episode in American history."2 As the idea of a noble Confederate past increasingly is challenged, in many people's minds it is being replaced with the idea that the Confederacy stood for racism. From this perspective, honoring the Confederacy is a racist act. The story represented by monuments and flags is wrong, both historically and morally, and deserves to be repudiated. Moreover, at some level, resistance to changing offensive public symbolism proves only that the same southern orthodoxy of 1909 exists still and that, in the end, African American opinion doesn't count. And yet a positive version of the Confederate past is deeply rooted in the public memory of the South and remains, especially for many white southerners, 234Southern Cultures a key element of southern identity. These people believe strongly that a southern heritage of bravery and idealism is real. They deeply resent the demand that Confederate symbolism be repudiated and construe the attack on the Confederate past as heavy-handed, politically correct moralizing that vilifies white southern identity. Most of all, they fear imposition of a new orthodoxy of southern apology , wherein anything southern is automatically assumed to be racist. They believe their opponents demand nothing less than a public culture that ritually denounces their ancestors as uniquely guilty—the Nazis of the American past. "A kind of inquisition is being waged against Southerners," asserts the literature of the Northeast Georgians for the Flag and Southern Heritage, "a psychological persecution that would have us renounce our forebears, our heritage, and our culture." The tract continues, "The battle of the Confederate flag is merely the opening wedge in a campaign to destroy all vestiges of respect for the traditional South, and our forebears."3 Two Views of Southern History In the increasingly shrill characterizations put forward by protesters and counterprotesters , there are two Souths, and behind these Souths, two versions of southern history. "Everybody knows what the Confederacy stands for," said Senator Moseley-Braun. But that is just the problem. While everybody knows what Confederate symbolism means, we know different, contradictory things. The heritage of nobility runs smack up against the legacy of racism. Arguments about Confederate symbolism have an interminable, circular quality because each side accuses the other, in essence, of being willfully ignorant of the most basic historical facts.4 But these arguments are not about facts. They are about meaning. Moreover , they are not only about the Confederate past, but about the continuing uses to which Confederate memory is put. These arguments offer conflicting versions , in other words, about what the Confederacy stood for and what the Confederacy stands for. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 233-245
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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