A Bad Tradition, and One Barack Obama Should Break

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Edward Sebesta and James Loewen would have increased the chances for a positive response to their Memorial Day request of President Barack Obama had they sent him their May 18 letter a few weeks earlier. The letter, also signed by 62 other historians, scholars and researchers, urges the President to break a 95-year-old tradition dating back to when the racist Woodrow Wilson first laid a commemorative wreathe on the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.  

Without offering Obama a reasonable alternative to sending a wreathe, and by giving him less than a week to ponder an alternative of his own, they essentially were asking him to place himself in the role of scab-yanker on a holiday many Americans across the political spectrum view as a time of healing. Breaking this tradition can and should be done. But the proper foundation must be laid first so that white nationalists, remnant Klansmen and secession-loving neo-Confederate liars cannot turn it into a propaganda coup.

That proper foundation should include honoring Confederate dead in a cemetery where their repose is not poisoned by a monument built as shrine to the goals and ideals of the Rebel cause. Whatever side issues were included, those goals and ideals were constructed upon the “peculiar institution” of slavery, a monstrous institution maintained by violence and the threat of violence, and defended by a philosophy of racism epitomized by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his infamous Cornerstone Speech of 1861:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – African slavery as it exists amongst us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” …

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. …

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

So what, you might say. That speech was 148 years ago, the Civil War ended 144 years ago with the crushing of slavery, and everyone who fought that war has been dead a half-century or more. Yes, but the violence and the threat of violence against African Americans did not end with the surrender at Appomattox.

Indeed, postwar Confederates espousing the Confederate ideals stated by the Rebel vice president quickly broke the back of Reconstruction, imposed another peculiar institution – the American apartheid called Jim Crow – craftily re-enslaved tens of thousands of blacks and lynched thousands of others for a hundred years after Robert E. Lee offered up his sword.

Today, latter-day Confederates and their white nationalist sympathizers, as Sebesta has pointed out in , continue to distort the record of what some of them still call the War of Northern Aggression, publicly pretend that their racist neo-secessionism is the highest form of patriotism and argue that the cause of their predecessors was just and is now unjustly vilified by biased historians who never speak of the “true” reasons they sought disunion.

What does the Arlington Confederate Memorial have to do with all that? As Sebesta, without whose research neo-Confederate sympathizer Trent Lott might never have been brought down, and Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, explain in their letter to the President, the memorial was built not as a simple eulogy for the Confederate dead but as a shrine to Confederate ideals, including the notion that Reconstruction was a “crime against civilization.” Behind the fund-raising effort to get the monument built was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who saw the Klan and the Red Shirts and White League that succeeded it as heroes for restoring white supremacy.  

As the letter states:

The Arlington Confederate Monument is a denial of the wrong committed against African Americans by slave owners, Confederates, and neo-Confederates, through the monument’s denial of slavery as the cause of secession and its holding up of Confederates as heroes.  This implies that the humanity of Africans and African Americans is of no significance.

Today, the monument gives encouragement to the modern neo-Confederate movement and provides a rallying point for them. The modern neo-Confederate movement interprets it as vindicating the Confederacy and the principles and ideas of the Confederacy and their neo-Confederate ideas. The presidential wreath enhances the prestige of these neo-Confederate events.

If this seems a stretch or makes you want to roll your eyes, read the words that Fr. Alister C. Anderson, as Chaplain-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), gave in a lengthy speech at the 85th anniversary of the dedication of the monument 10 years ago:

… It reveals and concentrates in beautiful, rugged bronze nearly every idea that a true Southern historian, theologian, statesman, and patriotic citizen could present about the religion, culture, morals, economics, and politics of a civilization from out of which the Confederate States of America evolved. The monument captures the ideals and accomplishments that still existed at the end of the War for Southern Independence. Thank God it does not depict the beginning of the Reconstruction Era, the most disgusting and destructive period in United States history from which the South has never really recovered.

Worse than Jim Crow and nearly a century of acts depicted in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America?

This year, the memorial speech at the monument will be given by Ron Maxwell, whose movie Gods and Generals was a torpid love letter to the Confederacy.

In her essay at Buzzflash, Why Obama Should Give Neo-Confederate Bigots What They Want This Memorial Day, Meg White implies that racism is a trivial issue compared with, say, health care. While handily putting the lie to neo-Confederate revisionism in his Washington Post Op-Ed, The President and the Confederacy, historian Kirk Savage suggests that Obama should lay a wreathe at the Rebel monument AND another at the African American Civil War Memorial. Seemingly evenhanded and Solomonic. But you cannot split the difference in this manner.

That’s because the rationales behind those two monuments are at counter-purposes to one another. The graves of the Confederate soldiers who were taken from scattered graves and reburied in Arlington in 1914 aren’t the problem. After all, the Confederacy conscripted most of its soldiers, forced men as old as 50 to join, exempting the rich and any man with more than 20 slaves. Ultimately, 20% of the Confederate armies consisted of draftees, while only 8% of the Union army did. Many of the men in gray buried around the monument were forced into service. And honoring their deaths is no bad thing. But the Confederate monument taints the ground where they lie.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush wisely chose to stop sending the wreathe to the Arlington Confederate Memorial on the birthday of Rebel President Jefferson Davis. On Memorial Day 2010, President Obama should send a wreathe to another cemetery where Confederate bones rest, one where there is no tendentious monument to a bad cause that killed more Americans than every other war in the country’s history. That change could easily be the occasion for one of the President’s finely crafted speeches, one which seeks to heal still-festering wounds, unlike those heard every year at the Arlington Confederate Monument.


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  1. how certain traditions continue, despite the fact that the vast majority of the country has moved on. They just lumber along, half-dead & bleeding, refusing to fall over and die.

    Long past time to give this one a tactful shove.

    Well said, MB, thx for bringing this to our attention in such artful and interesting detail – i for one had missed the story entirely. Much appreciated.

  2. “Maybe next year…..”

    Sarah Vaughan’s version with Count Basie Orchestra is absolutely wrenching.

    What a bitter sweet topic, Memorial Day gratefulness and all but with this ugly thread so few people actually know about. Well, I didn’t know about it.

    They may have missed 5/18, but it’s never too early to start working on a viable alternative as you say for next year. How healing that would be – to honor Confederate soldiers who fought as Americans and deservedly lost – they still dedicated their lives and the nation rejoined – but also to turn away from such a horrific symbol that does not honor the Confederate dead in my opinion. Many good people died just serving the soil they lived under.

  3. the racism and hatred of the rebels of Democracy, and the slavery of the many by the few.

    Now it is wag slavery, and we fight the class war against insurmountable odds, yet still it is the many pitted at poor odds against the powerful few, and still, it is the will of the people in of a free and open Democracy against the few powerful rebels and chief proponents of the Oligarchy

  4. the racism and hatred of the rebels of Democracy, and the slavery of the many by the few.

    Now it is wag slavery, and we fight the class war against insurmountable odds, yet still it is the many pitted at poor odds against the powerful few, and still, it is the will of the people in of a free and open Democracy against the few powerful rebels and chief proponents of the Oligarchy

  5. The Loewen Sebesta letter to Obama shows what amazing historians the authors are.  A great piece of work.  And the list of signatories is impressive also, especially considering how short a time the letter was circulated.

    Thanks for a great essay.

  6. MB, it is SO good to see you here. You’ve made my night. My favorite FP’er from “the other place”,  you never fail to write thought provoking essays. I sincerely hope (please, please, please), that you will continue to post here on a regular basis.

    All the best,


  7. for a laying at the monument, but I will point out one place this diary and the frame underlying it goes fundamentally wrong.

    It equates everything southern with slavery and slavery only.  This is equivalent to declaring that promting the US is announcing support for Native American genocide or the use of nuclear weapons.

    Now, this is tricky, and will lead to many flames, but this is docudharma so perhaps higher standards in fact reign here.

    There are racists in the south, to be sure, just as elsewhere.  There are however others who correctly view their region as distinct from others in the us and base their nostalgia, fond feeling, call it what you will on those other aspects of distinctiveness.  Now, when outsiders make the intellectual error of equating southernness with slavery, they deny any value of any of the rest of it, and those who value the various other values or traditions of the south will rightly (I’m afraid) feel slandered.   IN this, the incautious heated rhetoric of saying southern = racist only fosters  the sense of defensiveness and isolation that makes dialogue on the other issues of the day impossible.  

    To address the question of what is wrong with Kansas?  I would say that in part the answer lies in the biases of the rest of the country.  Anyone from the south, even rabid progressives in the best sense of the word, understand that feeling of having the hackles up.  Defensiveness does not foster cooperation.

    I would place a wreath in a place honoring all, and address the value of southernness apart from the overbroad brush applied above.

  8. doesn’t equate to approval for the Confederacy. This gesture is about peace and forgiveness. It is peace-making in action.

    What could be more generous than honoring the sacrifices of your vanquished enemy? It’s the stuff truly great people are made of.

    I’m surprised that so few see it.

    • TomP on May 24, 2009 at 06:20

    Obama should end this practice.  

    • rb137 on May 24, 2009 at 07:37

    That change could easily be the occasion for one of the President’s finely crafted speeches, one which seeks to heal still-festering wounds, unlike those heard every year at the Arlington Confederate Monument.

    The point you’re making is both obvious and subtle. It seems like it should be obvious, but if it was, Kirk Savage would not have suggested the solution the way he did. It will take more than a brilliant speech to get Americans to understand why this is important.

    • dkmich on May 24, 2009 at 13:06

    It started with the comment below in this diary.

    I have always hated the South.  Not the people. But the political system.  It is meanspirited, hateful, anti-American, downright evil. I want to destroy it once and for all.  And being the liberal I am, I would take great delight in killing them with kindness.

    He, too, makes a distinction between the political culture of the South and the people of the South; and he lays out their attempt to rewrite history.  

    American Amnesia: The Cost of Accommodating The South

    Northern Racism–Yes, I Know It Exists


  9. “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”  

  10. Revisionist history.

    Slavery is wrong.  We all get that.  The Civil War was NOT about slavery.  Lincoln’s second quote above makes that crystal clear.

    There are (almost?) no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ here.  But if you put them all on a continuum, Lincoln was among the worst of the bunch.  

    618,000 dead young men because of his lust for power.

    I believe in the right of people to choose their own form of government.  I’m a democrat that way.  The people of the South tried to do that.  George W. Bush, oops, I mean Abraham Lincoln decided on a war of choice and hundreds of thousands of young Americans died needlessly.

    This was not a just war.  When those who condemn the confederates condemn the founding fathers who owned slaves JUST AS LOUDLY, I might take them semi-seriously.  This was the first big Washington power-grab and we’ve been paying the price for it ever since.

  11. Finding fault with other cultures, other generations, other nations, and other peoples when our own culture, our own generation, our own nation and our own people are so damn messed up.  Let’s get our own house in order first.  

    Our nation is in crisis.  Our economy is crumbling.  Our mass media is dominated by partisans and demagogues.  Our system of ‘justice’ is in tatters.  Our President has abandoned principle in the name of political expediency.  Our congresscritters, with a handful of exceptions, never had principles to begin with (unless achieving reelection is a principle.)  Our health care system threatens to bankrupt us.  Powerful financial interests have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars from us, with barely a peep of opposition and barely a shred of accountability.

    Let’s not succumb to distraction.  

  12. The man who chose the site…I believe his name was Meigs lost a son in the war (and I actually think he was a southerner himself).  He figured that there would be no better way to display his anger at Robert E. Lee than to bury the Union dead at Arlington…so Lee could never return again. It is a powerful symbolic justification for the location of our national shrine.  Why we should tarnish that by laying a wreath for those who fought against the US is beyond me.  

  13. era were couple of brothers who went to prison rather than to the Army.  I always felt I let them down when I went in.  Then they had to make their way uphill in spite of being both correct and brave.  The last time I saw Dave he said that he regretted it and wished he’d figured out a different way.  That was one of the saddest things I ever heard anyone say.

    I’d lay a wreath at a monument of conscientious objectors and have someone from the Friend’s Church do the sermon.  Just sayin.

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