The Civil War was a terrible bit of history, not least because it isn’t just history. It’s still with us.
The ongoing controversies over Confederate monuments and over schools being named after Confederate generals demonstrate that. As do the Confederate flags one sees flying in people’s yards, or pasted on their vehicles.
I sometimes wonder what the people who fly the Stars and Bars would say that flag expresses for them. From my years living in the Shenandoah Valley, what I’d expect to hear is that they see the Confederate cause as expressing a noble and brave spirit, defiant of tyranny and defending of the culture’s most basic values.
But whatever anyone’s intended meaning, that flag is also inescapably connected with the realities of history. It’s a history centered on a war that got precipitated by the secession from the Union of the slave states in response to the election to the presidency of an anti-slavery candidate (Lincoln).
History makes it crystal clear that what that war was about was slavery.
That’s what the seceding states declared clearly during the months in which they committed themselves to fight that war rather than accept a government that opposed the expansion of slavery’s domain into the new lands of the United States.
One of the Confederacy’s best leaders (its Vice President, Alexander Stephens) called it “great moral truth” that the white man is superior to the Black, and that the subordination of the Black to the white man is the Black’s “natural and moral condition.”
(Indeed, the history shows that the defense of slavery was the overriding purpose of practically every political effort the South made in the decades leading up to the Civil War – from the war with Mexico to the transcontinental railroad to the Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott.)
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 suffices to show that the South had no principled concern with “states’ rights.” The notion that the South had some such “noble cause” was a lie that was concocted right after the war by the South (and that subsequent generations of southerners enforced as the official view of the war).
In addition, the Stars and Bars – the flag of the “rebels” – has consistently expressed a spirit of lawlessness:
• The states that formed the Confederacy acted unconstitutionally when they unilaterally decided – against the views of the president of the United States – that they had the right to secede. Law obligated the South to assert in the Courts – the rights it claimed.
• Many in the South – e.g. with the KKK – acted lawlessly to overthrow Reconstruction and to terrorize the Blacks back into submission.
• And this month, the mixture of Confederate flags with Trump banners among the lawless insurrectionists – who overran the Capitol building and disrupted the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimate election – suggests that same disrespect for the law is still connected with the persistent spirit of the Confederacy.
But those historic realities are not the way the people who nowadays fly the Stars and Bars – and those who protest the renaming of schools – see the Confederacy.
Seeing the Confederacy as heroic, they make heroes of Generals – like Stonewall Jackson – who fought for the “noble cause” of the slave power.
Hence the dilemma about the school names:
• On the one hand, the historic truth shows reasons that is regrettable for a community to choose school names that declare the Confederacy at the heart of that community’s identity.
• But on the other hand, changing the name of a school – like Shenandoah County’s Stonewall Jackson High School – comes up against the persistent reality that the spirit of the Confederacy – albeit based on a false image – still lives deep in the hearts and minds of a lot of people.
What’s the best way to deal with that dilemma – particularly in an area where pro-Confederacy allegiance still predominates?
It is important to remember: what matters is the spirit that dwells in the culture. And that culture gets defined much more fundamentally by what’s in the hearts and minds of the people than by mere names on buildings.
Clearly, just signaling a change that has not occurred – i.e. taking the name of a Confederate general off a building – doesn’t move the culture in the desired direction.
Indeed, here in Shenandoah County, it has apparently done the opposite – provoking a flare-up that reinforces the very sense of identification it would be desirable to change. A “flare-up” – with hundreds of citizens feeling provoked to punish some fine public servants from the county School Board for their well-intentioned efforts to move the area toward a healthier relationship both with history, and with some important values.
What might have worked better to move hearts and minds?
Perhaps the establishment of a process of constructive conversation around the issues raised by question of renaming. A process structured to facilitate the issues being debated in a fashion that educates.
Instead of a decision, a proposal to discuss.
My sense is the fine educators on the Shenandoah County School Board would be capable of fostering such a discussion.
What’s needed for greater peace to replace the conflict that the Civil War still generates is education that enables the truth to gain ground against the lie.