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Guest Post: Making the Confederate Monument a Genuine Teaching Opportunity

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On the afternoon of July 8, I attended the council’s administrative meeting about the future of the Daughters of the Confederacy Fountain in Hill Park. While I applaud the council’s decision to seek to add a plaque of contextual information about the fountain, rather than destroy it or leave it unchanged, I am concerned about the content of the language that will be on that plaque.

I was raised in Helena and am a student of history, currently working toward a Ph.D. on the topic, and as such was deeply troubled by many of the comments I heard at the council meeting. In particular, I was deeply shocked by the number of comments that denied the role of slavery in the Civil War and the impact of continued racism afterward, and I am worried that such a faulty understanding of our nation’s past will be reflected in the fountain’s new plaque.

It is clear to all reputable historians that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery, and the South’s fears that remaining a part of the Union would destroy the slave system at the heart of the South’s economy and society. This understanding of the Civil War is not based on political correctness gone mad, but rather on an objective reading of historical sources. The comments made by several community members at the council meeting to the effect that the Civil War was about states’ rights are seriously misleading, as the states’ right in question was that of slavery. Leaders of the Confederacy made it clear via speeches from the era what the conflict was about.

As Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens said in early 1861, around the time of secession, “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.” Speaking further of the Confederacy, Stephens went on to say, “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” (the full text of Stephens’s speech, which is a fascinating read, can be found here. As Stephens’s speech makes clear, the Confederacy was fundamentally built on the principle of slavery and white supremacy.

Of course, these principles did not simply disappear in the aftermath of the South’s military defeat. During and after Reconstruction, the KKK and other white supremacist organizations engaged in violent acts of terror. Lynchings of blacks (and of their white supporters) became a common occurrence in the late 1800s into the first few decades of the 1900s. Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South. All of these actions were designed to keep blacks from exercising their full Constitutional rights as citizens.

However, this is not to say that racism belonged to the South alone. Racism was (and, as some commenters made clear at the meeting, is still) present throughout the United States. Reconstruction’s ultimate failure to protect Southern blacks stemmed from the willingness of many white Northerners to tolerate continued racism in the name of national reconciliation after the violence of the Civil War. An excellent opinion piece by Ed Noonan in the Helena IR from June 9 notes the overwhelmingly positive reception white audiences–including those in Montana–gave the deeply racist film “Birth of a Nation” in 1916, the same year that the Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the Hill Park fountain . The fountain is a relic of this era, and its prejudices. As some have commented recently, the fountain’s dedication speech spoke of “a spirit of union” between the North and the South. What goes unsaid here is that this “spirit of union” united white Americans, but deliberately excluded nonwhites.

Indeed, organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in the long-term effort to redefine the meaning of the Civil War. As it was clear, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that promoting slavery was a non-starter, many former Confederates and their sympathizers sought to portray the Civil War as an unfortunate conflict over political ideals (notably states’ rights). As part of this effort, monuments such as the fountain in Hill Park, with its dedication to the Confederate war dead and to the “spirit of union,” sought to promote a historically inaccurate explanation of the Civil War.

Ultimately, as many have said, the fountain in Hill Park is useful as a teaching opportunity. For that reason, I strongly support adding a plaque explaining the fountain’s historical context, rather than demolishing it or leaving it in its current state. However, if our city is to avoid whitewashing history, if it is to create a monument truly capable of informing people about our past, any plaque must go beyond simply presenting the fountain as an emblem of unity. Instead, it must make clear, to current and future generations, that the fountain is a symbol of the persistence of racism, and of our nation’s and our state’s historic willingness to sacrifice racial equality in the name of white unity. Only then, as a somber reflection of that history and its long-lasting effects, can the fountain function as an effective, accurate teaching opportunity.

–Keegan Boyar is  is a Ph.D. student studying history.

 

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

11 Comments

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  • The “reconciliation” that President Lincoln hoped for after the Civil War was the biggest mistake he made – if only because he did not live to see that it was carried out during what was supposed to be his full second term in office. The fact of his assassination and the ineptness either willfully or not, of his successor in office to carry out the public policies that would have been necessary to prevent the ruinous legislation that almost re-enslaved southern blacks and set up the carpetbaggers corruption in the halls of Congress and in the Southern statehouses that continue to haunt us today. John Wilkes Booth didn’t just kill Lincoln, he destroyed any chance the re-newed Republic had to actually recover.

    Anyone who thinks that the Civil War is over, or that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1970s fixed everything is so sadly mistaken. Prior to the economy crashing in 2007, a study found that the average net worth of a white family in America was around $103,000. The average net worth of a Latino/Hispanic family was around $11,700. (Amazing, huh!) But worst of all, the average net worth of a Black family in this country was $5,250. After the recession, Black families were in negative territory because they were the primary group targeted by the subprime lending market which was the hardest hit. Not because they had worse credit or less money – but simply because they were black. No other reason. As usual.

    There is a reason they are targeted by stop-and-frisk programs. Not because they commit more crimes. Just because. There is a reason more of them don’t get admitted to college. Not because their test scores are lower. Just because. I could go on and on about this. And I am sure that any Black person could compile a list ten times longer than any that I could (because I am not black, you see…so I apologize to any person of color in advance for my presumptiousness in speaking on behalf of them).

    The fact that our prisons are filled to the brim with prisoners of color (mostly black) for offenses of mostly low-caliber non-violent crimes that have come to have looooong sentences and three-strikes type sentencing requirements is no accident. The fact that powder cocaine sentences are 17 times as long because that type of cocaine is used by poor blacks while crack cocaine used by whites does not result in that kind of punishment kind of gives you pause…Yeah yeah, Obama got the federal powder coke sentences reduced so they are only 10 times as long, but what does that tell you? (I may be mistaken about which way around the types of coke are but what does it really matter…)

    If you want some interesting reading, look up a compendium of the “Jim Crow” laws on the books in the South following the CIvil War. They look an awful lot like the slave rules & laws from before the War. The only thing missing was the actual slave auctions. And lots of those laws are still on the books in only slightly modified forms – even after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Which the Roberts Supreme Court felt was no longer necessary because “we have come so far we don’t need it any more.” Well, maybe on another planet somewhere in another universe. Even that lowlife Justice Thomas has forgotten (or maybe never had to) what it was like to live as a black man in the deep South. He should go back there and shuck off those black robes and move into a neighborhood and try it for a month – especially with that loudmouth white wife of his. See what happens. Might be interesting. After all, it was a 5-4 vote ya’ know!

  • Please do not overlook the obvious.
    Please go to such as: “new testament justification for civil war”
    WHILE recognizing diverse movements in Montana justifying white supremacy!

  • Keegan,

    As I think about the fountain controversy, I wonder what the Montana education standards are for teaching about the Civil War? Are the textbooks approved for use in Texas approved for use in Montana? And, what does the current Montana history book say about the role of southerners in the settlement of post Civil War Montana? What does that text say about the presence of the Klan and other extremist groups in Montana?

    To me the fountain is a minor issue, it is largely ignored, or was. Our history texts will play a role for generations in shaping our understanding of major events in American history. The revisionist position that places “states rights” at the for front seems to me to be a bigger issue.

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