More on the Symbols of the South
The notion that the past has been fully settled is simply incorrect and our debates over symbols illustrate this fact.
I did not intend for this to be Symbols of the South Sunday, but the discussion thread in my Confederate battle flag post made me think of a key example, perhaps the quintessential example, of how the unsettled nature of the past manifests in political symbols. The symbol in question is hardly major, nor is it one that is ever going to be the subject of national debate, but the issues that it raise are pretty obvious. It is the city seal of Montgomery, AL. Here’s a photo of it that I took some years ago down at the riverfront park along the Alabama River in downtown Montgomery:
Yes, it says both “Cradle of the Confederacy” and “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” Both are historical facts, but only one is one that ought to inspire pride, let alone be on the city’s seal. And, really, which is which ought to be obvious and yet, clearly, the obviousness of the point is not enough to get the seal changed. To me, this well-encompasses the fact that many political actors have not come to full grips with the past (as well as to illustrate the stubborn way in which post-Civil War pols in the South clung to the past—often well into the 21st century). There is, still, a deeply held belief by many southern whites that there is something about the Confederacy that is worthy of pride or that is representative of something positive about the south. I, for one, find rebellion and war in support of a political regime that is built on the foundation of slavery to be abhorrent and not what I would like the south to see as a point of pride in any way.*
Look, I understand having historical sites linked to the CSA open for the public, such as the fact that in downtown Montgomery one can visit the first White House of the Confederacy or see a marker that commemorates where Jefferson Davis stood on the grounds of the state capitol to be sworn as President of the CSA. I also understand the notion of memorials to war dead. What I don’t understand is ascribing pride to connections to the CSA (such as the seal, or to the massive battle flag hoisted on I-65 north of Montgomery).
It is also worth noting that, like many southern cities, two of the high schools in Montgomery are named after Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Commemoration is all around us down here.
The extolling of these symbols lead to real problems. How can we come to fully address not only what the Civil War was all about, and the racist aftermath that emerged from it, when we are willing to name our schools after the President of the CSA and put “Cradle of the Confederacy” on our city’s seal? It confuses our children, who grow up with positive associations with names and symbols apart from historical knowledge and context. It then makes it difficult to have the serious conversation about real issues both of the past, but of race in the present because one has to overcome the fact that these are just “symbols of southern heritage” or of “southern pride.” So instead of dealing with things like the harsh truth of Stephens’ Corner Stone Speech and what it tells us, we end up dealing with persons on the defensive because we are challenging their “heritage.”
I note this because I see it all the time as a resident of Alabama, but also something I worked through as a youth and into my adulthood. Further, I see it with my children and their friends.
The fact that anyone can look at the seal of the City of Montgomery and not get a dizzy feeling of cognitive dissonance carved in stone is telling of the lack of national settlement on this issue. And I know some can so gaze upon the stone and not feel intellectual vertigo is evidence by two facts: 1) the thing was designed and adopted, and then 2) it still is the seal.
Indeed, the phrase “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement” was only added in 2002—and yet when it was added, “Cradle of the Confederacy” was not removed. See the LAT: Ala. City Seals Its New Era. And it is worth noting, that like many symbols, such as the battle flag, the addition of “Cradle of the Confederacy” to the seal came in 1952 in response to the burgeoning desegregation movement. So these references to the CSA are not always (or even mostly) about honoring the past as much as they were deployed as symbols of opposition to integration and as symbols of perceived white superiority. This needs to be taken into account when defenses are made of these symbols.
Indeed, one of the facts we need to constantly underscore is this: a lot of these Confederate symbols are far less about the Civil War as they are about opposition to racial equality and integration in the 1950s and 1960s (an era within living memory and not about some vague sense of “southern heritage”).
*To be clear: I was born and raised (until mid-high school) in a former Confederate state (Texas) and have live for over a decade and a half in Alabama (where two of children were born and from whence hails my mother and her whole side of the family—the other side of the family comes from Texas and Louisiana). As such, I am a “southern” by birth, heritage, and residence. I have more than just intellectual skin in the game.