Historians at the AHA debate the value and place for Confederate monuments, memorials and other symbols

Historians in the News
tags: Confederate Memorials, Confedferate flag, AHA2016



Those driving or even flying here this week for the American Historical Association’s annual meeting might have glimpsed Stone Mountain out their car or airplane window. The massive, Mount Rushmore-style tribute to Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is hard to miss and -- for many -- hard to stomach. But what can and should be done about the thousands upon thousands of Confederate memorials and other symbols throughout the American South, many of which are on college and university campuses?

The topic was the subject of a plenary session for the first time open to the public here Thursday at the AHA’s gathering.

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, and a panel of noted experts on the American South all said the evening’s discussion was precipitated by the June massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, S.C., which prompted debates about state-sanctioned Confederate iconography due to the shooter’s interest in such symbols, as well as the recent student protest movement.

But speakers also said that the history of the Confederate flag and other symbols is long and fraught, and that another national conversation over their value and rightful place was already overdue.

For David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University, the Confederate symbol question is, in part, about where one’s “line” is. For some, he said, the line between what is historically valuable and not is drawn at that which does not promote maximum unity. For others, the line leads to maximum knowledge, and the “troubled wisdom” that comes with it.

Others still draw it at healing justice, if such a thing can be achieved, he said, and yet others at maximum pleasure or pain. Blight said he was pushed by a reporter earlier this year in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting -- which he called the past “exploding” into the present -- to draw his own line. Without realizing it, Blight named the Davis and Lee figures in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol as Confederate monuments he found unacceptable.

“I found I had a line,” Blight said, but admitted he couldn’t do anything to remove the statues, which are selected by individual states. ...




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