Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

Jefferson-Davis
Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

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What’s in a Flag? Photos Worth a Thousand Words

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The news of the past week has run the gamut from deep despair to joyous celebration, as millions of Americans grappled with the murder of black parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, while millions of others celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision upholding marriage equality.

Throughout this news cycle there has been an explosive debate over the Confederate flag and the need to take it down from government-sanctioned spaces, while, simultaneously, LGBT citizens and their allies have raised the flag of pride to commemorate a Supreme Court victory that makes this year’s pride season even more special.

This past week, there have been some amazing images of both flags, together and separately, that remind us that symbols do matter in issues of civil rights.  Below are some of the photos and cartoons that have made the rounds that speak volumes about flags and people’s passion for causes.

Activist Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag outside the SC State Capitol.
Activist Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag outside the SC State Capitol.

 

Confederate flag goes down, while Rainbow/Pride flag goes up.
Confederate flag goes down, while Rainbow/Pride flag goes up. Courtesy: Southern Poverty Law Center

 

 

The "General Lee" gets a new flag of pride.
The “General Lee” gets a new flag of pride.

 

Pride flags outside of the Supreme Court
Pride flags outside of the Supreme Court

“It’s Time:” SC Governor Nikki Haley Calls for Removal of Confederate flag from Capitol Grounds

Today, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R), flanked by leaders from both parties including U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate Lindsay Graham and Democrat Congressman James Clyburn, held a press conference to formally announce her support to have the Confederate flag removed from the State Capitol grounds. The pressure to remove the flag, of course, comes following the murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME church.

It was a politically savvy speech, in which she maintained her conservative creds by acknowledging those she knew wanted the flag to remain without being (completely) insensitive those who wanted it gone.

She spoke about “moving forward” and acknowledged that “on matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history.” [That’s an understatement.] She also sought to distinguish between South Carolinians who revered the flag’s heritage from the likes of Dylann Roof, whose use of the flag was “sick and twisted.” [Translation:  There are good and bad flaggers.] And, while she supported the private display of the Confederate flag, she noted that “The State House is different.”  Yes, it is.

Then she got to the business at hand.  “With no ill will,” she said, “it’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” The room erupted with applause. She went further and declared that she will use her authority as governor to return the South Carolina state legislature to session to take action to remove the flag if it has not done so by the close of the legislative session that ends this week. While she offered her respect to those who still revered the flag, she was quick to return the focus to those who lost their lives in Charleston on June 17, 2015. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” and acknowledged that the fact that the flag “causes so much pain” was reason enough to take it down.

Finally.

South Carolina State Capitol. Credit: Charleston Post and Courier
South Carolina State Capitol. Credit: Charleston Post and Courier

This is a swift turnaround from just a few days before.  Then, Haley expressed no interest in “policy discussions,” saying instead that her job was “to heal the people of this state.” She also maintained that the flag, an emblem of white supremacy and violence, posed no problems or even discussions with CEOs planning to set up shop in South Carolina.

But she could not ignore the flag’s association with this latest act of racial violence, especially as images of 21 year-old Dylann Roof, who perpetrated this crime of terror and violence, circulated.  Neither could she refute the recent protest on Capitol grounds, the #TakeItDown movement, and the moveon.org petition, which gathered more than a half million signatures calling for the flag’s removal.  Even her fellow Republican Mitt Romney tweeted to take it down. [Note: If Haley wants to remain in contention as a Republican running mate in 2016, she needed to do this.]

One hopes, however, that the Governor finally realized that to truly heal the people of South Carolina, she had to consider ALL of the people–and not just those who still cling to a relic of the past that should have long ago been relegated to a museum.

Why South Carolina must remove the Confederate Battle Flag from Capitol Grounds

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Photo credit: Post and Courier.
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Photo credit: Post and Courier.

The terror and murder of innocents in Charleston’s Emanuel AME church a few days ago has rightfully sparked a discussion of our country’s problem with race–especially the fact that on a daily basis, black people are targets of white hatred.  And, in the case of 21 year-old Dylann Roof, a white racist from Eastover, South Carolina, his hatred led him to plot and murder nine individuals gathered for prayer in their own church.  They were:

Cynthia Hurd, 54
Susie Johnson, 87
Ethel Lance, 70
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74
Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 49
Myra Thompson, 49

Say their names.  This is a constant refrain, because this story isn’t just about the murderer, it’s as much about those who were killed and the devastation that their families and community are left to deal with.

Enough of this.
Enough of this.

It is also time that South Carolina, in particular, remove one of the most divisive symbols on its Capitol grounds–the Confederate battle flag.  It’s the same flag that Dylann Roof sported on the front plate of his car and one, among other white supremacist flags, that he swore allegiance to.

Governor Nikki Haley feigns surprise at how someone could enter a place of worship to kill people, while also suggesting that this flag is a-okay with business CEOs.

First, Gov. Haley needs to get her head out of the sand. This wasn’t simply an attack on people of faith.  It was an act of racial terror on a specific church.  Anyone with a bare bones understanding of the state’s history, which should include Haley, knows exactly why Roof targeted Emanuel AME.

Second, whether or not CEOs have a problem with the Confederate battle flag on capitol grounds is beside the point. The South Carolina State House is the people’s house.  It doesn’t belong to the CEO of Volvo or any other business considering locating a factory in South Carolina. It belongs to all of South Carolina’s citizens, not just the ones who are clinging to a relic of white supremacy.

The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney

So that flag, the one that inspires racial hatred and murder and hopes of a race war, has no place on the grounds of state government. Shamefully, it flew even as The Honorable Senator Clementa Pinckney, murdered in the church he pastored, was being eulogized inside the senate chamber where he once served.

It insults his service to South Carolina. It insults all those who were murdered as they worshipped. It insults black and white citizens of the state alike, and it must come down.

It’s a small gesture and not a salve for all that is wrong, but it might begin a process of racial healing that is much needed right now.

Me and Jeff Davis, Part V: Massing Flags for Jeff’s Birthday

jdmassingSince 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.

In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.

Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.
Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.

Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.

I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.

Image credit: Virginia UDC website.
Image credit: Virginia UDC website.

State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.

Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.

Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.
Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.

This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.

In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”

That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.

And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.

In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.

Me and Jeff Davis, Part III: The Baptism over the Coffin

The Davis Family, ca. 1885.  Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes.
The Davis Family and unidentified servant, ca. 1885. Margaret sits to the far left. Varina holds little Jefferson Hayes. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Of the many bizarre stories about Jefferson Davis, the one about the renaming of his grandson takes the cake and gets a creep factor of 9 out of a possible 10.

The story of Davis’s death and subsequent funerals is made even more unusual by the reaction of the white South to the fact that once Davis died, there were no more direct descendents with the name Jefferson Davis. And this would not do. Junior died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. So responsibility for carrying on the name fell on the shoulders of little Jefferson Davis Hayes, the Confederate chieftain’s grandson by his daughter Margaret Howell Davis Hayes.

Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.
Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Date unknown.

The story of his name change captured my attention, particularly when I read Margaret’s obituary, which described how the young boy “receiv[ed] the name in baptism over the coffin containing the body of President Davis.” Let me repeat. The name change occurred in a “baptism over the coffin” of the deceased Confederate president.

When Davis died in 1889, his body lay in state in New Orleans, and it was here that the name change was made. According to the account in the Confederate Veteran, Margaret Hayes “begged” Mississippi’s Governor Robert Lowry and other state officials to legalize the name change of her five-year old son to honor the Confederate president and preserve the name Jefferson Davis by changing his name from “Jefferson Davis Hayes” to “Jefferson Hayes Davis.” “The child was sent for,” the author wrote, “and the Governor, taking him on his knee, explained in simple language what he wished done.” The account suggests that little Jefferson understood what was being asked of him and, after a moment of silence, “burst into tears” and told the Governor “I specs I’ll dess have to be named for my poor dead dranpa, who isn’t dot anybody at all named for him.”

Jefferson Davis Hayes
Jefferson Davis Hayes

What followed in this retelling reveals some of the more macabre aspects of the Lost Cause, as Governor Lowry took the young boy into his arms, and walked over to the “dead chieftain.” He then lifted the Confederate flag that draped the coffin and proceeded to swaddle the child with it before making his pronouncement: “I name you ‘Jefferson Davis.’” And, soon after, the State of Mississippi followed through on its promise to confirm the name change, doing so by an act of the state legislature.

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

In part IV of the serial “Me and Jeff Davis,” I’ll discuss the significance of Confederate hair.  Yes, hair.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate, and 12 Years a Slave

Since Pop South isn’t a paying gig, I don’t always post items as quickly as I’d like. I’ve got a real job that needs attending to, which means that I’m a little slow to blogging about those stories that are on my mind.  Like rapper Kanye West sporting a Confederate battle flag on his jacket.  And, 12 Years a Slave.

From the film, 12 Years a Slave
From the film, 12 Years a Slave

Speaking of which, what a powerful film.  The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on true events in the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery.  But it is so much more.  Based on Northrup’s narrative, the story itself is an amazing tale of survival. Yet the greater story is how the brutality of slavery damages the humanity of everyone associated with the system–from the slave owners to the enslaved, the slave catchers and the slave buyers, men and women.  This is the institution that the Confederacy sought to preserve.

Which brings me back to Kanye and that flag.  Not just any ol’ Confederate flag, of which there are several, but the Confederate battle flag.  Because we know Kanye enjoys a battle, especially when his ego is involved or, more importantly, his wallet. Some have called this move “genius.”  He would agree. Controversy = publicity = $$$.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate
Kanye West, Neo-Confederate

What I find disconcerting is how willfully ignorant West is about the flag’s meaning. His public response to using it is to say: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag! It’s my flag! Now what are you going to do?”  Yea, Kanye, it represented slavery “in a way,” and it’s also been co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan, segregationists, and Neo-Nazis. In essence, you’ve cast your lot with them, too.

But, wait. He doesn’t care about that. In a more recent interview he said as much. “You don’t ever know what I’m trying to do. Black people stopping other black people from getting checks. . .Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag on that type of level.”  Perhaps, but I don’t think we’re out of the (pecker)woods yet.

This brings me back to 12 Years a Slave.  Kanye West needs to see this film. Over and over again. Perhaps then, he’ll get why he’s wrong about the meaning of the Confederate flag.  He may never admit to it publicly, but in his heart, he will know.