At first glance, it’s easy not to muster up any sympathy for the college student who traveled to Charlottsville in Confederate garb, heavily armed, to salute the statue of Robert E. Lee. The student was subsequently kicked out of Pensacola Christian College. True, it was an exercise in poor judgement to rush into town in the aftermath of a violent neo-Nazi demonstration. And the student’s understanding of the Civil War is flawed, to say the least. However, having gone to high school in the South, I’ve experienced how that flawed understanding of the Civil War is promulgated by that region’s educational institutions. This incident is not just a personal failure in judgement, but an institutional failure as well.
During my time in the South, I met countless characters like the student in question. Steeped in the mythology of the Lost Cause, a viewpoint that the Civil War was a war of Northern Aggression, that the South was defending its economy against oppressive tariffs. Slavery? Nah, that had nothing to do with it. Often the individuals I met who doubled down on this to the point where it was a major component of their self-identity, came from the lowest rungs of white Southern culture. How does this happen?
Part of it is the promise that if you adopt this cultural outlook, you’ll move up in the ranks of society. Go along to get along. That’s a con, of course. Once on the bottom, always on the bottom, no matter how furiously you double down on that. For me, that was easy to figure out. I moved down South my sophomore year in high school. I could see the trajectory my Northern friends were taking in high school and compare to mine. While strongly encouraged to adopt that same neo-Confederate self-identity as a means to fit in, I could clearly see my future consisted of menial labor unless I physically expunged myself from that situation. What if I did not have that external social network to recognize that? That is an alternative universe I am grateful never to have to visit.
I took American History in my third year of high school. Thankfully, I had an African-American history teacher who had no interest in promoting the Lost Cause of the South. That, however, is an anomaly. Beyond the confines of that class, the societal/educational institutions of the South are geared towards a revisionist history of the Civil War. While we can hold individuals accountable for a deeply flawed take on the Civil War, we also need to hold educational institutions accountable as well. What changes need to be made?
A constructionist study on the causes of the Civil War should be implemented in American History courses. Rather than lecture to the students, have the students take a look at the historical documents directly. A good start are the Declaration of Causes of Succeeding States which, in plain language, describe the reasons the South succeeded from the Union. There will be a lot of political/societal resistance to this. And that is why it is important for students to examine the actual historical documents firsthand rather than play a game of which authority figure to trust on this.
In addition, a sequence on racial violence should be introduced. Most of the Confederate statues in question were built during a wave of racial violence from 1900-25. When I went to high school, this period of violence, which included riots with fatalities into the hundreds, was expunged from the history texts. I did not learn of the Tulsa riot of 1921 that killed over 300 in high school. Nor, for that matter, the Houston riot of 1917 that killed 17 in one night even though I went to high school in that city. The real revision of Civil War history took place during this era. An understanding that the cause of Southern succession was an reassertion of white supremacy is merely a restoration of history.
Another focus for educators is the matter of self-identity. While it’s great to study history and understand how we got to where we are, it has to be emphasized to students it’s a mistake to base your self-identity on the past. You can’t bask in a historic figure’s victories, nor take the hit for their faults. Someone born in the present day South is not responsible for past slavery, anymore than I am for slavery that existed in New York prior to its abolition in 1827. You only become complicit in past sins when you personally, knowingly or not, perpetuate the cause. You have to establish your own life’s legacy in the here and now. Education is not just delivering subject content, but building a student’s sense of self. We need to be cognizant of that.
If educational institutions are going to expel students for adopting a neo-Confederate outlook, we have to be accountable to those standards as well – notwithstanding the intense political pressures that come along with that. That goes for both the North & South these days. During the late 70’s as I flew back and forth between the two, I was often reminded of the Byrds’ song Eight Miles High on the surrealism of flying between two culturally distinct regions. Those distinctions have largely dissipated. Today, you’re as likely to see a Confederate flag in Upstate New York as you are in Texas. Lots of work needs to be done all the way around on this matter.