In the Memphis Flyer, Chris Harrington writes about attempts to change the name of various parks named for the Confederacy. In it, he states:
The parks issue is essentially a localized proxy war in a larger conflict over the past, present, and future of Southern identity. Memphis’ Confederate parks and monuments, like most remaining emblems of the Confederacy throughout the South, are essentially political. They were not and are not about remembering the Civil War but were and are symbols of resistance to what came after, namely the long, hard slog toward the equality that the Confederacy was organized to deny. Anyone clinging to long-corrupted memories of the Confederacy in 2013 is not doing so out of a respect for history or fealty to ancestors but out of their own present resistance to changing demographics and other impingements of modernity.
The most common and most eye-rolling complaint about the prospect of renaming these parks or removing these monuments is the contention that to do so is to erase or whitewash history. In fact, that’s exactly what the parks and monuments were designed to do.
This suggestion is an affront to the very notion of historical seriousness. As if these inherently political 20th-century monuments to racist defiance are somehow akin to the sacred battlefields of Shiloh or Gettysburg. The monuments are part and parcel with the immediate attempt by the Confederacy and its descendants to rewrite the meaning of the war. And few were so flagrant in this regard as Jefferson Davis, whose three years living in Memphis late in life in no way justify the blight of his visage along Front Street today.
I spend time here at the League trying to explain, and in some cases defend, the South. So I don’t write a whole lot about the above. Not because I disagree with it, but because I more-or-less assume that everybody here does. And the only relevant discussion is whether this sort of thing is detestable or whether it makes the entirety of the region it occurs in detestable. But Harrington is quite right. That I don’t write posts saying so should not indicate otherwise.
There is a thin line between recognition and exaltation. Though I sometimes wish we could, we cannot with any honesty write away that period from our history. It was important. It should not define us as it sometimes does with people on both sides of the line, but it’s there. One of the six flags over Texas is the Stars & Bars, and it should remain there. One of the four stars on the Arkansas Flag is for the Confederacy, and I don’t advocate changing that. Using things like Rebels as mascots is tricky and needs to be done with care. I’d probably advocate doing away with that, too, actually, but it’s not essential so long as we strip it of its cultural reference. Statues of Jefferson Davis should not necessarily be deconstructed, but should not be displayed in places of prominence (or anywhere outside of a museum, really). Schools, counties, and parks should not be named after people whose primary claim to fame was fighting for the continued enslavement or subjugation of others.
Such things are not always easy, and sometimes not for the reason people might think. People grow attached to certain things, for reasons other than what the names actually represent. Such an attitude carries, at best, a tin-ear towards real concerns. But it’s there. It’s also no excuse at all for continuing to try to lend respectability to disreputable historical figures. Which is, undeniably, exactly what groups like Sons of the Confederacy are trying to do. They’re doing more than trying to preserve history (a fine goal), but trying to add a veneer of respectability. That we were in the Civil War is an undeniable fact. So, too, is the fact that we were on the wrong side of it. It shouldn’t define us, but it should be recognized. And recognized as the dark smirch it is.
(On a last note, I should point out that this is happening because Nashville is making it happen. Good for Nashville.)